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The Interview:Raymond Blanc, Chef/proprietor, Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons

Published:  23 July, 2008

When was your introduction to great wine?
I was 17. I had no real cash, working part time here and there, and was earning about 50 a month. But I was walking past a restaurant in my little town of Besanon and it was about 12 o'clock. At this time something happens in a Frenchman's stomach. I smelled aromas coming out of this restaurant, Le Pocker d'As, which is still there today. I could smell this complexity of flavours and so I had to go in. I asked the sommelier what the chef was cooking. He said roasted veal kidneys in a Rhne wine reduction, and so I ordered a half-bottle of Cte Rtie from Guigal. It was the first time I'd paid so much money for a wine!

So you didn't grow up drinking classic French wines?

My parents were working class so we had local wines and maybe a really special bottle or two for Christmas. Of course, as children we had watered-down wine with our meals, so we learnt to appreciate wine with food.

Could this custom help our binge-drinking population in Britain?

I believe so. You don't see Latin people drinking wine like that. It's either an apritif or all part of the meal. It's food.

Your recent Renaissance of the French Vineyard event compounds the image that you are rather too French-biased

When I created Le Manoir 21 years ago, I was the first Frenchman to bring New World wines in. Like many, I was taken by the different approach of vignerons in the New World - people like Mondavi and the top wines from Australia, New Zealand and Chile - and so our list has always been global. I'm not a chauvinistic Frenchman!

But your approach to wine has recently changed?

More and more, wherever you go, New or Old World, there is this Parkerisation of the wines. I truly got annoyed. In restaurants I now demand wines with no oak to the fore - if it's there it has to be subtly integrated - and I don't want wines that are too big, too broad and too obvious. I want wines with fine tannins, good balance and that work with food and connect with their culture. So I decided, with our sommelier Xavier Rousset, to change the balance of our list.

What's new on the list?

We are creating a whole list of by-the-glass, so guests can taste the classic styles of wine. And customer habits are changing. Far fewer go for la carte than 10 years ago, and so this means a much greater selection of wines to try with the tasting menus. It encourages a voyage of discovery.

Have the wines themselves changed?

Xavier has created a special section on the list of lesser-known appellation contrle wines that have great typicity and great character, and are great value. This is what frustrates me sometimes about France. It doesn't do enough to promote its amazing diversity, its amazing terroir in less famous areas and the good value of these wines. Wines like Juranon, Gaillac, Pacherenc, Collioure, Ctes du Provence - and we can work food around these wines. We're promoting the hidden France.

Do you really think UK wine drinkers will return to French wines?

Yes, I do think so. The French really handed this market to the New World. People know about this downfall and have learnt those lessons. Good marketing, simplicity, immediately appealing wines. Of course, the top New World wines are very good, but I find many a little overworked now.

Still, these wines are very popular

Maybe, for people getting drunk on a Friday night. But with a meal on Saturday? British people are now seeking more structure, more minerality, more character and are really becoming very educated - perhaps more so than the French - in thinking about wine as an accompaniment to food.

At Le Manoir, certainly, but most wine is bought from supermarkets for easy quaffing. Is this so bad?

80% of food is bought at supermarkets, and this translates to wine. People buy a chicken for 2.50, and if they can get two for the price of one The consequences can be seen in food health scares. With wine, the pressure is on to make global-tasting wines at low cost, which has impact on local culture, local markets, tradition and individuality, so there are all these hidden implications.

One of the producers at your seminars proudly described himself as paysan - of the small producer, artisanal, agricultural class. It's not a well-known term among supermarket-shopping Britons

We will regain this sense of the importance of good produce from local producers. It's a real movement and we are all working collectively towards it.

How else could you promote wines of character?

I'd like to have more events where I work with my head chef Gary Jones to create food around the wines rather than choose wines around the food.

Do you have a favourite region?

Ahh, I like many styles and flavours, but Burgundy