I've no idea how the tournament is going to pan out, but it's a fair bet that the winner is going to come from one of six nations. In order of probability, I'd say these are New Zealand, France, South Africa, Australia, Ireland and England. Yes, I know that the sweet chariot is running on empty, but there's no harm in dreaming ...
It's not strictly relevant to the action on the pitch over the next six weeks, but I've been amusing myself by imagining how the 20 competing nations would fare in a wine world cup. After all, more than half of them make wine. In fact, of the world's major producers, only Spain, Chile and Germany are absent. If you discount Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Scotland, Ireland, Georgia and Namibia, you're still left with France, Australia,
the US, Argentina, Italy, South Africa, New Zealand, Portugal, England, Canada, Romania, Wales and Japan.
During football world cups, I've always tried to drink wine (or, at a push, beer or spirits) from the countries that are playing in individual ties. I've not had much luck in the past with Namibia, South Korea, the Ivory Coast or Cameroon, but this tournament should be a lot easier once we get past the group stages. Of the likely quarter -finalists, only Ireland doesn't make wine, and I'd be more than happy to sup a glass of Bushmills when Brian O'Driscoll's team is in action.
In my fantasy wine world cup
the semi-finalists aren't all that different from the (potential) reality. I'd pick two countries from the Old World - France and Italy - and two from the New - Australia and New Zealand
- as my four favourite wine -producing and rugby -playing nations. South Africa would miss out because of the inconsistent quality of its red wines and England, despite some promising sparkling wines, is not yet a world -class producer, at least not in significant quantities. Only Italy is a wild card as a rugby power.
If that's my semi-final line-up, who would contest the final? In wine terms, I'd be happy to see any of them win. The semi-finals would be close - won by the vinous equivalent of a drop goal in extra time perhaps - but in the end I'd pick Australia and France to reproduce the actual 1999 final.
New Zealand is arguably the most -improved wine -producing country in the world over the past five years, but a lot of its vineyards are young and it doesn't have the sheer diversity of Australia. In the other semi-final, I'd pick Italy if this were a food world cup, but for wine France remains the best (as well as the most frustrating) European producer. I'd be sad to lose Tuscany and Piedmont, but happier still to drink the best stuff from Champagne, Burgundy and the Rhône.
That's why I'd choose France as my outright winner too. I love Australian Rieslings, Semillons, Chardonnays and Shirazes, as well as Rutherglen stickies and Margaret River Bordeaux blends, but at the top end Australia can't yet compete with France in terms of finesse, ageing potential and depth and complexity of flavour.
There's a large part of me (the European as opposed to the English bit) which hopes that France wins the real thing on Oct 20, too. If England doesn't tear up the form book (and that's a long shot), then I'd still like a Six Nations team to win it. If Ireland comes through, I'll order a crate of Guinness. And if the French team replicates the achievement of its footballing counterpart in 1998, I'll open a bottle of Bollinger RD. Let the scrummaging commence.
Changing EU wine laws
There's been a lot written about the proposed changes to the EU wine laws (not least in this column), but I didn't realise that one of them -
that will allow producers to blend wines from different countries and put a vintage, the regions and the names of the varieties on the label
- has already happened.
Strictly speaking, I suspect that the two 2003 wines I tasted in Portugal last week
were illegal, as they
were already in bottle and the EU reforms are not yet in force. At Dão Sul, one of the country's most innovative producers, I tasted two wines that show what could be achieved in the future. Pião is a blend of Touriga Nacional and Nebbiolo from Dão and Piedmont respectively, while Dourat combines Touriga Nacional from the Douro with Garnacha from Piedmont. Both are really interesting wines selling at around £40 a bottle
and I hope the y will be the first of many. It won't make blind tasting any easier, but there are some fascinating European combinations just waiting to be exploited.