As we prepare for our California vs. France tasting this Friday, I think it's a good time to put out the first part of this quick guide to French wine that I've had in my head.
See these books?
They are each on just one particular region of French wine. The one on Burgundy I've read much of (forgotten 99%), the one on Alsace I've only read passages out loud to my fiancée in a snooty voice for drunken laughs. That doesn't mean I can't enjoy the hell out of a great bottle of Alsatian wine with Thai food. In fact I'll probably enjoy the bottle more than someone who has clouded up their mind by reading this absurdly long book.
You only need to go as deep as you want to go. You don't need to have great knowledge of French wine in order to enjoy it. It doesn't matter if you can't pronounce the names to people who work in wine shops or servers in restaurants. Point, grunt, grab, whatever. Who cares. Don't let anything stop you from trying something different and expanding your horizons.
Burgundy or Bourgogne is a region in eastern France having nothing to do with that imitation stuff that came in a huge bottle from the likes of Gallo. It is easily the most complex wine region in the world. Yet at the same time simple. If it's white Burgundy, you're drinking Chardonnay. Red Burgundy, you're drinking Pinot Noir. The reason Burgundy is so complex is that there are literally hundreds of classified vineyards that basically have their own appellation (designated area that's regulated). In theory the best vineyards are designated 'grand cru' (manage a hedge fund, do you?), the next level is 'premier cru'. Oftentimes different producers (i.e. wineries) will own or lease different parcels within a particular vineyard so you'll see multiple bottlings of most vineyards. Next in Burgundy you have the village level of wines. These are names you might have seen before such as Gevrey-Chambertin or Chassagne-Montrachet (note that many centuries ago someone had the idea to link the name of the village with the best vineyard in that village. Ask for a bottle of Montrachet and that could set you back $800. A bottle of Chassagne-Montrachet could be $40). Many interesting wines can be found at the village level if you choose the right producer. If you spend $50 on a generic bottle of Meursault at the supermarket, you're getting a mediocre wine and probably would have been better off spending the money in California.
The area we've been considering so far is Burgundy's Cote d'Or (say it 'coat door') or the heartland. Further south you have the Maconnaise where you'll see whites like Pouilly-Fuisse (often over-priced) and Macon Villages (many great values to be found). Next we come to an area called the Cote Chalonnaise which makes many excellent reds (and whites too). We'll be tasting a 'premier cru' wine from here Friday: David Moreau Santenay 1er Cru 'Clos des Mouches' 2012. [It's going to be hard to beat the Pinot it's facing off against from Red Car which is subsidized by a distributor deal]
Further south and still technically part of Burgundy is Beaujolais. Drink it! Forget about that 'nouveau' stuff, it's nasty. The only good (for consumers, not producers) it's done in the world is drive prices down for the region overall due to consumer confusion. The grape is Gamay. Seek out the 'cru' wines from villages such as Morgon or Fleurie. We'll be getting more in over the coming months...
In recent times, China developed a love affair with Bordeaux that played a part in grossly pushing up prices. The love has began to wane and prices have been dropping (and will likely continue to even further). Bordeaux is the name of the region situated on the atlantic coast towards the southern part of the country. The area is known for their reds which are usually blends. If the wine comes from what is referred to as the 'left bank' (of the river that runs through the region) it will be mostly Cabernet Sauvignon dominated (blended with a combination of some or all of these: Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec). The left bank wines carry names such as Haut-Medoc or of the communes within that overall area such as Pauillac, Margaux or St. Julien. The wineries basically all have Chateau in front of their name which essentially means a French country house (usually inhabited by a man with a fondness for Hermes scarfs and manicures). A classification was drawn up in the 19th century ranking the wines into five groups (known as growths). Forget about the first growths, the prices are insane for wines like Chateau Haut-Brion and Lafite-Rothschild (and are not worth it unless money is literally meaningless to you). There are however many great wines to be found in the other groupings. On the right bank, the wines are Merlot dominated and often feature a good proportion of Cabernet Franc. You'll know you're in the right bank when you see names such as Pomerol or St. Emilion. Here you can often find some better values versus the left bank like this wine we'll be tasting Friday: Chateau de Sales Pomerol 2012.
White Bordeaux is going to be made with mostly Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon and can be very worthwhile. They'll often have more balance than New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs (which can be like having a tomato leaf rubbed piece of grapefruit shoved up your nose). I shamefully don't have any in store right now but am looking for some...
Back to the eastern side of France we're south of Burgundy now. The region known as the Rhone is delegated into two parts: the Northern Rhone and Southern Rhone. In the south, the wine you'll most often encounter is Cote-du-Rhone which covers a broad geographic area and is usually made up of Grenache with Syrah and other grapes. A more specific area is Chateauneuf-du-Pape (or Pope's castle, from when the pontiffs had beef and needed to lay low). The reds from here are big, bold, and spicy. Normally you have to spend at least thirty bucks.
Reds from the Northern Rhone are pretty much all Syrah and sometimes can have some whites blended into them such as Viognier in Cote-Rotie. The appellations of Hermitage and Cote-Rotie make some of the greatest wines in all of France. A lot of people think they don't like Syrah because of some nasty Australian Shiraz they've had in the past but don't sleep on this grape. Croze-Hermitage is a larger region that surrounds Hermitage and is known for producing more affordable wines. One of the best wines we have in the store right now dollar for dollar is this: Cameron Hughes 'Lot 354' Crozes-Hermitage 2010.
It gets way deeper than this I'm afraid. Let this suffice for now and hopefully I've wetted your appetite to explore a little more. The best way to do it is by tasting. See you Friday.