“A meal without wine is like a day without sun.” – Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
It’s no secret the French love their wine. They are passionate about it, and for good reason: they’ve put centuries of time and care into perfecting the process of coaxing simple grapes and yeast into something sublime. It’s also no secret that French wine can be a bit intimidating. How to know when to order a Bordeaux versus a Cote du Rhone? What makes Champagne, well, Champagne? And where is the merlot? Trying to navigate the French wines aisle at your local wine seller can be a dizzying experience. But ce n’est pas necissaire! It doesn’t have to be that way! Armed with just a little knowledge and courage, you too can master the art of French wine. Ready! Allonz-y!
Where’s the Merlot?
Good question. The answer is, it’s everywhere in French wine except on the label. See, American wine is categorized by the main grape in the bottle. French wine is categorized by region. French wines are mostly blends. Many different grapes come together to make a bottle of French wine, so there’s no point in putting the names on the bottle. Bordeaux, a region on west coast of France, makes wine that has lots of merlot as well a cabernet suvignon, cabernet franc, and malbec. The Rhone region, in the south, uses mourvedre, cinsault, syrah, and grenache. The Burgundy region, in the east, uses pinot noir in their reds and chardonnay in their whites. What makes a red burgundy taste different from an American bottle of pinot noir or chardonnay is something the French call “terroir”.
Terroir [tear-wahr]. The French rely on the soil and conditions of the climate of a particular region to inform the flavors of that region’s wine. This is something called “terrior”. A Burgundy tastes different from a Bordeaux tastes different from a Cotes du Rhone because the terroir in those regions is unique. Terroir is the reason wine enthusiasts seek out wine from specific vineyards– those vineyards are known to have exceptional land that is conducive to the production of the best wines. This is why you may have heard of Chateau Margaux, Chateau Latour, or Chateau Rothschild.
Does (Bubble) Size Really Matter?
Oui! The answer to the age-old question is yes, size does matter! (At least in the land of Champagne is does.) You may have noticed that the bubbles in a soda are pretty big, while the bubbles in a decent champagne are much smaller. The age-old wisdom has been that the better the quality of the champagne, the smaller the bubbles. Other sparkling wines like Prosecco or Cava have larger bubbles, and do tend to be cheaper than a French champagne. However, interestingly enough, French researchers have recently found that larger bubbles release more aroma into the air, thus enhancing the flavor of the wine. Good news for those of us who can’t fork over a couple hundred bucks for a bottle!
So, What Makes Champagne, Champagne?
It’s the region. Just like a Burgundy comes only from the Burgundy region of France, Champagne is only from the Champagne region. Other regions that use the champagne method must be called something else, like “sparkling wine”, “cava”, or “prosecco”, but they can’t be called “champagne”. You might see a California bubbly that boasts “Methode Champagnoise”, which means that they use the French method, but they are still not technically Champagne.
Is all French Wine Red?
It can sometimes seem that way, and I have met French people who don’t “believe” in white or rosé wine. But actually, France produces some amazing whites and rosés, and they are worth trying.
As I said above, a white Burgundy is actually a chardonnay, so if you’re a chardonnay lover like me, you’re in luck! If you’re old enough to remember the ’70s and ’80s, you probably remember chablis. It was an awful California rip-off of French white Burgundy, and it kind of ruined chablis in the minds of Americans (this was before California began making great wines like they do today). But if you can find a French chablis, give it a try! You might be surprised.
Also worth a try is a German-style Alsace. It’s from the northeastern region that borders Germany, and has off and on been part of Germany. It’s mainly a reisling, but don’t expect super-sweet. It’s a drier reisling made to be enjoyed with a meal, rather than with dessert.
Finally, my favorite non-red wine is a Provençal rosé. It brings to mind hot days in the south of France, lavender and sunflower fields, and of course, vineyards stretching out to the horizon. A Provençal rosé is nothing like a white zin, so don’t expect sweet and flat. Rather, it is dry and fruity, refreshing and light, while still being somewhat complex. Try a Cotes de Provence rosé the next time you are feeling like a white wine. You’ll still get the lightness of a white, but you’ll get something just a little different (and to me, the beautiful, pink color is irresistible, especially on a spring afternoon).
But What Do I Eat With It???
Ah, yes, the old pairing question. More and more, the answer has been: Whatever you want! However, I think that’s too simplistic, and I have definitely had wines that did NOT go well with what I was eating. I think you can’t really go wrong with this guideline: the darker and stronger the food you are eating, the darker and stronger the wine you should be drinking. Red meat? Red wine. White meat? White wine. Vegetables? White or rosé. See the pattern here?
And cheese pairings? Again, the stronger the cheese, the stronger (darker) the wine. A blue Roquefort needs a deep and complex red like a Bordeaux. A white or rosé is just going to get lost in all that Roquefort-y intensity. A lighter cheese, like a chevre or a brie plays nice with whites or rosés, but also has the oomph to hold up to a lighter red like a Beaujolais.
The best advice when it comes to pairings is to try it yourself! And the best way to try it yourself is to try it with friends. Host a dinner and serve a few different wines. Note which ones enhance the flavor of the food and which ones interfere with it. These days, it’s easy to get ahold of a decent French wine for under $20.
Sample, Sample, Sample
Hosting a wine tasting is also a lot of fun. Check back in the near future for a post on how to host a wine tasting, from planning to sampling like a sommelier to using terms like “legs” and “leather” to describe a wine. In the meantime, experiment and HAVE FUN! If nothing else, wine should be a fun adventure. Vive le vin!