Intro to French Wines

Theme

Viva la France!  Whether it’s chardonnay or pinot noir (Burgundy), cabernet sauvignon and merlot (Bordeaux), syrah (Rhone Valley), sauvignon blanc (the Loire Valley) or sparkling wine (Champagne), French wines set the standard against which all other winemakers worldwide are judged.  This will be a great tasting to introduce you and your guests to the most important and popular wines – and winemaking regions – in France.

Angle

The thing that can be confusing at first about French wines is that the wines are named for the region they’re produced, not for the grape from which the wines are made.   You’ll want this to be a “horizontal tasting” where you taste the wines one by one and educate your guests on the basics of each.  The wines in this tasting are totally different from one another, so frankly this tasting is a de facto “Wine 101” on its own that shows off nearly every major wine grape in the world!

Sample Lineup

  1. Charles Lafitte, Brut Prestige, Vins de Sables ($16)
  2. Sauvion, Touraine “Les Genets” ($10)
  3. Joseph Drouhin, Laforet Bourgogne Chardonnay ($10)
  4. Chateau de Montfort, Vouvray ($14)
  5. Willm, Alsace Riesling ($10)
  6. Louis Latour, Bourgogne Pinot Noir, Burgundy ($13)
  7. Guigal, Cotes du Rhone Rouge ($14)
  8. Chateau Greysac, Medoc, Bordeaux ($15)

The Wines

With this tasting, it’s less important to pick the exact wines we recommend above (though you can certainly do that!) and more important to get one wine from each region.  Work with your local wine merchant on finding good examples of each of the following: a Loire Valley sauvignon blanc (like the Touraine above), an affordable chardonnay from Burgundy, a Vouvray, an Alsace Riesling, a good, inexpensive red Burgundy (pinot noir), a Cotes du Rhone, and a value-priced Bordeaux.

Ideally, you’d start with a glass of bubbly – what’s more festive than that! – but Champagne normally starts at $30/bottle.  We recommended a sparkling wine made by a famous champagne house (Charles Lafitte) but from grapes located outside the champagne region.  Frankly, we think the exception can prove the rule – you can start the event by teaching your guests about Champagne, and in particular how only sparkling wines made in a certain method (the “methode Champenoise”) from grapes in the Champagne region are allowed to be called “Champagne.” 

We recommend starting with four French whites.  Sauvignon Blanc is a tangy, zesty popular white wine great on its own or with food; the ones from the Loire Valley are world-renowned.  The most famous are called “Sancerre” (sauvignon blanc grapes from the Sancerre region of the Loire Valley) though these typically cost more than $20/bottle.  From there, move to chardonnay – which in France means white Burgundy.  Even though they don’t say “chardonnay” anywhere on the label, virtually all white Burgundy wines are 100% chardonnay.  Vouvray is a region where delicious and “semi-sec” (meaning part dry, part sweet) wines are made from the chenin blanc grape.  It’s a crowd-pleaser.  Finally, try a Riesling from Alsace.  Rieslings are zesty, somewhat sweet whites great with food, though the ones from Alsace are drier than those made in other regions.

For the reds it’s simple: you want a Burgundy, a Rhone, and a Bordeaux.  Just as all white Burgundy is 100% chardonnay, all red Burgundy is 100% pinot noir.  If the wine says “Bourgogne” on it, it’s a basic pinot noir from grapes grown around the Burgundy region.  In the Rhone Valley, more full-bodied, spicy rich wines are made from blends of syrah, Grenache and the mourvedre (often abbreviated “GSM”).  Cotes du Rhone are a popular version of these wines and a good place to start.  Finally, finish with Bordeaux – possibly the world’s most famous wine region.  Bordeaux wines are blends of up to five grapes, almost always dominated by cabernet sauvignon and merlot, along with cabernet franc.  They’re big, complex, rich wines; they can also be expensive.  Look for a “Bordeaux Superieur” which are lower-priced versions, or a “Cru Bourgeois” like Chateau Greysac that are high-quality but offer good value.

Music

This is a classy tasting – you want some elegant party music that, if possible, evokes the romance of a vacation to France.  A great album to play, if you can find it, is the soundtrack to “French Kiss,” the Kevin Kline – Meg Ryan romantic comedy that ends up with the couple living happily ever after in French wine country.  It’s got tunes like Ella Fitzgerald’s “I Love Paris,” a Kevin Kline French-language cover of Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea” (called “La Mer”), a great tune called “Via con Me” by Paolo Conte, and other tunes that blend French and English. 

The album’s hard to find however (last we checked, it wasn’t on iTunes), so a good substitution is the iTunes Essentials playlist “French Dinner Party.” Alternatively, for this tasting you can’t go wrong with  Edith Piaf, the French counterpart to American songstresses like Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holliday.  Edith Piaf would make great background music for your party; check out the soundtrack to the movie La Vie en Rose, the 2007 movie about Piaf starring Marion Cotillard, and/or the compilation album “The Complete Edith Piaf.”

Pairings

French wine calls for French cheese, but of course!  Your tasting has a range of different wine styles, so your cheeses should vary in style.  Definitely pick a nice chevre or similar French goat’s cheese (it’ll go great with your Loire Valley whites and your red Burgundy).  Also, you can’t go wrong with a brie, which will be great with your white Burgundy and is generally a favorite.   Cantal is a great choice to pair with your Bordeaux, while St. Nectaire will round out your cheese selection and go very well with the Cotes du Rhone.  While simple water biscuit crackers can’t miss at any winetasting, a sliced French baguette will accentuate your theme even better.

Alternatively, if you want to include some hors d’ouerves with your event, we would suggest lighter appetizers rather than heavier dishes, given the range of wines you’re serving.  We recommend olive tapenade, which will complement your baguette & cheese and taste great with the French reds.  Similarly, eggplant and/or artichoke spreads would work perfectly – a selection of all three makes a great presentation.  For something a little more substantial, we love serving stuffed mushroom caps at a wine tasting party.  You can stuff your mushroom caps with crab meat, bread crumbs, or (for the adventurous) escargot (snails)! 

 

 

 

 

Tasting Notes

In their “World Atlas of Wine,” wine authorities Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson describe how “wine producers in the rest of the world love to hate the French.  They have so many indisputable advantages in France and can regard them with an infuriating mixture of arrogance and insouciance.  But what makes France the undisputed mistress of the vine; the originator and producer of more, and more varied, great wines than all the rest of the world?  It is not just the national character and its preoccupation with matters of the heart, palate and liver.  It is also a matter of geography.  France, washed by the Atlantic and lapped by the Mediterranean, is uniquely well situated…she has no shortage of wine regions at the limit of grape-ripening potential where growing seasons are at their longest.”

Because this is such a diverse tour of the great wine grapes of the world, we would recommend printing out tasting notes for your guests with white space to allow them to take notes on how the wines differ in flavor and style.  We also recommend printing out a map of France (or finding a map in a book) where you can highlight for your guests the regions from which the various wines hail.  Wine tasting is a form of world travel in between vacations, and we’ve always found guests enjoy connecting the various wines they’re trying to the far-off and (particularly in the case of France) romantic places the wines were made.  It’s also helpful to see that Burgundy is farther north (it’s cooler, which suits Pinot Noir and Chardonnay), while the Rhone is located farther south (suiting warmer-weather varietals like Syrah) and Alsace is near Germany (which is known for similar varietals to Alsace, including Riesling). 

French wines are almost always named for the region they’re produced (as well as the chateau which makes the wine), rather than for the grape(s) from which the wine is made.  Luckily, the different regions tend to specialize in different wines, so once you start learning about French wine, you realize it’s not as complicated as it seems.  For that reason, a tasting like this can be very helpful in giving you and your guests the “lay of the land” you’ll need to start exploring French wines with confidence.

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