Posts Tagged French Wines

Must-Know Bordeaux


Bordeaux is considered by many to be the most important fine wine region in the world.  This tasting is designed to introduce your guests to some of the great wines of Bordeaux: the “Super Seconds.” These wineries of the Left Bank of Bordeaux are known year-in and year-out as some of the best quality, most complex and age-worthy wines in the region, and whose super wines are perceived second only in relation to the five famous “First Growths” that are too expensive for most of us to enjoy regularly (if ever!).  We consider the Super Seconds to be the “must-know” wines of Bordeaux for any wine lover who wants to become seriously familiar with this great region.


The angle of this event is to introduce and familiarize your guests with each of these wines.  Prices for these wines vary enormously by vintage; your goal here is to find good lower-priced versions from years that were fine but not spectacular (and priced accordingly).  We would recommend you display the wines clearly as you serve them, but we would not hide the wines in a “blind” format.  You want your guests to see the labels as they taste each wine, so they can begin to associate each bottle with its unique character, and perhaps pick a personal favorite or two as the styles do differ from wine to wine.  There is, however, a price range here; we’d recommend withholding the prices of each until the end, and then seeing if the less expensive wines rate as highly among your group as the pricier chateaux!

The Lineup: Bordeaux’s “Super Seconds”

  1. Chateau Montrose 2004, St.-Estephe ($59)
  2. Chateau Leoville-Barton 2001, St.-Julien ($79)
  3. Chateau Pichon-Baron 1999, Pauillac ($89)
  4. Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou 1998, St.-Julien ($90)
  5. Chateau Pichon-Lalande 2001, Pauillac ($99)
  6. Chateau Cos d’Estournel 1999, St.-Estephe ($99)
  7. Chateau Palmer 2003, Margaux ($139)
  8. Chateau Leoville Las Cases 1991, St.-Julien ($159)

Note: the prices above were found on the web recently from one or more of the following retailers: K&L Wine Merchants (San Francisco Bay Area), Sherry-Lehmann Wine & Spirits (New York City), Wally’s Wine & Spirits (Los Angeles).  We chose vintages/years deliberately to keep prices down.  These same wines from years like 1989, 1990, 1995, 1996, 2000 or 2005 are significantly more expensive.

The Wines

This is a spectacular wine tasting.  We first hosted this one for 30-40 friends in 2005 and a number of them still talk about it.  This event, for many of us, was the wine tasting party that opened our eyes to the world of Bordeaux and familiarized us with some wines that are now among our favorites.  They set a benchmark for quality; for those trying to understand what all the fuss is about, these are a good place to start.  These are also great wines for aging, so they make a very thoughtful wedding or first-child gift that you can open up years later.  With that said, it is also an ambitious tasting – finding the wines for this event will take a little legwork.  Trust us, it will be worth it.


Depending on where you live, you will likely need to shop online to replicate this event and find all the wines above (or similar vintages that are also good prices).  Check out our “Buying Guide” page for some helpful hints on finding good merchants and good deals on wine in your area.  For most of the tastings on this website, the theme is more important than finding the specific wines we recommend in our sample lineup.   For this tasting, the wines we are recommending are the theme.

In 1855, Napoleon III called upon the Bordeaux wine industry to rate the various wines from best to worst in preparation for the Paris Exhibition.  The Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce ultimately grouped the various chateaux into five categories (based on selling price!) led by the Premiers Crus, or “First Growths.”  There are today five “First Growths” in Bordeaux – Chateau Latour, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Haut-Brion, and Chateau Mouton-Rothschild.  They occupy some of the best terroir in Bordeaux and every year make wines that are among the most sought-after in the world.  They are priced accordingly – First Growths rarely sell for less then $300/bottle.

The wines presented in this tasting are often collectively referred to as the “Super Seconds” – the wines from Bordeaux’s Left Bank that are perennial superstars of outstanding quality, but that do not command the lofty prices of the “First Growths.”  Many wine connoisseurs today agree that the 1855 classification is largely outdated, and in particular the quality level of some wines ranked lower then has improved significantly over the years.  On any given year, each of the wineries in this tasting has the potential to produce a wine considered perfect by the all-powerful wine critics.  They very rarely disappoint.

Though there is no formal definition of the exact list of wines that rate as “Super Seconds,” these wines are usually named:

  • Chateau Leoville-Las-Cases
  • Chateau Pichon-Lalande
  • Chateau Pichon-Baron
  • Chateau Cos d’Estournel
  • Chateau Palmer
  • Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou
  • Chateau Montrose
  • Chateau Leoville-Barton


This is an epic, classy event featuring some of the world’s biggest, most renowned wines that are benchmarks for quality, tradition & power.  We’d play music that is suitably heightened, rich, powerful, and name-worthy: The Three Tenors.  Of course, you’re tasting French wines, so we’d choose to play the 1998 Paris concert that Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti sang to ring in the World Cup.  The big, lush, soaring operatic music should set the perfect backdrop for your tasting.  You can always choose something different if opera’s not your thing – classic jazz would work as well – but we’ll bet your guests get into your choice of the Three Tenors in Paris, and it matches your “Bordeaux Super Seconds” theme perfectly.


The purpose of whatever food you serve at this event should be to blend in and stay out of the way!  When you’re serving serious wines like this and introducing your guests to the nuances of how Pichon Lalande differs from Pichon Baron, you don’t want hummus or ranch dip getting in the way of your palate.   We’d recommend serving a few cheeses with relatively mild but complex flavors, served with sliced baguette (preferably) or mild crackers like Carr’s water biscuits.   French Cantal cheese is a great pairing with Bordeaux that we’d highly recommend, if you can find it.  Havarti is easier to find and also pairs nicely with Bordeaux.  Manchego pairs well with Cabernet and Merlot (the dominant grapes in these blended wines) and is always a crowd-pleaser.  A selection of mixed olives is a nice accompaniment as well to any wine tasting, and goes particularly well with the Cabernet in these wines.

Tasting Notes

For those new to Bordeaux, the key concept to know about the wines is that red Bordeaux is almost always a blend of several different grapes.  The two major grapes used in the blends are Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot; the Cabernet provides great structure and flavor, while Merlot provides a round, supple texture.   Cabernet Franc is the next most important and prevalent grape in these blends, typically used in smaller quantities to provide aromas of violet and spice to the wine.  The other two grapes found in red Bordeaux blends are Malbec and Petit Verdot, which tend to be used in smaller amounts, if at all.

Bordeaux is widely considered the most important wine region in the world.  As Karen MacNeil points out her excellent book The Wine Bible, “No other wine region is more powerful, more commercially clever, or more important as a source of profoundly complex, ageworthy wines.  The challenge is to comprehend it all, for Bordeaux is the largest fine wine vineyard on the globe.  This single region covers more territory than all of the vineyard areas of Germany put together and is ten times larger than the vineyard acreage of New Zealand…[Bordeaux wineries] produce a daunting 700 million bottles of wine every year, including many of the priciest wines in the world.”

We’d recommend printing out a map of Bordeaux for your guests so they can see the geography from which these famous wines hail.  Bordeaux lies alongside three rivers – the Gironde, the Dordogne and the Garonne – and all the “Super Seconds” are on the “Left Bank,” the term for the Haut-Medoc region that sits on the West (Left) Bank of the Girdone River.  This area includes villages that are home to some of the world’s most famous wines.  The town of  Pauillac is probably Bordeaux’s most famous village, where you’ll find 1st growths Lafite-Rothschild, Latour and Mouton-Rothschild as well as Super Seconds Pichon-Lalande and Pichon-Baron.  Its southern neighbor Saint Julien features several wineries classified as 2nd growths in 1855, including Gruaud Larose, Leoville Poyferre, and our “Super Seconds” Leoville-Las-Cases, Leoville-Barton and Ducru Beaucaillou.  To the north of Pauillac is Saint Estephe, home to Super Seconds Montrose and Cos d’Estournel, as well as many up-and-coming wineries known for offering excellent value given the quality.  The southernmost of the Haut-Medoc appellations is Margaux, where more of the “classified” wines from 1855 reside than any other.  These include first-growth Chateau Margaux, a number of second-growths, and Chateau Palmer which was originally ranked as a third-growth but is widely regarded as a “Super Second.”

This tasting is just an introduction to Bordeaux, one that focuses on some of the most famous villages of the region and on wines that have long been classified as some of France’s very best.  Bordeaux, however, doesn’t end with the 1855 classification.  Many of Bordeaux’s most celebrated wines were never classified in the first place, notably those on the “Right Bank” villages of Pomerol and St.-Emilion.

Whereas “Left Bank” wines like those in our tasting tend to include a majority of Cabernet Sauvignon, the “Right Bank” stars are often Merlot-dominated, or even 50/50 Merlot and Cabernet Franc.  St.-Emilion has two wines that received the highest ranking in its own 1954 classification: Chateau Cheval Blanc and Chateau Ausone.  These wines, too, command worldwide admiration and lofty price points.  Fans of the 2004 movie Sideways will note that the main character Miles was saving a 1961 Cheval Blanc for a special occasion.  Pomerol, meanwhile, never bothered to classify its wines, which include the most expensive Bordeaux wine in the world:  Chateau Petrus.   Made in small quantities to great acclaim, Chateau Petrus typically costs several thousand dollars a bottle!

Once you’ve introduced yourself and your guests to Bordeaux with this tasting, use the Super Second wines as a springboard to learn more.  If you found you liked wines from a specific village (for example, all the St.-Julien wines), head out to your local wine merchant and pick out some more affordable wines from that village that could become everyday favorites.  If you loved the wines and are anxious to explore Bordeaux further, put together a tasting of Right Bank wines – possibly comparing the bounty of St. Emilion and Pomerol to their Left Bank neighbors in a blind tasting format.  Also – a number of the “Super Seconds” above also produce a second wine from the chateau based on grapes not used in the “Grand Vin.”  These wines can be delicious in their own right, obviously come from great terroir, and are far more affordable. Examples include Clos du Marquis (from Leoville Las Cases), La Dame de Montrose, and Alter Ego de Palmer.  Finally, we think you’d have a blast putting together a blind tasting of red Bordeaux blends against Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from California.  See if your guests can tell the difference or have a clear favorite.


Discovering French Whites


No other country makes so many varieties of wonderful white wines as France.  We also think French whites are fantastic on their own – as picnic wines, cocktail party whites, a pre-dinner aperitif…  They’re flavorful, nuanced and light, rarely overpowering.  If you love white wines and want to learn about some new ones, this is a wonderful tasting that also evokes the romance of France.  



We’d do this as a “blind” tasting, where you disguise the bottles, start everyone on the same wine, and then move through the lineup collectively as a group.  This will encourage conversation and get your guests talking about what they notice and like (or dislike) about each wine.  It also lets you control the order – we’d recommend you start with the lightest & driest wines and gradually progress to the richest and sweetest.  Have your guests take notes as they go, and then match their notes to each wine in the end as you reveal the lineup. 

Sample Lineup 

  1. Domaine La Haute Fevrie, Muscadet Sevre et Maine Sur Lie ($12)
  2. Sauvion, Touraine “Les Genets” ($10)
  3. Mouton Cadet, Blanc (Bordeaux) ($9)
  4. Chateau de Maligny, Chablis ($15)
  5. Macon-Lugny, “Les Charmes” ($12)
  6. Domaine de Triennes, Viognier “Sainte-Fleur” ($16)
  7. Chateau de Montfort, Vouvray ($14)
  8. Willm, Alsace Riesling ($10)


The Wines 

With this tasting, the range of varietals is more important than the specific winemakers.  The lineup above includes recommended versions of each from some of our favorite merchants, and all in the $10-15 range.  Work with your local wine merchant and find a version of each varietal that they carry regularly and recommend.  The eight white wines above hail from regions throughout France, and providing your guests this sense of geographic diversity is half the fun of the tasting.  

You’ll start with two wines from the Loire Valley – Muscadet and a Sauvignon Blanc like the Touraine above.  Muscadet is a light, dry wine famous for pairing with seafood, while Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc (the most famous is “Sancerre”) will be a bit more fruity & tangy.  The Bordeaux white should be a nice contrast to the first two – smooth, fruity blend based on the Semillon grape.  Then we recommend including two Burgundies (white Burgundy is 100% chardonnay) – a minerally Chablis and a creamy, fruity Macon.  If you can find one at a good price, work in a floral, perfumed Viognier.  Finish with two sweeter wines – Vouvray (made from the Chenin Blanc grape) and Riesling from the Alsace region – and note the contrasts between the two. 


This is a relaxed, fun tasting of French wines that wouldn’t be out of place at a summer picnic.  Norah Jones would be a great choice among American performers; her music has an easy, dreamlike quality while her voice has a smoky, sultry character that wouldn’t be out of place in a Parisian wine bar.  Her debut album “Come Away With Me” and her followup album “Feels Like Home” would make perfect background music for this classy tasting. 

If you want something more authentically French, we’d recommend Edith Piaf – France’s mid-20th century counterpart to American songbirds like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday, both cocktail party standards.  Check out the soundtrack to La Vie en Rose, the 2007 movie about Edith Piaf that starred Marion Cotillard, as well as the compilation album “The Complete Edith Piaf.”  


Your French theme with the wines gives you an opportunity to introduce your guests to some nice French cheeses.  You should absolutely start your cheeseboard off with a goat’s cheese like Chevre, which is a classic pairing with Loire whites like Sauvignon Blanc.  A nice French Brie, which is always popular at a party in any event, will provide a great pairing with your Burgundian chardonnays.  Then why not pick some French cheeses that will be new to many of your guests.  Raclette de Savoie, for example, will pair beautifully with your Vouvray, while a Tomme Fermiere d’Alsace will complement (you guessed it) your Alsace Riesling.  You could always go with crackers, but sliced fresh baguette will complement your French theme even better. 

If you want some passed appetizers, halve some fresh figs, and top with a fresh basil leaf and a small dab of goat’s cheese (Chevre).  It’s a fresh, flavorful bite-sized passed finger-food perfect for these picnic-friendly whites.  Another winner would be stuffed mushroom caps, which you can stuff with crab meat as a perfect accompaniment to your two Burgundies.  Other than that, perhaps serve some light spreads that your guests can serve with their baguette, like artichoke dip or eggplant dip.  Grapes and strawberries will finish your table off.  We’d avoid tomato flavors or anything overwhelming in flavor (like hummus, guacamole or salsa).  

Tasting Notes 

This tasting explores the subtle differences among a variety of fresh, delicious French white wines.  Whereas some “blind” tastings focus on comparing the same type of wine at a variety of price points, all of the wines presented here can be found for $10-15/bottle.  It’s great fun to discover wines that are a little bit different – the sheer variety of wonderful wines out there makes for a sense of ongoing adventure, discovery, and virtual world travel as you explore new grapes and bottles for the first time.  We 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.  

French wines can be tough to get to know at first because the wines are named for regions & villages, almost never for the grape itself.  Muscadet is a grape, but Loire Sauvignon Blancs are usually named for the region (Touraine, or Sancerre).  White Bordeaux is a blend of Semillon, Muscadelle and Sauvignon Blanc.  White Burgundy – surprise! – is 100% chardonnay.  Viognier is a grape that thrives in the Rhone Valley.  Vouvray is a Loire Valley wine made from the Chenin Blanc grape.  Perhaps Alsace is the one French region likely to include the wine name (Riesling, in this case) on the bottle. 

Muscadet is a great Loire Valley wine to get to know because it is the quintessential French white to pair with seafood – a light, dry wine usually available at a good value.  The “Sevre et Maine” appelation of the Loire Valley produces zingy white wines, while those marked “Sur Lie” have extra body & complexity.  The Loire Valley is also known for great sauvignon blanc; “Sancerre” is the best known, but a bit pricier than the Touraine we recommend above.  Sauvignon  Blanc will be a bit fruitier & tangier than the Muscadet and is a great food pairing wine for just about everything else (not just seafood!). 

Bordeaux is best known for red wine but also makes interesting dry white wine blends that should provide an interesting contrast to the Loire Valley whites.  Bordeaux white wines blend three grapes and are typically at least 80% Semillon, along with smaller percentages of the grapes Muscadelle and Sauvignon Blanc.  Mouton Cadet is an affordable, widely available value-priced white Bordeaux – rich, smooth and with tropical fruit notes.  

From Bordeaux, move to Burgundy, where the white wines are 100% chardonnay.  There are five different sub-regions within Burgundy, and we would suggest including two in your tasting.  Start with a Chablis, a well-known source of chardonnay that is notably chalky and minerally, almost mouth-puckeringly so.  Follow up with a Burgundy from the Maconnais region like the one we recommend, which will likely be notably rounder, with clean, creamy fruit flavor.  The contrast should be informative and fun for your guests. 

If you can find a Viognier, definitely try to work it into the tasting.  It’s a unique, somewhat unheralded grape, though one’s that often considered fashionable purely because it’s not widely known.  Viognier has a fascinating and unique flavor – very floral, almost perfumed.  If you can’t find one for $15 or less, look for Guigal’s Cote du Rhone Blanc, which is a blend that’s usually at least 50% Viognier that can be found for $13 or so.  

Finish with two different whites – Vouvray and Riesling.  Vouvray is a crowd-pleasing, sweeter white made from the Chenin Blanc grape in the Loire Valley.  Riesling is also sweeter, but with a different taste entirely; the Rieslings made in France’s Alsace region are somewhat drier than those made in Germany or in California.


Intro to French Wines


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.


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.


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.”


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.


Burgundy: Bold & Beautiful

The Theme

Burgundy is one of the great wine regions of the world, and a fantastic theme for a wine tasting party.  Many wine drinkers like chardonnay and pinot noir but feel intimidated by Burgundy.  This wine tasting party will open up the bold and beautiful wines of Burgundy to your guests and give them the confidence to discover these great wines!

The Angle

The angle of this tasting is to unlock the mystery of this region’s wines so that your guests learn what they need to know to start exploring Burgundy’s wines for themselves.  It’s easier than it seems: white Burgundy is 100% chardonnay and red Burgundy is 100% pinot noir.  Serve four whites and four reds that span different towns, well-known winemakers, and all four of the Burgundy classifications.   Walk through them in order as a way to explain the subtleties of how Burgundy characterizes their wines.  You and your guests will learn a ton and enjoy some delicious wines along this way.

Sample Lineup

  1. Maison Champy, Bourgogne Blanc Signature, 2006 ($19)
  2. Louis Latour, Chassagne-Montrachet, 2006 ($33)
  3. Olivier Leflaive, Puligny-Montrachet “Les Referts” 1er Cru ($60)
  4. Marc Rougeot, Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru, 2006 ($90)
  5. Louis Jadot, Cote de Beaune Villages (a Bourgogne blend), 2006 ($20)
  6. Louis Jadot, Nuits-St. Georges, 2004 ($35)
  7. Louis Jadot, Vosne-Romanee “Les Suchots” 1er Cru, 2004 ($62)
  8. Louis Jadot, Mazis-Chambertin Grand Cru, 2004 ($110)

The Wines

While they usually don’t say “chardonnay” or “pinot noir” anywhere on the labels, the most basic fact to know about Burgundy is that white Burgundy is 100% chardonnay and red Burgundy is 100% pinot noir, almost without exception.  Note: that’s unusual for France, a nation where wines are usually blends of several different grapes.  What makes each bottle of Burgundy unique has to do with which grapes are used to make the wine – and specifically, exactly where those grapes are grown.  As you walk your guests through the wines, you’ll be progressing from wines made from grapes blended throughout the region to wines made from very specific individual vineyards.

Start with an inexpensive basic “Bourgogne” white blend, which will be made from chardonnay grapes blended from various sites around the Burgundy region.  Next move up to a higher-quality “Villages” wine that is made entirely from chardonnay grapes located in a specific town (village), such as the town of Puligny-Montrachet.  This wine should be a little better, and will be a bit more expensive.  Third, serve a “Premier Cru” white Burgundy, which is made from one of over [500] specially-designated, high-quality vineyards throughout Burgundy.  Finish with a “Grand Cru” white Burgundy, made exclusively from chardonnay grapes grown in one of the [50] or so most prestigious vineyards in Burgundy.  Repeat this tour with your four Red Burgundies – from basic Bourgogne, to a Villages, to a Premier Cru and then finally to a Grand Cru.  It works the same way – as you work your way upward, the wines are made from pinot noir that is grown in more specific (and higher-quality) vineyards.

When it comes to price, Grand Cru Burgundies are expensive, both for whites and reds.  Even Premier (1er) Cru Burgundies are a splurge at $40-60/bottle.  If you want to ease up on the budget for your event, swap out the Grand Cru wine with another “Villages” wine, which in our view are where you’ll find the best quality for the money among Burgundy’s wines.  If you do this, choose two villages that are different in style, to emphasize the point about terroir – your local wine merchant can provide advice on this.


This is a really nice tasting, and we would recommend your music choice complement the classy juice you’re serving!  While classical music wouldn’t be out of place, it’s still a party – we’d go with classic jazz.  Start with Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out” and then progress to some Miles Davis.  Finish with something lively but less well-known, perhaps John Coltrane or Charlie Parker.


We’d prepare two different cheese plates for this tasting – one showcasing cheeses to pair with your White Burgundy (chardonnay) and a second that highlights cheeses that pair well with Red Burgundy (pinot noir).  We’d recommend setting up your party space such that the whites are in one area, together with their cheeses, and the reds are in a second area (ditto).

Chardonnay pairs great with a number of cheeses.  Our friends at Wine Spectator recommend a cheese plate that shows off a diversityof mild-flavored cheeses, including Triple-Cream Brie, Valencay (a goat’s cheese loved by Napoleon), and a Gruyere.  Meanwhile, pinot noir goes very well with a variety of cheeses, but we would not recommend a blue cheese.  For your red Burgundy we’d add either a light Cheddar or the big full-flavored French Epoisses to round out your cheese board.   A sliced baguette would be an elegant (and French!) choice to accompany your cheese, though of course crackers always work fine.  We’d prefer mild crackers such as Carr’s water table crackers.

You can of course serve any type of food you like, but in our view this is a tasting where the wines should take center stage.  We wouldn’t go with heavy apps.  Some elegant and appropriate accompaniments to your cheese board would include nuts, dates, and maybe some dried apricots or dried cranberries.

Tasting Notes

Burgundy has a lot of small producers making great wine.  But for your tasting party, you’re hoping to introduce your guests to wines they’ll then go out looking to purchase for themselves.  For that reason, we believe you should use this opportunity to introduce your guests to some of the largest and most well-known makers / distributors of Burgundy (often known as negociants).  Louis Jadot, Louis Latour, Olivier Leflaive, Maison Champy, and Bouchard Pere et Fils are great choices.  Fortunately, they all own some fantastic vineyard real estate and make delicious wines.  They’re a great starting point for your exploration of this wonderful region.

Cite a few statistics for your guests to put the whole “Bourgogne,” “Villages,” “Premier Cru” and “Grand Cru” discussion in context.  Roughly 52% of all wine made in Burgundy are regional “Bourgogne” red or white blends.  Another 35% of all Burgundy wines are “Village” wines where all the grapes are sourced from that specific village.  There are just over 560 Premier Cru vineyards, the wines from which make up 11% of Burgundy production.  Finally, the 30+ Grand Cru vineyards make up just 2% of all Burgundy wines.

Burgundy makes great chardonnay that is crisp and creamy, but not buttery in the way many Californian wineries produce chardonnay.  White Burgundy also can taste minerally as a result of the limestone in the land where the vines are planted.  Burgundians like to let the clean fruit flavors from the grape shine through, rather than to make a huge wine reminiscent of butterscotch pudding.  Similarly, Red Burgundy typically has more subtle fruit flavors than the pinot noir you and your guests might have tried from America.  Whereas the warmer weather in California produces many full-bodied, very fruit-forward pinot noir, it’s much cooler in Burgundy and so the fruit flavors are more refined and complex (some would say elegant).

Note also that Premier Cru (displayed as “1er Cru” on many labels) and Grand Cru wines always include the name of the vineyard itself on the label.  For a 1er Cru, it’s usually in quotes and/or listed after the name of the village.  For the two 1er Cru wines in our sample lineup above, the white is from the “Les Referts” vineyard in the village of Puligny-Montrachet, while the red is from the “Les Suchots” vineyard in the village of Vosne-Romanee.  You will also be able to find the phrase “1er Cru” or “Premier Cru” somewhere in tiny print on the label.

So how will you know a Grand Cru when you see it?  The smart-aleck answer is, “by its price tag.”  There are no undiscovered affordable gems among Grand Cru Burgundy vineyards; they’re usually more expensive than their 1er Cru neighbors.   But also, the Grand Cru Burgundy wines have the name of the vineyard itself on the label, and often omit the name of the town.  In our sample lineup above, “Corton-Charlemagne” and “Mazis-Chambertin” are vineyards, not towns.  Finally, in case this all gets too confusing, the words “grand cru” will most likely be on the label as well, for the avoidance of doubt.

We would also recommend printing out a list for your guests of the major Burgundy villages.  This may seem like extra trouble, but the villages are so prominently displayed on Burgundy wine labels that it’s helpful to know one when you see it.  Maps are helpful here too.  Let your guests know that most great Burgundy is made along a one-mile-wide by forty-five mile long stretch called the “Cote d’Or,” basically a long valley with hills on either side.  One half is known as the “Cote de Nuits” and includes well-known villages such as Gevrey-Chambertin, Morey-St.-Denis, Chambolle-Musigny, Vougeot, and Vosnee-Romanee.  The adjacent half of this long/narrow stretch is called the “Cote de Beaune” and includes the villages of  Pommard, Volnay, Beaune, Savigny-les-Beaune, and Aloxe-Corton (among others).  So when you see these words on a label, it’s referring to the town the grapes are grown in.

While the Cote d’Or is the largest Burgundy region, the other three worth noting are Chablis, the Maconnais, and the Cote de Chalonnais.   Your guests will have heard of “Chablis” but may not realize it’s just a specific area of Burgundy that produces very minerally (and often unbelievably great) chardonnay.  Some of your guests may also have heard of “Pouilly-Fuisse” which is a brand, if you will, of white Burgundy made in the Maconnais region.  It too is simply a variety of Chardonnay made in a specific part of Burgundy.

There is plenty more to learn about Burgundy than this quick summary, and plenty of places on the Web to keep studying.  But in our experience, if you and your friends are really interested in learning about wine, this can be one of the most rewarding tastings you can do.

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