French Wine…where to begin? #Winophiles

Map of French Wine Regions

This month the French Winophiles are diving into a French Wine 101.  It’s timely as we all enter our comments to the government in opposition to proposed 100% European wine tariffs.  (If you have not heard about this, I’ll post some links at the bottom for more information.) We have done a bit of writing on French wines and you will find links to those pieces. Many of these pieces were written in conjunction with the French #Winophiles, which means there is the extra bonus, of each of those pieces having links to other articles written by the rest of the #Winophiles! If you are interested in French wine, you will have plenty of reading available!

French Wine 101

I’m here to rally for French wine.  If you are new to wine, French wine can be a bit overwhelming so let’s start at the beginning.

Old World vs New World

To be sure, when we say “Old World” in reference to wines, we think first of French wines.  But what does “Old World” mean?  From a scholastic point of view: Old world wines are dominated by terroir, they are defined by place.  Typically these wines are more restrained and elegant.  New World wines, on the other hand tend to be reflective of the winemaker’s style and are often more fruit forward and bold.

That is a really broad definition of the differences, and doesn’t always hold true, but when people say “Old World” and “New World” this is what they are thinking.

French wine names

In France, wines are named for the region they come from, not by the variety of grape as we do in the new world.  This takes us back to that idea of “terroir” which is a sense of place, with soil, and climate.  So rather than speaking about Chardonnay in France, you would speak of Chablis or White Burgundy.  Both of those wines are made with Chardonnay, but the wine is named for the region.

When we think of Bordeaux, we think of age worthy reds.  These are typically Cabernet or Merlot based, depending on which bank of the river the region sits.  And you will notice that I said “based”. These wines are blends of the different varieties of grapes that grow best in this region.

There is one exception to this. In Alsace, the white wine region on the German border in the North East of France, wines are often labeled with the variety.  This comes from the German culture and this area throughout the ages, has bounced back and forth between French and German control.

Without going too deep into the wine labels (that’s a rabbit hole best saved for another day), let’s talk about some of the most well known French Wine Regions, and I’ll give you a translation for what varieties you will see from each.

French Wine regions

Map of French Wine Regions
Map of French Wine Regions

I love maps.  It gives you a better sense of the geography and influences on a region.  I could dive into the climates and soils in each of these regions (I do love to get geeky on these things), but this is French Wine 101!  So let’s put together some dots for you, on what varieties you will find in each of these regions and what you might want to eat with each of these wines!

Loire Valley – Val de Loire

Map of the wine regions of the Loire Valley
Map of the wine regions of the Loire Valley

This is white wine country!  You will find a bit of red, but the white wines are likely to be the ones you have heard of.

Muscadet

On the West end of the Loire Valley closest to the Atlantic Ocean. Melon de Bourgogne, which you will hear called Muscadet, is most prevalent here. This is a dry white wine that pairs really well with seafood. You will get citrus, and green apple and pear along with a lovely note of salinity. Go for shellfish with this wine

Chenin Blanc

Moving east Chenin Blanc begins to shine. Vouvray and Saviennières are well known Chenin Blancs from the regions of Touraine and Anjou-Saumur respectively. The two can be very different. Vouvray can be made from dry to semi-sweet to sweet, and you will find you need to do a bit of research to determine which sweetness level you are getting. Saviennières has been called the “most cerebral wine in the world”. These wines have depth of flavor, great acidity and minerality.

Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc, is mainly found in the Upper Loire, the area furthest east and inland. Here you hear of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. These wines are crisp and high acid. Pair them with fish or poultry. With cheeses these are wonderful with goat cheese or other creamy cheeses (think brie).

Cabernet Franc

Not to be overlooked is Cabernet Franc which in this region is the primary red wine. Chinon or Bourgueil in the Touraine region produce elegant Cab Francs. These wines can be slightly spicy with raspberry and violet notes and are a favorite at Parisian Bistros.

For more…

Champagne

Popping a champagne cork!

Well you know what Champagne is!  This region and it’s soil and climate produce some of the world’s finest sparkling wines primarily from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier.

These wines, while often looked at a just for celebrations or just with the hors d’oeuvres at the top of the meal actually are perfect during a meal. The bubbles and acidity clean your palate making every bite taste as amazing as the first.

There are plenty of classic pairings, but try potato chips, buttered popcorn or fried chicken! The bubbles and acid with the fat and salt are heaven.

For more…

Alsace

Famous wine route in the Vosges mountains Alsace France
Famous wine route in the Vosges mountains Alsace France

This region sits on the German border and as I mentioned earlier has bounced back and forth between French and German control. The names and architecture here reflect that mixed heritage and the wines do as well.

These bright aromatic white wines are perfect to keep your nose in all day or dab behind your ears. But…if you must move on to drinking them, pair them with fish, aromatic cheeses, schnitzle, salads…there are so many great pairings. These are also wines known for pairing well with spicy foods like Thai! You will find riesling, pinot gris, muscadet and gewurztraminer lead the pack on varieties.

For more…

There are a few other varieties including Pinot Noir, but you are less likely to run into them.

Chablis

Chablis Premier Cru Mont de Milieu Simonnet-Febvre 2013 and Pôchouse
Chablis Premier Cru Mont de Milieu Simonnet-Febvre 2013 and Pôchouse

Chardonnay

This is Chardonnay land, but not those big buttery California Chardonnays that your Aunt might drink.  These are sharp and bright with great mineral quality! Pair with fish or chicken, oysters or other shellfish, mushrooms or cheese (think goat cheese or Comté). The sharp acid makes this great with creme sauces.

For more…

Burgundy (Bourgogne)

Vignoble de Bourgogne
Vignoble de Bourgogne

Chablis, above, is in Burgundy sitting 80 miles northwest of the rest of Burgundy.  Burgundy is known for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Pinot Noir

The Côte de Nuits is the Northern part of the Côte d’Or and is the region that Pinot Noir calls home. It ventures further afield, but this is it’s homeland and you will find some of the most expensive Pinot Noirs on the planet, hail from here.

Pinot Noir is perfect for red wine with fish. It is the go to wine to pair with salmon. Many Pinot Noirs also have earthy notes and pair beautifully with mushrooms.

Chardonnay

The Côte de Beaune is dominated by Chardonnay. These are likely to be aged in oak. They will be richer and more buttery than those lean Chardonnays from Chablis, but they are still dry. Try this wine with pasta, chicken, risotto, shellfish or salt water fish and with cheeses like gruyere.

There is more to the region, the Côte Chalonnais and the Mâconnais, but we will leave those for another day.

For more…

Beaujolais

Gamay grapes in Beaujolais
Gamay grapes in Beaujolais

Just south of Burgundy you find Beaujolais.  This is a wine you will know better by the region name than by the grape, Gamay, that it is made from.  Beaujolais Nouveau is the first wine released each year on the third Thursday in November.  These early release wines are fresh and fruity, but the region does have other Gamay’s that are meant to be deeper and more age worthy.

Beaujolais Nouveau will be fruit forward and downright perky! Sometimes you will hear people say that they smell bubblegum or bananas in addition to raspberries and cranberry.

Aged Beaujolais might have notes of forest floor, mushroom, violet, tart cherry and smoke.

These are lighter wines and can pair across the spectrum from salmon to barbeque. Visit the Beaujolais site for a great graphic to assist with pairings for all the varied wines from this region.

The Rhone Valley

M.Chapoutier Crozes Hermitage vineyards in Tainl' Hermitage Rhone valley France
M.Chapoutier Crozes Hermitage vineyards in Tainl’ Hermitage Rhone valley France

I am a lover of Rhônes. Guaranteed…many of mine come from the Rhône Rangers that you find in California, and many of which were brought from Chateauneuf-de-Pape in the Southern Rhône.

The region is broken into the Northern and Southern Rhône. The Northern Rhône is the land of Syrah and Viognier and typically very pure and expensive versions of these.

Syrah

The Côte Rotie is known for some of the most amazing Syrah on the planet. I’ve heard it described as bacon and violets. Which sounds pretty amazing to me.

Viognier

Condrieu is well known for 100% Viognier. This white wine is full bodied and round with notes of apricot, pear and almonds.

There are other appellations like Crozes Hermitage above and Cornas, there is more to explore here, if you have the budget.

The Southern Rhone is warmer as it heads down the Rhone river to the Mediterranean and you will find blends of multiple varieties.  The famous Chateauneuf-du-Pape is here with blends of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre and more. Wines here lean toward blends.

Red Rhône Blends

These will have berry notes (think raspberry and black berry) baking spice, and maybe some garrigue (think underbrush), lavender, dried herbs. The more Mourvedre, the more likely you will have meaty notes to the wine.

These go well with mediterranean foods, like olives and red peppers, and herbs like rosemary or sage (or herbs de Provençe).

White Rhône Blends

Marsanne, Roussanne & Viognier make up the body of most white wines in this area. These blends are medium bodied and have notes of beeswax (I love that), as well as moderate citrus, like a meyer lemon, then stone fruits like peach and apricot.

Pair them with richer dishes with white meat (chicken or fish or even pork) and perhaps with fruits that are stewed or roasted. Dried apricots are a definite must on a cheese plate with these wines.

For more…

Bordeaux

Vignoble de Bordeaux
Vignoble de Bordeaux

If you have heard of any region in France other than Champagne, it will be Bordeaux. This is the region that Napa Valley wants to be. It is the big daddy of French wine with bottles that can be very pricey and many that need considerable aging. When people pull out dusty bottles from their wine cellar, typically they are Bordeaux wines.

Left Bank Reds (Cabernet Sauvignon based)

Red wines here are classified by which bank of the river the vineyards sit on. Left bank wines are west of the river in Médoc and Graves. The reds here are Cabernet Sauvignon based.

Right Bank Reds (Merlot driven)

The Right bank wines are on the other side of the river in the Libournais. These wines are Merlot driven. The Entre-deux-mers, the area in the middle between the two, has much more fertile soil producing less concentrated (but more affordable) wines.

The bold reds of Bordeaux are perfect with rich meaty dishes, like a big steak.

Sweet wines of Sauternes

Down in Graves you find the region of Sauternes. These are my friend Corinne’s favorite wines. These are sweet wines made from grapes with “Noble rot”. The botrytis fungus takes hold of the grape and dries them out considerably. They are pressed into tiny amounts of wine that when fermented becomes sweet and delicious. These are wines to pair with bleu cheese or with desserts.

For more…

Provence

Emotion, Urban Provençe and Inspiration rosé from Provençe
Emotion, Urban Provençe and Inspiration. Emotion and Inspiration come from Château de Berne and Urban Provençe is from Ultimate Provençe

Rosé

This is Rosê country, more than 1/2 the output of wine from this region is rosé. The mistral wind that whips down from the mountains keeping the vines in this Mediterannean region dry and free from disease. The landscape is dotted with lavender fields. It’s pretty dreamy.

In addition to those delicate ballet slipper pink rosés you will find Bandol, which is a rich red wine from Mourvedre.

Pair pink with pink. It’s delicious and pretty. Smoked salmon, ham, prosciutto, crab, lobster….you get the picture.

Yes…these wines are great in the summer. Their high acid and bright flavors are perfect to help you cool down on a hot day. But don’t overlook them at other times.

For more…

Other regions

Is there more to French Wine?  Why yes…so much more, there is the island of Corsica, the black wines of Cahors, Picpoul de Pinet from Languedoc-Rousillon…and then there are the wines that I have yet to discover!

Oh and did I mention Crémant? That would be sparkling wine from any region outside of Champagne! You want bubbles and value? It’s your go to!

Dive deep into the links and the links in the links and take a little vacay to France sans airfare!

For more…

More from the Winophiles!

There are so many ways to dive into French Wine, I have only scratched the surface. Why not check out the other #Winophiles and their approaches to the subject! You can join us for the conversation on Twitter on Saturday Morning January 18th (8 am PST, 11 am EST) by following the hashtag #Winophiles!

Remember I said I would include more about those potential tariffs.

As always be sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to keep up to date on all of our posts.

Sparkling Wine, Champagne and those tiny bubbles

Champagne-splash

 

I had the opportunity to go to a Sparkling wine tasting last month.  Michael doesn’t do the sparkling wines so off I went on my own.  The tasting was seated and set up like a class and I did my research ahead of time to brush up on sparkling wines and learn a bit more.  I was prepared to travel the globe tasting Espumante from Portugal, Cava from Spain, Franciacorta, Trento and Asti from Italy, some Champagne and Cremant from France and maybe even some Sekt from Germany or Austria!  This tasting however drifted only briefly outside of France with the start being a Cava, the well known Rondel.  Not what I was expecting, but pretty spectacular none-the-less and as a result I probably tasted a great deal more champagne than my ticket price allowed for!

So…some sparkling wine basics to start with.  The bubbles were first looked at as a flaw, but the Brits got a taste and liked it!  During the 17th century the English glass production used coal ovens rather than wood like the French and were able to create a more durable bottle that could better withstand the pressure in sparkling wine.  Prior to this it was not unusual for a cellar to loose 20-90% of their bottles to instability.Champagne splash

How did it get to England and hook the Brits you ask?  Well Champagne is a cold region and sometimes the fermentation process would be prematurely halted due to the cold temperature leaving dormant yeast and some residual sugar in the bottle.  They would box up the wine and ship it to England, where it would warm up and begin a second fermentation in the bottle and thus when opened in jolly old England it would be bubbly!

There are two methods of making Champagne or sparkling wine.  The first is the Methode Traditionnelle and the second is Charmat.  Let’s hit the 2nd first because it is quick and easy to explain.  In this method the Champagne is made in large tanks and CO2 is added to add the bubbles.  This method is used for less expensive sparkling wines.  The bubbles tend to be larger and “rule of thumb”, the larger the bubbles the bigger the headache.  These bubbles tend to disperse quickly also.  Now onto the more complicated method “Methode Traditionnelle”

The Traditional method “Methode Traditionnelle” is much more complicated and time consuming and therefore much more expensive.  After harvest the grapes are put in vats for the first fermentation which can be up to a year.  Then the wines are carefully blended and may be blended with previous years wines to create the house style.  This is known as assemblage.  The idea for French champagne makers is to create a champagne that is consistent from year to year.  After assemblage the liquer de tirage is added.  This mixture of still wine, sugar and yeast is what will trigger the second fermentation.  The wines are then bottled and capped (with simple bottle caps (anyone remember those?).  Then the 2nd fermentation begins and can take 10 days to 3 months.  After the 2nd fermentation the next step is Remuage.  The bottles are transferred to “pupitres” which are rectangular boards where the bottles can rest almost upside down.  This allows the lees and sediment to collect in the neck of the bottle.  A process known as “riddling “ is applied here.  Originally “Riddlers” would slowly turn the bottles, a bit of a turn gently each day to get all the sediment to settle in the neck, now there are machines that assist with this.  After the riddling the wine will be aged again on its lees for a minimum of one year for non-vintage champagnes and at least 3 years for vintage champagnes.  This aging allows the lees to breakdown which is what gives Methode Traditionnelle sparkling wines their bouquet and flavor.  But we are not done yet…you don’t want all that lees clouding up your beautiful sparkling wine!  The next step is Degorgement where the sediment is removed.  The neck of the bottle is put into a nitrogen solution to freeze it.  Then the bottle is opened and the solid frozen plug of lees is removed.  How in the world did they figure out how to do this?  Well for this tradition thanks the Veuve Clicquot.  Veuve in French is widow and Madame Clicquot’s husband died during the bottling process.  Legend says that she could not figure out how to get the lees out of the bottles and in her frustration threw them out into the snow, where….the necks froze first allowing them to easily remove the lees.  The final stage is to add more sugar and still wine to again fill the neck where the lees was removed.  This last “dosage” as it is called, determines the wines sweetness which goes from Brut to Sec.  Strangely enough, Extra dry is not as dry as Brut.  The Brut labels were added later to indicate a dryer wine.  So there you go the quick version of making Champagne.  It is a bit of work!

ORondel Cava Brutkay on to the tasting.  We began as I mentioned with a Rondel Brut Cava.

This is a great sparkling wine from Spain made in the Methode Traditionnelle.  It is lovely on it’s own or in mimosas and is exceedingly affordable at around $7.99 per bottle.  We tasted a Brut which was lovely, but it is also available in a Demi-Sec if you lean toward sweeter wines.  I picked up a Demi-Sec to take home for Michael to mix in Mimosas.

Our next wine was a Cremant de Bourgongne.  So…a little explanation.  As of 1985 the sparkling wine regions outside of Champagne in Loir, Alsace and Burgundy agreed to no longer use the term Champagne.  This would be reserved only for the Champagne region.  Instead they would now use the term “Cremant”.  Cremant de Bourgogne can by law only be made with  Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grown in the Burgundy region and must be aged for a minimum of 9 months.  The Cremant we tasted was a Louis Bouillot Brut NV.  This was creamy yet dry with a nice finish.  At $15.99 it is a great value.

Now we stepped into Champagne.  The first we tasted was a Paul Goerg Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs.  Goerg is names after a respected 19th century Mayor of Vertus.  The chalky soils of Vertus lend a refreshing mineral quality to this wine.  3 years of aging adds to the wine’s complexity.  I loved the bubbles in this.  The bubbles were very fine and refreshing and the bit of minerality made it very refreshing.  It also had a lovely floral note to the nose.  Blanc de Blancs means white from whites in French, and as such this wine is 100% chardonnay (a white grape).  This was the wine I took home with a sensible $29.00 price tag.

Our next venture was into Grower Champagnes.  Now I have been hearing about these and was anxious to taste one!  To give a little perspective on this style of Champagne it’s good to know that there are 261 Champagne houses in Champagne.  There are 19,000 growers.  So for a grower to produce a Champagne is a rare thing.  We tasted a Georges Vesselle Grand Cru Brut.  There are 17 Grand Cru Villages with 100% ratings, 38 Premiere Cru Villages with 90-99% ratings and the remaining villages in Champagne are rated at 80-89%.  The ratings are depended on the Village and the soil type there.  This changed the system from one where price was based on the Champagne house to one based on where the grapes were grown. This wine was a bit toastier and had a nutty creamy quality to it.  This particular grower is in Bouzy and it is a small production with 42 acres planed n 90% Pinot Noir and 10% Chardonnay.  It is a small family production.  This wine sells for around $40 per bottle.

The next wine was by the same grower and was a DeMargeire Grand Cru Burt Rose.  Champagne roses are like regular roses in that they can be made in two ways, you may allow the grapes to have contact with the skins early on to impart the pink color and some additional flavor or you may add pinot noir (or pinot meunier) in the final dosage.  This wine uses the former method and is a light salmon in color.  As with many roses you immediately get strawberry on the nose.  It had a lengthy finish and more than a little toast on the nose.  Roses are only about 3-5% of the Champagne Export so they are a little harder to come by.  This one retails at around $43.

From here we moved on to a Franck Bonville Grand Cru Vintage Brut. (I know there were a lot of wines to taste!).  This estate consists of 50 acres in the  Cremant, Aviz and Oger areas which are all classified as Grand Cru.  It is 100% Chardonnay and was aged for 5 years on it’s lees before release.  This was heavier on the yeast and had more light fruit.  It was medium in body.  More complex than the previous wines.  It goes for $49.99

The last of our dry Champagnes was Mailly Exception Blanche.  This wine is 100% Chardonnay.  This champagne will be great through 2022. It has flavors of tangerine and almond with a hint of minerality.  The bubbles are fine and the texture smooth.  This lovely Champagne will set you back $70.

Our final taste (well of Champagne) was a Mailly Delice Demi-Sec Grand Cru.  As a Demi-Sec it is sweeter so we finished with it.  It is 75% Pinot Noir and 25% Chardonnay.  It is a blend of the latest harvest with 40% being 10 years of reserve wines.  It is aged 2 yeas more on the lees than the Brut NV.  The extra aging makes this a fuller champagne.  It runs around $45 per bottle.

champagne glassesWe finished the night with some Georges Deboeuf As it was the 3rd Thursday of November and officially Beaujolais Nouveau day!  This seasons had hints of grape candy to me.  Reminded me of the tart smell of the Lik a Stik powdered candy.  Fun and fruity it is a gulping wine!  What a down to earth way to end the evening of sipping Champagnes!

So…I have a new understanding of Champagnes.  Time to make some Bellini’s and Caviar!  And Champagne and sparkling wines go with everything, so…If you don’t know what wine to take to that Thanksgiving dinner… pick up something with bubbles (smaller bubbles to make your head happier) it will go with everything and is bound to bring a smile!

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