My eyes were opened on French wine labels and tastes during my recent summer trip to Paris. I have enjoyed the well-known French wines, but I have considered them impractical as too expensive, and the labels too confusing, to really try to enjoy them much.
But even as a boorish booster of California wines, I had the pleasure of attending a wine-tasting luncheon at an interesting local establishment called “ÔChateau” housed in the former residence of Madame de Pompadour. The Madame, Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, was “the official chief mistress” of French King Louis XV, and as such had actual duties, such as arranging the King’s schedule while at the same time trying to not alienate the Queen. That was in the late 1700s. Today her former residence is a bustling wine bar set in the heart of Paris that offers several different types of introductions to French wines each day, through fun activities such as wine-tasting lunches and dinners, cruises, and outings to some of France’s best wine regions, including the Champagne region around Reims.
My French wine guide was Pierre, who grew up near Strasbourg, a city in France near the famous Alsace wine region, where many light and sweet French wines are made. Our lunch at ÔChateau included tastes of five different French wines, all from different regions, paired with five different cheeses and lots of other luncheon goodies including French breads. The wines tasted were all middle-priced and included a Champagne, Chenin Blanc, Gamay Beaujolais, Haut Medoc Bordeaux, and a Semillon. The cost was 75 euros (about $100) but well worth it for both the lovely food and wine, but also the wine education, lasting almost two hours, in a beautiful private wine cellar.
My biggest takeaway was understanding from Pierre how the French think of wine labels and choosing a wine, which is quite different from my experience in California. Here, I have come to think of selecting a wine by thinking of what food I want to pair it with, selecting a grape, such as a Cabernet Sauvignon, and then considering vintners, such as Caymus from Napa Valley. Pierre, who has spent his lifetime in the wine industry (but actually did some studies at our own UC Davis!) says this is not how the French, with so many potential wine choices (some reference guides say there are 27,000 wineries in France) chose their wine. Instead of thinking of a grape and vintage to match their meal, the French consider matching a meal to a wine from a “terroir” of the country. Thus, a selection becomes very much more about the region that the wine is from, and not the reputation of the vintners’ label. Where in California I might consider that a Caymus is a synch to match a juicy steak dinner, a French wine lover would more likely consider a region, such as the Medoc region pictured in the graphic attached to this article, rather than a particular vintner.
The Médoc region is known for its good red wines, usually Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon blends. Médoc is in Bordeaux to the west of France and separated by a river. According to Pierre, the wines north of the river are known to the French to produce red wines based mostly on Merlot. But to the south of the river, the blends are based mostly on Cabernet. And at the northern tip of the district south of the river, the Cabernet-dominated wine blends have especially well-known characteristics. These wines are labelled as “Haut Médoc”, a description I have seen many times but never really understood. They are from the “high Medoc” terrior and are just excellent. Due to tight controls on how the wines are made, their taste all pretty equally reflect the unique “terrior” from which they originate – soil, climate conditions, pollination and methods all pretty much being the same for the dozens of wineries in a particular terrior. The “Haut Médoc” we tasted at ÔChateau was not expensive, either. It was a Château Belgrave and it retails in France for just 21 euros ($28.22). It was paired with a true roquefort cheese and the two together were amazing! A few days later as I was leaving France, I bought a bottle of Chateau le Legune Haut Médoc at the duty free at Charles de Gaulle airport for 31 euros ($41.66), tried it, and am very impressed. It is available and retails at $69.99 at www.klwines.com here in California. That is not cheap, but it is Grand Cru Classé (meaning it is made to top standards) but a heck of a value compared to the more well-known French wines we see on the lists at our better restaurants that bear both incomprehensible and inapproachable pricing.
Pierre’s message was that one should not get too frustrated with learning all the wineries in France, and you don’t have to pay top dollar. All one really has to learn is about the French wine regions – just seven of them – to get a decent handle on French wine appreciation and reduce mistakes in choosing a bottle. It is surely a little different from the way some of us have looked at it in California, but increasingly California also is developing a wine industry that reflects a “terrior” palate rather than a common homoginized taste. “Rutherford dust” is a distinct taste that many California cabernet fans understand is present in such wines as “BV” from the Rutherford district of Napa Valley. Monterey county chardonnay fans often mention a crisp “pinneapple” taste they get from local wines in that region of California, distinct from other areas. In California, our wine industry has had only perhaps 100 years of development and much is still new. In France, dozens of generations have been growing grapes and making wine at the same locations. It is perhaps no wonder that French wines can be distinguished more by “terrior” than vintner, because they have worked at it for centuries and have maintained standards that have created unique, but common local flavors. In any event, I am glad to have learned something useful to my own hobby of wine appreciation and to understand that there are great, affordable French wines out there – but I won’t abandon California wines anytime soon!