French wines… just the thought it stirs up awe, mystery, confusion…
What is it about French wines that can make even the most knowledgeable wine enthusiast gush and blush? France has long held the esteemed position as the ultimate wine-making region and authority. It seems like there’s this line between knowledge of wine (which is great!) and just plain old coming off as snooty, which nobody wants to do. French wines seem to bring out the “snooty” in your otherwise humble folk. Why is this true?
Well, not on this blog, I’ll tell you… welcome to French wine for dummies, part 1. We’ll do a little sub-series on the subject and I promise you I will only give you the basics, some good links if you want to learn more, but most importantly, some tools to help take the mystery out of French wine so that you can enjoy it the way it was meant to be. With food and friends, and without the snobbery.
First of all, the French have got it down when it comes to wine and food. They create their wine to complement different dishes, and turns out it does more than just make the meal incredibly good. There’s something called the “French paradox”, which has shown that although the French have a diet high in organ meats, fatty cheeses, butter and eggs, their incidence of heart disease is actually lower than that of Americans. A great article discussing wine health benefits is discussed here.
A first clue showing just how much the French have dominated the wine market is the way it’s sold. When you shop for a bottle of French wine, like we talked about in the last blog, you are relying on your knowledge of the wine “region”, not the wine grape itself. Sometimes it’s hard to even find the grape name on the bottle!
Many of the grapes we know best, like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot are all standard grapes in France. These grapes made such good wine in the French style that they became world renown for their use and now many world regions use them. They’re called international varietals. And the French way of making wine from these grapes is still considered the gold standard.
Old World (or European) wines are made to be drunk with food. So, when you’re tasting a French wine, you often will taste stronger elements, which can be more acidic or tannic (that tea-bag or banana peel feeling on the tongue!). A lot of these flavor profiles depend as much on the “terrior” or “land” that the vines grow in as they do the actual grape that makes the wine. This is why there is an emphasis on “terrior”, or even region (where the grape grows), rather than the grape type itself, on the label. This can make label reading oh-so-much- fun if you’re shopping for a good bottle of French wine! Still, most regions are known for one particular grape. So, if you know what grapes are grown in which region, you’ll be in good shape. Check out this little chart that shows French wine regions and their grapes as part of a good article by Lisa Shea. It will help you figure out which grape is grown where.
So, here’s a great example of a Burgundy wine label that shows how the French typically market their wine. It’s a little confusing at first, but when you break it down it really helps when you’re trying to figure out what to buy.
Now go brave the wine shop and pick out a bottle…then we’ll take a look at regions!