Those Scary French Wines
French wine can scare even a seasoned wino, after all it is so, so, so…French! As a wise man once said, “French wine is very intimidating and should be imbibed by only the most seasoned, veteran aficionado of wine.” That wise man? Me! Pay attention, I just said it a second ago and you were sitting right there. Try and keep up, will you? Now if I have ever said that previously, it was probably because I was trying to con some sucker out of a really nice bottle of wine, because it is a complete load of shit. French wine is no scarier than any other type of wine. We’re not afraid of a little fermented grape juice, are we? That’s right, hell no we aren’t! Bring it on, bitches!
Sorry, I’ve been watching way too many episodes of Breaking Bad lately while trying to catch up to this season. I’ll try and behave for a paragraph or two, I promise, yo.
Let’s look at the label of a typical French wine, shall we?
Oh shit, WTF? It’s written entirely in French! Why are those foreigners so rude? Don’t they want us to buy their wine? How do they expect us to know what is in the bottle? Forget those jerks! Let’s look at the label for an average American wine. At least in THIS country we can be sure of what we’re drinking by looking at the label!
Um, nevermind. I guess American wines are scary now too. Seriously, the wine directly above is an incredibly delicious blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre that pairs and rhymes with duck. The French wine above that? An incredibly delicious blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre that pairs but does not rhyme with duck.
How do we know that? Well, both the Château d’Aussières and the Twisted Oak %#&@! are Rhône-style blends, and that typically means Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre, or GSM for short. And truth be told, the French label does a slightly better job of telling us that than the American label, provided you are a geek about the geography of France. It says Corbières’, which is in the Languedoc and produces a lot of very delicious GSM.
Luckily most French wines don’t require that much knowledge to discern what is in them. In fact, it is very, very simple to know what is in the bottle. Imagine someone puts a bottle of wine in front of you and the label says nothing but Napa on it. They tell you that it is of exceptional quality, costs a fortune, and it is all yours to enjoy if you can guess what grape was used to make it. Even a non-drinker would probably take a guess at Cabernet, and they would probably be right. It is very likely that Cab would also have a healthy dose of Merlot and some Cab Franc in it too.
Now lets repeat that very same exercise and imagine a bottle with a label that is simply emblazoned with block letters reading Bordeaux. Oh crap, we’re screwed, right? Not at all, many of the great wines from Napa are Bordeaux blends. Cab, Merlot and Cab Franc. Same exact stuff, and neither is frightening in the least.
In some ways, French wines are even easier to figure out because they have laws telling them what they can plant in each region, and what grapes can be used in a wine if it carries the label from that region. While we expect that a great wine from Sonoma is probably made from Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Syrah, or maybe Petite Sirah, in Burgundy you know it is Pinot because it has to be.
Even with the above simplifications, it may still seem complicated. All of that was just my long-winded and slightly profane way of saying that if you can remember that Napa makes Cab it only follows that you can remember that Bordeaux does too. So, to break it down to very very simplistic terms, here is a little cheat sheet:
Red Bordeaux – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot
White Bordeaux – Sauvignon Blanc
Red Burgundy – Pinot Noir
White Burgundy – Chardonnay
Red Rhône – Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre
White Rhône - Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier
Champagne – Um, Champagne.
While that list is greatly simplified, particularly with the Rhônes, it covers the major players for each region. Not that difficult, is it? I know what you are thinking, what about all those classifications like Supérieur, and Premier cru classé and Grand Cru, not to mention First Growths and Motley Cru? Remember that fake advice I gave at the beginning of this article? Well all of those classifications are an even bigger load of shit. They were little more than politically awarded marketing terms when they were handed out in 1855 and mean even less now. They are a lot like awards for wine blogging in that way.
Recently Amy and I had the great pleasure of hosting a fantastic dinner sponsored by Wines of France at The Cock & Bull Pub. Our guest list included people ranging from hardcore winos to people with very little experience with wine at all. I’m sure that at least some of the people there were a little nervous because the wines were French. For that matter, so was I. Some of the expected wines didn’t make it to the shindig, and I knew I would butcher the names of the replacements, as a result I did way less talking about the offerings than I had planned. It turned out that neither our guests nor I had any reason to be nervous. C’mon, how can eating and drinking be a cause of nervousness? Especially in such a fantastic setting with so many wonderful people.
The food and wine were perfectly paired by The Cock & Bull’s chef, Jose Galvan. You can see from the menu that there were some incredible dishes served, but for my money there were two exceptional standouts. The first was the shaved salmon on avocado mousse & roasted corn salsa that was paired with the 2011 Font-Sane ‘Emotion d’Un Soir’ Rosé. This dish literally melted in the mouth, and the wine was a nearly perfect match.
The second dish wasn’t a nearly perfect pairing, it was completely perfect. Rack of Lamb paired with Château d’Aussières Corbières, Domaines Barons de Rothschild caused a lot of eyes to roll back in their heads and people made noises usually associated with other *ahem* activities. Either that, or someone turned up the sound on the “bad” French movie’s group grope scene that Mac had playing on the Cock & Bull’s TV screen. My boss hasn’t spoken to me since, but that’s probably just a coincidence. Thanks Mac! But back to the pairing. I love lamb and I love Languedoc wines, and I love them even better together. These were both perfect examples of how good they can be. Easily one of the top ten things that I have ever put in my mouth. That’s saying a lot.
So, in closing, look at the photos below and join all of the happy folks who no longer fear French wine and now know what all of the fuss is about!