Cracking the French Wine Nut

So you want to drink French wine, but all you’ve known is Napa Cabs, Two Buck Chuck and the wine wall in your local supermarket.

Worry not, we’ve got you covered.

French wine can be intimidating. Their wines seem elite and off-putting and made for people way more intelligent, worldly and cultured than you. And let’s be honest, the French like it that way.

But we’re here to help you move beyond that state of blind terror that can take you over while the “Chateau Such and Such” and “Domaine de la Can’t Understand This” swim before your eyes.

Wine from France shall confuse you no more!

Well, it probably always will, a little. I’m an avid student of wine, studying for exams and such, and France STILL confuses me. But believe it or not, it’s nothing compared to some of the other wine regions. Like Italy. Don’t get get me started (2,000 grape varietals….gahh).

If you’re like me, your wine tastes trend toward something that resembles an “American palate.” This means you’ve grown up drinking big, bold wines where the fruit is fresh and ripe, bordering on jammy or stewed. We get fruit in American wines, more than earth. American wines taste good immediately, have relatively high alcohol (14% or more) and are uncomplicated.

If you’re like Emma, you have a more European sensibility - an Old World palate. (We can do a future post on Old World wine versus New World wine, but for now, just roll with Old World meaning “wine from Europe.”) You were raised on wine that was more earthy, herbal and far more understated. Fruit was there, but it was more of the dried or unripe variety. Fresh, ripe and bold? It was certainly an option, but definitely not what you were pairing with dinner.

American wines are rock and roll - big, loud and in your face with some sweet guitar riffs. French wines (and European wines, generally) are more classical music - subtle, nuanced and understated with lots of complex components.

The trick to enjoying French wines is to transition your American palate to them slowly by focusing on the more fruit-forward French varietals. This will avoid palate shock and a lifetime of hatred and resentment. Trust me.

So, where to start?

Let’s head south! The Southern Rhône Valley has some great Grenache blends that are at once fruit driven and complex. The Grenache grape is a versatile little guy which makes formidable wines all over the world. It shines spectacularly in the Rhone, where it’s generally blended with Syrah and known for making wine with notes of blackberry, cherry, raspberry and tomato.

One of the things that makes French wine confusing is that they label by region rather than by type of wine (varietal). So, what do you look for when you want a Grenache blend from the Southern Rhone Valley?

Look for bottles that say Gigondas (Jig-uhn-dahs), Vacqueyras (Vahk-er-ahs) or Côtes du Rhone (Coat do Roan). These are all growing regions in the Rhone that make relatively affordable Grenache blends that are great for first time French wine drinkers. (If you’re looking to splurge, try a favorite of the Clos Wine girls - Chateauneuf-du-Pape (Chat-uhn-uhf do Popp). It’s a 13-grape stunner where Grenache is the star.)

Grenache blends are fruit flavored enough to be sipped on their own, but also pair extremely well with food. Try Grenache blends with barbeque, lamb, juicy pork chops or a rich stew. I’ve also paired a nice Vacqueryras with burgers on the grill!

For white wine drinkers, try wines from the regions of Vouvray (Voo-vray) or Sancerre, in Central France. Vouvray grows Chenin Blanc, which can be made in a dry or off-dry (slightly sweet) styles. The staff at your local wine store should be able to direct you to the style you want. And in Sancerre, they grow world-famous Sauvignon Blanc. Both Vouvray and Sancerre are in the Loire Valley, which Emma and I traveled to and wrote about extensively.

Finally, we can’t leave France without talking about Pinot Noir, one of the oldest and most well known grapes on the planet. The spiritual home of Pinot Noir is France - Burgundy, specifically. Bottles of Burgundy can run you thousands of dollars, but there are also (thankfully) some affordable wines as well!

Look for bottles that say “Red Burgundy” on the label, or “Bourgogne” (French for “Burgundy”). You can definitely sip a Burgundy wine on its own, but Pinot Noir also pairs really well with tons of foods. Any foods that are smoked, grilled or lightly charred are great with Pinot, as well as mild cheeses, charcuterie or vegetable/earthy dishes.

French Pinot Noir has more earthy and more mineral driven than, say, Pinot Noir from California. It has fruit notes as well - namely red and black cherry, raspberry, strawberry, and pomegranate. Try sipping a French Pinot Noir on its own to see if you can taste the layers of fruit and earth. You will definitely notice the difference between this and your last bottle of Pinot from Carneros!

The elegance, structure and complexity of French wine is unparalleled, and tasting it is an experience that shouldn’t be missed. The key is to arm yourself with just enough information to be dangerous, eliminate the haze of confusion and panic, and, above all, to get a wine that you like!