Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Headfirst into the Wine Lake

French wine can be confusing.

As I've noted, French wines are usually tagged with the name of the region from which the wine hails. From there we can often get the specific city, the estate, the quality of the vines, and even the specific vineyard from which the grapes were harvested. From "Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée" to "Vin Délimités de Qualité Supérieure," French wine labels are a cascade of vocabulary. There's usually one thing missing:

The frickin' grape the wine's made from.

Unless you've done your homework, you likely wouldn't know that the 2005 Domaine/Maison Jean-Marc Brocard St. Bris is a nine-dollar bottle of Sauvignon Blanc.

The French cling strongly to their winemaking tradition. Historically, they take as much pride in viniculture as in philosophy, art, or Fabian Barthez. Time changes all things.

French per capita wine drinking has dropped steadily for the last 40 years. In the 1990's alone, consumption dropped by almost 20 percent. During the same period, other countries markedly improved their own winemaking techniques, reducing demand for French wine worldwide. The "Freedom Fries" nonsense in the U.S. in the early 2000s exacerbated the situation. The result? A huge glut of wine -- known as the "Wine Lake."

The French government attempted to drain the lake by sponsoring vine pulls (as in Australia) and by converting some of the wine to industrial alcohol. Neither made much of a dent.

The French stood fast for a long time to their tradition, but they saw the effectiveness of Australia's marketing plan: the sale of inexpensive, easy to understand wine to the U.S., China, and others.

France followed suit. Some French winemakers began marketing table wines labeled by varietal instead of location. They've also changed their bottling schemes. Gone are the pictures of chateaux and avalanches of hard to read script. In its place, very "normal" looking bottles. More often than not, the results have been pretty decent. For example:

Les Jamelles 2005 Sauvignon Blanc -- Before the first shoots of The Vine caught sunlight, Les Jamelles was one of the first inexpensive French wines I discovered. It's been a solid, consistent choice ever since. This very drinkable Sauvignon Blanc has floral notes and peaches on the nose. The flavor is very light without too much initial acidity. The flavor is nice, round and peachy with some more citrusy flavor on the end. The crisp finish makes it perfect for the pool or any light meat or fish dish. $9-10.

Red Bicyclette 2005 Pinot Noir -- This pinot surprised me. We opened a bottle of this (among others) one night for the heck of it on our back patio with some friends of ours, and the bottle might have lasted fifteen minutes. Of course, that might have had to do with the company as much as the wine, but I digress. In any case, for the price, I certainly didn't expect a pinot this good. The nose is soft with cherries, and the flavor is very silky. Lots of berries and cherries. The finish was "relaxed." I thought it was a great kick-back wine, especially if coupled with some crackers and mild cheese – and, of course, the friends and conversation. Again, $9-10.

Georges Duboeuf 2005 Merlot Reserve -- Good old Duboeuf. Since they've basically cornered the market on inexpensive Beaujolais, it was only expected that they might expand a bit to other grapes. I've started seeing a number of other Duboeuf offerings of varietal wines on the shelves lately, and I'll likely look into them more closely soon. This merlot has a fruity nose of blackberries. It's medium-bodied and a little bit dry. The finish is "quicker" than and not as fruity as many merlots. I'd place it squarely in the "inoffensive" category -- not bad if you're not thinking about it, but probably not the best to pair up with food. The draw of this wine is the brightly multicolored bottle. As a "party" red, this would be a good choice at around $8-9.

By all accounts, the wine lake is still somewhat deep. While the high end French wines remain high end, the inexpensive versions should remain relatively good buys for the immediate future. Give them a swirl and see what you get -- and if you find one worth sharing, please do!


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Red Bicyclette surprises me. I have seen the bottles in Target and supermarkets and never really thought much of it. I'll have to check it out. Thanks for the recommendation!