Friday, February 03, 2012

A Super Basic Primer on French Red Wine

I had the good fortune of leading another wine tasting last week focusing on French reds. While it’s pretty impractical (and nearly impossible) to run the gamut of French wine in a single tasting, a “’round the country” on the basics is possible. I didn’t have a map of France handy at the tasting as a visual aid in this circumnavigation, so I went with a geometric example.

France looks roughly like a pentagon pointed upwards. (Work with me here.) Almost all the French red wine you’ll commonly see comes from one of five regions. To get a sense of where these regions are, if you travel clockwise around this shape with the tip of the pentagon at 12:00, Burgundy is at 3 o’clock. Almost in a straight line south from 4-5 are Beaujolais and the Rhone Valley. Continuing around, Bordeaux is at around 8 o’clock and the Loire Valley runs inward from the coast at around 10.

[In case you’re interested, Paris is straight south of high noon, Champagne is at around 1 o’clock, Alsace is at 2, and Provence and the Languedoc run along the south coast from 5-6. Armagnac clocks in at 7 and Cognac is at 9. Put all this together and you have what sounds like a perfectly reasonable drinking schedule.]

Let’s rock around the clock, shall we?

Burgundy – We’ll start with my favorite of the five. Burgundy is easy to understand. If you see a bottle of red Burgundy, there’s a 99% chance that you’re looking at a bottle of Pinot Noir. Yes, there are a couple of other types of red grapes grown in Burgundy. Much like Jerry Lewis movie marathons, you usually won’t see wines made from them outside France’s borders. Good Burgundy curls sensually around your palate. Sipping away a bottle of this light bodied deliciousness is an evening’s pleasure. In my experience, no wine changes and develops more once the bottle opens. With well-prepared food ranging from meaty fish to almost any kind of beef or pork, Burgundy is an absolute champ. When a special occasion meal rolls around, you’ll almost always find Burgundy on my table.
The only downside to this fabulous wine? It’s pricey. It is very rare to find a decent bottle of Burgundy for under $20, honestly. The one for the tasting, the Domaine Jean-Luc Dubois 2008 Chorey-Les-Beaune, checked in at around $24. As an entry to the world of good Burgundy, though, it’s worth every penny. Deliciously balanced and soft cherry, pepper, earth, and smoke in every sip. If you can’t find that particular bottle, try almost any in your price range from anywhere near the town of Beaune. (as in Chorey-Les-Beaune, above.)

Beaujolais – If Burgundy is slow, languorous, and sensual, Beaujolais is a quickie on the kitchen floor. Maybe it’s not quite as romantic, but there is joy in being straightforward, fun, and a little sloppy. Beaujolais is made from the Gamay grape, which yields light-bodied, food-friendly wines that tend to lack the delicacy of Burgundy. These wines tend to be more acidic and “fruit forward.” Beaujolais are produced in a slightly different style. Rather than picking grapes, crushing them, and fermenting the juice, winemakers put the grapes in a tank, add yeast, and allow the grapes to crush themselves as they ferment. This process is called carbonic maceration. Also, while Burgundy can age for decades, you’re not going to impress anyone by pulling out 1999 Beaujolais. These are wines to enjoy within 3-4 years of bottling. You can pair Beaujolais with just about anything short of a big steak or a rich stew, and you can guiltlessly open one and knock it back, as it’s relatively low in alcohol.  You can usually find higher-end Beaujolais, called Beaujolais cru (the name of its town will be on the label) for $12-20. A good starter Beaujolais is the Louis Jadot 2010 Beaujolais-Villages, which is a small step down in quality and is usually around $10.

Rhone Valley – The wines get a little heavier as we move south into the Rhone Valley. As you learn wines, you might see a wine referred to as “masculine” or “feminine.” Preferences for human gender pressed against your lips notwithstanding, this phrase usually refers to the general style of flavor. Feminine wines are usually lighter bodied and delicate. (Burgundy is the quintessential example.) Rhone wines are more “masculine.” Masculine wines have more “in your face” flavors, be it the fruit, the tannin, the bouquet, etc. Rhone wines are almost universally blends. Some 21 different grapes end up in Rhone wines – but the majority of the ones you’ll usually find will be largely comprised of Grenache and Syrah.

Rhone wine flavors are all over the map, but there’s usually a plummy or dark berry fruit, some fairly strong earthy scents, and medium tannin. The most famous Rhone wines are from the area called Chateauneuf-de-Pape. They command fairly high prices (like the one we poured – the Cuvee Papale 2009 C-d-P at $36). I normally stick to the ones labeled “Cotes-du-Rhone,” which can be similar blends – but just aren’t from that particular locale. I use Cotes-du-Rhone as a pairing for earthy dishes, stews, and dark chocolate. You can find very decent Cotes-du-Rhone (similar wines are Cotes-du-Luberon, Cotes-du-Ventoux, and Gigondas) for $12-15.

Bordeaux – Returning to our masculine/feminine comparison – Bordeaux is the masculine yang to Burgundy’s feminine yin. Bordeaux alone produces almost as much wine each year as the entire state of California. Known as claret in Great Britain, Bordeaux is a blended wine usually comprised largely of cabernet sauvignon and merlot. (Other grapes allowed are cabernet franc, petit verdot, and malbec -- the latter two usually in very small quantities.) If you’re looking at Bordeaux in your wine store, ask whether a bottle is “left bank” or “right bank.” This refers to the side of the Garonne river on which the vines are planted. Left bank wines are predominantly cabernet sauvignon, while the right bank wines are majority merlot.

The flavor profile of Bordeaux usually centers on currants and blackberries. There’s usually a floral or “vegetal” scent in the bouquet as well as leather and earth. Bordeaux is a classic pairing with beef, pork, and lamb roasts as well as strong cheeses. Bordeaux does have a pricing issue. There’s a classification system for Bordeaux set up in 1865 that rewarded certain producers, thus cranking up the price for “” Bordeaux, such as Chateau Latour or Chateau Lafite Rothschild. However, wines grown less than a quarter mile from the vineyards producing the most expensive bottles in the world can sometimes be had for a tenth the price. The one we poured was the Chateau Briot 2009, which you can get for $10.

Loire Valley – Finally, we work our way around to the Loire, home of some of the more interesting reds in France. The Loire is best known for whites such as Muscadet and Sancerre. The Loire has one of the coolest climates for wine growing in France. In many vintages, the grapes don’t ripen fully. To combat this, winemakers in Loire can add sugar to their fermenters (a practice called chapitalization, which is illegal in most of the rest of the country) to “make up” for some of the unripeness. Loire reds are exclusively cabernet franc. You may have to hunt for  them a bit, as they’re relatively uncommon. If you see “Chinon” on a bottle, that’s a Loire red. These reds tend to be medium bodied and almost always have an undertone of minerals – described as a “graphite” flavor. Raspberry is the fruit flavor most commonly associated here.

Loire reds also often have what wine critics refer to as “brett.” Brett is short for Brettanomyces, a strain of yeast that, unchecked, will give a wine a horrid odor. A little bit, however, adds a scent of smoke (or sometimes bacon) to the bouquet. The one we poured – the Catherine & Pierre Breton 2009 “Trinch!” (French for the sound of two wine glasses clinking) certainly had a bacony nose, and the flavor was quite nice. ($19) Loire reds are polarizing. People usually either really like them or can’t stand them. I’m in the former category, thankfully.