French Wines Without Fear

Knowing a few basics can help you choose French wines with confidence.

Think of a wine-producing country and France springs quickly to mind. For centuries that nation has taught the civilized world the joys of a glass of red, white or rosé (even in English we use the accented French word). But for the nonexpert who shops for a bottle when company’s coming, the world of French wines can be un peu scary.

“People tend to be intimidated,” says Anna Katharine Mansfield, an assistant professor of enology (wine science) at Cornell University. “And the biggest reason is that French wine labels traditionally don’t tell you what kind of grape the wine is made from. They don’t say ‘Pinot Noir,’ for example. They tell what region it’s from, and you basically have to know the regions and subregions and what may be grown there.”

Such permission comes from the French government under a system called AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée), which guards the reputations of the country’s famous wine regions by specifying that only the varietals for which they’re known can be labeled with those regions’ names. For example, the not-so-fruity wines called Bordeaux are from Bordeaux in southwestern France, a “blending” region that tends to use combinations (of the Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, for example), while wines from Burgundy in the east come from one type of red grape (Pinot Noir) or one type of white (Chardonnay). And in a sense, if you know France, you know wine.

“France’s regions are considered the worldwide standard-bearers for the grapes they grow,” says Cynthia Murray, co-owner of Spring Lake Bottle Shop in Spring Lake. “There are many charming options in the $10–$20 range, and France still makes the world’s most sought-after high-end wines.”

What’s new

Don’t be afraid to experiment with unfamiliar bottles as you build your vocabulary of French wine regions and the wines for which they’re known—you may discover new favorites. And don’t stop with the most famous regions, such as Bordeaux and Beaujolais. (With Bordeaux, warns Mansfield, you’ll pay a bit of a premium for the name.) Ask your wineseller about interesting new high-quality blends now coming from the southern regions of Languedoc and Provence. Some may not bear their regions’ names because their producers are now getting around the AOC system and labeling by varietals the way their competitors in California and Australia do, says Mansfield.

The best news is that inexpensive French wines are more dependable than ever. “The quality differential between a $20 bottle of wine and a $200 bottle of wine isn’t as great as it was 50 years ago because winemaking technology has advanced,” says Mansfield. “Back then, producers tended to use whatever yeast happened to be available. Today they have microbiologists on staff who take cultures to control for yeast strains, making sure they get the aromas they want.”


Cynthia Murray, co-owner of Spring Lake Bottle Shop in Spring Lake, suggests two interesting French wines she says are worth sampling:

Foucher le Brun

2009 Sancerre Le Mont from the Loire Valley $19
“Fresh mineral, white flower and citrus aromas with a clean, elegant style. A hint of flintiness on the finish makes this a natural for pairing with seafood.”

Domaine Dotre Dame de Cousignac

2009 Syrah-Grenache from south-central France near the Rhone $12
“A ripe nose of raspberry, spice and licorice and a fresh, juicy palate. Goes with chicken, lamb or beef.”

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