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Let’s face it. Wine is complicated. And French wine is a swirling maelstrom of history, government control, regional divides, family in-ﬁghting, and basic chemistry. But must we know every little detail to understand what we like when we drink it?
I want to demystify French wine. I want to simplify French wine. I want to drink French wine without reading volumes and memorizing details. I want to know about the people and families who make the wine, and how they feel about their commitment and drive for perfection. But honestly, I simply want to breathe in the aroma, take in the ﬁrst sip, savor the wine, linger on the mid-palate and head for the ﬁnish line with a smile of satisfaction. It’s like searching for the Holy Grail. Except we are looking for magic in a bottle, and it can be elusive. But isn’t the thrill of the hunt in the searching?
How do we begin such a journey? Must we climb to the top of a French mountain for enlightenment? Should we read a book or check wikipedia for each regional grape variety? Or can we simply jump right into the deep end and go for it?
I say jump, but with some thought as to how to organize and accomplish this search. Make it easy on yourself and create your own Tour de France. Pick a wine region such as the Loire Valley or Burgundy, or select a varietal such as Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir. Then choose one wine each from three different producers for comparison. Congratulations! You have just created a wine tasting.
You have now entered The Wild and Wonderful World of Wine Subjectivity. Pat yourself on the back: You have already graduated without taking the exams. It doesn’t matter what wine critic Robert Parker says or the local wine columnist professes. It only matters what YOU think when you inhale the aroma and linger over the ﬁrst tastes. And remember, Mr. Parker was a beer drinker until he met a pretty French girl he wanted to impress. He got the girl and he built a career from practice, practice, practice.
TASTING PEP TALK
Now it is your turn. First check the color and clarity, and then the aroma. When you take the ﬁrst sip of any wine, take a mouthful and acclimate your mouth. On your second and third sips, pull the wine slowly over your tongue to get some aeration. It’s like inhaling through your mouth with pursed lips. Feel how the wine settles on your tongue midway, giving you an impression of body and texture. Sense the depth of ﬂavor and how it ﬁnishes. Did it drop off like a stone? Did it linger on your tongue, then quietly disappear? Or did the ﬂavor burst like a ripe peach spreading multiple layers of liquid goodness?
It’s your call. Because wine is subjective, and it is all about you. First, is it tasty? Do you like it? Then this wine is a winner. And so are you. Then move on to wine number two with wine notes in hand from wine number one. Look forward to comparing the two and challenging yourself. What are the differences, the pluses and minuses? Think of the strengths in ﬂavor. Does it interest you? Are you now curious about wine number three? Then let ‘er rip and move forward!
With regard to “Wine Notes”, try to create your own vocabulary in describing the wines you taste. You’ve heard or read the pros pronounce the ultimate descriptives: asphalt, barnyard, grass, leather, tobacco, licorice, cherry et cetera. It’s a world of Jelly Belly ﬂavors out there but it means nothing unless you discover the descriptive word yourself.
Besides attending trade tastings, we do private events and tasting classes on a regular basis, and sometimes it is even difﬁcult for us to ﬁnd the right descriptive word. The secret is to not try too hard. Keep an open mind and let the aroma and taste lead you.
Sometimes it takes only one inhalation and sometimes it takes more little sniffs and multiple sips. Take your time and go slowly.
Occasionally the aroma will be contrary to the taste, as I recently found with a Côtes du Lubéron (Rhône Valley) I drank in Paris this August. I will now add “nail polish” to my wine vocabulary. OK, lets be chic and use the French name “vernis“. I had no chance to think about it, because it hit me in the nose before I could open my mouth. The thought of tasting it was off-putting, but I lifted my glass and sipped like a sparrow. Pure amazement and ﬁnally happiness danced in my mouth. The alcohol-prominent nose settled down and the wine was enjoyed as we continued with our meal.
Now let’s take it up a notch. Let’s talk about food. Let us think about food. Give yourself a food challenge and think about what foods will go with these wines you have just tasted. It’s a creative opportunity. It’s only a matter of taste. Your taste. You will not be judged by The Napoleonic Court of Food & Wine. The ball is in your court. Use your own good sense. Think of contrasts.
VARIATIONS ON A THEME: SAUVIGNON BLANC
Take Sauvignon Blanc as an example. Think about the minerality, what it does to your mouth, the clean crispness and the contrast potential. Opposites do attract. Perhaps a creamy seafood pasta with prawns or bay shrimp? With perhaps a small side of dressed baby greens with a splash of EVOO and a grind of sea salt. Or Padron peppers, sauteed in EVOO with a touch of sea salt. Keep it simple as you go. Don’t complicate your attempt in pairing a wine with food. Trust your instincts and use your imagination. Practice, practice, practice and begin your pairings conservatively, layering as you gain conﬁdence. However, the ﬁrst order of business is to concentrate on tasting the wine.
For those of you who seek the perfect cocktail wines, ask yourself if this wine, this fresh and zippy Sauvignon Blanc that you have just sampled, stands alone. From your third sip you will know for absolute sure and even perhaps from the ﬁrst mouthful. But always give French wine a chance for adjustment when tasting. It’s more layered and complex by nature and design. And remember, your body chemistry can change your ﬁrst impressions of any wine. Did you brush your teeth just before tasting? Did you have a bad day at the gym? Did you have to ﬁght the boss or trafﬁc before arriving home? If so, then try to chill and take a break. Give yourself a small positive distraction, and relax for a few moments with a few deep breaths. Stress and wine are not amiable companions, and the aroma and taste can be affected or even soured, giving a false impression of the wine.
TASTING FOR REAL
So enough of this theoretical chit-chat—let’s get on to a real-time practice run with three of the same French varietals from three different producers. But let’s add a twist to make it more interesting. We will pick two very different Sauvignon Blancs from the region of the Loire Valley, but add a Sauvignon Blanc blend from Bordeaux as the third selection. We are including the varietal, but adding an different use of the grape from another region. You can change the rules if you keep the varietals a common denominator. Anyway, it’s your tasting and you have thrown an interesting curve.
Note: Always taste in the order of least complexity to the most, in order to not overwhelm your taste buds. If you aren’t familiar with the wines or French wines for that matter, always ask your wine merchant or search online for ﬂavor proﬁles and recommendations. If you store your white wines in a refrigerator and are ready to serve them, ﬁrst remove the bottles and let them rest for ten to ﬁfteen minutes before opening. A wine that is too cold will taste like “cold” and you will miss the full ﬂavor of the fruit.
NUMBER ONE is a 100% Sauvignon Blanc 2009 TOURAINE VAL DE LOIRE SAUVIGNON from the biodynamically farmed eastern Loire Valley vineyards of highly respected producer François Chidaine. We will get to the subject of biodynamics later. Let’s ﬁrst pop the cork and pour. What is the ﬁrst impression from the color and aroma? What are the qualities positive and negative? Can you pick up the earthiness and acidity in the nose? After you have taken your ﬁrst mouthful and subsequent sips, can you sense the minerality and long refreshing ﬁnish? Is the body heavy with herbaceous or grassy undertones or is it clean and crisp, reminding you that this could be a perfect match for goat cheeses or even oysters. What would pan-sautéed and salted almonds do to enhance these ﬂavors? Your mind races to ﬁnd creative ways to pair this wine with food. Congratulations! You have opened the door to what good wine is all about! And one that won’t break the bank at $17.
Please note: I cannot improve on the information regarding François Chidaine and his biodynamic farming provided by the importer Michael Sullivan at www.beauneimports.com. Michael also lists on his website retail sources where you can purchase these wines in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. All three Sauvignon Blancs in this tasting discussion are his imports.
Moving on to NUMBER TWO, a 100% Sauvignon Blanc 2008 DOMAINE PELLÉ MENETOU-SALON BLANC MOROGUES from the small appellation of revered winemaker, Henri Pellé, located slightly south of Sancerre in the Loire Valley. He is known for the exceptional quality of his vineyard’s chalky clay soil. You can refer to the Beaune Imports website for further details on the “Kimmeridgian” soil and production notes. But let’s get on with what we are here for. Tasting! Continue with the same glass, simply swirl with a little of the new wine and toss. Never rinse your wine glass with water because it will dilute the next pour. This Sauvignon Blanc is a special one. Pull the cork and pour. Then take in the aroma in a deep breath. Pull from your vocabulary of descriptive words and apply. Or think of a new one. Do you detect mineral and lemon? Is it juicy or dry? Or do you pick up a scent of honey? Now it’s time for the unveiling. Take a slow deep sip. Then take another sip or two. Think about the strong and long fruit-forward mid-palate taste and the level of acidity. Do they work in harmony? Does this wine not have the most amazing balance? Now can you understand why soil can make the difference between a good wine and a great wine. This is reﬁned, sophisticated and perfectly balanced. It zings! And it has great ﬁnesse. Its potential for food pairing is exciting to consider. Michael Sullivan notes that it is crisp, yet rich with exotic fruit ﬂavors. Is that what you think? Or do you have a better description? This could be a Caesar salad wine. This could be a creamy seafood pasta wine. Or a perfect choice for a lemon cream-drizzled, avocado-shrimp cocktail with cilantro. And as I discovered, it is a handmade sea salt potato chip kind of wine. The Menetou-Salon elevates the simple chip to a whole new level as it plays off the oil and sea salt. This is a major “wow” factor that shows how good wine can take any humble food and transform it. But consider this also as a stand-alone wine that allows you to take in the sheer perfection from aroma to ﬁnish, and follow the layers of complexity. It is simply one of the ﬁnest Sancerres ever made, and is a bargain at $25.
We are close to the ﬁnish with NUMBER THREE, which is a blend of 70% Sauvignon Blanc with 20% Sémillon and 10% Muscadelle grapes. This is a 2008 CHATEAU SAINTE-MARIE ENTRE-DEUX-MERS from the region of Bordeaux. This is a Grand Vin de Bordeaux (a great wine from Bordeaux with no speciﬁc meaning) made from “Vieilles Vignes” (old vines). “Saint-Marie” refers to the vintner’s family residence that formerly was a nunnery. “Entre-Deux-Mers” translates to “the land between two bodies of water”, which refers to the Garonne and the Dordogne rivers which border the hilly hand-picked vineyards of over-achievers and organic/biodynamic wine producers, Gilles and Stephane Dupuch. Learn more about them and their production techniques on the Beaune Imports website. Note that Sémillon (also the grape of Sauternes) is a rich honeyed blending grape that shines with Sauvignon Blanc. Muscadelle is a spicy grape variety that is blended in white Bordeaux in very small doses to balance and enhance the fruit.
All this discussion has made me ready to get tasting. Get that cork out and pour. Check the color and get your nose into a glass and take a slow, deep breath. Does the aroma strike you as something similar or different from the other two wines? You know by now that this is the most complex Sauvignon Blanc of our line-up. You know that the blending grapes have to make a difference in the basic ﬂavor proﬁle. Are you curious? Then take a big sip and let it saturate your mouth. Is it crisp with a complex and reﬁned minerality? No? Then please take another sip. Is there a clear fruit-forward ﬂavor from the mid-palate to the ﬁnish? Note the depth of ﬂavor. It’s like biting into a bursting ripe grape infused with honey. The blend of the Sémillon and Muscadelle does not intimidate the Sauvignon Blanc. It enhances it. This is another worthy stand-alone wine. In fact, it is a great cocktail wine for the price of $20, and a wine that yet inspires interesting food pairings. I ﬁnd that this works perfectly with a crispy chicken liver salad on a bed of dressed greens, grilled or pan-fried sardines, or any savory food that has a bit of acidity. It is bold and perhaps deeper in ﬂavors than the other two wines. This Sauvignon Blanc blend is layered with complexity, crisp acidity, ﬂavors on many levels, and can take on any food pairing challenge.
So now you have experienced three unique Sauvignon Blancs. Did it meet your expectations? Did it surprise you? Did it show you differences, similarities or even possibilities from the aromas to the mouthfuls? Did the value of the wine surpass the price? I am betting it did. If you are happy with the results, then now is the time to plan your next tasting into another region of France. For myself, I will look next to the reds of the Rhône Valley and ﬁnd three interesting wines in common to compare.
I have purposefully avoided lengthy paragraphs about history, production, climate and soil. I believe you can get a great sense of history by TASTING the wines of France. You will continue to gain an appreciation for any good wine by the goodness of the grapes and the inspired efforts of the winemakers. Still, we should be reminded that if it weren’t for the Phoenicians, the Greeks and the Romans, there would be no French wine, let alone the wines of California.
You have now earned the right to the use of the French word “terroir”. I paraphrase the classic deﬁnition offered by Bruno Prats, former owner of Château Cos d’Estournel in Bordeaux. “Terroir is the combination of the climate, soil and landscape that forms the character of a vineyard and its wines.” And when it is great, it IS magic in a bottle.
Remember lastly, it is no accident that wines go well with food. Winemakers think ﬁrst of their own tables and practice, practice, practice. The best advice I ever heard to accomplish the perfect match with food is always to try and think of wine as a secondary “sauce” for the dish.
Amen and pass the wine.
P.S. If you have any questions regarding the above, please feel free to contact me at [email protected]
Sallie Robbins-Druian along with her husband Jay Druian are the owners of The French Cellar in Los Gatos. They sell regional wines and objects from France. She began her writing career at the age of eight, when she submitted her ﬁrst story to “Aunt Elsie’s Corner” in the Oakland Tribune. Awarded the coveted Scottie Dog Pencil Box for her winning poems and stories, she was motivated to write even more. She wanted more pencil boxes.