Demystifying French wines

The Quarterback and I attended this wine class at Bacchus last Monday. The class was informative, and the wines good. The teacher was helpful but not terribly exciting. Reading off Powerpoint slides and notes is not the best way to excite your four students. I like having a copy of the Powerpoint slides, though. I am a swot.

France ties with Italy for most wine production, with Spain coming in third. 2.2 million acres of France are devoted to wine making. Marseilles was the first place (in 600 B.C.) to grow grapes for wine. After the fall of the Roman empire, the vines came into the hands of the Church.

The Vins d'Appellation d'Origine Controlee (AOC) in 1935 established rules and geographical boundaries for wine regions. The rules dictate what grapes could be grown, what the alcohol content should be etc. Below the AOC, there are the wines labeled Vins Delimites de Qualite Superieure, and below that the wines labeled Vins de Pays, or Wine of Country (i.e. rural). The labeling sounds more like marketing to me, than a real classification of quality. Saying "Cru" instead of "growth" sounds so much more posh. Sur lie, meaning on the lees, indicates contact with spent yeast.

Then the teacher brought us on a tour of the key wine regions: Champagne, Burgundy/Beaujolais, Alsace, Provence, Loire Valley, Rhone, Bordeaux, Languedoc-Roussillon.

In Champagne, quarries dug by the Romans in the chalky landscape now provide caves cool enough to store wines. Thr process of making champagne is poetry in action and words: fermentation, assemblage, liqueur de tirage, riddling, degorgement, liqueur d'expedition. During degorgement, the sediment in the wine is flash frozen, and then popped out by the 6 atmospheres in the bottle. Blanc de Blanc is white from white (i.e. Chardonnay); Blanc de Noir is white from red (only Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier). The prestige cuvee was first created by the winemaker Roederer for Czar Alexander II. We, on the other hand, tasted the Henriot Blanc Souverain. It is a Blanc de Blanc, golden in color, and citrus, apple and toasty in taste. I liked it, though I don't care very much for champagnes.

The main grapes in Burgundy are Chardonnay and Aligote (white), and Pinot Noir and Gamay (red). Chablis is closer to Champagne than to Burgundy, and so its wines taste more of that chalky, limestone soil. Burgundy itself is sub-divided into Cote de Nuit, Cote de Beaune, Cote Chalonnaise, and Maconnais. A common wine in NYC is the Pouilly-Fuisse which is from Maconnais. In hyphenated names, the first part refers to the town or village, and the second to the vineyard. Beaujolais is part of Burgundy but its red grape is Gamay. The oft-seen Beaujolais in NYC are Moulin-a-Vent and Fleurie. We tasted the William Fevre Chablis 2006: 100% Chardonnay, tasting of mineral, apple and pear.

Throughout its history, Alsace changed hands between France and Germany. Its wines bear German influence. It produces almost all whites, almost no blends, from Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Muscat, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Noir. We tasted the Otter Gerwurztraminer 2005. Gerwurz means spice. I learned "dry" means that all the sugar has been converted into alchohol, and so this wine was both dry and fruity. It was pure nectar.

Provence lying at the end of the Rhone River enjoys a Mediterranean climate. (That last sentence sounds as if it came out of a guide book.) Its light-bodied whites pair well with seafood. Its reds are full-bodied. The limestone gives the wine its minerality. We tasted the Brillane Cuvee de Printemps 2006. The quick legs on the wine glass spoke of its light body. It was cherries and raspberries.

The Loire Valley produces a great variety of wines, from a wide range of climate and soil. The Sancerre and the Pouilly Fume are made from Sauvignon Blanc. We tasted the Remy Pennier Chinon 2006 made up of 100% Cabernet Franc.

In Rhone, the northern parts tend to produce single varietals like Syrah, while the south blends its wines. Cotes-du-Rhone and Cotes-du-Rhone Village are sub-regions in Rhone, and not the whole valley. We tasted the Domaine de Pesquier Gigondas 2005 made up primarily of Syrah. I like this very much. It was fruit first, spice at the end of its taste.

Right bank is Merlot, left bank is Cabernet--I will never remember which is which in Bordeaux. I do like Merlot better than Cabernet, and so you would think I have reason to remember the basics. On the right bank: St.-Emillion, and Pomerol are the familiar wines. On the left bank: St.-Julien, Pauillac and St.-Estephe. The red grapes are Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Savignon, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot; the white are Sauvignon Blank, Semillon, Muscadelle and Ugni Blanc. We tasted the Barons de Rothschild Reserve Speciale Pauillac 2004. It is a full-bodied red, and better with a steak than on its own, I think. We also tasted a dessert wine Chateau Villefranche Sauternes 2005. It was like quaffing down honey, but then, according to the teacher, desert wines should always be sweeter than the dessert.

Languedoc-Roussillon was ex-Spanish territory. It is the single largest wine producing area in the world--700, 000 acres. We tasted the Mas de Daumas Gassac Vin de Pays 2005. Done in the Bordeaux style, its taste was herby, barnyard and fruit. I did not like it much.


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