Though such emblematic French wines as Chateau Margaux, Chateau Petrus and Chateau Lafyte are beyond the means of the average wine drinker, there are many fantastic red wines from France that can be enjoyed every day.
The general concept that all French wines are expensive and the fact that the labels and names are in French give the impression that the red wine of this celebrated wine producing country are only for experts. Here are some guidelines to finding and enjoying some great red wines from the main wine producing regions of France.
Arguably, this storied wine producing region in the southwestern part of France makes some of the world’s finest wines.
In 1855, Emperor Louis Napoleon prompted local wine merchants to rate and classify the best wines of Bordeaux and the 6-tier Classification of 1855 was born.
These wines are considered the best Bordeaux wines and it is nearly impossible to find a bad one from this list. But fame has its price. Fortunately most of the premium chateaus have second and third label offerings for lower prices that are worth trying.
The trick is to know that a second label will contain some variation of the name. For example, Chateau Dauzac(a Margaux) has an excellent second label called Chateau La Bastide Dauzac or Chateau Andron (a Saint-Estephe) has one called Chateau Andron Blanquette. Trying one of these second labels is an economical way to enjoy some great Bordeaux.
There are very good wines produced in less-desired sub-regions like Fronsac, Cotes de Castillon and Montagne Saint-Emillion which can be had for very reasonable prices.
The vintage year of Bordeaux plays a great role in its price. Highly regarded vintages like 1995, 2000 and 2005 will command top prices. It’s good to look for “sleeper” vintages, which are less prized just because they came after a great year. Look for wines from 2001, and 2006 to find some solid bargains.
An added bonus is that wines in off years are rated lower for their lack of aging potential, which makes them more accessible for drinking right away. A good aging year like 2005 is still very young and tannic and will take quite a few more years to fully develop, while the 2003 drank very-well upon delivery but is fading fast. A 2003 might be perfect to have right away.
Another good strategy is to find less expensive Bordeaux Superior or Cru Bourgeois from good years, as a rising tide floats all boats. Many good examples can be found for around $15 or less.
Serve your Bordeaux at around 65-degrees. The idea of serving wines at room temperatures came from a time where room temperatures were around 65, not 75. A fool-proof way to do this if you don’t have a temperature-controlled wine cellar is to put your wine in the refrigerator for a half hour, then let it stand outside for around 10 minutes to come to the proper temperature. Even in a restaurant, ask for an ice bucket and let the bottle sit for a few minutes, until the bottle is cool to the touch. Drinking warm Bordeaux is not doing the wine justice.
As is the case with all French wines, they are made to drink with food. They are great with meat and game, mild cheese or other hearty fare. Avoid pungent cheese, as the flavor will overwhelm the subtle notes of the wine or any acidic sauces that are vinegar or citrus based for the same reason.
A larger globe-shaped wine glass is best to serve Bordeaux, as exposing the wine to air brings out its many complex flavors. Decanting a younger Bordeaux for several hours will enhance its flavor and show its ageing potential.
Where Bordeaux excels in the production of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with some Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot for blending, Burgundy excels in Pinot Noir as its main red wine.
Situated northeast of Bordeaux, Burgundy is a difficult region to negotiate as the plots are generally smaller than in Bordeaux and A great producer and a poor one may be next-door neighbors. Also, the governing rules for producers are more lax than in Bordeaux.
The most prized red wines from Burgundy are from Cote de Beaun and Cote de Nuits. These refer to the areas where the wines are produced.
Bargain Burgundy wines can be found from Mercurey and other parts of the Cote Chalonnaise. These wines can still be tasty, but generally lack the finesse of their more famous counterparts.
Perhaps a good place to start is with a Pommard, which may be found for around $30 – $40. Though not cheap, it is a middle price for good Burgundy and is excellent with game, duck and aged cheese. 65-degrees is a good temperature to serve Burgundy and a taller tapered glass is best to use to focus the wonderful Pinot Noir aromas.
Due south from Burgundy, the Beaujolais region has based its fame on the Gamay grape. This wine is fruity, smooth, due to its lack of tannins and generally lower in alcohol than its other French counterparts.
Every November, the Beaujolais Noveau is anxiously awaited and celebrated throughout the world. It is a great choice for a Thanksgiving holiday meal and is wonderful with a wide variety of foods, which makes it an excellent choice for a pot luck dinner.
Though there are chateaus in Beaujolais, look for Beaujolais-Villages” on the label to be assured that you’ll have a good one. The good news is that most good Beaujolais is under $20 and nice ones can even be found for around$10.
Since its characteristics are fruity and clean, it should be served cold at around 55-degrees or kept on ice. It is great for summer drinking at picnics and barbecues and should be served in a smaller white wine glass, so that it doesn’t have time to get warm. This is a great wine for people who are just beginning to explore the world of wine, as it is extremely refreshing and easy-drinking.
*The Rhone Valley
Historically, the oldest wine growing region in France, the Rhone Valley is known for its robust red wines.
The Northern Rhone is fabled for its high-quality red wines and is mor tightly controlled by regulation. The Southern Rhone, because of its extreme summers, grows the heartiest grape varietals; Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre and Cinsaut, but there is a lot of experimentation going on at present and almost anything goes in this wide-open region.
The most expensive and highly regarded wines come from St. Roti, St. Josephe and Chateau Neuf du pape. These wines have excellent aging potential and can command stiff prices.
Rhone Valley wines are rich and dense and can have a high alcohol content, but retain good fruit and tannic structure.
Unlike Beaujolais which is enjoyed younger and the vintage year plays a lesser role in the quality of the wine, the tricky weather and “mistral” winds make vintage year important in the Rhone Valley. Highly regarded years in the Rhone are 2007 and 2009, so even lesser wines from those years will be very good.
Look for wines from Varqueres and Corbieres in the $15 range for good drinking wines. A great entry point is the Paul Aines Parallel 43, which can be found in many supermarkets and price-club stores for as little as $13. This may be one of the best bargain wines from the Rhone Valley.
Wines from the Rhone are generally bold and peppery, thanks to the wide use of Syrah and Grenache and are great with hearty dishes from Provence and even go well with pasta and grilled meats. More tangy than Bordeaux, they pair well with sheep and goat cheese and strong fish like mackerel and sardines.
Still best when served at 65-degrees, they are bold enough to take a chill in the summer months. As these wines are very rich and tannic, a wide-bowled glass will help to aerate and mellow these powerful wines.
As shown, the red wines of France are diverse and can be quite affordable. Though many French wines can be found in local supermarkets, a trip to a fine wine store with knowledgeable sales people can help you find excellent wines for good prices. But with these basic guidelines, you should be able to bring some good wines home for either special occasions or everyday enjoyment.