Before I say anything, I want it to be clear that I love California wines. I have been fortunate enough to visit Napa and Sonoma many times and have tasted wine at numerous wineries in that area. My trips there have truly shaped my love of wine and had I never had those experiences I might still be drinking Yellow Tail from the grocery store.
However, the great Napa wines are often really expensive and I think that if you are willing to take some risks, there are some really amazing wines at reasonable prices made in other regions.
The wines I get most excited about are typically made from smaller, family owned wineries and the wines change from year to year. They have unique flavors in them that make you think about what you are drinking. Personally, I really like earthy wines that go well with dishes made with ingredients like mushrooms and thyme and have moderate alcohol levels. A lot of the great Napa Cabernets fit that bill but are often $40, $50 or more per bottle. That is a lot of money if you want to drink wine more than once a month. Which I do.
This summer I decided to learn more about French wines. Many US wine drinkers, including myself, are intimidated by French wines because they are classified by region instead of the varietal used to make the wine. So, a wine will be labeled as a Bordeaux instead of saying Cabernet Sauvignon on the bottle. Unless you memorize the list of the grapes used in each of the regions, a lot of people feel like they don’t know what to buy in the French wines section. As a result, there is often less demand for those wines which makes them more affordable. Not all French wines are in the affordable category. There are some crazy expensive French wines that sell at Sotheby’s. I am not talking about those wines here. I am referring to the many wines made by wineries owned by the same family for generations that make a modest amount of wine and sell it at a fairly low cost (many are less than $20 a bottle). These wine makers are not rich Venture Capitalists who decided to leave the world of finance to make some wine. These are families with extensive experience farming their land and making wine from vines that have been nurtured on their lands for generations.
French Red Wines
Here is my cheat sheet for navigating French wines from the major regions.
Bordeaux: Mostly red wines made from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Carmenere. Most of the time the dominant grape is Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Some white wine can be found made from Sauvignon Blanc.
Burgundy: Red and White wines. Reds are Pinot Noir and Whites are Chardonnay. The wines are very different from wines made in California from the same grapes.
Loire Valley: Mostly whites made from Sauvignon Blanc.
Rhone Valley: Northern Rhone wines made from Syrah, with some from Grenache and Mouvedre. All three are often blended and are referred to as “GSM”. Whites I believe are often made from Viognier but I have not tried any whites recently from the Rhone. The Southern Rhone has a region called Chateauneuf du Pape that makes reds from 13 different grapes. The dominant grapes are Grenache and Mouvedre. They make some whites but I think they are hard to find in the US.
Most of the French wines I have tried are very food friendly. To me, this means that they complement a meal very nicely. Take a sip before you have a bite, see what the wine tastes like. Have a bite. Another sip. Has the taste of the wine changed now that the food flavors are part of the mix? Repeat these two steps many times.
There is some risk in this experimentation system. I have bought a few bottles that I did not like. But that is part of the game. I see this as akin to trying different hole in the wall restaurants. Some will be a disappointment but you may find a hidden gem that you love! People who play it safe eat at places like the Olive Garden and drink wine that tastes the same every time. I personally prefer to experiment and support the smaller wineries that treat their winemaking like a craft.
My suggestion if this interests you is to go to a wine store where the staff has tried the wines and is very knowledgable. Tell them you want to experiment and learn about wines from different regions but don’t want to spend a lot to do so. They hopefully will be very excited that you are not just picking out your wine based on the cute animal on the label and want to try something truly unique and interesting.
Vive le vin!