French Wine 101: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone, & The Best Homework Ever
Why Wine 101
My young adult children have both exited the beer-only stage and have now started to enjoy wine (yay!). They also have noticed that very few of the wines I post about are in their price range. On their suggestion, I’m starting a new series aimed at newcomers to wine with interest but a modest checkbook.
French Wine 101- Four Wines to Start
So you want to learn about French wine, but you don’t want to spend a fortune doing it. You’ve come to the right place! This is the first in a series of posts covering the basics of French wine on a budget. We’ll discuss just a few regions at a time, so stay tuned for more, and I’d be happy to hear your feedback.
- < 10€ in a shop in Europe
- <$20 per bottle in the US in a wine shop or grocery store
- 2-3x the wine shop price if you’re ordering off the winelist in a restaurant – ouch.
- 2-3x US prices in China or Brazil, OUCH!
If you want to cut to the chase, download the link below to your phone. Voila! You have a quick 1 page reference to use when in the wine shop or restaurant.
French Wine Fast Facts
- Most French wines are named for the town or village, not the grape. New world wine drinkers find this mysterious at first.
- Top rated, famous French wines are extremely expensive, even $1500+ per bottle! However, smart shoppers can find wines from nearby towns for very reasonable prices, so don’t think they are all out of reach.
- French wines are governed by the Appellation system, which is a means of guaranteeing some basic level of quality within a defined geographic area. Appellation rules can include vineyard location, allowed grapes, maximum yield (tons/acre), and even aspects of winemaking.
- If you are coming to French wines from the “New World” (California, Australia, Argentina, etc…), be prepared for less intense aroma and flavor, these are wines to serve with food. Think: “elegant” vs. “bold”. Nothing wrong with either approach, they are just two different points of view.
Rockstars: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone,
Ask any wine drinker to name a French wine region and the first words out of their mouth will usually be one of the big four: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone (specifically Châteauneuf-du-Pape), or Champagne. Seems like a great place to start! Unfortunately, there is no such thing as inexpensive Champagne, so we’ll cover that one all by itself in a future installment.
#1 – Bordeaux – Big Red Wines
Bordeaux is best known for its red wines. Traditionally, these wines are meant to be aged for 10+ years for maximum enjoyment. In their youth, they may be harsh tasting (from tannins), and as they age, they gain beguiling aromas and flavors. For a newcomer to French wine, do you really want to wait for 10 years to find out if you like it? No!
- Bordeaux red wines are blends, typically either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot will make up 50% or more of the blend in the wine.
- There are 5 main allowed grapes in red Bordeaux: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec.
- The most famous Bordeaux wines can be horrifically expensive. However, if you look outside the most famous appellations, there are good quality wines that will teach you about Bordeaux without requiring a mortgage.
- There are rosé and white wines from Bordeaux, as well as beautiful, luscious dessert wines, but we’ll leave those for a future French Wine 100 series post.
Budget Bordeaux (<$20 per bottle in the US)
Label – look for the following: Bordeaux AOC, Bordeaux Supérieur AOC, Blaye Cote de Bordeaux AOC. You might even find a Medoc AOC, Haut-Medoc AOC or St. Emilion AOC occasionally under the $20 mark.
Wine – Expect a deep red color, aromas of dark fruit -black cherries, black berries. Bordeaux wines often display aromas of leather, graphite. When you taste the wine, you may notice a strong astringent, drying sensation in your mouth after swallowing the wine. This is the taste of tannins, and red Bordeaux wines often have strong tannins. You may decide the wine tastes austere, sharp. Try it with a bite of meatloaf and you’ll see why French wines are naturals at the dinner table.
Food – Bordeaux wines are classic wines for red meats, think steak, burgers, beef stew. Be careful around chili, if the chili is spicy, it can clash with the tannins in the wine.
#2 & #3: Burgundy – Light Body Red Wines and Fine Chardonnays
As in Bordeaux, top Burgundy wines can be crazy expensive. Fear not, however, as fully 50% of the wines from the region are the basic table wines labeled simply “Bourgogne” and many of them are available for around $20.
- In contrast to Bordeaux, Burgundy wines are all single grape, no blends. Reds are 100% Pinot Noir. Whites are 100% Chardonnay.
- The heirarchy of Burgundy wines is all about a vineyards’ position on the famous slopes of the Cotes d’Or, a minor mountain ridge that defines the region, running from the city of Dijon, through Beaune and ending near the town of Macon.
- Basic Bourgogne wines come from vineyards that are located on flat ground at the bottom of the more favored slopes. Bourgogne wines are typically less intense and perhaps a bit less complex than their fancier relatives up the slope, but they will give you an excellent introduction.
- Even Burgundy wineries with very expensive wines in their lineup will almost always feature a Bourgogne level wine. This inexpensive wine gets very similar love and care as wines from the higher level vineyards.
Budget (<$20) Bourgogne Rouge
Label – Look for “Bourgogne“. Sometimes, wineries will also add the grape name (Pinot Noir) to the label, as they know many Bourgogne wines are going to an international market where customers are more familiar with grape names compared to place names. You can occasionally find a minor village, or a sub-region slightly higher than Bourgogne. Look for Hautes Côte de Beaune, or Hautes Côte de Nuits.
Wine – Bourgogne wines are pale red in color. You can almost always read newsprint through the red wine in the glass. Compared to American wines, Bourgogne wines can be quite subtle. You’ll usually smell red fruit such as cherries and strawberries, and often you’ll smell cooking spices and maybe even catch a whiff of an earthy smell like mushrooms or forest floor. In the mouth, they have mouthwatering acidity, and light tannins (especially compared to Bordeaux wines, above).
Food – One of the most food-friendly red wines, Bourgogne wines pair beautifully with chicken, bigger ocean going fish such as salmon, and even earthy meat dishes with mushrooms. Beef Bourguignon is an excellent example of a classic Bourgogne pairing.
Budget (<$20) Bourgogne Blanc
Label – Look for “Bourgogne“. The label may not say “Blanc” so you’ll want to look through the bottle! As Bourgogne Rouge above, some producers will add the grape name, in the Blanc case, that’s Chardonnay. Also worth seeking: Mâcon Village, and other lesser known villages. The Chablis region is physically about 100 miles away from the main Burgundy region, but it is an official part of Burgundy. Look for Petit Chablis and sometimes you can find a Chablis for under $20.
Wine – White Burgundies from the Côte d’Or are usually vinified and aged in oak barrels. They will be medium yellow in color. The aromas will usually feature lemons, apples, pears. You are also very likely to smell some nutty or vanilla aspects. These will usually be much more subtle than in new world Chardonnays. Chablis wines are often aged in stainless tanks, not oak barrels. They are more crisp, steely and acidic than their Bourgogne and Mâcon cousins.
Food – For Bourgogne Blanc, think fish in creamy or richer sauces, any chicken preparation, and even pork if its in something creamy. For Chablis, think of foods you’d squeeze a fresh lemon on: oysters, clams, any lighter fish dishes.
#4 Rhone – Lush, Ripe Red & Perfect Entry to French Wines
Q: Is there a perfect first French wine to try? A: Easy! Côtes du Rhône. Wines from the Southern Rhone are full of aromas and flavors, they appeal to new wine drinkers and especially to wine drinkers with previous New World wine experiences. The reason? The Southern Rhone has a warm, Mediterranean climate, similar to many New World wine regions. Hence, the wines have some similar characteristics to their New World cousins.
- Rhone red wines are a blend of three grapes: Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre (GSM). Each grape contributes something important to the mix. Generally, Grenache will be the grape with the highest percentage of the three.
- The most famous Southern Rhone wine and the top of the pyramid the region would be Châteauneuf-du-Pape (CdP). It too is a GSM blend, but it comes from the Appellation of the same name. Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines typically start around $40 a bottle and go up from there to well over $100 a bottle.
- However, there are vineyards all over this region, and there are great bargains to be had in the lesser known villages and the general Côtes du Rhône appellation.
- All the vineyards are in the proximity of the Rhone river as it flows south from Lyon.
Budget (<$20) Rhone Wines
Label – Look for Côtes du Rhône (CdR) or Côtes du Rhône Villages. These are some of the best deals available in French wines. Often sold in the US for $10-15, they are made from the same GSM blend as the fancy Châteauneuf-du-Pape just down the street. The more humble wines come from less favorable vineyard sites, but the grapes sit in the same Mediterranean sun and they are cared for by the same farmers as those tending the famous vines. In fact, most CdP wineries also make Côtes du Rhône wines. Some Rhone wines are allowed to use the village name, such as Vacqueras or Cairanne. These wines are situated in the quality ladder between CdR and CdP, so as you explore, you may enjoy trying them. Many of them are available for only a few dollars more than CdR.
Wine – Deep red in color, CdR wines will show aromas ranging from strawberries all the way through deep ripe figs and raisins. Often, you may get a good whiff of herbs, this is described as “garrique” which describes the scrub herbal bushes which also grow in the region. Lastly, many (not all) Rhone wines have a distinct barnyard smell, especially on opening. Sometimes it is subtle and enjoyable and others it can be quite strong. You’ll need to decide if it’s for you or not. The wine will be richly flavored, and may have medium tannins. Not quite as much as a typical Bordeaux, but more than most Burgundies.
Food – Serve with stews, steaks, anything with lots of herbs, olives. Think Provençal cooking and you’ll know to serve that Côtes du Rhône.
Finally, In the Wine Shop
Here are a few pieces of advice to help you in the wine shop:
- There are thousands of bottles of wine from hundreds of regions. Go in the shop with a plan: I am looking for a red Bordeaux, under $20. 9,000 bottles in this shop mean nothing to me.
- Small wine shops are a great place to shop. The staff knows their stuff and they really are willing to help, especially if you are truly interested in learning. If they don’t have a bottle from your desired major region for <$20, find another shop.
- There are better and worse producers, this is a place where the staff may be able to steer you to a good wine in your price range. If you go back, they’ll want to know what you thought and they will start to factor in your tastes.
- One of the benefits of the French Appellation system is that you can pick an AOC wine off the shelf and have some basic knowledge that it won’t be swill.
- Have you ever heard the phrase “Top Shelf”? In wine and liquor, the top shelf is where the expensive stuff sits – right at eye level. As you look down to lower shelves, you’ll see the lower price wines.
In case you missed it earlier, download the link below to your phone. Voila! You have a quick reference to use when in the wine shop or restaurant.
The Best Homework Assignment Ever
OK, before my next post, purchase and sample at least 1 wine from Bordeaux, Burgundy or the Rhone. Let me know what you think! Also, let me know what you think of this post. Too much information? Too little? Too many wines? Let’s hear it!
Next installment, just in time for New Years Eve:
- French Wine 102 – Affordable Bubbles