French Wine 101: Taste for Yourself #Winophiles

French #Winophiles Offer Advice for Newcomers to French Wine
Our French #Winophiles group is kicking off 2020 with a round of advice for newcomers to French wine. Take a look further down in this post to links to a whole list of ideas. Are you a newcomer? You’re sure to find an approach which appeals to you. Are you an expert? What advice would you give?

Back in 2016, I wrote a series of posts which you can find in the Wine 101 tab here at Food Wine Click! There’s a link to the first in the series here. In 2020, I’m going to offer another approach, guided by my recent experiences helping enthusiastic novice wine drinkers in their 20’s and 30’s. I’d love to know if you find this useful.

Seek First to Understand with Sparkling Wine in Hand
When asked for advice, I always start with a few questions to understand the person’s level of knowledge, interest, and their current taste. No sense jumping into details if all they want is to buy a bottle of wine for a gift! For a newcomer to French wine, I’d start by bringing a bottle of Crémant or Champagne and sitting down to start our conversation, asking what kind of wine you drink today.  Then we can have some fun!

Since we’re tasting both white and red wines, we have a wide range of aroma guides. Starting from the top left and working left to right we have: fresh lemon, cherry preserves, fresh blueberries, prunes. Fresh herbs (sage and rosemary but anything will work), vanilla bean, cedar shavings, forest floor or clean dirt. Toasted oats, stones (yes, stones!), tobacco, leather.

Put names to smells and flavors
The “smellatorium” is the most valuable tool I’ve found to help newcomers gain confidence in their ability to smell and taste. It’s simply a set of small jars filled with items to cue into aromas and flavors one might experience in a wine. After using these for an evening, I guarantee a newcomer will feel comfortable looking for and naming details in what they taste.

We start by asking about wines our newcomer currently drinks. Here, we start with Kendall Jackson Vintners Reserve Chardonnay and Apothic Red, a well known “Red Blend”.

Taste the Familiar Alongside a Companion Wine from France
Our approach will be to taste a familiar wine and compare to a French wine from a similar grape or in a similar style.  We’re not trying to establish one as better than the other, just trying to learn generally what to expect from a French wine.

The single biggest mystery of French wines is the fact they are named after a place, not a grape.  Historically, growers knew which grapes grew best in a region, even if they didn’t really know the name of the grape (think Medieval times!). They named the wine for the place, as people knew what to expect from the wines of a certain village. This makes sense as each region has its’ own climate, geography and soil.

Once you learn a few French wines you like, you’ll begin to get comfortable with place names, but you do need to be careful, Pouilly-Fumé is not the same thing as Pouilly-Fuissé! While some French wines are expensive (yes, but have you priced Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon recently?), there are affordable French wines for every pocketbook.

Kendall Jackson Vintners Reserve Chardonnay Tasted with Macon-Villages
Our first two wines are made from 100% Chardonnay, and both spend time in oak barrels. California is warmer and sunnier than Burgundy, so let’s see how that affects the wines.

Tasting the Kendall Jackson Vintners Reserve Chardonnay ($15), you’ll immediately notice how aromatic it is. Aromas of butter, toast, and ripe pineapple jump out of the glass. The wine has lively acidity and a plush texture. The lingering taste (finish) of the wine is of pineapple candy, with just a touch of sweetness.

The Domaine des Terres de Chatenay Macon-Villages ($16) is much more reserved aromatically. Give a deep sniff and you’ll get fresh white flowers with apricots and just a touch of vanilla in the background. The wine has a medium, round body although it is not plush. The finish is clean and dry.

A “Red Blend” Tasted with a French Côtes-du-Rhone
Apothic Red “Winemaker’s Blend” is made of Zinfandel, Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon. M. Chapoutier “Belleruche” Cotes-du-Rhone is also a red blend, made from Grenache and Syrah. The climate in the southern Rhone is Mediterranean, similar to the climate in California, so we can expect both of these wines to be ripe and accessible.

The Apothic Red ($12) jumps out of the glass with intense aromas of vanilla, cocoa, cherry pie filling and a bit of smoke. It’s mouthcoating and plush with ripe cherry fruit and that same vanilla and cocoa with a definite sweet finish.

The M. Chapoutier Côtes-du-Rhone ($14) has generous aromas and is easily discerned without sticking one’s nose deep into the glass. However, the aromas are more blackberry, plum, prune, with notes of tobacco and black olive. It is a bit more astringent (that drying sensation in the mouth) and has a definite savory vs. sweet finish.

Conclusions from Our Tasting Comparison
Generalizations are difficult, since there are French wineries producing internationally styled wines, and American wineries with an old-world approach. However, our general expectations might go as follows. Compared to New World wines, French wines are:

  • Reserved, less exuberantly aromatic, elegant
  • Include more earthy and savory notes in addition to fruit aromas
  • Lively acidity guarantees they will go well with food
  • Finish dry and even savory rather than sweet

More Comparisons for Various Experience Levels and Prices
Depending on our newcomers answers to those initial questions, we could shift our comparisons in a number of different directions.

If You Like This Wine Try This Wine from France
Rombauer Chardonnay White Burgundy such as Chassagne-Montrachet, Puligny-Montrachet, Meursault, Saint Aubin
Pinot Grigio or even White Claw Muscadet Sevre et Maine, Alsace Pinot Gris, or Chablis
Riesling Alsace Riesling
Pinot Noir from California, Oregon or New Zealand Red Burgundy such as Pommard, Volnay, Nuits St George, Morey Saint Denis. Bourgogne Rouge at a more affordable pricepoint
California or Washington Syrah or Australian Shiraz Northern Rhone wine such as Croze-Hermitage, Cornas, St. Joseph, Cote-Rotie, Hermitage
Napa Valley Cabernet Classified Growth Left Bank Bordeaux, for example Chateau Kirwan, or Chateau Pontet-Canet
High Quality Zinfandel, Grenache, Petite Sirah Southern Rhone Wine such as Rasteau, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, or Chateaneuf-du-Pape

Invitation to Join in the Fun
Join the fun this weekend! We’ll all have fresh blog posts online and we’ll be chatting on Twitter on Saturday morning, January 18th at 11:00am EST, 8:00am PST. You’ll find us at the hashtag #Winophiles. You can always join the chat, even if you don’t have a blog.

Our Posts
Take a look below at all the great ideas for newcomers to French wines. There’s sure to be something here to ignite your interest!

21 Responses to “French Wine 101: Taste for Yourself #Winophiles”
  1. culinarycam says:

    Thanks for hosting this series, Jeff. And I am intrigued by your smellatorium. I need one!!

  2. Really clear and straight to the point. We might end up trying this exact plan with students. Oooh, and love the “if you like White Claw” part!

    • Thanks Cynthia (or Pierre). I’ve been reminded by my 25-30 year old kids, nieces, nephews and their friends that we need to come to where they are. This means inexpensive wines and even “red blends” and White Claw!

  3. Peter Burrows says:

    What’s your elevator pitch on why they should care about wine in the first place? There’s lots in France that makes people more open to wine drinking (longer meals that are better suited to wine than beer, less craft breweries, ingrained cultural heritage), but its harder for me to think of how to help guide my US friends towards beginning in wine.

    • You ask the toughest questions! Here’s a thought based on “take them from where they are today to explore an alternative”. Going out for pizza (or pasta), how about or beer and some Italian wine. Compare and contrast with the pizza/pasta. Having beef stew (bourguignon!), how about a nice Cotes du Rhone to compare with that beer. Steak on the grill? How about Crozes Hermitage compared to that beer.

  4. I love that you callit a “smellatorium”! It is such a great way to help people find and connect with what they are smelling in the wine!

  5. Love the chart! Useful tool for comparing familiar to unfamiliar wines. Thanks for hosting this challenging topic!

  6. wendyklik says:

    Great idea pairing a native favorite with the wine from which it has it’s roots. I’m stealing this idea.

    • Please do! Let me know how it turns out. I opened some eyes over the holidays to the joys of Chianti Classico and Cotes du Rhone compared to Apothic Red. No throwing stones, just offering an alternative at a similar price.

  7. Pinny Tam says:

    Love the aroma guides. It’s so much easier to visualize the taste. If you haven’t patented it, I’ll make one for myself 🙂

  8. Starting the French wine conversation with a glass of French sparkling wine is perfect! And oh my goodness, I am making a smellatorium, love that!!!!

  9. Lynn says:

    Light, lively, very approachable and fun Jeff! On many tasting occasions with friends at Chez Gowdy a particular smell came up the group can’t pin down or someone was unfamiliar with… I’ll pull out the spice rack, look in the fridge, etc. to grab an item(s) to smell. You should patent “Smellatorium”!

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] This month’s #Winophiles is staring the year with great ideas for newcomers to French wines. There are so many great posts that will be part of this series with lots of educational information for all. Jeff, from FoodWineClick.Com has already written some extensive ones which you can find here and here. […]

  2. […] Jeff at Food Wine Click! shares “French Wine 101: Taste for Yourself” […]

  3. […] Jeff at Food Wine Click! shares “French Wine 101: Taste for Yourself” […]

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