La Vie en Rosé

13 Oct

It’s not surprising that we learned about French wines during our first week of classes. How else were we to gain familiarity with all the different varieties of vin we sampled with every single thing we ate during cooking school? Yes, as mentioned before I often stumbled out the doors of La Cuisine de Marie-Blanche, onto the streets of the 7ème arrondissement with a teeny afternoon buzz – a perfect start to an evening of drinking that would no doubt ensue in a city that sells bottles of surprisingly delicious assortments for a mere 5 to 10 Euros at any grocery or corner store. It was a rare moment during my trip when I didn’t enjoy a glass or two…or three…or a whole bottle of wine or champagne with my meal, and thus it was quite convenient that I was tought the different types of French wines early on in my adventures.

In North America we’re used to selecting wine based on the grape type: Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon etc. But in France their views on methods of selection somewhat differ. In their perspective, it’s not really the grape that’s the focus of the flavour (although that can have an effect), but more so the soil, weather conditions and cultivating practices that determine what you’re about to taste. Because of this, most menus and liquor stores are divided by area, and you pick your wine based on the regional properties you’re looking to sample, which will often contain a blend of grapes.

Image Courtesy of aboutfrance.com

Bordeaux:

One of the most well known of these regions is Bordeaux.  Celebrated for their red grapes, which are traditionally known as claret in the UK, Bordeaux wines are generally a mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carménère, and have a distinctively rich and deep flavour with Cabernet Sauvignon dominating most of the blends. Although they might not be as popular as their darker cousins, the Bordeaux region does in fact produce white wines, which are still yummy all the same. Bordeaux is one of France’s largest producers of wine, with over 1000 hectares of vineyards yielding over 700 million bottles a year. If you’re choosing the better-known red Bordeaux blend, these wines are best stored for at least 5 years and should be opened well in advance before consuming to allow for full decanting and breathing. Red Bordeaux goes best with strong meats and cheeses.

Bourgogne:

Another popular red French wine is Bourgogne (or Burgundy), which maybe isn’t as intense as Bordeaux and doesn’t require as extensive ageing and breathing. That being said, if it’s a good vintage, it is recommended to store a Burgundy wine for about 5 to 10 years. Whereas Bordeaux’s favour a Cabernet Sauvignon grape, Burgundy’s often lean towards the Pinot Noir side of things, although blending is also a common practice in this region to even out the quality of each batch.

Beaujolais:

The Beaujolais region boasts a lighter red wine with relatively high acidity, and thus is to be served chilled. When I first received a chilled red wine in Paris I thought they were being highly uncouth, as red wine is almost always served at room temperature in North America. However, after being informed that lighter reds are in actuality preferred cold in France, I quickly learned to love it and realized that yes, some reds actually do taste better on the cooler side. Not only are Beaujolais reds served chilled (whereas Bordeaux and Burgundy’s are served at room temperature), they are also not meant to be stored. Beaujolais Nouveau grapes are harvested between late August and early September and are fermented for just a few days and released to the public on the third Thursday of November – “Beaujolais Nouveau Day”. These wines are meant to be consumed as young as possible when they are at their freshest and fruitiest, and go best with everyday food. They can last up to one or two years but will have lost most of their characteristic flavours by that point.

Côtes du Rhône:

Red Côtes du Rhône wines are only good after about 5 years and tend to favour the Syrah variety. Like Burgundy’s, wines from this region are best suited for red meats and strong cheeses, and have been made famous by the winery “Châteauneuf de Pape.”

Provence:

Provence is known for its summery Mediterranean weather, food and laid back attitude towards life. The “Rouge de Provence” is a light red wine, served chilled, and is an easy fit with salads, vegetables and fish dishes. Provence is also known for their rosé (“Rosé de Provence”), which also goes nicely with lighter fare and hot days.

Corse:

The Corse or Corsica region is also known for their hot weather, but beware, some of the wines they make here contain a slightly higher alcohol content to other French wines, which are known for sliding down easily and without much damage. So while in Paris you may be getting very comfortable drinking more than you usually would back home, drop this habit when consuming a Corsica wine, or else you might be feeling like you had a bottle of martini mix instead.

Roussillon/ Longuedoc:

This region is mostly known for producing cooking wines (“Vin de Table”), which are often sold in cheap litres that contain decorative stars on the bottle. When cooking with wine, it is often advised to boil it first to remove the alcohol and acidity.

Armagnac (South West France):

Here you’ll find mostly red, one white and one rather sweet wine (Jurançon). This is quality wine that goes nicely with most French foods, as they use a wide variety of grapes to create an amicable taste.

Alsace:

The Alsace region is the only place is France where the name of the wine is also the name of the grape on the label. This region produces mostly white wine but also yields a very highly regarded Pinot Noir that is served chilled. While red wines can be served both cold and at room temperature depending on the type, white wine and rosé are always served cool. This is too remove the acidity of the grapes, and also doesn’t hurt when you’re looking for a refreshing fix on a warm summer afternoon.

Loire:

The Loire Valley is characterized by a long winding river. To the north of the river is cold wet weather, and to south is hotter dryer climates. This distinct climate contrast makes for distinctly contrasting wine, so make sure you know what you’re looking for before selecting a Loire label. Because of the more crop-friendly weather, the south is probably a better bet when making this selection, and is well known for their whites and rosés. The Loire Valley also yields an easy-to-drink red called Sancer that is served chilled and goes well with fish, lighter meats and cheeses. Another light red from this region, Anjou, is also served chilled and can be enjoyed with most french foods.

Champagne:

Although we in North America have become accustomed to the champagne name and associate it with a sort of sparkling white wine flavour, it is a very particular beverage that really should only come from the Champagne region of France, which provides a particular chalky base and other special earth and weather conditions that supply the perfect environment to grow the gapes just-so. If you have something similar but it’s from another region, then it’s called “crémant.” When selecting champagne, one doesn’t choose based on the grape variety but rather the company or “chateau” name (ex. Dom Perignon). The smaller the bubbles, the better the quality, and champagne should always be served chilled (at least two hours before serving), never stored in a freezer, and should be fully consumed after opening, as storing it once the cork has been joyously popped ruins the effect. Furthermore, a good bottle of champagne shouldn’t be kept for more than two years in storage, as unlike a fine red Bordeaux, this will diminish its delicate properties. Champagne is traditionally served in a flute or coup, which is clear and without pattern so that you may admire the colour and quality of the bubbles. Despite what we’re accustomed to in North America, champagne is not traditionally consumed with dessert in France. Rather, it is preferred for a pre-meal aperitif, perhaps to aid in conversational ease.

So next time you’re at a French restaurant, don’t freak out when the wines aren’t divided neatly into grape type or convenient flavour descriptions like they kindly do at Cactus Club and Earls (it was a sad day when I first realized that there was no section called “Big Juicy Reds” on the menu at a quant Parisian bistro). Either read up on your regional varieties or simply ask the waiter. I was never disappointed when requesting a recommendation, and then would write down the names of bottles I particularly enjoyed for my next meal out or when buying my own wine at the store. But take note: if you’re not a fan of the wine you have just ordered, you cannot send it back like you are permitted to do in North American restaurants. The only reason they allow you to taste your choice is to see if it’s been corked, and if the cork situation is all good but you just find it too dry, acidic or whatnot, well then too bad. They feel that you should know your wines well enough even if you did ask for a suggestion. Good thing you read this post.

*All bottle pictures courtesy of nicolas.co.uk

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