French Wines I: Loire, Bordeaux, Alsace, Savoie

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There’s something about French wine. It’s not just the confusing and arcane labelling laws or the marginally pronounceable (to American English speakers) names. No, it’s also that the French are just darn good winemakers.
Of course, some people attribute it all to the early Romans. The Romans' belief that wine was a daily necessity of life promoted its widespread availability among all classes. This led to the desire to spread viticulture and wine production to every part of the Roman empire, to ensure steady supplies for Roman soldiers and colonists. So as they pushed up the Rhone Valley and into the Languedoc region, they brought vines and winemaking techniques. The ancestors of today’s French vignerons got busy. They identified the best sites for growing the best grapes. They tried different methods of fermenting and aging. And they drank a lot of wine along the way. Whether this is because of the native Gallic joi de vivre or all the imbibing caused that joy of living, the results are here for all the world to see. There are people who make a lifelong study of one small area of French winemaking, but to me life is too short (and there’s too much great wine coming to us from all parts of the globe) to invest such interest in arcana. Instead, I’d like to introduce you to some of the French wines we sell in our little stores. Some are old favorites, while some are new discoveries. They’re all worthy of your attention. Come on along.
The Loire River is the longest in France. It rises in the Cévennes mountains in southeastern France that divide the Loire valley from that of the Rhone. It heads north until it takes a mighty left turn at the city of Orleans. From there it heads down through the cities of Tours, Anger and Nantes until it empties into the Bay of Biscay at St. Nazaire. The wines we are visiting from the Loire Valley are from Bourgueil, just downriver from the town of Tours, and Anjou, closer still to the Atlantic, a region surrounding the town of Angers.
Domaine de la Chanteleuserie “Cuvée des Alouettes” Bourgueil Regular Price $18.25/ Feature Price $14.60
On the west side of Tours, and downriver from Vouvray, is the region known as Bourgueil. Unless you speak French, that word must have stopped you in your tracks. How do you pronounce it? Well, first of all, no one but the French can pronounce words to their satisfaction. So I’m going to go with a good, rough and ready approximation. Let’s call it “boor-GOY.” This is Cabernet Franc country, and this “Cuvée des Alouettes” (“skylark blend”) from the 176-year-old Domaine de la Chanteleuserie is 100% Cab Franc.
Cabernet Franc is an interesting grape. It is similar to Cabernet Sauvignon but not as full-bodied. It is often blended with Cab Sauvignon because it is lower in tannins and acidity but more aromatic and herbaceous. Couple this with the fact that the Cab Franc ripens earlier and can be grown in cooler climates than the Sauvignon... and you have two grapes that complement each other. That’s why Cab Franc is an allowed grape in the big reds of Bordeaux.
Cab Franc on its own usually needs a little age to settle down, and a well-made Bourgueil or Chinon wine will often age for many years. Here, though, seventh generation winemaker Thierry Boucard, with lots of experience of his great south-facing vineyards, has chosen grapes from the “Les Alouettes” block because he knows they will produce a wine that is lively and ready to drink young. The wine is bright and dry, with a touch of acidity that makes it a fine companion to a wide range of foods.
If you haven’t made Cab Franc’s acquaintance, this is a good opportunity. Then when your friends say, “I’d like a Cabernet,” you can respond, “Sauvignon or Franc?”
Château D’Epiré Savennières (Anjou, Loire) Regular Price $23.25/ Feature Price $18.60
Back in the Plantaganet era, Anjou was an extension of the English crown. So it’s no surprise that Anjou wines have been favorites among the dons of the great universities of Cambridge and Oxford. In the early 20th century, Savennières was known mostly for sweet wine production. As the focus turned towards dry Chenin blanc based wines, the region started to garner attention for mineral intensity and aging potential of the wines. In recent years, the wines of Savennières have received much praise and recognition for their quality by various wine experts such as Jacqueline Friedrich who describes the intense flavors and layers of minerality as "the most cerebral wine in the world" and Katherine MacNeil who describes the wines as "..possibly the great dry Chenin blanc in the world." I’ll definitely drink to that.
We were just introduced to this wine a week ago, and I immediately decided to include it in this French Feature (in place of the lightly sweet Chenin Blanc from Vouvray, which we have reviewed before). It’s a truly stunning white wine, with rich layers of fruit, followed by a steely, clean finish. This is achieved by starting with perfectly ripened Chenin Blanc grapes which are fermented in small stainless steel tanks. They are then moved to oak barrels where a second (malolactic) fermentation is done to add richness. Then the whole is aged on the lees (with the grape skins and yeast) for another few months, before it is filtered and bottle.
This is another candidate for the holiday feasting table...and you get to try it early.
The Bordeaux wine region is one of the most famous in the world. The city of Bordeaux sits at the confluence of two large rivers, the Garonne and the Dordogne. Where those two join is the beginning of the broad Gironde estuary. These rivers provide the moderate climate that makes for great wine grape growing, as well as being the highway down which barges laden with barrels and bottles of wine can head to sea to whet the thirst of the world.
The “world of Bordeaux” is enormously complex. In this small region there are almost 40 appellations and sub-appellations and many times that number of vineyards and wineries. In an average vintage, the Bordelais produce some 700 million bottles of Bordeaux wine. To put it in perspective, if you purchased one bottle of everything and then drank one bottle a day, every day, it would take you 54 years to reach the last one. A nice job, but I’ve got other things to do. So I’ll just do a Cliff’s Notes version.
Red Bordeaux wines are blends of three basic allowed grapes - Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc (see above). The big Chateaux are allowed to use some Malbec and Petit Verdot, but these are rare. Here’s where you start getting into the geographical details that can be maddening to the beginner and are mother’s milk to the aficionado. The basic division, one that’s fairly easy to remember, is that between the “Left Bank” and “Right Bank” of the Garonne River that runs through the region. Right Bank wines (including Saint-Émilion and Pomerol) are mostly Merlot and therefore easy drinking at a young age. Left Bank wines, most famously Médoc (Margaux, Pauillac and Saint-Estèphe) are mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and, when young, can be harshly tannic. When aged properly, though, these are some of the most sought after wines in the world...with price tags to match. How about a nice 2009 Lafite-Rothschild, touted as “the vintage of the century,” not released yet (this is what’s called a “future”) and not drinkable for another 10 or 15 years...only $1,500 a bottle!
White Bordeaux wines are Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon. The Sauvignon Blanc gives the wine a characteristic herbaceous bouquet and the crisp acidity that allows the best examples to age for a decade. The Sémillon provides richness, smoothness and viscosity.
Fact is, unless you’re a real aficionado, you probably wouldn’t even like that ‘09 Lafite-Rothschild. But if you want to try affordable, “vin ordinaire” style wines from Bordeaux, these from Beau-Rivage will fit the bill. Both the red and the white are very drinkable right now and will go with a wide range of food, at a price you’d expect to pay for some cheap plonk from the grocery store.
Beau-Rivage Bordeaux Rouge 2007 Regular Price $14.50/ Feature Price $11.60
Beau-Rivage Bordeaux Blanc 2009 Regular Price $14.50/ Feature Price $11.60
Beau-Rivage is a project of Borie-Manoux which was founded as Negociant Borie by Pierre Borie in Pauillac in 1870. After the First World War, Eugène Borie’s children both continued their own businesses and Marcel Borie kept the original Chateau Batailley and the existing wine trading company in Pauillac, renamed it Borie-Manoux and moved its headquarters directly to the city of Bordeaux in 1945. Emile Castéja, Marcel Borie’s son-in-law, succeeded him in 1961, taking Borie-Manoux on a steep trail of expansion that included the addition of the Beau-Rivage line. So this is your chance to sample great Bordeaux tradition at a very reasonable price.
The Alsace winemaking region is up on the northeast border between France and Germany. In fact, this has been a disputed area for generations and people in the area routinely speak both French and German. The winemaking traditions are generally German, usually white, and centered around the Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Blanc grapes. Alsatian wines are very food-friendly and are often chosen to grace a Thanksgiving table.
Meyer-Fonné Edelzwicker 2009 Regular Price $14.95/ Feature Price $11.96
The word “Edelzwicker” (called “Gentil” in the French-speaking community) translates to mean “noble blend” and it gives you the opportunity to try several of the region’s white grapes at once. The Meyer-Fonné “Edelzwicker” is 60% Pinot Blanc, 15% Muscat, 15% Chasselas, and 10% Riesling (this blend remains the same each vintage).
Pinot Blanc has an interesting story of its own. It seems the well-known Pinot Noir variety is genetically unstable and will sometimes yield a cane of all white grapes. These are then grafted to become Pinot Blanc. Muscat is usually made into sweet wines but here lends a fruity, floral note. Chasselas is believed to be a native of Switzerland, but it is widely used in both France and Germany, where it is made into a full-bodied, fruity but dry white wine. And Riesling...well, it’s reputed to be the best food-pairing white wine in the world. Don’t worry; it’s not “too sweet.” In fact, this Edelzwicker blend gives a world of flavor on your tongue and would be a fine choice to serve with cheeses at the beginning of a meal or maybe with a pot of fondue in front of a warming blaze.
Simonet Vin Mousseux “Blanc de Blancs” Everyday low price $9.98
I had to put this one in, because it often gets lost in the shuffle due to its low price. Don’t be fooled. It’s a very respectable sparkler of 100% Chardonnay. That’s why it’s called Blanc de Blancs, “a white wine from white grapes.” And since it’s not from the Champagne region, it has to be labeled Vin Mousseux (“sparkling wine”) as well as Brut (“dry”).
It’s made by Caves de Wissembourg, a very respectable producer of prize-winning sparklers that are distributed throughout Europe. So treat yourself to “Champagne” on a beer budget...and let the bubbles flow.
Quenard Chignin Blanc 2009 Regular Price $19.95/ Feature Price $15.96
This is a stunning white wine from a grape I didn’t know - Jaquère (jah-KEHR) - and a region I didn’t know - Savoie (sa-VWAH). The proof was in the tasting. Wow! This wine is clean, dry and delicious. In a tasting of six wines, it was the one I wanted to keep coming back to.
Savoie lies in the foothills of the Alps, mostly between Lake Geneva and Chambéry. The tiny village of Chignin (shee-NYEEN) is famous for its vineyards that line the side of the mountain, planted at about 1,200 feet elevation. The microclimate is surprisingly warm. Figs and olives ripen alongside the grapes. Jacquère, of which this wine is made, is the most important grape variety. It is a uniquely Savoie varietal that is low in sugar and makes light, refreshing wines like this one. Not much wine leaves Savoie, and 99% is consumed in the region, generally by tourists who come to hike the mountains in the summer and ski in the winter.
Winemaker André Quenard’s father began buying vineyards in the 1930’s and the family has continued to expand their holdings throughout the years, currently farming 22 ha. They sold the wine in bulk until around 1960 when they began bottling under their own label. The winery was expanded in 1976 when Michel joined his father, André, who had headed the operation since 1944. With André retired, Michel now runs the winery, continuing the tradition begun by his grandfather.
So we close with another great introduction - to the Jacquère grape and the Savoie alpine winemaking region. Get this wine while you can still enjoy a cold glass during the lingering warmth of late summer.
In Part II of our French wine tour, we’ll Feature some wines of Burgundy, the Rhone, Provence and Languedoc. Cheers!