French Wine Questions and Answers for Beginners
Wine is even better when you understand it, and French Wine Scholar Dave Walsh comes on the show today to answer wine questions from the Join Us in France Closed Group on Facebook. He makes it fun and simple!
Related Episodes: An Exploration of French Wines, the Wine Museum in Paris, the Saint-Vincent Tournante Burgundy Wine Festival, Saint-Emilion near Bordeaux, French Wine Regions and Loire Valley Wines.
Recommended on today’s Episode: J’aime attendre
French Tip of the Week: “Je voudrais voir la carte des vins”
Would you like to tour France with Annie and Elyse? Visit Addicted to France to choose an upcoming tour.
What You Will Learn About in this Episode with Time-Stamps
[00:00] This is Join Us in France Episode 162. The topic of today’s show is French Wine Questions brought by the Join Us in France Community and Answers from French Wine Scholar Dave Walsh. But first, let me introduce myself and little bit. My name is Annie Sargent and Join Us in France is the only travel show exclusively dedicated to helping you prepare your big trip to France. I was born and raised in France, went to the UK and the US for college and lived away from France for 20 years of my life. I’ve been back living in France for over a decade now. I didn’t work in the travel industry; this podcast is something I created because, being a bit of a geek and having lived far away from France for so long, I was eager to re-discover my own country and it turns out I also love to talk about France with other people!
[01:37] My occasional co-host and good friend Elyse has had the opposite life-experience: she was born and raised in the US, moved to France to complete college—she’s an art historian– and she has been living in France, and working in the travel industry for a long time. Because Elyse is a professional Tour Guide; we decided to organize small group tours a few times a year. I created a small business called Addicted to France and you can read reviews about Addicted to France Tours on Trip Advisor. To see what tours are available on what dates, go to Addicted to France.com.
[02:19] On the show, you will also hear from different listeners who visited France and want to share how it went, what they learned, they want to give you specific recommendations, they want people who are going after them to learn from their experience. I call those Trip Reports, but I could also have called them Listener Travel Tips, Listener Insider Tips, or Listener Trip Reviews. The point is, YOU get to hear candid reviews of other people’s vacations, you know they are not fake reviews because you can hear it straight from them, and we all help one-another have a better vacation experience in France. At the end of the show you’ll hear how you can contact me if that’s something you’d like to do. And I’m not just looking for glowing reviews, I do ask people to bring up things that didn’t go as well as you had hoped!
[03:11] In today’s episode, I bring you a conversation with Dave Walsh. We’re doing Questions and Answers about French Wines for Beginners. Well, some of this is pretty advanced; this is Edutainment at its finest. All the questions came from the Join Un in France Closed Group and we had a good time asking our questions to Dave Walsh, so stay tuned wine enthusiasts!
If you’re interested in French wines, you should also listen to Episode 158, An Exploration of French Wines, which is the first part of my conversation with Dave, but Elyse and I have also done several food and wine episodes. If you look at the Join Us in France site, under the category food and wine you’ll find 15 of them! I won’t list them all here, but there was episode 124 about the wine museum in Paris with my friend Brenda; Episode 98 about the Saint Vincent Tournante Burgundy Wine Festival with Kelly Kamborian; Episode 40 about Saint-Emilion in Bordeaux wine country with Elyse, that episode was more about the village than about the wine, but you can’t understand the wine if you know nothing about the village; and episode 28, an oldie but goodie with Elyse on French Wine Regions with a particular interest on Loire Valley Wines. So, you’ve got lots of great listening to do about this topic with our back catalog.
[04:48] Stay tuned after the interview to hear my thanks to listeners who support the show on Patreon, my personal update and what’s happening around me, how to connect with me, any news concerning the show, and the French Tip of the Week. And now, here’s the interview!
[05:07] Interview with Dave Walsh begins
[05:07] Question: If I like big Napa Valley red wines, what wines in France are most similar to those? Answer: if you like Napa Valley wines, you probably like Carbernet-Sauvignon, Cabernet-Franc and Merlot wines. So, if you look at what French regions use those grapes in France, it leads you directly to Bordeaux. Two other French regions that make big heavy reds, very dark in color and very high profile wines, are found in the South-West of France (Cahors wines) and also the Languedoc wines. These are places where it’s hotter and where they produce heavier wines. You will get better bang for the buck with South-Western wines than with Bordeaux because Bordeaux has gotten quite expensive of late.
[07:29] Lisa wrote: “Since French wines are named by region & not grape, a basic understanding of which grapes are primarily used in a region would be helpful for those of us who know which grapes we like.”
Dave’s Answer: In Episode 158 we went over the regions, look for the table below the fold where you can see what grapes are used in what French wines.
Annie: Yes, but French wines are often blended, aren’t they? So you’re not going to get 100% of a certain grape. You might get a wine with 80% of this and 5% of that, etc. And they don’t even necessarily list it on the bottles!
Dave’s Answer: Sometimes they do list it on the bottle when they import the bottle into the US market. The French term is “cépage” (=varietal).
Annie: When you’re buying a Burgundy wine, you’re buying a Pinot Noir mostly.
Dave: If you’re buying a Northern Rhone, it’s mostly Syrah. Southern Rhone it’s going to be a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre.
Annie: If you’re buying a Cahors, you’re buying a Malbec. But Bordeaux and Loire are all blended. Provence is blended also.
Dave: Some places in the Loire will make 100% Cabernet Franc.
[10:00] Dave: We should talk about why France does that because it’s really frustrating for people who come to France for the first time. They wonder why it doesn’t say Cabernet Franc on this bottle of wine. It’s due in part to history and in part to culture. French people who have an interest in wine know what grapes are grown in what regions.
Annie: with French people, if you ask them what wine they like, they will tell you either the name of a region, or the name of a village, or the name of an AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée). When you go to a French grocery store, you will see the wines organized by regions of France, not by grapes. French people grow up and decide that they like Bordeaux and not Beaujolais for example.
Dave: But knowing that Beaujolais is mostly made with Gamay, then, as a French person you probably don’t know that because you think of the region, not the grape; whereas in the US if you say I’m going to have a great Napa, it could be one of 15 varietals, because that’s what they grow in Napa. The evolution of these grapes in the regions is important. Gamay was expelled from Burgundy in the 1400s, so the grapes in Burgundy have had a long time to make a home in those regions.
Annie: But your average French person does not know that when they’re drinking a Cahors they’re drinking a Malbec, unless they are a sommelier or something! French people don’t know and they don’t care. That’s why you shouldn’t ask your waiter in a French restaurant to bring you their best Pinot Noir. It’s not that they don’t want to help you, it’s just that they have no idea what you mean. Ask them for a Bourgogne (which is mostly Pinot Noir) and they totally know what to bring you!
[13:08] We have a rosé from the Camague, it is really light in color and we call it Gris. French people will know if they prefer these very light rosés from Camargue or if they want beefier rosés from Corsica. And that’s how we choose at the grocery store.
Dave: In the old world, because we have such a long history with wines, the regions have had the time to develop their characteristics. The region of Burgundy produces a certain style of wine, they don’t need to put Pinot Noir on the bottle because all Burgundies have a lot in common.
[14:30] Annie was raised French but left to live in the US before she was drinking wine. She started to learn about wine in the US. She liked the movie Sideway and so, in France, she went looking for Pinot Noir and couldn’t find it.
Dave: When you grow up in that wine culture you just know that Burgundy = Pinot Noir and if it’s from a place like Meursault it’s a white Burgundy and then it’s Chardonnay. When you go to Oregon, they grow so many types of grapes (13) that they have to list it on the bottle. In Burgundy it’s one of 3 only.
[17:16] Bob asks: In your opinion, is there some distinctive quality which makes French wines unique and stand out from other wines from other parts of the world.
Dave: Probably France has the widest variety and the highest quality of wines in the world.
Annie: That’s probably because we have so much history and so many ways to train wine professionals in France.
Dave: every region that makes wine in the world is unique. The Greeks brought the original grape vines to Marseilles, France in the 6th Century BC. In America the yard-stick by which the measure the quality of their wines is they look to quality French wines and want to emulate them.
Annie: There can also be issues with the basic quality of the wine. Some wines, if you take too long to drink them will develop problems with the cork or other things.
Dave: The Syrah made in Northern Rhone need to age for 5 or 10 or 15 years. They are made for ageing. Whereas Provencal rosés are made to drink quickly.
Annie: We have this saying in France, we say “un vin de garde” which means it’s a wine for keeping. At a winery, I will often ask “est-ce-que c’est un vin de garde ou un vin à boire maintenant” (is this a wine you need to age or does it need to be enjoyed soon). And most wine-makers in my region will say “drink it within 3 years.” In the South-West there are few wines that are made to be kept for 20 years. Some people keep the wrong wine for 20 years and when they open it, it’s disgusting! That happens every day in France! I have neighbors and friends who have cellars and they buy wines to keep for 5, 10 or 20 years and sometimes they have a bad surprise. But these are wines that they paid 20 € for and what they hope is that in 20 years it’ll be worth lots more, but it doesn’t happen that often.
[22:21] Dave: knowing which wines can be kept and which ones cannot is important. Wine makers know this because their wines are designed for a specific reason.
Annie: You have a lot of French people who when they turn 52 go buy some cases of wine to keep until their retirement party in 10 years. Or they want to buy some wine for when their kid turns 18. These are people who will go to wineries and tell them that they want to buy a few cases for a special occasion 10 years from now or some such. But that won’t work for most wines of the South-West, to pull it off you have to go to Bordeaux or Burgundy or places like that.
[23:52] Susan asks: How does the French soil impact the wine – as in – how does the same variety differ when grown in the states (i.e WA or CA).
Dave: This is a great question and there are several ressources just dedicated to this subject. Here are some: I’ll Drink to That! Mechanisms of Terroir, Discover The Wines of France’s Bergerac Region. There are people with PhD whose job it is to advise wineries on what grapes to grow in their particular areas. Alsace has 13 different soil types in that small region. If you grow a Riesling on clay, lime stone, granite or slate, the flavor profile flavors are completely different.
Dave: So it’s hard to say that Cabernet-Sauvignon grown in the South-West is one way but if you grow it in Napa it’s another way because there are other influences such as climate, the wine maker, etc. There is a lot more sunshine in Napa than in the South-West or even Bordeaux and that has a huge influence. In Napa you get a lot more fruit flavor whereas in Bordeaux you get more earthy notes.
Annie: Terroir happens in America as well because terroir is the confluence of your temperature, soil, rain, wind, etc.
[27:22] Jennifer asks: Talk about some French wine areas we don’t see so much in the US such as Muscadet from the Nantes/Loire region, wines from Jura – and of course, go deep on the Rosés we are now finally seeing many more of in the US! Why are these Tavel wines so special?
- Muscadet – Melon de Borgogne from Nantes/Loire, accents of sea and citrus.
- Sur-lie aged, they stir the wine, we call that battonage in French. Proteins released from dead yeast impart fuller/rounded mouthfeel, Sèvre et Maine.
- “Designed” to pair with regional seafood, great QPR ($10-15 in US)
- Tasted at “Addicted to France” wine tasting in Paris
Annie: There’s no shame in liking what you like and disliking what you dislike. We all know our palate and it’s great to get to know what you enjoy and keep some notes on what you enjoy.
- Jura – directly East of Burgundy near Switzerland, home of Louis Pasteur, Small region and wines rarely found outside Jura, but are now beloved by sommelier community in the USA. Chardonnay, Savignin Blanc (“Vin Jaune” Yellow wine), Poulsard. Pinot Noir and Trousseau.
Annie: In general, if you pay 10€ for a bottle in France, that same bottle is going to be $20 or more in the US. One exception is Mouton Cadet, for some reason, it’s around 10 on both continents!
[37:00] Dave: Because so many people are involved in wine distribution in America and they all add their markup, it goes up quickly.
Annie: I have an acquaintance that makes a wine called Jurançon from the Pyrenees Mountains and he asked me to help him figure out how to export his wine to the US. It is tremendously complicated and it seems it can only be done by folks whose full-time job it is. As a French resident, if I wanted to ship a bottle of wine to a good friend in America, I probably couldn’t do it! I couldn’t put it in my suitcase and bring it to America, but I can’t ship it there.
Dave: This has to do with laws that date back to the days of Prohibition. They don’t want anyone to have monopoly, so if you’re an importer you can’t be a distributor or a wholesaler. They break up the system and lots of people are involved and they each take a cut.
Annie: Just come to France and here you can enjoy any wine! We have wine producers in France who make a living producing a few thousand bottles per year. They don’t have enough of a production to sell to grocery stores in France either. We have small wine clubs where people go discover wines from all over the country.
[40:14] Dave: Hidden gems: Cotes du Rhone red GSM blends; Dry Sylvaner and Muscat from Alsace.
If you like sparkling wines, look at Cremant from Burgundy, Alsace and Limoux (Roussillon). Blanquette de Limoux is now popular in America. They’re all good except for the crémant made in the Champagne region.
[43:00] Rosé Wines
French people have been drinking rosé in the summer for a very long time. America is just now catching on. All rosé is made from red grapes, color and certain aromas/flavors/tannins from skins. Rosés have a wide variety of color.
- Type and quality of the grapes (thick versus thin skinned red grapes)
- Temperature control throughout the wine-making process (cold preserves the aromas)
- Length of time the nearly colorless grape juice remains in contact with the pigmented skins and seeds (the “skin contact” period)
- Provence rosés get their unique color and character from this limited time of skin contact, which lasts for only a matter of hours. Red wines are “long vatted” – the skins are in contact with the juice for days, giving the wine a rich, dark color and a more tannic flavor.
- Rose wines start their life like a red wine (with skin contact) then once the juice is separated from the skins, they continue as a white wine. Fermentation temperature is lowered to preserve the high aromatics.
- Vatting or Pressing. At this step in the process, the rosé producer chooses between two vinification options: direct pressing, which yields a pale pink wine, or maceration/bleeding, which yields a darker-colored pink wine.
- Direct Pressing: Used by the majority of Provence producers, yields a rosé that’s light in color, because the dark skins stay in contact with the clear juice for a very short period of time. In direct pressing, the grapes – either destemmed or in clusters – are immediately pressed in a wine press to release the juice. The pale pink juice is then delivered to the fermentation tank.
- Maceration and bleeding (Saignée):This is a steeping-and-draining process. Crushed grapes soak in a tank for between 2-20 hours at a cool, tightly controlled temperature. As the juice and skins comingle, the skins release their pigments and delicate aromas. The winemaker opens a filter in the bottom of the vat to drain – or bleed – the juice into the fermentation tank using the force of gravity. Exactly how long the vatting time should last is one of the questions that make rosé winemaking so delicate. It must be long enough for the red pigments to give the wine its pink color. But it mustn’t be so long that the tannins in the skins begin to detract from the wine’s lively elegance. Method used in Tavel, Southern Rhone.
[45:58] Tavel Rosés are Dave’s favorite. They are darker in color and have a stronger flavor profile. They are a little bit more expensive than rosés from Provence. The Tavel wines are close to Châteauneuf du Pape and Avignon. You can find them at Costco occasionally.
[48:50] Costco is the biggest alcohol retailer in the US. It’s a huge market for them. They also buy and hold under strict climatic conditions to guarantee the quality of the wine.
[51:06] Do you recommend people get a wine cellar to keep their wine in good condition? Wine doesn’t like large temperature fluctuations, so it depends on where you live. Americans buy wine to consume immediately whereas French people buy to keep. French houses don’t necessarily have a basement, but they often have a wine cellar. If you’re only going to keep the wine for 6 months, you don’t need a wine fridge.
[54:15] Annie: If you care about wine, it’s good to learn about it a little bit, but not so much that you become a snob. Wine is about socializing with people, and you don’t want to turn your nose at something a friend serves you, even if it comes out of a wine box.
Dave: Nobody knows your palette as well as you do, you like what you like and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Annie: Food and wine pairing is the same. If you like a specific with with a specific food, then go ahead and do that.
[55:50] Dave: In general, Americans drink their white wine too cold and their red wine too warm. When they say serve at room temperature, it’s not that warm. You can serve rosé straight out of the fridge maybe, but not white.
Annie: The sommelier at the wine class we offer in Paris as part of the Addicted to France Paris Tours, told us that he serves red wine after putting it in an icy bucket for 10 minutes. When you come to France, bring a cork opener and get daring to try a few wines while you’re here. This is your chance to try things for cheap.
[58:00] Dave: In France, if you try wines under 10€ you can’t go wrong even if you don’t love it.
[64:27] French Tip of the Week: “Je voudrais voir la carte des vins s’il vous plaît” (I would like to see the wine list please)
[65:15] Great website that shows the average wait time and busy days at various French museums and attractions, including Disneyland. It’s called J’aime attendre, which is counter-intuitive because that means I love to wait when most of us do not!
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Thanks for asking such good questions, and we hope you’re now ready to face the wine jungle in France. I know, I know, it’s a rough life, but somebody has to do it. And whatever you do, remember this: Pinot Noir = Burgundy and big reds from Napa = Bordeaux!
|Cool Climate||Major Grapes||Styles||Facts|
|Bordeaux||Cabernet Sauvignon; Merlot; Cabernet France; Malbec; Petit Verdot; Camenere; Semillon; Sauvignon Blanc||Big beefy reds.
Sweet dessert whites.
|“Soil+grape variety=wine style”
Most Cab & Merlot planted worldwide
Mostly blends to adjust for season variation.
|Burgundy||Pinot Noir, Gamay, Chardonnay||Lighter, earthy reds.
Dry, crisp whites (w/ or w/out oak).
|“Terroir” based wines
Single varietal wines
|Alsace||Riesling; Pinot Blanc; Gewurztraminer; Pinot Gris; Sylvaner; Muscat; Pinot Noir||90% is white.
Dry to sweet whites.
|80% production is varietally labelled.
20% are blends.
|Champagne||Chardonnay; Pinot Noir; Pinot Meunier||Brut to Doux
Blanc de Blancs
Blanc de Noir
|Cold & harsh weather
Too cold to make good still wine
Name is now protected
|Rhone||Viognier; Marsanne; Roussane; Syrah; Grenache; Mourvedre; Carignan; Cinsault||N: Whites are still & dry. Reds are dry with significant tannins to age and develop over time.
S: Dry or sweet fortified whites. Dry or sweet reds.
|2nd largest wine producer
Southern part actually in Provence.
“Cotes du Rhone” some of the best wine values.
|Loire||Muscadet; Pinot Gris; Chenin Blanc; Sauvignon Blanc; Chardonnay; Cabernet Franc; Cabernet Sauvignon; Pinot Noir; Gamay||Lower: Crisp, dry whites from Muscadet. Sur lie aged.
|Named after Loire river.
Stretches 634 miles from central France to Atlantic coast. Broken into 3 sub-regions with 3 distinct climates: Lower (Pays Nantais); Middle (Anjou/Saumur/Touraine) and Upper (Sancerre/Pouilly-Fume/Menetou-Salon). Upper region is close to Burgundy and resembles both the grape varieties and soil type.
|Languedoc-Roussillon||Grenache; Roussanne; Marsanne; Piquepoul Blanc; Carignan; Mourvedre: Syrah; Cinsault||Largest wine region in world (5% of world production, 1/3 of France’s production), diverse.
¾ Red, white; rosé; sparkling; dry-to-sweet
Red blends are typically dominated by carignan, syrah or Grenache.
|Similar grapes to Rhone and Bordeaux
Most wines made for immediate for immediate drinking.
Warm dry windy Mediterranean climate allows for organic viticulture.
High QPR wines.
|Provence||Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah, Mourvedre, Similar whites to Rhone||Dry rosé dominates, but red & white made. Mostly dry.
|Classic Mediterranean climate with Mistral wind.
French rosé outsells white wine in France. A typical American blush wine contains ~ 7X as much residual sugar per liter as a Provençal rosé.