France is still the yardstick by which all others are measured. When one thinks of the greatest examples of any of the major grape varieties, France comes to mind. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay take one directly to Burgundy. Bordeaux provided the template for California Cabernet Sauvignon. Robert Mondavi named his Sauvignon Blanc based wine Fume Blanc, after the Loire wines of Pouilly-Fume/Sancerre. And Champagne! Ahhh, Champagne. Wine is a major part of their being; drinking and making wine is as natural as breathing. A brief discussion of the majors regions follows with a wine or two that embodies the attributes of that region.
This region is unique. French and German influences play an equal role in sculpting Alsace’s language, traditions, and even its wines. It is also the only region in France that sells its wine according to the name of the grape variety, and it has done so for quite some time. Another paradoxical fact is that Alsace is not only an important economic region with a highly dense population, but also an important agricultural and wine producing region. Although Alsace is one of France’s northernmost areas, its summers are hot and sunny and it is the driest region in the country. Winegrowing is a top priority here, and the region produces fine aromatic and heady white wines. Major varietals: Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Muscat, Chasselas and Sylvaner
2009 Zind-Humbrecht Gewurztraminer The most famous grape of the region, by the most famous producer of the region, Olivier Humbrecht, who was the first French winemaker to achieve the coveted Master of Wine designation. This is classic Gewurz, redolent of lychee nut with a touch of ground clove enlivened by vibrant acidity and minerality. $25.
The Rhone Valley is divided into two very different worlds, the Northern and Southern Rhone. The Northern Rhone contains some of the steepest vineyards on the face of the planet, rivaling those of Germany, and the main red grape is Syrah. It’s often blended with a small percentage of white grapes. (Cornas is the only region of the Northern Rhone whose red wine must be 100% Syrah by law). Some spectacular whites are also produced, chief among them Condrieu and Chateau Grillet, from the Viognier grapes.
The Southern Rhone, by contrast, is a delta of rolling hills. Grenache is the primary red grape, but is joined by up to twelve others, most commonly Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsault. The most prolific wine is the ubiquitous Cotes-du-Rhone, providing reds and whites for everyday drinking, while one waits for the Hermitage to mature.
2009 Paul Autard Chateauneuf-du-Pape This wine is not inexpensive, but a value in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. If you’ve not had one before, this could spoil you for life! As the Wine Spectator review indicates, “This could be drunk now with great pleasure, or cellared for a decade. Ripe and nicely focused, with a delicious beam of cassis and linzer torte flavors liberally laced with sweet, toasty spice and red licorice notes. The finish is sleek. Drink now through 2022.” $40.
2010 St. Cosme Condrieu If you like Viognier, you owe it to yourself to try the original. The St. Cosme is my current favorite in its price range (believe it or not, good Condrieu starts around this price!). Oz Clarke, in his excellent Encyclopedia of Grapes, enthused of Condrieu, “If you wanted serious, swooning wine, with texture as soft and thick as apricot juice, perfume as optimistic and uplifting as mayblossom, and a savory sour creamy richness like a dollop of crème fraiche straight from the ladle of a smiling farmer’s wife – in other words, a wine which just oozed sex and sensuality – Condrieu, from the Viognier grape, was it.” $75.
P.S. – The previous vintage of this wine received a coveted 93 point score from The Wine Spectator!
Bordeaux is the largest fine wine-producing region on earth. It produces, on average, over six million hectoliters of wine each year, more than some entire countries! It has provided the model for the finest Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlots in the world, with many selling for thousands of dollars a bottle upon release. It also produces excellent dry white wine and perhaps the finest dessert wines, period. Yet some of the very best values in wine can be found here in the so-called ‘Petits Chateaux.’ Major varietals: Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Muscadelle, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot
2008 Ch. l’Argenteyre (Medoc) A personal favorite at the Presutti household, we have purchased (and consumed) dozens of cases of this wine over the years. Why? It speaks more clearly of the Left Bank of Bordeaux, which, because of its gravelly soil is planted mainly to Cabernet Sauvignon, than any other wine even remotely near its price point. We suspect that has something to do with the unusually large percentage of Petit Verdot they use (20% of their vineyards are planted to it). This highly regarded grape is typically only 3-5% of a chateau’s blend because it ripens later than even Cabernet Sauvignon. So late, in fact, that it is said that it only attains full ripeness in one out of five years. It adds spiciness, tannin and color, and often notes of violet to the wine. We love the l’Argenteyre because with three to five years of bottle age, it transforms itself into something very special. Much of the tannins drop out, so an ethereal, silky palate develops, and the aromatics increase dramatically. Often seeming to dissolve in a cloud of flavor in the mouth, it can provide the pleasure of a wine costing $40 or more, but the original cost (if you find it on sale) could be as little as $15. Buy several cases of this one, we do! $20.
2009 Ch. Bel Air ‘Vieilles Vignes’ (St. Croix du Mont) This dessert wine is made in the oldest chateau of St. Croix du Mont, which is just across the river from the more famous region of Sauternes (whose most famous chateau, Ch. d’Yquem, routinely sells for over $1,000 per bottle). Wines here are made primarily from Semillon grapes (this one is 100% Semillon) that have been attacked by a very special mold called ‘Botrytis cinerea’ or ‘noble rot’. This shrivels the grapes, concentrating the sugars and acids, as well as imparting a wonderful spiciness to the wine. This is, without question, one, if not the greatest, values in dessert wine in the marketplace at this time. $15. (375ml)
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