Wednesday, April 25, 2012

5 Reasons Why French Wine is Better Than American

Okay, granted this is an overview and a generalization. This is not to say that there aren't good American wines, but there is truth here in that France has the edge in some big ways. Let's look.

 1. Non-fruit complexity. The majority of American wines, especially those from California, are about fruit. It's the norm to find wines with big, ripe, jammy fruit that's indicative of the warm climate and long growing season on the west coast. Paired with some toasty, buttery, oaky notes it's become a "style" so that even winemakers in other states emulate this fashion in their wines as well. I expect wines to be made with ripe fruit and I also really enjoy wines that have some earth, spice, floral, and herbaceous qualities in the background. It's much more common to find this type of complexity in French wines at all price points. It's definitely about winemakers with an Old World sensibility and I also think it comes from climates giving a more balanced fruit/acid relationship.

2. Quality, variety, and diversity. Think about all the wine from Alsace, Beaujolais, Burgundy, Champagne, Bordeaux, the Rhône, the Loire, and the Languedoc, not even to mention all the country wines. Wine is an inherent part of the culture in France, not just a luxury item, and there's quality across the board from simple everyday wines to the really famous ones. All this and France is slightly smaller than Texas, think about it!

3. The right grapes in the right places. The French have a big advantage here, since Roman times they've had the opportunity to see which grape varieties would express character and identity in different climates. You don't see pinot noir and syrah growing in the same vineyard, like in California, and the French are happy to specialize. If an area is mostly suitable for white wine, like Alsace, you don't find a lot of red wine and they're not trying to market cabernet.

4. Oak is not a flavoring agent. Wine has traditionally been aged in oak barrels of various ages and sizes. This does impart a certain character, the slow oxygenation in barrel helps to soften tannins in red wines and can give a nice silky texture to the wine. Barrels can also give some flavor to the wine depending on several factors, typically it comes across as toasty or vanilla/buttery. Well made wines find a balance where the oak is nondescript or compliments the wine rather than overwhelming it. Unfortunately, many American wines use oak as a flavoring agent, frequently using too many new barrels or, especially in the case of inexpensive wines, putting oak chips or staves in the tank to flavor the wine. I think some wineries do this to cover for the lack of balance or structure in over-ripe fruit. If the ripeness in the grapes is balanced there's no need to do this, we even find delicious French reds that see no oak at all.

5. Better value. We see honestly produced estate bottled wines from France with character, balance, and good flavor in the shop consistently for under $15, some of them are even $9.99. Very few of my personal choices for domestic wines sell for under $15. Try something from the Rhône or Languedoc (like Les Hérétiques) against a domestic wine at $10 or $11.99 and you'll see what I mean.

6. Better food partners (okay, 6 reasons). The crisper acidity and the more moderate alcohol levels pair better with all types of food. With a wine at 12.5% alcohol it's much easier to find combinations where you can taste the wine and  the food without either one taking away from the other.


Thursday, April 12, 2012

For the geeks

Here's a shout out to our wine geeks. You know who you are, you drink a lot of wines and you like things to be interesting. You love the classics, but also like to find new discoveries from unheralded places and wines that are not typical for their grape varieties. I thought it would be fun to mention a few wines that fit the criteria.

Les Sablonettes "Le P'tit Blanc 2010 ($17.99) - Lovely chenin blanc from the Loire Valley. Grown on schist, produced biodynamically, hand harvested and fermented in stainless steel tanks. This has raciness and weight, subtle citrus and pear with notes of white flowers and honey.

Coturri "Sandocino" NV ($21.99)
- Yes, there's geeky wine from California too, of course! An organic and natural wine, it's a non-vintage blend of cabernet, syrah, merlot, and zinfandel from vines in both Sonoma and Mendocino. The wine is full and tangy, with nicely complex savory notes; soy sauce, mint, tobacco leaf, artichoke, and cocoa powder are just a few of the descriptions the staff has used.

Reynald Héaulé, "Eclat De Silice" 2006 ($24.99) - One of my favorite whites in the store right now. This is a naturally made wine from sauvignon blanc, menu pineau, and chardonnay. The wine is just full of complexity and interest, with 6 years in the bottle there's a beautiful mouthfeel, waxy and viscous, and a slight oxidative edge that's totally enjoyable.

La Stoppa Gutturnio Rosso Colli Picentini 2009 ($17.99) - From near Piacenza in Emilia-Romagna, this is a biodynamic barbera and bonarda blend that sees a long fermentation on native yeasts. The result is fairly full cherry and plum fruit with nice acidity and a wondrous earthy, funky edge.

Valli Unite, "Bianchino" Colli Tortonesi ($14.99) - An organic wine from Tuscany, it's a revelation for the cortese grape. There's a crisp, refreshing quality here but also a minty sensation and a sense of aliveness.

Angiolino Maule, "Rosso Maseiri" Rosso Del Veneto 2010 ($16.99) - How about a wine from northern Italy that's a blend of merlot (mostly), with cabernet franc, and lagrein (sometimes) fermented in open top wooden vats then aged in a combo of stainless steel tanks and old barrels without intervention. It's sappy, resinous, and delicious and if you guessed merlot in a blind tasting you'd be the only one.

Hope that you get to try a few of these.