(POSTED: July 28, 2004)
A Guide To Enjoying French Red Wine
The French know wine. That much is obvious. They know it so well, in fact, that the rest of us sometimes get lost when trying to fathom the centuries of tradition and ritual associated with drinking the stuff. The French, however, have no such problem, as they are a culture near defined by things as food and wine. If you sometimes feel like you are the only one not getting the joke, read on. With a few basics under your hat, the process of tasting and enjoying French wines, specifically red wine, will be much less intimidating.
The first consideration will be where the wine you are to drink came from. All wines take on the characteristics of their particular area of growth, since much of this is passed to the grapes through soil and climate. In countries with great wine traditions, like France, Italy and Germany, there is more to regional differences than soil and sun. These countries can actually enforce certain aspects of the winemaker's craft through tradition or even law.
In the case of France, in order to qualify for certain levels of commercial classification - from the vin du table to the Grand Cru Classe - each area of wine country has lists of acceptable grape varieties, the quantity and method which are to be used in blending and the types of containers in which the blended wines may be stored and for how long. For example, the red wines from Bordeaux will be much more tannic; the reds from Burgundy much more fruity. Both of these factors are relative to the regions from which they come.
The second consideration should be the age of the wine. If the wine is anything lower than a fifth growth (1855 classification) then you should most likely drink it at or near release. Most wineries - even grand old French ones, need to sell wine that is drinkable when bought in order to make a living. When you get into the better classified wines, age becomes more important since the wine maker has tried to produce something which will continue to grow and change long after it has been bottled and shipped. While in the bottle these wines will soften and mature, making for a more enjoyable drinking experience in the years to come. By reading about each vintage in food and wine magazines (like Gourmet or Wine Spectator) you will be able to pick from better vintages and at the appropriate time to taste these wines at their peak.
Lastly, the actual Vintner (brand name) should serve as a guide for enjoyment. Some names, like La Tour or Haut Brion, carry the weight of First Growth Chateau and therefore can be expected to be amongst the finest - and most expensive - available. Getting to know some of the lesser wines made in the same area will lower the cost but keep the same stylistic and flavor components of their higher priced counterparts. Try a fourth or fifth growth from a Vintner located in the same village and with few exceptions you won't be able to tell the difference - except at the cash register.