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Kissing the Frogs

froginglass.jpg• 2005 Petrus: $3000 a bottle
• 2003 Château Margaux: $460.00 a bottle
• 2002 Domaine de la Romanee Conti, La Tache: $1300 a bottle
• 2003 Pegau Châteaunuef du Pape, Cuvée de Capo: $500 a bottle.

Let’s face it, when we think of French wine, we think expensive, elegant, sophisticated and chic. They are the wines you drink at Daniel in Manhattan while wearing the latest from Paris. Unfortunately for the French, only a small percentage of the wines they make fall into this elite category, and the vast majority of the wines they make are unknown and ignored by American consumers.

The world’s most famous and expensive wines are French. French wines are the only wines truly sought after by collectors. While pretenders like Screaming Eagle cause feeding frenzies with American collectors, it’s only the elite French producers that really whip both American and international collectors into a lather.

Certainly no one would argue anymore that the French have a monopoly on great wine. While bruised a bit by the worldwide explosion of interesting, well-made wines, the elite French wine juggernaut rolls on. Evidence of this is the massive coverage of the futures offering of the acclaimed 2005 Bordeaux vintage, which has been a focus of the wine media for months. In fact, a good vintage in Bordeaux still has such an impact that those vintages become great vintages for all regions in the mind of the consumer; even those wine regions with weather, vines and geography that have nothing to do with Bordeaux bask in the reflected glory of great Bordeaux vintages.

As great and historically important as the most famous French wines are, the most exciting thing about French wine is not the bottles for those with trust funds and Ferraris, but the fact that the French are making the best wine values in the world. They simply cannot be beat in the under-$20 a bottle range for making wines that still offer character, personality, and, most of all terroir — that unique sense of place that makes a wine distinct and exciting to drink.

I’ll repeat that: the best wine values in the market today are almost all French. It’s not the new world that offers wine bargains: Australian wines should actually be singular not plural, as they’re all the same jammy syrup with different labels. California wine is personality-free industrial wine produced from the same UC Davis oak-chip recipe; South American wines are thin, flavorless and produced from hopelessly over-cropped vineyards. Only their European neighbors Italy and Spain offer the French any real competition in this under-$20 category.

Ironically, as good as the French (with a lot of help from the British) were at marketing their wines over the past centuries, today they don’t seem able to sell their way out of a brown paper bag. They’ve been blasted out of the value end of the wine market by a bunch of New World wines with cute animals on their labels and snappy names that are easy to remember. This is not to say the French are blameless for this situation — all that junky wine with varietal labels from the Languedoc that flooded the market in the ‘90s convinced a lot of consumers to look elsewhere for everyday wines.

The French Appellation Contrôlée (controlled place-name) system of wine regulations established the structure that allowed French wines to dominate the market for so many years. These regulations established minimum standards for how a wine was grown and made before it could be sold with a particular name. These names were based on place above all else. The variety was important and precisely controlled. For example, a red Burgundy must be 100% pinot noir, and a Sancerre must be 100% sauvignon blanc. You won’t see those names on the label, but their regulation is far more stringent than varietal labeling as used in the New World. For example, a winemaker in California has to use only 75% pinot noir to use the name. While the best California producers would never do that to their pampered pinot noir, you can bet few under $20 are not blended with other, less noble, varietals.

While I love this commitment to place and individual personality in winemaking, the plethora of wine names this has created made a marketing nightmare for the French. Should they give up and change over to naming a wine for the grapes instead of the land? I hope they don’t, and considering the French attitude about all things French I think the names will stay the same. This means that consumers who want to drink good wine at good prices will have to do some homework.

There are so many wonderful French wines out there — the Loire Valley alone is so packed with wine best-buys that to try to keep track of only them can seem daunting. Muscadet shines as the best white wine value in the world right now. Sancerre/Pouilly Fume neighbors Quincy and Menetou-Salon produce stunning, racy sauvignon blancs. The cabernet franc wines from Chinon and Bourgueil are incredibly fragrant and seductive. The list of values from throughout France is endless, with stunning wines coming from Beaujolais, the Rhône, Provence, Lanquedoc-Roussillon and the southwest. Many of these wines come from grapes you have never heard of, but should have — like tannat, manseng, cot, picpoul and poulsard.

Such an extensive list of new words and places can be more intimidating than inspirational, and can make that giant stacking of Yellow Tail at the grocery store look tempting. However, as a few importers are willing do to the work required to not only find such wines and then to hand-sell them bottle-by-bottle, instead of memorizing The Oxford Companion to Wine, just learning the names of these brave few is enough to begin rescuing your palate from the industrial wine that has lulled it into a nap. A quick poll of the patients at WineTherapy.com came up with a list of key importers to search out for French wine bargains:

• Louis/Dressner
• Kermit Lynch
• Weygandt/Metzler
• Neal Rosenthal
• Robert Chadderdon
• Charles Neal
You’ll find their names on the back label, which means all you have to do is pick up that bottle with the strange name and turn it around to see if it’s something worth trying. That’s not too much work, is it?

 

Originally published in The Daily Gullet at eGullet.com