Wine Tasting 101 - French Whites
Guest host, Thor Iverson, navigates through the world of French White Wines for this month's WT101. Copyright 2005 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. For more information go to Wine Lover's Page
Wow. French whites. Why don't we try for the only pigment-free topic more impossibly big than this one: Italian whites? But hey, call me Sisyphus. I've volunteered to push this rock up the hill, wrestle this puppy to the ground...oh, heck, pick your favorite metaphor and run with it.
Every major...and almost every minor...wine region in France makes white wine. In some places (Alsace, the Loire Valley), whites dominate. In others (Burgundy), whites and reds are pretty much coequal. In still others (the Rhone Valley, Bordeaux), whites are viewed, rightly or wrongly, as somewhat of an afterthought by producers and/or consumers. Even Sisyphus doesn't have that much time, what with all that rock pushing...
So I'm going to start with a little high-level overview, plus a few recommendations. Then, as the month goes on, I'll put together some more detailed information about specific regions, grapes, and wines, each with an additional set of recommendations. Vous comprenez? Bien!
Most French whites are, like their red brethren, named after places rather than grapes: Graves, Chassagne-Montrachet, Sancerre, etc. The major exceptions to this are Alsace (where wines are typically named after a single variety) and certain semi-obscure regions of eastern France. For those new to the world of French wines, there will be some surprises here: did you know that Cassis is a white wine from Provence? (The currant liqueur used for kir is called "cassis," small "c.") Did you know that Chablis is a place that makes long-lived, steely whites from chardonnay, and not a name they just slap on jugs of cheap California wine? Did you know that Pouilly-Fume is related to "fume blanc," but completely unrelated to Pouilly-Fuisse?
So: recommendations. The most famous whites of France are white Burgundies, which are (with a few very minor exceptions) made from 100% chardonnay. Look for a Bourgogne blanc (French for "white Burgundy"), Macon-Lugny, Macon-Villages or Saint-Veran from widely-available producer Jadot (or Drouhin if those aren't available).
Next up will be the whites of the Loire, most of which tend to come from one of three grapes: melon de bourgogne (which makes Muscadet), chenin blanc (Vouvray, Montlouis, Savennieres), and sauvignon blanc (Sancerre, Pouilly-Fume). For now, let's look at Sancerre: seek out a Bourgeois Sancerre "La Demoiselle de Bourgeois" or Bourgeois Sancerre "La Bourgeoise". Alphonse Mellot or Crochet will do nicely as substitutes.
In Alsace, there are a number of grapes to choose from: riesling, pinot gris, pinot blanc, gewerztraminer, muscat...the list goes on. I'll give two easy-to-find recommendations here, both from the venerable house of Trimbach. For an interesting contrast with last month's wines, try a Riesling; for an entirely different experience, take a taste of their Gewurztraminer. The latter should draw some interesting reactions!
We'll finish in the Rhone Valley. The grapes used for whites here are legion, but the three biggies are viognier, roussanne, and marsanne. The easiest to find is unquestionably the Guigal Cotes-du-Rhone (blanc). If that's not available, any white Cotes-du-Rhone will do.
A note about vintage: if possible (and it may not be), try to avoid 2003 versions of these wines. 2003 was an extremely unusual, hot year in France. The wines of this vintage aren't necessarily better or worse for it, but they are different, and won't give you as true a view of what the wines are normally like. Also, for the Cotes-du-Rhone, avoid 2002 as well; a flood year.
Keep the wines mildly chilled (but definitely not frigid) to bring out their best characteristics, and stay tuned. I'll be checking as often as possible to offer some of my own notes, comments on your experiences, and to answer any questions you might have. Bon chance, mais...allez! We've got rocks to push uphill!
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