Give France a Chance

Who ever thought that French wines would need American defenders?
Nov 15, 2011

At this year's Wine Experience, I found myself in a very strange position. Allow me to explain. At the Wine Experience in New York I presented three Pinot Noirs from the extreme, westernmost Sonoma Coast: 2009 Littorai Hirsch Vineyard, 2009 Peay Vineyards Pomarium and a barrel sample of 2010 Flowers Camp Meeting Ridge.

All three wines—in my opinion anyway—showed extremely well. They are profound American Pinot Noirs filled with a purity as well as depth of fruit unmarked by excessive oakiness, overextraction or any other winemaking doodah that some producers believe is necessary to create purportedly great wine. Rather, these three wines can be said to be great from the ground up.

Shortly before I presented these three Pinot Noirs, my colleague Bruce Sanderson presented, with the vintners on stage with him, four extraordinary, small-production estate-grown red Burgundies from the great 2009 vintage. Mind you, these were not just any producers—they included the likes of domaines Tollot-Beaut, Jean Grivot, G. Roumier and Marquis d'Angerville. I don't know about you, but I was impressed.

Then came the odd part. Later, I had lunch with a friend who attended the Wine Experience. He said to me, "I can't believe that you presented those California Pinot Noirs." I gave him a puzzled look.

"I mean, you of all people, a guy who wrote a book on Burgundy and is known as someone who loves those wines above all others. How could you, of all people, present those Sonoma Coast Pinot Noirs?"

I was astonished to hear this, if only because I have never felt that loving Burgundy precluded one from loving Pinot Noirs—or any other wines—from elsewhere. I said as much. But I was totally unprepared for what followed.

"No, you don't get it," he insisted. "I mean, the Pinot Noirs you presented just blew away those Burgundies. I thought those Sonoma Coast Pinot Noirs were simply so much better than the Burgundies."

For once in my life I was speechless. You see, my friend is a native French speaker. I stammered about how utterly wrong I thought he was, about how I thought the Burgundies were, as always they have been, singularly beautiful. And that, besides, the gorgeousness of Pinot Noir lies with its capacity for original expression of site rather than some sort of winner-take-all competition of "goodness."

I was a bit shaken by this conversation. And I've heard this sort of thing before. Usually, I've heard it from younger wine lovers, almost invariably American, who insist that they don't "get" French wines.

Perhaps I'm oversensitive on the subject, but I feel ever more strongly that French wines get increasingly short shrift in the United States.

Now, before I proceed any further, allow me to suggest that this perception may be regionally influenced. The sentiment seems stronger on the West Coast and less pronounced on the East Coast, especially in the New York area, which traditionally has been Francophile in its wine tastes and seems to remain strongly so to this day. Given what I've just described, you won't be surprised to learn that I live on the West Coast. (My friend, however, does not.)

That acknowledged, I do believe that a new, younger generation of American wine drinkers is increasingly turning its back on French wines. The reasons for this are various. I'm sure that some younger drinkers associate a sense of stuffy traditionalism with both France and its wines. I imagine that for yet others there's a disinclination to bother with the French label language. For those who came to wine through varietal labeling, the complications of French place names may be both mystifying and off-putting. And for yet others, I suspect that a certain root-for-the-home-team chauvinism plays a role.

Whatever the reasons, I cannot shake this feeling that the beauty of French wine—in all of its variety, flavors and, yes, complications—is increasingly lost on the latest generation of American wine-lovers.

This bothers me not because I'm such an unthinking Francophile that I cannot imagine that any other nation could possibly equal the wines of France. Anybody who has read my columns or books over the past few decades will know that I have an absorbing interest in wines from many other locations, such as California, Italy, Oregon, Australia, New Zealand and Hungary, to name a few.

Ironically, producers and wine lovers in all of those places continue to investigate French wines, both in the glass and on the ground, because France continues to deliver a vision of wine fineness that remains, to this day, unrivaled. I don't know of a single Pinot Noir producer anywhere in the world who does not continue to look to Burgundy for both inspiration and practical counsel.

"Make no mistake: At this moment, some of the world's greatest wine deals come from France."

If you are a young American reading this, allow me to ask you: Do you find yourself passing by French wines and looking instead to, say, Italy or California or Australia or the Northwest?

When I've asked just this question in person, the reply has frequently been that it's a matter of money. French wines are too expensive I'm told. This is an understandable perception, what with the insane prices of the most expensive red Bordeaux and Burgundies, as well as the many super-luxury Champagnes. But the greater reality is utterly, even preposterously, different. The truth is that even with a weak dollar, many French wines are downright cheap.

I’ll give you an example. You may recall that in a recent column I revealed that I was no longer buying expensive wines. This does not mean that I'm not buying any wine at all. Quite the opposite.

Recently, I bought a case of 2009 Domaine Guion Bourgueil Cuvée Prestige, a Loire Valley Cabernet Franc from 40- to 80-year-old vines rooted in clay and limestone soil in a vineyard that's been organically farmed since 1965. It's from a great vintage and made the way a lot of folks, me included, now say they would like their wines made, which is fermented with indigenous yeasts and aged in large wooden vats and older, flavor-free small oak barrels. Here's the kicker: It was $12.60 a bottle, by the case.

Tell me, can you name many other places where a wine such as this could be had for that low a price? France is filled with such bargains—overflowing with them, even. You can look in the Southern Rhône, for example, in districts such as Côtes du Ventoux (try the version from Delas, which is a blend of 80 percent Grenache and 20 Syrah and sells for 10 bucks).

You can find truly fine white Burgundies from lesser-known zones that sell for as little as $15 a bottle. (Here's an inside tip: Hunt down the white Burgundies of Domaine Goisot. You won't believe the quality and you'll get substantial change from a $20 bill.)

Are there deals everywhere in the world? Of course there are. But make no mistake: At this moment, despite a less-than-favorable exchange rate for we Americans, some of the world's greatest wine deals, to say nothing of some of the world's finest wines, come from France.

I never thought that French wines would need to be defended. But my friend's comments at lunch made me realize that even native French speakers are too ready to dismiss the world's greatest wine nation. If you love wine, that's not a mistake you want to make.

WS Events Wine Experience Values France Opinion

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