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Drinking Out Loud

Give France a Chance

Who ever thought that French wines would need American defenders?

Matt Kramer
Posted: November 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.

Stewart Lancaster
beaver,pa —  November 15, 2011 4:53pm ET
I had a recent trip to Beaune on a river cruise and enjoyed the burgundies very much. Can you recommend some burgundy producers to look out for that are reasonably priced?(both white and red)
Jonathan Rezabek
Chandler, AZ —  November 15, 2011 5:06pm ET
French wines are cheap here but even cheaper in France. You cannot imagine the QPR of some 4 and 5 Euro wines I had back in July when I was there. The same cannot be said about many producers here.
One of my best buys right now is the '07 Guigal CdR. Philippe Guigal poured that for us blind in the cellar. I was stunned it was not Chateauneuf. It is a great price and you don't have to hunt for it.
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  November 15, 2011 6:12pm ET

I think the issue is far greater than you mention as the greatest decrease in French wine consumption has occurred in France. In two generations, wine consumption in France has decreased from 7 million bottles annually to 4 million bottles. Wine Spectator has covered this annually: http://www.winespectator.com/webfeature/show/id/World-Drinks-Less-Wine-Per-Capita_4800

But this article from the Telegraph puts some more context around it: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/wine/8599563/French-wine-consumption-drops-by-three-billion-bottles.html

Actually, French wine has done fairly well in the US compared to its consumption in the rest of the world.

I think a greater exploration of why this is occurring would be fascintating.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
Andrew S Bernardo
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada —  November 15, 2011 7:14pm ET
Adam, I almost fell over when I saw million, now that I read Billion in the article I'm a little more assured that the French have not gone completely into prohibition.

Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  November 15, 2011 7:33pm ET
Oops, sorry. Thanks for catching that Andrew.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
Joe Dekeyser
Waukesha, WI —  November 16, 2011 1:58pm ET
Over time I find myself drinking more and more value oriented French wines. Perhaps, not surprisingly, rose's in the summer and sometimes beyond but it goes well beyond that. Rhone, Burgundy, Loire, Rousillion, Languedoc, Cahors and Corbieres. There is a virtual wonderland of very good to great wines to be had for under $15. Bordeaux still eludes me but I find myself at least trying.
Homer Cox
Warrenton, VA —  November 16, 2011 9:54pm ET
The last two French steals we bought at Wegmans were:

2007 Gerard Bertrand Tautavel $10 WS91
2009 Cave DE Rasteau "R" $10 WS90

BTW, it is easy to confuse the words millions and billions these days. Trillions is a little easier to separate.
Aaron Meeker
Kansas City, KS —  November 17, 2011 6:28pm ET
I find myself everyday answering questions about my love of French wines. While Grand Cru Burgundy and single vineyard Champagne remain iconic and very special wines, the wines of Languedoc, Madiran, Provence, and especially Loire tell stories and deliver outstanding value.

That said, I've had many "off-vintage" Burgundies lately (07 Mugneret-Gibourg Vosne-Romanée in particular) that were simply stunning wines that deliver far more, for what I want, than Cali/Oregon counterparts for $50-$65.
Aaron Meeker
Kansas City, KS —  November 17, 2011 7:36pm ET

What do you feel the next "it" French region is for American consumers?
Matt Kramer
Portland, OR —  November 17, 2011 10:03pm ET
Mr. Meeker: The idea of the next "it" region in France, as you put it, is tricky to say. The reason is simply that the forces that help create a must-have (or at least must-taste) wine zone are so often beyond usual predictive information.

For example, many wine zones that take a turn in the spotlight do so because of the emergence of a powerfully persuasive winegrower personality. Angelo Gaja in Barbaresco comes immediately to mind as an example.

There's also the rise of previously unappreciated or under-appreciated grape varieties. What if Riesling returns to popular acclaim? It's not impossible. Back in the 1970s, Riesling was very much sought-after in the United States. Who knows? Maybe we'll see a comeback. And if that happens, of course Alsace becomes a big winner.

Pinot Noir has never been out of fashion. But who could have predicted the appearance--and market impact--of the movie "Sideways" on Pinot Noir's popularity?

One real possibility for the next "it" region in France is Beaujolais. I believe that we will see a new appreciation of Gamay Noir in the next decade, not just from Beaujolais but also from producers in Oregon, California, British Columbia and Ontario. And now, finally, Beaujolais is slowly recovering from its decades-long addiction to creating Beaujolais nouveau at the expense of substantial, praise-worthy Gamays of real quality. Only now are we seeing a resurgence of such wines, along with increasing critical and consumer attention for them.

All noted, I would also like to think that other next "it" region in France will be the Loire Valley. Granted, it's a big, sprawling area with an almost overwhelming diversity of growers, wine styles (dry to sweet to sparkling), multiple grape varieties and no powerhouse producers. So, structurally, that creates problems.

But is there anywhere in France that offers more exciting wines, at lower prices, with greater originality than the Loire Valley? I don't think so. I like to think that Burgundy lovers, especially, will find themselves increasingly drawn to the Loire because of the region's traditional terroir-oriented mentality. After all, the Loire had the same ancient monastic forces in the form of Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries during the feudal eras.

So are the Beaujolais and Loire Valley regions the next "it" in France? Or is it just wishful thinking on my part? Time will tell. But I'll say this much: Both Beaujolais and, especially, the Loire *deserve* to be the next "it" regions of France.

Anyone else have any nominations? I'd love to hear them.
Ivan Campos
Ottawa, Canada —  November 18, 2011 2:27am ET
Timely question: six of the last eight bottles that I have opened were from France: a couple of burgundies, rhones, an alsace, and a champagne.

Alsace is great, but everything plays on a higher octave. Champagne? too niche. Burgundy? ditto.

My money's on the southern Rhone and Midi (the Northern Rhone is for palates looking for something more cerebral, and with their prices, hardly a populist choice.)

The South's wines tend to consistently offer the combination of fruit and layers that prevail in other popular wine regions, with that unique garrigue/spice that helps them pair with a wide range of cuisines.

And most importantly: fine examples abound at modest prices, perfect for gateway ambassadors.
David A Zajac
Akron, OH —  November 18, 2011 4:43pm ET
I also believe the next "it" region will be the Loire as I am convinced the next big time grape that people will start to appreciate will be Cabernet Franc (and why I think the Finger Lakes NY will also become more popular). Prices are a fraction of the more well known grapes, like Sauvignon, Merlot (Bordeaux), Pinot (Burgundy) and Syrah and Grenache (Rhone). I also believe the southern Rhone makes a lot of sense, but the Cotes du Rhone's seem to be overshadowed by Chat. du Pape and am not sure they will ever gain the acceptance they deserve, especially for the price.

The original question is why aren't the wines of France more appreciated, in my opinion, they are less overtly fruity and obvious compared to their American counterparts and take more time to "come around", thus a California pinot is easy to understand and appreciate when you taste it, but a Vosne Romanee - Petits Monts from the same vintage REQUIRES 10 years of cellaring, comparing them is like apples and oranges.
Ivan Campos
Ottawa, Canada —  November 21, 2011 1:45am ET
Maybe the more pertinent question is, "what region in France is doing something to become the next big thing?" This is usually accompanied with a great underdog story, much like Cali had years ago, or an inherent shift in consumer tastes.

I love cab franc and chenin blanc, but their Loire iterations ae hardly versatile in today's gastronomy (though I wouldn't turn down a dinner of beef tartare and oysters.) And then there's the presentation... I sometimes think the traditional French are trying to put you to sleep with their front labels and to frustrate you with the ones on the back ("Vin rouge, produit de la France, 2008")

Regarding CdP overshadowing the rest of the southern Rhone, I'm not sure that's a bad thing. Any wine region that strives for more than just space on the commodity isle needs premium benchmarks to rally around. Just look at what happened to Chile and Argentina: they have premium wines, but few people can define or group them. It also doesn't hurt that both reds and whites, even from top CdP houses, cost way less than premium Californians. Some even have nifty labels and good stories.

John T Ryan Iii
Pittsburgh,PA, USA —  November 28, 2011 9:48pm ET
I reviewed my notes from the NYWE on the wines you noted and found the Sonoma Coast and Burgundies had parallel results, half 90's, half 95 & +, all really good which somewhat makes your point.

Another factor is ageability. California Cabs can make the long trip as I found from some friends' cellers. We don't know yet about the current generation West Coast Pinots. But I'll never forget a 1973 Richebourg by Grivot. Granted that was a Richebourg, but it was from a very soft vintage, at best luncheon wines. I got one from my second daughter's birth year after 15 or so years of unknown provenance. At her college graduation, I poured it (at dinner) and, a luncheon wine year at age 22, it blew me out of my chair and I can still remember it. Nothing else then and later from her birth year matched it.

Another example is the two 1974 le Cortons that I was poured at wineries about a decade ago. This was the vintage we used to dump on in the 80's, particularly with restaurants that would try to switch vintages on the neophytes we were then. When I was served the two aforementioned le Cortons, I thought, well, I'm getting an excellent free meal and beggars can't be choosers but both of these also blew me away (sure not as much as the Richebourgs) but very impressive.

While many burgundies can disappoint and some are a while coming around (usually not a problem with California pinots), good burgundies can go the distance. Many of my best recent burgundies were from less exaulted appelations than those mentioned above.

As always, a great presentation at the NYWE. Regards,
Joseph Kroetsch
Stamford, CT, USA —  November 29, 2011 4:52pm ET

I think that one of the primary reasons I've been drinking less French wine lately (as a youngish consumer) is that the $ to WS rating value often seems low compared to other parts of the world. Although I know that ratings aren't perfect, it's very often the best info I have to go on.

The thing is, I have often wondered whether professional reviewers of regions like Bordeaux or Burgundy place higher standards on the wines, meaning that the scores should be (at least in my head) recalibrated when compared with the rest of the world. In my anecdotal experience, I've found that a 90 in bordeaux is a very different animal than a 90 bordeaux blend from Chile. Do you think that the "values" from the classically great French regions are under-rated because of the quality of their peers?

Thanks for your thoughts.
Kathy Dipietro
Dallas —  November 30, 2011 12:20pm ET
Another great article to share with my customers and wine-drinking friends!

As a retailer, I too believe that French wine is overlooked and often summarily dismissed by the consumer. They ask for a Pinot Noir and as I begin to step to "France" they have already strayed to the "Pinot Noir" (domestic)area. Yes, the labels are confusing to most American wine buyers and that will continue to be a problem for exporters of French wines to the US since convincing customers that the wine is indeed a Pinot Noir when it says Red Burgundy is a bit of a struggle.

To the "next it" area of France, I would say definitely Beaujolais! Each year I host a Beaujolais dinner on nouveau night - we taste three or four of the Nouveaus, and then begin a tasting through all ten of the Cru` Beaujolais. Each year the results are the same... The Cru` Beaujolais over-deliver and drink at twice the price paid. People are always amazed by the value of these wines.

Thanks for another thought-provoking post!
Salud! KathyD

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