A French Wine Primer

Posted in John's Current Blog on September 29, 2020

Phnom Penh; September 29, 2020:

Built in 1916 on the banks of the Mekong river, this grand home combines Austro-Hungarian “Baroque” and French Second Empire styles. About 130 miles north of Phnom Penh on the Mekong, it is now operated as a boutique hotel.

A friend who has been living in Italy lamented to me the dearth of good Italian wines here. We have – or had, before the pandemic – an amazing array of good French wines available, but that’s to be understood since France has had a profound influence here since French explorers first entered the country in the 1860s. By 1863, Cambodia had become a protectorate under the tricolor flag. The colonial period, from 1887-1953, saw the French greatly expanding the federal bureaucracy, with French nationals taking the high positions as they pacified the royals and Khmer elites with opium and educations in France as they developed infrastructure and built rubber plantations.

1940 was to see the Fall of France, though, as the Japanese Empire expanded. After World War II, Cambodia struggled for unity and independence, which they finally gained in 1953, only to be squeezed between the nuclear powers of the US and the USSR. (The French had returned, making Cambodia an autonomous state within the French Union, but retaining de facto control.) Civil war followed, and then the terrors of the Khmer Rouge, during which time a fourth of the population died under Pol Pot (34% of the men and 15% of the women). The Vietnamese then ruled Cambodia from 1979 to 1993. Another million Khmer were murdered or displaced during the civil war. The Paris Peace Agreements of 1991 were meant to end international involvement in the internal conflicts of Cambodia and to transform the military battles into political ones. But there were to be no internal compromises among the various factions vying for power, so once again the country entered a period of turmoil, and the state, while continuing to grow, weakened in effectiveness in spite of foreign aid. It wasn’t until the end of the Cambodian-Vietnamese wars and the fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc that the country was finally able to begin to become a market economy in 1989.  Vietnamese troops withdrew. Hun Sen attracted foreign investment by abandoning socialism. The country was re-named the State of Cambodia and Buddhism was re-established as the state religion.

Bouchon Wine Bar, housed in a French Colonial mansion in town, has an extensive and excellent — and well-priced — wine list. They also have live music!

Once again, the French were among the first to return. Some of them were men already related by marriage to Khmer. Some were the children of Khmer elites who had gone to France to study but had never returned; they considered themselves French. And many were simply French men attracted to the lithe beauty of Cambodian women. They integrated easily. Many opened restaurants. I can name two dozen French restaurants off the top of my head. They’re all good. I can think of only half a dozen Italian restaurants (not counting the myriad pizza parlors).

The wine lists they offer are often not good; they’re worse since the pandemic. Even if a restaurant has a decent list, the bottles are more often than not standing upright in an un-airconditioned space in the tropical heat. For the benefit of my friend who admits knowing nothing about French wines, I offer this very basic primer, so that he can better choose what to drink in those bistros.


France has eight major wine-producing regions: Alsace, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Loire, Provence, Languedoc-Roussillon, the Rhône Valley, and Champagne, each known for the grape varieties that do best in their soils and micro-climates.

ALSACE names its wines after the grape varieties, not its communes. Bordering German and Switzerland in the northeast corner of the country, control of the region has vacillated between Germany and France over the years and its culture is a mix of the two. The wines are mostly white (and steely, thin reds), which are not of much concern to my friend, so I am simply mentioning the most common: Gerwurtramier, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Riesling. Every year produces different results, and white wines generally are not meant to be aged, but 2015 was a stellar year throughout France, and the wines were exceptional, even the notoriously difficult red Pinot Noir. 2015 is considered the greatest Alsace vintage since 1990 and 1971, though quantities were not large.

There are plenty of solid Bordeaux wines from both the Left and Right Banks available here, but seldom do they rate above 3.6 out of 5. This Cru Bourgeois Haut-Medoc was perfectly delicious with the rotisserie duck I served.

BORDEAUX, hugging the Garrone River in Southwestern France, is home to nearly 10,000 winemakers of 54 appellations, cultivating 120,000 hectares (296,000 acres). The gravely soil of the Left Bank prefers the more difficult Cabernet Sauvignon, which figures in their wines that are more tannic than the Right Bank Merlot-heavy wines grown in clay. Left Bank wines include the notable Saint-Estèphe, Pauillac, Pessac-Léognan appellations, and the sweet white Sauternes, one of the world’s best dessert wines. The fruitier red wines of the Right Bank include Saint-Émilion and Pomerol (Petrus, the most famous of the latter appellations). White Bordeaux wines are typically 80% Semillon and 20% Sauvignon Blanc. The classic Bordeaux red blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc are aspired to the world over. These “meritage” style wines are now made in 18 states and many other countries including Israel, Mexico, and Bulgaria. 2005, 2009, 2010, and 2018 were stellar years. The 2015 vintages from the southern Médoc and Pessac-Léognan are ageing well, but the right bank wines were not as good as most 2015s. Generally speaking, it’s the Left Bank Cab-heavy wines that age well.

The last bottle of Dad’s 1949 Chambolle-Musigny that we drank after my mother died in 1982. It was elegant.

BURGUNDY is a small region with huge reputation. There are three major varieties of grapes grown there and they each are mostly used in varietal wines (that is, wines made from only one variety): Pinot Noir, which goes into the notoriously unpredictable reds; Chardonnay, which can be huge and buttery like Meursault or crisp and minerally like Chablis; and Gamay, which gives us the lively young red Beaujolais. Nowhere is terroir more important than in Burgundy. Ancient classifications still hold. Grand Cru wines are from the best vineyards in the Côte d’Or and are meant to be aged at least 2 to 7 years. They are labeled only with the name of the vineyard. Premier Crus should be aged at least 3 to 5 years and are labeled with the name of the village. These wines can be aged much, much longer. My father cellared the 1949 Chambolle-Musigny that he bought upon release. We drank it in 1982 and it was gloriously bright, full, and velvety. There are also the simpler classifications of Bourgogne and Village among the 100 appellations. For newcomers to the wines of Burgundy, I highly recommend developing a relationship with a wine merchant who knows his products. In Chablis, 2005, 2010, and 2014 were great years. 2017 and 2018 are promising as well. White Côte de Beaune wines excelled in 2010, 2014, and 2018. For reds, again, the magic years were 2005, 2010, 2015, and 2018: these wines show what Pinot Noir can become. They are ageing very well. 2014 and 2018 are good Mâconnais wines to look for. Drink young Beaujolais – preferably the Crus Beaujolais such as Brouilly, Morgon, Fleurie, and Juliénas. Beaujolais Nouveau is fermented for just a few days and is meant to be drunk as young as possible. It is best as an aperitif, served chilled (around 50oF). The heavier Cru Beaujolais wines are served around 60oF, like the bigger Burgundies, and pair well with all sorts of picnic fare, from roast chicken to charcuterie.

THE LOIRE VALLEY produces mostly white wines. I rarely drink them because I am not a fan of its predominant grape, Sauvignon Blanc, used in its renowned Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre. Chenin Blanc is used in Vouvray. It’s a tricky grape that produces highly acidic wines that are best paired with buttery sauces — and with fried chicken! The acids calm down after several years of ageing, so vintages matter. Again, 2015 and 2018 were stellar years. The Loire is also home to the great oyster wine, Muscadet, which is made from the Melon de Bourgogne grape. The best are produced sur lie – on the lees, which makes for the crisp, perfect accompaniment to oysters. Remarkably, these wines can age very well. I have had ten-year-old Muscadets that were lovely. 2014 and 2015 were both good years. The Loire also produces a few reds and rosés, mostly from Cabernet Franc, one of the blending grapes used in Bordeaux. Notable Cab Francs are made in Chinon, but also in Bourgeuil, Anjou and Saumur regions. Again, 2015 was across-the-board good in the Loire Valley.

Tattinger’s Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs: here’s a wine worth the splurge! Crafted from 100% Chardonnay grapes from the highest rated vineyards in the Côte des Blancs, this remarkable Champagne is produced only in exceptional years and made exclusively from the first pressings. 5% of the blend is aged for several months in wood. The wine is then aged nine to ten years before release and retains astoundingly fruity aromas for such an older wine. Absolutely elegant and refined, and priced accordingly.

CHAMPAGNE hardly needs explanation, though the winemaking there is a complicated process that involves specific grapes from this unique region, highly regulated grape-growing and -pressing practices, rotating bottles, adding yeast and sugar to cause a second fermentation, freezing the wine, removing the neck of the bottle with the frozen lees, and sometimes adding more sugar before corking. It takes 1-1/2 years to make Champagne, which is most often a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Petit Meunier. Most Champagne wines are made with a blend of the three, though Blanc de Blanc is 100% Chardonnay and Blanc de Noir is made mostly from Pinot Noir. Most Champagne is non-vintage, but when conditions are optimum, some producers will make a vintage that is 100% from that year alone, called a millésime, though they are not released for three years. There are prestige cuvées which are proprietary blends that the producers consider their finest. Dom Pérignon (made by Moët & Chandon) are Cristal (made by Roderer) are perhaps the best known. Champagne can range from fruity and voluptuous (a friend calls this style “Marilyn Monroe”) to acidic and bone-dry (which he calls “Catherine Deneuve”). I have found that Champagne is one wine whose cost does not change, whether you are in France, the States, Bulgaria, SouthEast Asia, or China – all places I have purchased it. Find one you like and celebrate with it as often as you can afford to!

THE RHÔNE VALLEY lies south of Burgundy and lies on the border between Provence and Languedoc-Roussillon (which adopted the name Occitanie in 2016). The wines are varied and complex, simple and straightforward, elaborately blended as well as varietal. The region is divided into North and South, the northern wines dominated by Syrah-heavy reds and whites made of Marsanne, Roussanne, and Viognier, each with its distinctive characteristics. In the heavily Mediterranean south, reds are lush with fruity Grenache. Côtes du Rhône reds and rosés are made from blends of six grapes; another six grapes predominate in the whites. There are 17 crus that are recognized by their village name. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is probably the most famous. Over 20 varieties of grapes can be used in the red, as long as 40% is Grenache and Mourvèdre and Syrah make up 15%. Together, they must make up 70% of the blend, with no more than 10% Marselan. Reds may contain no more than 5% white varieties; rosés, no more than 20%. The Syrah-strong Northern Rhône reds (such as Saint Joseph and Hermitage) and the 100% Viognier whites (such as Condrieu) are unique, complicated wines that are much sought after. Good years for both red and whites were 2010, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018. Guigal, the biggest producer in the region, makes excellent wines; his Côtes du Rhône, which he doesn’t release every year, was my house wine for 30+ years.

PROVENCE is France’s oldest winemaking province. For over 2600 years, wines have been made in sunny Provence. The major grape varieties are Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah, Clairette, and Rolle. A tiny region only 100 miles north to south and 150 miles east to west (from the Riviera to the Rhône), its mountainous terrain, fragrant shrubs (called “garrigue”), varied soils of clay, limestone, and schist, and its balmy weather with winds from the Mediterranean make it an ideal grape-growing region. It is perhaps best known for its delightful rosés, but lovely whites and reds are made as well. Bandol is famous for its distinctive red made from Mourvèdre; neighboring Cassis makes a citrusy white from Marsanne. Most of these wines should be drunk young, though the past few years have seen reds that age well.

LANGUEDOC-ROUSSILLON contains nearly a third of all the vineyards in France, so it’s not surprising that you find a world of grapes being grown and myriad styles of wines in the region. The big moneymakers (Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sauvignon Blanc) are predominant, but the major varieties of the Rhône Valley grapes (Grenache, Syrah, Viognier, and Mourvèdre) are also important there. The region is the largest wine-producing region in the world. The Greeks planted vineyards in the 5th Century BC. Since the 4th Century, the wines have been renowned. There are several well-known appellations –- Corbières (best known for its red blend, with Carignan predominant), Minervois (whose red is a blend of some 10 grapes, with Syrah, Mourvèdre and Grenache forward), and Cahors (my personal favorite). Cahors is the home of the Malbec grape which most people now know from the vast plantings in South America. If you are a fan of Argentinian Malbec, I highly recommend that you try Cahors. They’ve been making this wine there for 1600 years. It’s delicious. There are a dozen indigenous grapes that go into the wines of the Occitanie, as the region is now called. And while the weather wasn’t cooperative in 2016, 2017, and 2018, the winemakers were able to craft nicely balanced reds that should age well – however small their production those years. We have friends in Gaillac, one of the oldest wine-making communes in the world, where they make unique reds from Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Duras, Fer Servadou and Syrah which can be aged for 10 years. Their rosés are delightful if you can find them. Their sparkling wines are made via the méthode ancestrale, which dates to 1500,  long before Champagne emerged. These light and fizzy “pét-nat” (pétillant naturel, or naturally sparkling) wines are absolutely delightful and deserve more attention. Also near Gaillac, the indigenous Loin de L’oeil grape (Len de L’el in dialect) appears. It is the only place in the world that it is grown. In 2014, I blogged about the wines of the region (see Automne langdocien). Here’s an excerpt:

“Les Rials” is the name of another amazing little wine from Gaillac, an inexpensive , fresh white wine for summer made from the Loin de l’Oeil (Len de l’Elh in dialect) grape, which is only grown in the region. Little is known about the grape, which ripens a full two weeks earlier than other grapes. The grapes are prone to rot on the vine, but often the benevolent form of the fungus Botrytis (that lends a sweetness to some of the world’s best dessert wines) is the end result. Les Rials is 100% Loin de l’Oeil (“far from the eye” or “out of sight”), said by some to refer to the relatively long distance of the grape bunch from the branch. The local AOC for this wine is Fraîcheur Perlée, which does not mean the “pearl of freshness,” as some sources say, but is more at “perfectly fresh” in the sense of newness, purity, and refreshment. This slightly dry wine has a floral nose with a hint of citrus, and a delicate flavor of greengage plums and apricots. A pleasant 12% alcohol, the wine is able to carry the fruit flavor because it’s barrel-fermented and kept sur lie for a while. It [was] available in the States [in 2014] and [sold] for about $12.


Two remarkable sparkling wines. Details in the text below*

So that’s a very basic primer on French wines – from my admittedly limited perspective. Having lived in Bulgaria, China, and, now, Cambodia, I have not had access to some of my favorites for years. (Even in Savannah, Georgia, where I lived for five years, my choices were limited.) But don’t take my advice. All that really matters is what you like. Find a merchant whom you trust. Tell him or her what you already know you like. How much you like to spend on everyday wines and how much you are willing to spend on special occasions. Tell them your culinary preferences. The best merchants will listen to you and know how to help you choose. If you tell the retailer that you like well-balanced reds with enough tannins to give the wine structure but enough fruit to make them drinkable by themselves or with a steak and he sells you a big “international” style wine with jammy fruit and high alcohol, or if he sells you a thin, minerally red from the Alps, find another merchant! Same thing if you love buttery Chardonnays with forward oak and she sells you a Chenin Blanc. With so many different grapes and wine styles to choose from, finding a knowledgeable merchant who will listen can be not only educational, but fun for both of you. And take notes! Lots of wine sellers today have computer programs in which they store the sales under their clients’ names, so if you don’t take notes or remember to bring them with you to the shop, and you can’t remember the name of the wine you had with that grilled pork chop you had, but you remember that it was a red Rhône, you can ask, “What was that red I picked up last week? You were right: it was great with the pork chops! I’ll take a case!”


* About those two sparklers pictured above: This delicious Champagne rosé from R. Dumont & Fils of 100% pinot noir has a big, fragrant, plummy and citrusy nose that is balanced with flinty hints of the chalky soil. A perfect apéritif and only 12% alcohol! The Domaine des Terrisses Cuvée Saint-Laurent by Cazottes et Fils, is a rare, gorgeous RED sparkler from southwestern France made in a single fermentation, with no sugar added. This  AOC Mousseux Gaillacoise (traditional sparkling wine from Gaillac) employs the “Methode Gaillacoise” (the méthode ancestrale mentioned above), which is the “rural method” also used in Limoux. The fermentation is stopped by a series of rackings and the wine is bottled before all of the sugar is converted into alcohol. The wine tastes of peaches and roses.

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