— by Shelley Boettcher
Even the most casual drinker knows that when it comes to the world of wine, France is one of the biggest and best-known countries.
What is it about this Western European country that has captivated wine aficionados for generations? It would take a book — several, really — to summarize all that French winemakers have given the world, but perhaps the renowned British wine critic Jancis Robinson summarizes it the best: “France supplies the benchmarks by which almost all wines are judged,” she says. “This perfectly temperate and varied climate and landscape can supply wines of virtually every style.”
In other words, if you’re a Chardonnay fan, you’re in luck: France makes some of the best. You enjoy bubbles? There’s Champagne, of course. And if big reds are more your style, you’ll love Bordeaux and the less expensive reds of the Languedoc-Roussillon. Then there are rosés, sweet wines and fortified wines. You’ll find it all.
France produces a lot of wine, but the French drink a lot, too. Italy tops the world for wine production, but France is just behind, producing 41.9 million hectolitres of wine in 2016. One hectolitre equals about 100 litres. You do the math. We’re talking a lot of zeroes.
And the average French adult drinks about 40 litres of wine each year. (That may seem like a lot, but they’re actually cutting back; in 2003, the average person quaffed roughly 54.8 litres of wine.)
What are they drinking? Depending where you look for statistics, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the most-planted varieties, with 12 per cent of the market, according to Statista, a global consumer data company.
Grapes are great, but you still need the climate to cooperate if you want to produce fine wine, and the past couple of years haven’t been that good for many French winemakers. There’s been hail, frost, heat waves, snow and more hail.
But somehow they persevere, making the wines we love so much. Here, a few of my recent favourites.
Maison Sichel 2014 Bordeaux
Maison Sichel was created in 1883 and, six generations later, is still family-owned and operated. The Sichel family — which owns the prestigious Chateau Palmer and other estates — has a big portfolio that also includes value-priced reds such as this blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Notes of blackberry, blackcurrant and spice co-mingle with herbal, leafy flavours. A fine pairing for steak. About $20.
Cave de Lugny, Cremant de Bourgogne Brut Rosé
A stunningly beautiful sparkling wine made similarly to Champagne but in Burgundy. Taste it blind, and you may even think you’re drinking Champagne. (I did.) With its toasty, nutty notes, and fine mousse, this pretty pink will pair beautifully with a variety of appetizers, or try with Asian takeout. Made from a blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Gamay grapes. Serve chilled. About $24.
Jean-Paul Brun, 2015 Terres Dorées Cotes de Brouilly
Brouilly is a region in north-central Beaujolais, and the red grape here is Gamay. Jean-Paul Brun is a Beaujolais legend, making serious wines made with minimal intervention. Look for notes of freshly sharpened pencils, wet stones and dark berries. There may be a little sediment in the bottom of this bottle, but don’t worry; that’s normal. An excellent pairing for chicken or turkey, or perhaps a selection of charcuterie. About $25.
Domaine de Majas 2014 L’Amourouse Rosé
(Cotes Catalan, France)
A crisp, bright, refreshing rosé made from a 50-50 blend of Syrah and Merlot. Organic, too, and made with minimal intervention. I was a bit skeptical when I saw the vintage on this wine, but it’s fresh and delicious, and very food-friendly, with notes of tart cranberry, pomegranate and apple. Made from organic grapes, too. Serve chilled with soft French cheese, something like a wedge of Brillat Savarin. About $25.
Famille Perrin 2015 Vacqueyras “Les Christins”
(Vacqueyras, Rhone Valley, France)
This Southern Rhone red blend (Grenache and Syrah) is so pretty, with notes of licorice, blackberries, cherries, herbs, maybe even a hint of chocolate, plus a finish that just goes on and on and on. Pair with red meats, maybe venison or elk, or just a fine steak on the barbecue. About $25.
Pierre Sparr 2015 One
The Sparr winery was founded in 1680 and Pierre Sparr took it over in the early 1900s. After the winery and its neighbours were more or less destroyed during the Second World War, Pierre rebuilt it and, now, the ninth generation of Sparrs is in charge. This flavourful and aromatic white blend is made of Pinot Gris, Muscat and Riesling, and it will pair beautifully with a Nicoise salad, or a plate of seafood. Serve chilled. About $20.
And one to splurge: Veuve Clicquot has a new Champagne in the market, the Veuve Clicquot Extra Brut Extra Old. The wines used to make it have all been aged on lees for at least three years, plus an additional three years of aging in the bottle. Hauntingly beautiful and complex, it retails for about $130 per 750-mL bottle.
Shelley Boettcher is a Calgary-based food, wine and travel writer. Follow her on Twitter @shelley_wine, on Instagram @shelleyboettcher or check out her website at drinkwithme.com.
Want to learn more about French wines? Here are five common words you’ll find on some labels:
: Sparkling wine, such as Champagne, made from all-white grapes such as Chardonnay.
: Cellar, or winery.
: If used on a wine label, a cuvee is referring to specific wine blend.
: A “middle man,” someone who buys wine from a winery and then sells it under a different name.
: A term that’s used throughout the country, but in Burgundy, refers to the region’s best vineyards.