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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

French Tasting - Seattle, Feb. 16th 2011

We will get back to Italian wine very soon here, believe me, but as an on the road correspondent it is important to maintain a somewhat global perspective to anchor our little regional corner of the world. Think globally, but drink Italian.

The French Trade Commission and UbiFrance sponsored three tastings recently based loosely on value-driven wines from France. Prices varied of course as things like traditional method Champagne can only go so low (about $30ish), but prices went as low as $7 on the shelf for Languedoc wines. Here is a very brief summary avoiding specific producers, largely because some of the wines are not yet available, or may be available in one state but not another.

Alsace - Wines of Alsace have been rather stable in price and quality, offering great value in the $15 range with aromatic gewurztraminers, pinot blanc and gris, and of course riesling in the rounder fatter style. Muscat can be a bit confusing if you find them due to the use of the peculiar ottonel selection which is not very aromatic (but still interesting). While Alsace wines can be beautifully aromatic the structure can be a little lacking or a little sweetish, this is where knowing the serious producers comes in to find structured wines and bright acidity. Sparkling Cremant de Alsace can be a tremendous value as well. 2010 is reported to be as good as 2009.

Bordeaux - Always a touchy subject, good rustic Bordeaux was well represented, with many Right Bank Merlot-based value wines. If you love gravel and graphite-driven reds, this is your ticket. Much St. Emilion was represented and some Graves. Moving up the price scale directly correlates with increasing oak use in the $10-25 range. Bordeaux is in a state of flux market wise, and with the amount produced it is all over the map - this applies to whites as well. Never pass up Sauternes.

Burgundy - Oh Burgundy. We want to love it all but you get what you pay for. Value wines from the Maconaisse were all disappointing from the importer I tasted with residual sugar way too high in what seemed to be an attempt to "California-ize" their body. From this selection you will hit $40 before it gets good. Of particular note though (for me) was Crémant de Bourgogne (champagne method from Burgundy) with 20% Aligoté - the other Burgundy white - creating an excellent value driven food wine from Domaine Vitteaut Alberti. Got $15, go buy Cru Beaujolais - few better value food reds exist.

Languedoc - This huge area is where the game is on. It is painful to taste $10 wines that blow away your own $20 bottles, but here they are. I was told once that real men don't drink Minervois, but only fools will pass it buy - there are tremendous GSM (grenache, syrah, mourvédre) values here. For me the best are always free of new oak. Want it a bit bigger, then go next door to St. Chinian. Interesting white blends in the clean stainless style were drinking well with Grenache Blanc and Marsanne well represented. If you see AOP instead of AOC, it is the EU version of AOC and should be regarded the same. A plus for us is that AOP allows grape varieties to be stated on the label, which can only be a good thing. If you want a $10 bottle with dinner, learn the regions and you are pretty well set once you know the importer or producer.

Loire - Find good Muscadet - check. Some producers are really working hard to create more aromatic Muscadet, although the old timers will argue for its utter neutrality. Fantastic Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé were had - Reuilly and Qunicy as well, though in a more aromatic New World format. Less funk, more modern fruit/ester-reductive styles were strongly represented. Reds where conspicuously absent, but herbal cabernet franc is a personal favorite from St. Nicolas and Saumer-Champigny - just watch your vintages if you don't like bell pepper in your wine (I take it with eggplant). Curiously absent was chenin blanc as well, sadly neglected as always. 2010 was a good year here as well.

Champagne - An expensive game to play but with the explosion of grower champagnes you must sample and find your preferred producers. All tasted where clear, concise and consistent showing their terroir as well with excellent overall quality. Be alert to differences in dosage (sugar to balance acidity) as this often defines pairing possibilities. 5 grams sugar can make all the difference, but please do not be afraid to explore wines with a bit of sweetness. Some producers will bottle a single cuvée with different dosage levels to show off the stylistic difference and food flexibility. Also, the difference between chardonnay (Blanc de Blanc) and pinot noir (Blanc de Noir) versus the traditional three variety blends is huge as well and worth exploring. This is one area to have fun with. Find local pourings and save names.

The Rhone Valley and Provence were not really represented at this tasting but Cote du Rhone Villages are well known values while Provence is a bit random. For $20 I say go to Rasteau and Gigondas. Cheers.

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