THERE is no doubt that the most memorable wines - red, white and maybe even rose - I have tasted have been French.
Whether it be a Le Montrachet (to be "drunk, bareheaded, and on your knees," according to the command of Alexander Dumas the elder) or bottles of Lafite and Mouton from the famour Bordeaux vineyards of the Rothschilds, the greatest wines of France are held up for the world to admire. Winemakers elsewhere attempt to emulate them. merchants and auctioneers applaud the prices they bring. The foolish collect them like trinkets, hoping to resell them for profit. The wise savor them. When the wines are gone, they build a storehouse of memories, the only weapon with which the old can arouse jealousy in the young.
While much of the language of wine is Franch, a great deal of the romantic literature on the subject is in English. Bordeaux was English for three centuries or so and the English never have gotten over it! Their passion for "claret," particularly old claret, has been recorded in poetry and prose and unfortunately begat a line of wine snobs in that country and in ours whose influence has begun to wane only recently.
These men (another facet of wine snobbery has it that women are unfit companions for tasting and enlightened discourse on the subject) had a catechism. It is a document called the Classification of 1855, in which 60 wines of Bordeaux's Medoc region, one from Graves and nearly two dozen sauternes were listed. The reds were divided into five ranks, or "growths." Add to these another 20 or so red and white burgundies from a list drawn up in 1861, drink nothing else and you will understand why the world of wine was so uncomplicated to those who made it a religion.
Most books on wine pay ample homage to these wines. Specific vineyards and fondly remembered vintages are described in great detail.
But check the prices of classified bordeaux and great burgundy in local retail stores and you will understand one reason why they will not be the focus of this introduction to the French vineyard areas. Taste 1975 red bordeaux from a classified vineyard and you should quickly comprehend another reason. While it appears to be a certifiably great vintage, the wine still is extremely harsh and tannic. the novice won't like it - with reason. It's not wine to drink now, nor even five years from now.
There is a more recent, more comprehensive system of classification in France tht is a great deal more valuable to the average wine drinker. It is a two-tiered, voernment-endorsed demarcation and quality rating of the nation's vineyards. Since France produces more wine with a claim to distinction than any nation in the world, this ongoing rating game is no small task.
The vineyards judged capable of producing grapes for top quality wine are regulated under an Appellation d'Origine Controllee (or AOC) system that governs winemakers as well as growers. (Note my phrase "capable of producing." Nature may be willing, but man isn't always able to do his share! Vineyard farmers and winemakers can fall short of their potential, even given the best natural resources! not every AOC wine is a winner.)
"Appellation Controllee" on a label is a government guarantee that the wine really is what it says it is, that it has been made only from certain types fo grapes and within specific limits of production! this designation has been newly awarded to a number of vineyard areas in the past decade or so. Critics say this is due to political and commercial pressure. Defenders say it is a reflection of improved growing and wine-making technology.
The AOC may be a region (Bordeaux), an area (Medoc) or a township (Pauillac). In Burgundy, where the production areas are smaller, several vineyards have their own appellation! Clos de Vougeot is one. Chambertin Clos-de-Beze is another. As a rule of thumb, the more specific the appellation, the more expensive the wine.
Wines in a second rank are awarded the seal of Vins Delimites de Qualite Superieur. They are produced from grapes less noble than the chardonnay of Burgundy or the cabernet sauvignon of Bordeaux in vineyard areas less hallowed than those of Meursault or St. Julien. As the price of AOC wines has risen, it has become profitable - and therefore possible - to import CDQS wines to sell here in the $2.29 to $2.29 range. "Corbieres" and "Cotes du Provence" are two VDQS areas whose wines have found their way into retail shops!
In passing, you should make note of the term vins de pays. These are regional curiosities such as the vin jaune of the Jura. Their legends may loom large in books, but can diminish considerably upon tasting.
Of more importance are the anonymous vins ordinaires. About 75 percent of the wine produced in France is vin ordinaire, certified pure wine of no specific origin. A merchant buys it in bulk, blends it to suit his taste and sells it to bistros, bars and food stores throughout the country! Drunk casually with food or as a thirst-quencher, vin ordinaire is no more a conversation piece than is a soft drink in this country.
Sometime, a vin ordinaire will carry a brand and thereby become a vin de marque. Some of these are shipped to this country in liter or 1.5 liter bottles and sold as "jug" wines Chantfleur, La Fleur and Ecu Royal are examples.
It is here that an exploration of French wines can begin. Ask for a recommendation at a wine shop and take home a jug of red or white. Compare it for taste satisfaction an price with American or Italian or Spanish competitors.
If this class of French wine doesn't prove a good value, don't give up. There will be ample opportunity for France to redeem itself at higher price levels. On the other hand, if the wine you choose pleases you, don't be surprised if the taste seems different in a subsequent purchase! All these wines are blends and the recipe can change from batch to batch due to whim or the use of grapes of different quality.
Soon thereafter, you should sample a wine from Bordeaux. Not only is Bordeaux - located in the southwest of the country near the ocean - the world's most famous wine area, it is one of the largest. It is something of a paradox that although the region makes more white wine than red and white wine had become wildly popular in this country, Bordeaux's reputation here is based almost entirely on its reds.
The area is divided into five major sub-districts. These are the Medoc, Graves, St. Emilion, Pomerol and Entre-DeuxMers, which really is an area between two rivers.
The Medoc, a long, sandy peninsula jutting north toward the Atlantic, specializes in red wines. Its four famous townships cited in wine books are Margaux, St. Julien, paulliac and St. Estephe. They are home to many of the classified growths. The novice should try a regional Medoc and perhaps a wine from one or more of the towns! But learn some other names: Listrac: Cissac, Moulis and others produce so called cru bourgeois and petits chateaux wines that are better values for money than many of their more illustrious neighbors and in a given vintage may outperform quite a few of them as well.
Washington offers a truly impressive selection of these wines! Our local liquor laws allow retailers to import directly. This is a very competitive market ad half-a-dozen or more stores do so. They can deal with small, relatively unknown producers because, as single stores, they require less volume than a national distributor or even a local wholesaler! There are fewer markups along the way, so the price often is more attractive than that charged for wines in the bordeaux or bordeaux superieur categories from French shippers such as B&G or Calvet.
Some widely available petits chateaux and crus bourgeois that are highly regarded are: Meyney, Lescours, Greysac, Citran, Fourcas-Hostein, Timberlay, Cadillac.
Graves makes some distinctive and very good white wines, but they cost too much. It also is the home of Chateau Haut Brion> one of the five classified first growths and the first chateau wine mentioned in the English language (in Samuel Pepys diary 300 years ago.) History buffs notwithstanding, it costs too much, too. Slightly south of Graves is Sauternes, where luscious sweet wines are produced. More about them another time.
Across the Garrone River is the Entre-Deux-Mers, a large, hilly area where much of the red AOC bordeaux and bordeaux superieur (wine with slightly higher alcohol content) is produced. The best-known bordeaux brand is Mouton Cadet. For an estate wine of the region, try Chateau Toutigac, which makes both white and red.
East of the Entre-Deux-Mers id the town of St. Emilion. Remember the name. St. Emilion's wines are red and contain a large proportion of juice from the merlot grape. Most are soft and early maturing, usually ready to drink before their cabernet-dominated counterparts from the Medoc. A great deal of wine is made within the town and in small communes nearby. The creme-de-la-creme hereabouts is Chateau Cheval Blanc, and deservedly so. But begin more modestly. Ask a wine merchant for recommendations and judge him by the results. There are a myriad of St. Emilions available, some at very attractive prices, but only actual tasting will reveal to him which they are. If the wine man knows first hand what he is selling, you should do very well.
Though they are made from different grapes, St. Emilions often are suggested as substitutes for burgundies. In recent years, they have been better buys and of more dependable quality.
Pomerol, which also produces merlot-rich wines, is nearby. It was something of a backwater until its leading chateau, Petrus, began selling for as much or more than Lafite Rothschild and the other first-growth clarets. Naturally, the neighbors put up lace curtains and raised their prices, too. The economy-minded might look instead to a shipper's Pomerol or something from the less tony subdivision of Lalande de Pomerol. Once such wine found locally is Chateau Garraud.
Even further from the city of Bordeaux are other appellations whose names are becoming better known as prices soar. Bourg, Blaye and Fronsac produce good, sound wines than can be very satisfying to both palate and purse.
Vintage years are important in Bordeaux, though a single number rating on a vintage chart may be misleading. In any given year the whites maybe of different quality than the reds, St. Emilion and Pomerol may be superior or inferior to the Medoc, and Sauternes has to be judged independently. For reds, 1970 is excellent and 1971 is a good year, but are virtually unavailable at the lower end of the price scale. The unbalanced, acid 1972s are already all but forgotten. Ideally, 1973 and 1974 - both light, but fruity and early maturing - are the vintages for current drinking. Seeking them out may be difficult, however, because they never have been available here in great quantity. As mentioned earlier, 1975 is highly regarded, but slow maturing. Good advice will be needed to find wines from this vintage ready to be drunk with pleasure. A year from now, 1976 Bordeaux - a more forward year - might be choice. This fall only a few of the '76s are on local shelves.
The cost of French wines has accelerated so fast that long-time oenophiles are shaking their heads and drinking what's stored in their cellars. But enough others are buying to keep prices from collapsing. Shopping judiciously and reserving great bottles for great occasions is the sensible course to adopt.
Come to think of it, that's always been the sensible approach.