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Untangled Vine

An attempt to sort through all things wine. Specifically of, and about, but not limited to: Food and Wine in Toledo, Ohio. Plus the day to day musings of a Wine Distributor...

The Once & Future King

The once and future King…

Are you finished with your Freedom Fries yet? Good, because it’s time to revisit French Wines. Regardless of your politics, it is absolutely essential to understand and appreciate French Wines.

Now I know that the French can be infuriating. I worked for French Chefs for nearly 7 years. Some I hated (I mean, curl up in a fetal position sobbing myself to sleep, hated), and some were inspiring (Michel Richard, not to name drop, but I have to give credit to where credit is due). The French culture has such an acute understanding of wine and food. It is in their blood. The French can be an easy target. Nobody said they were tactful, that’s why we have Switzerland. But, the French are not just historically significant; they make the absolute best examples of most of your favorite varietals.

California stands on the shoulders of wine giants in most cases. Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and many more grapes that we think of as inherently California, are actually French. I love California, I lived there very happily for many years and most of my friends are in the industry, but it’s not quite the same as in France.

So the birthplace of all of the aforementioned grapes has learned where to grow these grapes through hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of years of successes and failures. What that means is that most vineyards in France have the perfect varietal for that location. In the U.S. we only have the benefit of the 20th century. In California, vintners are constantly pulling up vines, and replanting, in hopes of finding the right grapes for the right place. Furthermore, these are varietals that have great names in France, but, in theory, may not be best the best grapes for the job in California. But because of varietal name recognition, we continue to buy subpar versions of many of these grapes.

The best example of the difference between French and American winegrowing (it’s really about the growing, not the winemaking) is in Chardonnay. Chardonnay is a very divisive varietal, most people love it, or hate it. But, many people are only familiar with California versions. The best Chardonnay in the world (this is a widely held belief), is from Burgundy. Yes, white Burgundy is not a Crayola Contradiction. The reason Chardonnay is so great in Burgundy is 2 reasons, long, cool growing season, a long growing season does the same thing for grapes that slow cooking does for meat, it brings out subtle characteristics, and generally makes flavors more unified. As well as helping the grapes to attain natural acidity, which is a vital structural component. And second, the soil composition. The soils in Burgundy are wrought with fossilized sea shells. This affects the drainage of the soil, as well as contributing to the ph of the wine. Again, acidity. Generalization Alert! Drink a California Chardonnay side by side with an equally priced French Wine. You will find that the California Chardonnay tastes like tropical fruit, with accents of vanilla, oak and butter (depending on the winemaking style). Can be very tasty, but is sometimes difficult to pair with food because it is missing structural components. That French Chardonnay from Burgundy will show more subtle fruit, most likely, sweet melon, maybe peaces, ripe citrus fruits, a real sense of minerality, and a mouth watering acidity, that makes it perfect for food pairing. The winemaking can often be similar, the difference is soil and climate. Technology will never replace this.

I do drink California wines, and I truly enjoy them, and sometimes it is a question of which wine I am in the mood for. I am simply trying to illustrate a sense of diversity. Wine should not be a political football. It should be something for the people from all winegrowing regions of the world to share. Boycotting French wines didn’t affect governments, but it put many Family Owned Wineries and Vineyards out of business. Not rich multinational companies, but working class farmers that only knew winegrowing for many generations back. But the real tragedy (maybe Instant Karma) is that Americans stopped experiencing many great wines from the greatest winegrowing country in the world.
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