In which I begin to tackle French wine. And discover a lovely new local one.

The problem with people knowing I occasionally write about food and wine is that they think I know quite a bit on the subject.  To be honest, I really only know about the food and wine I either like or have worked with.  Which up until now, has not been French wine. If I’m going to be fully honest here,  I am slightly intimidated by French wines – the appellations (a defined regional area), the Crus (still trying to grasp that one) the pronunciations (I butcher anything longer than a 2 cent word in my native tongue, my pronunciation of French is abysmal despite 3 years of French), the fact that French wines are among some of the most respected and most expensive wines in the world – I have at best, a rudimentary knowledge of French wines.  I know just a little bit about  Bourdeaux and Burgundies, that only French winemakers in a particular region produce true Champagne and that Cotes-du-Rhone and Chateneauf-du-Pape are regions for wine in France, but beyond that, I don’t know much about French wines.

I work at a restaurant that has a big emphasis on French wines on their wine list.  Thankfully, I have only once been asked by a table to recommend a bottle and they were looking for a French wine that resembled a Pinot Noir.  I merely pointed to the list of Burgundies, explained that anything from Burgundy was a Pinot Noir and they were satisfied to select a wine on their own from there.  I can mostly fake my way through the food menu, with a few smaller exceptions – like knowing what Vialone Nano Rice is (it’s an Italian rice developed sometime around the 1930’s or 40’s, in the area around the city of Verona.  The grains are small, round and fairly uniform in size, giving it a more even rate of absorption and expansion, resulting in a superior risotto.) or being able to properly pronounce the word “profiteroles“.

I worked Friday night and as the front of the house staff tasted some of the new wines by the glass on the menu, my manager Josh asked me what I knew about Cotes-du-Rhone wines.  Uhm, it’s a region in France?

Saturday afternoon, I looked at my to-do list, currently about 3 pages long, and decided I needed to educate myself on Cotes-du-Rhone wine, letting it be a stepping stone to learning more about French wine.  So Saturday afternoon, I curled up with my stack of wine books and read.

Cotes-du-Rhone wines hail from the Rhone wine region in France, located around the Rhone River, in the Southeastern France, adjacent to it’s borders with Switzerland and Italy.  Cotes-du-Rhone is specifically from the southern portion of the region, between Lyon in the north and Avigon in the south.  Most of the wines produced in this region are blended reds, with the primary grape being Grenache, a grape that is high in alcohol content and low in tannins, making it soft on the palate.  It is most often blended with Syrah, known as Shiraz in Australia in addition to other lesser known varietals, such as Mourvedre (also known as Monastell).  Best of all, Cotes-du-Rhone wines are inexpensive, often found in my favorite under $15 category.   Because of the variation in geography covered in the large areas that produce Cotes-du-Rhones, the wines will have varying degrees of berries, spice and smokiness. For pairing, think hearty, country meals and aromatic herbs.  Cassoulets, burgers, bacon, lamb, mushrooms, eggplants, onions, olives and rosemary.

Cotes-du-Rhone Villages is wine made from 95 villages in the Cotes-du-Rhone subregion that are subject to stricter regulation and are considered a higher quality wine.  Additionally, there are two villages, Gigondas and Vacqueyras, whose wine has earned their own appellations.  Which bring me to the wine I tasted Friday night at l’etoile.

photo(3)Les Amis de la Bouussiere,  a Gigondas wine and a great value from what I read.  It’s a Grenache, Syrah, Merlot blend.  It’s smooth and fruity with just the right amount of tannins.

photo(2)Also new on the wine list at l’etoile is a delightful local white wine, “Green” by Cardinal Point Winery.  This wine intrigued me.  It is a blend of Petit Manseng and Chardonnay.  I knew of Petit Maseng, but I wasn’t overly familiar with it.  Rifling through my wine library Saturday, I found almost no reference of the varietal outside of dessert wines – and this wine was most certainly not a sweet dessert wine.  Petit Manseng is often harvested late, allowing more sugars to set up, so that the resulting wine is heavy and sweet.  Green was anything but – on the winery’s website, the wine is described as being inspired by Vino Verde – admittedly, one of my favorite afternoon wines in summer – and the resulting wine is light & crisp with mineral notes.  At $16/bottle, this wine is definitely not only fits into my budget, but is going on the list of Virginia wines I give as gifts. I may have a new favorite local white.

The Saturday afternoon study session paid off when I walked in the restaurant Saturday afternoon and was almost immediately quizzed by Chef Ian on the new wines and pairing suggestions. After failing to know what Vialone Nano Rice was the night before, it was good to live up to my reputation as someone who knows her food & wine.

6 thoughts on “In which I begin to tackle French wine. And discover a lovely new local one.

  1. suzicate says:

    You sound quite knowledgeable to me!
    I’ve always considered you to be “a woman in the know”.
    I love how you are unafraid to learn new things; you just dig right in! I think Edie took after you in this department.

  2. Cassi says:

    So, what about buying French wines to drink immediately? I’ve always heard that French wines in my price range (similar to yours) need to be put away for a few years to reach their full potential?

  3. WRD says:

    Weather and planetary geography (longitude and lattitude) are other good factors to look at when researching grapes. You will see some striking correlations. Love the Cote’s, BTW.

  4. melissawest says:

    I’m so impressed!
    My pal Kara swears by blends, too.
    I hope I get to try that white wine next month when I visit Virginia!

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