I’ll confess that one of the perks of this job is the almost unceasing flow of wine samples for review that make their way to my post office box. Accordingly, I don’t buy a lot of wine, but when I do, it’s usually foreign. And cheap.
I’m not the only one. Australia’s strong dollar combined with the weak euro have led to more and more wines from Europe, and France in particular, being imported by the big chains and an ever-growing group of small, specialist importers.
For about $20 you can pick up a bottle of wine similar to what you might find at a bistro in a little town in the French countryside, albeit for a handful of euros. These days in Melbourne it’s possible to have a glass of decent Bordeaux with your chops on a Thursday night and follow up with a vouvray with Friday’s fish and chips.
The imports fall into two categories: affordable entry-level offerings from France’s premier regions, such as Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhône Valley, and wines from lesser-known regions, such as the Loire Valley and the southern regions of Languedoc and Roussillon.
A few of these wines are packaged for foreign markets and spell out the grape varieties on the bottle, but most bear their French label – and let’s face it, French labels can be bloody confusing.
A good start is to get to grips with what grapes are grown in the various French regions, but there’s far more to deciphering the code of a French wine label. Luckily, you don’t need a degree in French to understand them, and once you know what to look for it’s really rather easy.
The key items to identify are producer, region, vintage and alcohol. If you’re lucky, the grape variety will be labelled. There’s also the name of the winemaker and, in the case of top-tier wines, the name of the vineyard and whether the wine was bottled at the winery or at a co-operative.
If vieilles vignes appears on the label, the grapes will be from vines planted more than 35 years ago and the wines are likely to have a core of concentrated flavour due to the fact that older vines produce fewer grapes.
See blanc de blancs on the label and you know the wine is made from white grapes – you’ll usually see this on Champagne – while blanc de noirs indicates a white wine made with red grapes (the juice in most grapes is clear and wine’s colour comes from the skins).
Get the region right and you’re halfway there to making an informed decision. Here’s a list of the most common grapes from the most well-known regions:
Alsace \ Riesling, pinot gris, pinot blanc and gewurztraminer
Burgundy \ Chardonnay and pinot noir
Bordeaux \ Cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc for reds, semillon and sauvignon blanc for whites
Champagne \ Chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier
Rhône \ Primary reds are shiraz, grenache and mourvedre, straight or as blends, while whites include the textural viognier, marsanne and roussanne.
Look to the Loire Valley, too, for interesting wines. You’ll find sauvignon blanc in the whites of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, while in Vouvray it’s chenin blanc (white) and cabernet franc (red). Anjou makes cheerful rosé from cab franc, which is also the dominant red in Chinon. Further south along the Loire, there’s the Muscadet region, where the wines made of melon de bourgogne are a perfect match with oysters straight from the shell.
Francois Pinon Vouvray Silex Noir 2010
(Vouvray, France) $34; 12.5%
From Vouvray in the Loire Valley, where the wines are made from chenin blanc. There’s a lot of bang for your buck here. It’s complex, with bright aromas of stonefruit, pear blossom, spice and a freshly painted room, although it’s comforting and organic rather than a chemical smell. Sweet honey, ripe peach and pear are nicely balanced with zesty citrus and mineral flavours. It’s smooth, too, with the flavours hanging over a spine of bright acidity.
Food match \ Grilled rabbit
Vieux Naudin Bordeaux Superieur 2009
(Bordeaux, France) $20.50; 13.5%
Bordeaux has had a string of good vintages (each new one seems to be dubbed the “vintage of the century”) and ’09 was a very good one. Top vintages and a strong dollar means we’re seeing a load of new wines just like this. A blend of 80 per cent merlot,
15 per cent cab sav and 5 per cent cabernet franc, this has layered aromas of red berries, blackberry, earth and graphite, which are mirrored on the light-bodied, savoury palate. Smooth, with fine, chewy tannins and refreshing acidity, it’s crying out to be served with a Sunday roast-lamb lunch.
Food match \ Roast lamb
Domaine de la Majone Coteaux du Languedoc Picpoul de Pinet 2010
(Languedoc, France) $21.50; 12.5%
The grape is picpoul blanc and in the local Occitan language it means “lip stinger” – it gets the name for its naturally brisk acidity. It didn’t sting my lips, but it did get the tastebuds racing. Quite floral, it smells and tastes of fresh-cut pear and apple, wax, minerals, lemon and honey, along with a light background yeastiness. It’s intense and racy, for sure, but it is balanced and crisp, with dry, chalky acid and a smooth texture. It finishes clean and refreshing.
Food match \ Fried whitebait
Philippe Bouzereau Chateau de Citeaux Bourgogne Rouge 2009
(Burgundy, France) $32.50; 12.5%
Bourgogne rouge is pinot noir, as this label spells out, and this is a wine that needs a few hours in the decanter to flesh out and reveal its charms. Perfumed, it has earthy raspberry, blueberry, cherry, lavender and spice aromas and flavours. Savoury and almost demanding food, this is smooth, with taut, mineral-edged acid and powdery tannins. It’s an intriguing wine, with a decent finish, too. A delight to drink on the second day after opening.
Food match \ Roast venison fillet
Love a bargain
Le Chat Noir Shiraz 2011
(Aude Valley, France) $17; 13.5%
The Aude Valley is in the south-west corner of France, near the walled town Carcassonne. Warm days and cool nights have produced a wine that shows characters of both. Aromas and flavours of plum, blackberry and blueberry speak of sunshine, while pepper, spice and cured-meat notes hint at cooler nights. Smooth, balanced and with a soft tannic grip, it’s a better wine than the price suggests – my wife was shocked when I told her what a bottle costs – and worth stocking up on.
Food match \ Steak haché