When I am asked “what is a great French wine to start exploring” most people find it shocking I recommend one of the most difficult to pronounce: Chateauneuf-du-Pape, this French wine appellation is the gateway to all that is beautiful in French wine and everyone deserves to be drinking this gem.
Let’s start with the pronunciation, “shah/toh/nuf dew pahp.”
Chateauneuf-du-Pape is a French appellation in the Southern Rhone known for its grenache based red blends. If you are looking at a map, it is just north of Avignon very close to Provence. Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines include about 13 different grapes but don’t worry about memorizing details and just remember grenache because nearly 75% are dedicated to this grape.
The history and growing of this wine are just as intriguing as the wine. The name means, “pope’s new castle.” In 1308, Pope Clement V relocated the papacy to the town of Avignon. It’s said the Pope was a lover of Burgundy wines but at the time the vineyards around Avignon were not even slightly comparable to the legendary wines of Burgundy. John XXII succeeded Clement and was also an admirer of the great wines of France. He did a lot to improve viticulture practices and is famous for building the castle which still stands as a symbol to the appellation.
For me it’s the dedicated viticulture practices giving me the most appreciation when I enjoy a glass from this region. The vineyard soils are layered with stones called galets. The stones are key for the vineyards’ survival. During the day they receive ample sunshine and at night they retain heat and continue to slowly ripen the grapes. The region also has a unique terroir with its intense mistral winds. Because of the intense winds the vines are pruned as bushes to limit damage. These winds also remove moisture from the vines creating a drier climate for the vine growth.
A great bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape is bursting with plummy fruit flavors, rich raspberries with a touch of herbs (sage, lavender and rosemary), game and leather. And if all of that were not enough it finishes with a sweet-strawberry taste balanced perfectly with a tannic structure and noticeable alcohol level. Depending on the age and vintage of your bottle it can range from sweet to savory.
So, if you simply practice the phonetics in order to pronounce this wine for buying, I promise it will be your new French favorite.
- 2015 Telegramme Chateauneuf du Pape, France (about $50 retail)
- 2015 Mont Redon Chateauneuf du Pape, France (about $65 retail)
You may have seen the words “sur lie” on the label of wine bottles. Sur lie is French for “on the lees,” but what exactly are wine lees and what do they do?
Simply put lees are sediment and sur lie means the wine was aged with this sediment.
As a wine ferments the lees fall to the bottom of the tank in two stages. The first is known as “gross lees” and the other “fine lees.”
Gross lees are the heavier particles made of leftover sediment such as stems, seeds, pulp and even dirt. These are generally racked off — racking is the process of moving wine from one barrel to another using a siphon and gravity rather than a pump to avoid stirring up sediment (i.e. lees) — immediately after fermentation. Too much contact with gross lees can be harmful to wine and lead to spoilage or undesirable flavors.
Fine lees, composed primarily of dead yeast cells, are quite desirable. Contact with fine lees is an important part of the winemaking process as fine lees impart complexity and richness to a wine.
For white wines, a key function in keeping a wine on the lees is for oxygen absorption. This acts to protect a wine from oxidation and preserve youthful and fresh characteristics. The key is the amount of time and the balance in stirring these dead yeasts. The perfect technique will give wines an added texture and generally make the wine smoother on the palate. Another technique in this process is “batonnage” where the settled lees are stirred in the wine. It is important in the process because it promotes integration and keeps the lees from compacting and bringing in undesired hydrogen sulfide odors.
Another technique is autolysis. It may not sound enticing, but this process involves the decaying dead yeast cells bursting, and thus imparting flavor to the wine. Some of the greatest Champagnes can spend decades in the process as they mature in bottles inside cellars. The yeast cells die in the bottle once sugar has been consumed — ending the second fermentation. This means that these wines are coming into close contact with fine lees left in the bottle and over time this is what creates the flavors of biscuits and bread we love so much in these exceptional wines.
- 2015 Charles and Charles Chardonnay, California (about $15 retail)
- 2015 Sauvion Muscadet Sevre-et-Maine, France (about $17 retail)
- 2014 FEL Chardonnay, California (about $32 retail)
- 2013 Hahn SLH Chardonnay, California (about $20 retail)
- 2015 La Cana Albarino, Spain (about $19 retail)
There is just something about wines from France. Don’t get me wrong, I love all wine regions, but French wine — whether it’s the long-held associations of romance or France’s distinct sense of place — hold a special appeal.
A recent visit to Arkansas from Gerard Bertrand of Gerard Bertrand Winery, confirmed my preference for these consistent and true wines.
As is the case with most successful brands, there is a story behind the person and vision. Gerard Bertrand’s father began young Bertrand’s wine education at the tender age of 10. Today he is recognized not only as an owner of some of the most exceptional wineries in the south of France but for his dedication to the unique terroir of southern France. He was raised in the vineyards of the Languedoc-Roussillon area and continued to pursue his passion there. Before taking over the family winery upon his father’s death, Bertrand was a professional rugby player for RC Narbonne and Stade Francais.
His wines express the diversity of each terroir of the southern French regions. The portfolio of wines the company offers is extensive, ranging from dry and sweet; sparkling and still; red, white and rose.
Many may look more to Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhone for their French wines, but I urge you to reconsider. It may not be as well-known, but I have always looked to the Languedoc-Roussillon region for uniqueness and exceptional value. By value, I don’t necessarily mean inexpensive. It’s more about the quality of what you are getting in the bottle. Many of these wines are a style we are more familiar with in the Rhone region, where prices can be almost double.
The portfolio of Gerard Bertrand is extensive, so you have lots of exploring ahead. But here are two to get you started, keeping in mind the unique nature of why I love these wines: Each wine conveys its distinct sense of place.
- 2016 Gerard Bertrand Perles de Sauvignon Blanc (about $20 retail)
- 2013 Domaine de Villemajou Grand Vin (about $50 retail)
France and grape vines have been entwined since Roman times. The vineyards not only produce some of the world’s greatest wines, they are also a vital part of France’s economy, culture and gastronomy. Sometimes as wine drinkers we find ourselves only buying familiar brands and we forget the distinctive expression of French wines.
Most French winemakers work by the principle of a specific place or territory known as terroir. The idea is that wine is primarily an expression of place, soil, slope and sun; the actual grape variety comes second to all of these in importance. Unlike winemakers in most other growing regions of the world, French winemakers choose a terroir and then the grape, focusing on the impact of the best of its expression.
Another unique aspect to French wines is that the quality wine system is based on appellations — carefully designated geographical zones — maintained by traditions of unique grapes and methods of cultivation and winemaking. This system is carefully and strictly regulated down to the method of watering. The end results of these regulations are distinct, local styles identifiable to the regions.
These are some of my favorite French wines.
- 2014 Louis Jadot Beaujolais Villages (about $14 retail)
- 2015 Chateau Bonnet Bordeaux (about $16 retail)
- 2013 Parallele 45 Cotes du Rhone (about $15 retail)
- 2014 Les Garrigues Cotes du Rhone (about $15 retail)
- 2014 Chateau Pilet Bordeaux (about $15 retail)
- 2012 Baron de Luze Bordeaux (about $14 retail)
- 2014 La Crele Sancerre, (about $30 retail)
- 2012 Feraud-Brunel Chateauneuf du Pape (about $45 retail)
- 2012 Chateau de Belle-vue St. Emilion (about $36 retail)
- 2012 Chateau Blaignan Bordeaux (about $21 retail)
- 2014 Chateau Greysac Medoc, (about $25 retail)
- 2015 Marc Bredif Vouvray (about $26 retail)
- 2012 Chateau Picque Caillou Pessac-Leognan (about $40 retail)
- 2015 Chateau de Sancerre (about $28 retail)