* My Scottish (non-French) historian friend often reminds me that French wines and French food go together well for a simple reason. The Romans planted the vines centuries ago and the great Florentine noble Catherine de Medici brought her famed chefs and culinary fashion with her from Italy to France in the 16th century. From there the Italians pulled the French out of the Dark Ages of food preparation and into a Renaissance of cuisine. The following six wines epitomize some of the best values the French have to offer. All are readily available in the Knoxville market and are great food wines. Enjoy.
ALSACE: 2004 Hugel Gewurztraminer ($17)
For centuries the French and the Germans have battled for and swapped out the rights to a nice swatch of land called the Alsace. Known for its dry white wines, the region boasts some great producers including Hugel, Zind Humbrecht and Trimbach to name a few. One of these whites, the gewürztraminer, often receives much acclaim for its “spiciness” which balances perfectly with its subtle sweetness. Logically then, it’s often paired up with spicy foods, like a nice Thai curry dish from Stir Fry Café (West Hills location).
The 2004 Hugel Gewurztraminer has floral and mineral notes with flavors of pears, apples and stone fruit. It is light and refreshingly clean with only a trivial hint of honey. My former colleague, Erin, who has an affinity for apples, suggests pairing it up with grilled chicken that’s been marinated in Paul Newman’s Sun-dried Tomato Vinaigrette.
LOIRE VALLEY: 2004 La Craie Vouvray ($12)
The Loire Valley is the premier wine-growing region in the northwestern part of France. One of the things to keep in mind about French wines is that they are identified by location or village. Not surprisingly, to know the region often means knowing which grapes are in the bottle of that difficult-to-decipher French label. Take the 2004 La Craie Vouvray for example: Vouvray is a village nestled in the eastern part of the Loire Valley and is made from the Chenin Blanc grape. So, even if you don’t know the language, you can still determine what’s in the bottle.
The 2004 La Craie Vouvray is a drier style white that I’ve discovered to be a wonderful aperitif wine. The name “La Craie” means the chalk and is derived from the chalky soil located in the village of Vouvray. If you’re looking for something to start off a dinner party that pairs well with cheeses and fresh fruit, then this wine is the ideal complement. It has mineral and floral aromas and a soft lingering acidity. It’s like sweet tarts for the adult palate.
WHITE BURGUNDY: 2005 Olivier Leflaive Les Setilles ($15)
On to Burgundy we go, or if you were in France, it would be pronounced Bourgogne. White wines made in Burgundy mean that you’re more than likely enjoying a nice glass of Chardonnay. This is true of our next great white wine, the 2005 Les Setilles from renowned producer Olivier Leflaive. The grapes in this wine come from the esteemed villages of Puligny-Montrachet and Meursault. Typically, that should translate to a more expensive price tag but in this case it fortunately does not. The name “Les Setilles” comes from the location where Napoleon Bonaparte once established a settlement camp prior to his invasion of Burgundy.
However, unlike French military endeavors, this wine is a never a loser. The 2005 Les Setilles has understated creamy aromas, crisp acidity and a balanced almost crystal clean finish. So, do what Napoleon would do if he were around today; boil up some shellfish from the Shrimp Dock, slide an old 45 of Edith Piaf onto the turn table, pop open a bottle of Les Setilles and toast to an early Spring (just like it was Russia, circa 1812 all over again).
RED BURGUNDY: 2004 Joseph Drouhin La Foret ($15)
If you’ll remember that white Burgundy is Chardonnay, then you might also note that red Burgundy is the Pinot Noir grape. That’s right. The wine that Miles from the movie Sideways made popular here in the States has been a part of French culture since the Romans swept through the region a few thousand years ago.
The 2004 La Foret from Joseph Drouhin is a great entry level Burgundy and a model wine to express the French style of Pinot Noir. Not as fruity and luscious as a domestic Pinot Noir, it has more muted nuances of red cherry and a somewhat earthier finish. La Foret, or the forest as it’s translated, has gentle tannins that make it precariously easy to drink. When it comes to cuisine, Miles would almost certainly snarl at my suggestion of paring it with grilled salmon, but then again he snarled at everything.
SOUTHERN RHONE: 2003 Paul Jaboulet Cotes du Ventoux ($11) and
2004 Beaumes de Venise ($14)
The southeastern part of France is a hotbed for popular and inexpensive French reds and one of the areas best producers is Paul Jaboulet. His 2003 Cotes du Ventoux blends a sweet marriage of Grenache and Syrah and is ready to go from the start. Aromas of blueberry give way to a jammy medium-bodied palate and a pleasantly dry close. You can’t miss seeing this bottle on the wine shelf as its brilliant violet label stands out from the traditional French wine labels.
Another southern Rhone that has everything going for it is the 2004 Beaumes de Venise by Jaboulet. Its high level of freshness and quality (at a fraction of what the cost would be for a similar bottle from California) is comparable to a French rifle. It’s never been fired and dropped only once! The Beaumes de Venise is another predominantly Grenache/Syrah blend with garnet color, deep fruit aromas and a smooth consistent tannin structure. My new friend, Vanessa, called this a sexy wine with bright vibrant fruit that beckons for heavier foods. It will definitely call you back for more.
NORTHERN RHONE: 2003 Guigal Croze-Hermitage ($20)
OK, it’s obvious by now that the French make better wine than war. And if you’re willing to pay a little more to have one of these first class wines this weekend, then the Croze Hermitage by Etienne Guigal is just what the wine doctor ordered. This Syrah based wine has powerful, intense aromas of black currant and leather, flavors of plum and black cherry, and is not for the novice wine drinker. It has firm tannins, that when first opened, make the wine seem a little tight. However, with a little patience this northern Rhone delight opens up and makes for an exceptional companion to braised osso bucco with risotto Milanese. Bon Apetite!
*A version of this column was published in 2007 in the Knoxville News Sentinel