Appreciate French Wine

  • Four simple steps to wine tasting

    Look.

    Try to use a clear glass instead of a coloured one. Fill it 1/3 full; hold the glass by the stem or by the base to a good light; check that the wine is clean and clear (no impurities) then discern the depth of colour. 

    Swirl.

    Place the glass on the table and gently swirl the wine. The purpose is to air it so as to allow it to release its chemical compounds of aroma. Then take another look to see how the wine clings to the glass as it trickles down.

    Smell.

    Raise the glass and put your nose down to it for a deep sniff. Swirl a second time then sniff again. Let your smell sense the aroma that you detect. You may have read in wine books that hundreds of smells are suggested. Don’t let it affect you. You’re your best judge to decide which aroma (black currents, grapefruit, pepper, etc.) you find in your glass at this point.


    Taste.

    Now take a big enough sip and roll the wine around your mouth to reach all the taste buds; suck in some air to aerate the wine in your mouth some more; swallow the wine when you have arrived at the various flavours your smell and your taste of the wine tell you and see if there’s a lingering taste in your mouth and throat.

    You’ll know what your taste in wine is like after you’ve repeated these steps enough with wines from different region and different style made from different grapes. Once you reach this point you’ll be on your way to become the expert of your own taste for wine.

  • What is En Primeur

    This is a kind of commodity future applying to (red) wine.

    The principle is simple: buy a wine (at the most expensive end of the spectrum) while it is still undergoing maturing and before bottling at a price supposedly lower than the expected price when it is ready to deliver.

    The buyer pays a portion of the price sight-unseen up-front and in full when the wine is delivered, usually years later.

    This allows the producers to recoup some cost of production in advance. Nowadays mostly the top Chateaux wines are sold en primeur.

    But a new trend may be forming – in 2012 Chateau Latour opted out.

  • How wines are made

    The science (and art) of wine making nowadays is so advanced that it is almost impossible to churn out bad wine. The brief descriptions below are the procedure normally used in France.

    Making red wine

    Once the red grapes are picked they are rushed immediately to the winery where they are gently crushed to release the juice. The pulp and the juice (called the ‘must’) are fed into traditional wooden vats for fermentation. Fermentation is the chemical process to turn sugar content to alcohol, thus the juice to wine. It is necessary to stir often in order to push the red grape skins down to leach out the required colour and tannin. Yeast, sugar and other chemicals may be added to control the process. Once fermentation is finished the wine is blended with wines fermented from different grapes to arrive at the wine style of the region. However the wine is usually left to mature for a period from a few months to years (quality wine is aged in oak barrels). After maturation the red wine is ready to bottle.

    Making white wine

    The process is similar to that of making red wine except that the grape skins are taken out after crushing and pressing to leave the ‘must’ clear of colour. (Both red and white grapes can be used to make white wine.) Then fermentation begins with optional use of yeast, sugar, etc. Nowadays most white wines are fermented in huge stainless steel vats. Only the highest quality full-bodied whites are fermented in oak vats and then matured in oak barrels. The whites meant for early drinking are filtered and bottled for consumption within 6 months of harvest.

    Making rosé wine

    Making rosé is like half-way between making red and white wines. The red grape skins are allowed to stay in the juice for about 24 hours after crushing and pressing to result in a pinkish rose colour. The ensuing fermentation is similar to that of white wine. Bottling is immediate after without any maturation. French law does not allow rosé wine to be made by simply blending red wine with white as it is done in other countries (Rosé Champagne is the only exception).

    Making sparkling wine

    The difference here is the application of a second fermentation after the first. In bottles of young still white wine is added a dosage of sugar and yeast. The carbon dioxide it emits is trapped as bubbles in the bottle to finish as sparkling wine. In France this traditional method of second fermentation in the bottle must be followed in all AOC sparkling wines including Champagne. However this method is expensive and time-consuming as shown by the prices of Champagne. Less expensive methods use vast tanks for the second fermentation or simply by pumping carbon dioxide into still wines but the resulting products are never the same.

    Making sweet wine

    Sweet wines, usually white require increased natural sugar content in the grapes. To achieve this they are deliberately left on the vine to ripe and dry out. The fermentation procedure is the same of that of white wine but at the desired point where the sugar, acid and alcohol levels are in harmony the fermentation is halted.

    The best sweet wines, especially those from Bordeaux are made from grapes affected by the fungus Botrytis cinerea (the noble rot). It does not happen all the time but when the humidity and temperature are right the fungus would appear to attack and mould the grapes to ugly shrivels. The grapes are then picked and pressed and fermented. The best sweet wines such as Sauternes are almost always matured in oak barrels and some can last in maturation for over 20 plus years.

  • Know your grapes

    Grapes are the base ingredient of wine. While the soil, the climate and the expertise of growing and making wine matter too it is the grapes that provide the colour, the flavour and the taste. Therefore it is of interest for a wine lover to gain a fundamental knowledge of which grape (or grapes) is responsible for which wine.

    The dozen or so grapes cultivated to produce the classic French wines are referred as ‘noble grapes’. Here are some of the noblest of them all.

    White Grapes

    Chardonnay
    Perhaps the noblest of white grapes as it is used in making White Burgundy and Champagne. The range of flavours subscribed to it is citrus, apple, peach, toffee, vanilla and more.

    Sauvignon Blanc
    It is grown in Bordeaux and Bergerac but it expresses itself magnificently in the upper Loire Valley in the wines of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. The flavour is flinty and grassy, highly aromatic yet acidic.

    Sémillon
    This is the main stay of white grapes in Bordeaux where the sweet Sauternes and the dry Graves are made of. The flavour is that of citrus, honey and toast.

    Riesling
    This grape is unique in France to Alsace producing one of the best dry white wines of the country. It also produces a late-harvest sweet wine which compares well with the best sweet wine of France, the Sauternes. The flavour is described as green apple and orange as well as a bit mineral.

    Viognier
    This grape is a rarity. It is responsible for Condrieu, an elegantly dry, full-bodied, flagrant, pricey white wine produced only in a small patch on the Rhône Valley south of Lyon. In the south of France vineyards are growing this grape but without the same success. The flavour is one of apricot and peaches.

    Chenin Blanc
    The one white grape immediately associated the Loire Valley as it is grown rarely elsewhere. It produces the quality dry wine of Vouvray as well as famous sweet wine of the Loire. The flavour is apple-y, a bit nutty and honey when sweet.

    Red Grapes

    Cabernet Sauvignon
    It is considered the noblest of red grapes as it is responsible for almost all the Classed Growth Chateaux red wines of Médoc in Bordeaux. Its high tannin content allows the wine to age for up to 20 years or more. The flavour is widely described as black-currant, green pepper, chocolate and tobacco.

    Cabernet Franc
    The poor cousin of Cabernet Sauvignon is used to improve the blend in Bordeaux. However it comes into its own in the Loire Valley where it is used in the wines of Chinon and Bourgeuil. The property and flavour are similar to Cabernet Sauvignon but less pronounced.

    Merlot
    This is the most widely grown red grape in Bordeaux (and elsewhere in France). It is used as a minority blend in Médoc while in Pomerol and St. Emilion of Bordeaux it is the leading grape. Its flavour is one of plums and black-currants.

    Pinot Noir
    This is the noble red grape of Burgundy and Champagne responsible for some of the most expensive wines in the world. The wine is light in colour, low in tannin and acid. When the conditions are good the wine is glorious otherwise it can be mundane. The flavour is that of cherries and berries.

    Syrah
    This noble red grape of the northern Rhone Valley is responsible for the quality and expensive wines of Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage. The wine is deep in colour, full-bodied and alcoholic with great ageing possibility. The flavour is one of spices, black-currants and berries.

    Grenache
    This is the grape of the south of the Rhone Valley (and widely planted in the south of France) responsible for great wines such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas. It has a flavour of pepper and berries.

  • How to serve wine

    The ritual of wine serving in expensive restaurants – the sommelier, the silver chain with the silver tasting spoon, the decanting, the smelling of the cork, etc. - that many of you have come across is just that: a ritual to justify the expense. For drinking at home you could be excused not to copy this elaboration. Yet there are a few things we ought to know.

    Wine temperature:

    Text books will tell you that white wines should be served between 6-11degrees Celsius and red wines at 16-19 degrees. So put your refrigerator to good use to get your wine close to this range before serving.

    Serving more than one wine:

    If you have a few wines to serve the simple rule is always: serve white before red, dry before sweet, young before old, light before heavy. Decanting is optional at home but if you have an elegant decanter I don’t see why not. It would only add pleasure to the enjoyment.

    Glasses:

    How this is often neglected. Good wine glasses are essential to express the colour, the taste and smell of the wine. Many shapes and sizes are available but you really need 3 to cover the whole gamut: a generous sized round glass for red wine, a slightly smaller one for white and for champagne a tall slender tulip- shaped flute. The glasses should all be plain and colourless in order for you to see the wine clearly.

     

Added to cart

c