French make more wine than anyone else, some so sublime it defines wine at its best, some so mundane French distill it into biofuel.
Given range between great and ghastly and a labyrinthine labeling system, understanding French wine is a challenge. Voila! Three-part primer, starting with two must-knows:
Bordeaux. Southwest France, named for port city of Bordeaux, home of many of world’s best, longest-lived wines and most famous wineries. Bordeaux divides into two regions separated by the Garonne and Dordogne rivers and the Gironde Estuary (where the two rivers flow into the Atlantic).
On the right bank (east side of Dordogne), clay soil makes Merlot and Cabernet Franc the principle grapes. On the left bank (west side of Garonne/Gironde), gravely soil makes Cabernet Sauvignon the main grape. In Sauternes, southernmost reach of left bank, Sémillon and Sauvgnon Blanc grapes make astonishingly delicious desert wines that can age a century or longer.
Burgundy. Middle of France, southeast of Paris, named for Germanic Burgundian tribe. Pinnacle of Pinot Noir, chatelaine of Chardonnay, high temple of terroir. Burgundy is minutely divided—some holdings are single vineyard row—engendering confusion (the average Burgundy winery makes 50-1,000 cases; average Bordeaux winery makes 15,000-20,000 cases).
Burgundy production is just one-fourth of Bordeaux and split equally between reds and whites. Beaujolais in southernmost part of Burgundy is distinctively different with Gamay the lead grape instead of Pinot Noir/Chardonnay. While Bordeaux wines can age for decades (even centuries), in general, drink Burgundies within 10 years of vintage.
• Château Sissan, Grand Reserve Bordeaux. Powerful, full-bodied, firm tannins, harmonious. $14
• Château Lagarosse Premieres Cotes de Bordeaux. Light, toasty oak and chocolate, medium body, fine tannins; Wine Spectator 87 points. $16
•Verget Bourgogne Blanc. White Burgundy; coats palate with pears, candy apples, butter. $20