Wine for Normal People (french wine)

Sometimes I need a hearty, fruit filled, bone-warming wine to sip on. And when the weather is cool, that’s often all I’ll grab. But after I’ve downed big reds from warm places around the (mostly NEW) world with higher alcohol that will make me feel warm, I’m left wanting a little something with more complexity. Something that’s less fruity. A wine that seems hearty but has an element of surprise – maybe that hit of terroir or something that keeps on giving me something new with each sip. And that’s when I grab a Bandol (BAHN-dol), a Mourvèdre based red wine from Provence in Southern France.

 

Amidst the lavender, olives, soaps, and beautifully patterned fabrics oh, and rosé, there’s this small, high quality region.

 

If you know anything about wine in Provence than you probably associate it with rosé. And rightfully so: 80% of wine produced here is pink. The market demands it and Provence delivers, in spades. But there’s more than just those lovely salmon colored beauties here: 15% of the wine from Provence is red and it isn’t the refreshing, light partner of rosé. This is big, balls-out stuff mainly from three red wine areas: Cassis, Bellet, and Bandol, with the latter being the only one I’ve been able to find often in a wine shop in the US.

 

Bandol’s wines are mainly made from the very powerful, luscious Mourvèdre (moo-VED-rrr) grape. It’s a plummy, herbal, licorice-flavored, woodsy grape that’s rarely bottled alone because it is so powerful. Mourvèdre is so strong that it can’t be without oak aging to tame its tannins and in the bottle, wines made of it can age for 15 years and may still not be ready!

 

Growing in tight little bushes that can stand up to the heavy, ferocious gusts of cold wind that come from northern continental Europe (the Mistral) this tough, muscly grape produces a small amount of potent wine. And because of its power, the grape is mainly used in blends to add a kick to wines that otherwise may lack tannins and brawn (Mourvèdre is a big component in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, for example, and many Côtes du Rhône).

 

But when it’s the star of the show, it needs to be tempered so in Bandol, where wines contain a minimum of 50% Mourvèdre, but can be up to 100%, the grape is usually blended with Grenache and Cinsault, which soften up the bold, tannic, and kind of meaty flavors of the lead grape. Syrah can be used to add depth of flavor (black pepper and other types of herbal notes) and Carignan adds fruit and juiciness and softens the toughness of the Mourvèdre, which in addition to its strong flavor can be tannic and unforgiving. As an aside, if it’s listed, the percentage of Mourvèdre can be a tip off as to how long to hold it before you drink it – more Mourvèdre = more aging.

 

History

But let’s get off the grapes and onto the region, which I think needs a dork out moment of its own, since we HAVE TO give props to one of the oldest winemaking regions in France.

 

Winemaking started here about 2,600 years ago, most likely when the Phoenicians sailed from modern-day Lebanon and took over the area we now know as Provence. They saw great potential for one of their cash crops here (wine) and likely brought Monastrell from Spain (which is Mourvedre’s name in the Iberian Peninsula), where their Phoenician brethren had already been making wine for several centuries in a similar climate. 

 

When they arrived in the Gulf of Bandol, we can only guess that they were thrilled. They found the ideal place for vineyards: an area with a natural amphitheater created by mountains on three sides and easy access from the vineyards right out to the Gulf. Cha-ching! They could easily export their wine to far flung places and make cash without much transportation overhead (inland locales like Champagne or Burgundy required a trip down a river or over land— why waste the time when Bordeaux and Bandol were basically on the ocean?)

 

The Romans agreed with the Phoenician’s assessment of the wine quality and worked on painstakingly building stone terraces into the mountainside (which are called restanques and are still used today) and they further built the reputation of this small enclave.

 

Things trucked along for Bandol, with Louis XV being a famous fan, until the late 1800s when phylloxera hit and nearly all of the vineyards were destroyed.

 

But growers in this region weren’t giving up after that vine murderer came to town. The winegrowing areas were too good for that. They’d been extolled for millennia, not just for their warm coastal climates, elevation, and sun exposure but for the outstanding, diverse soils that yielded flavorful, bold but still nuanced wines. They used the phylloxera epidemic as a chance to reshape the vineyards and when they applied for their appellation in 1941, Bandol included an elite set of 8 communes that lie exclusively on hillsides and have limestone rich, low fertility, well-drained soils, creating the best wines. In addition, they went back to basics and replanted with a lot of Mourvedre – the grape that had fared best here, probably since the time of the Phoenicians.

 

Although you’ll find differences in the wines – depending on the exact terroir, the blend used, and the vintage, one thing is true of Bandol – I’ve never had a stinker. The wines always seem to be earthy, herbal, spicy, rich, and tannic and have a sense of place. They frequently taste like tobacco, licorice, and black fruit and some can verge on rustic, with a dusty note. Regardless or nuance, the producers have a dedication to quality in this small area and take the responsibility seriously.

 

Bandol is a little pricey – you won’t find one for much less than $25 US. But you get what you pay so if you have a few extra bucks, grab a bottle of Bandol and give it a go. Have food with it – something hearty and rich. You’ll find a new favorite rich red wine that’s unlike anything else you’ve tried.

 

And don’t forget to report back on this blog post and let me know what you think: winefornormalpeople.com/blog.

Direct download: Audio_blog_12__Bandol_a_red_wine_from_Provence.mp3
Category:French wine -- posted at: 3:12pm EDT

Every year on the third Thursday in November at midnight, Beaujolais Nouveau hits store shelves, cafés, and restaurants around the world and (a declining number) of people rush out to get this invention of marketing genius.

 

The celebration of this hastily made wine, for which grapes are picked and then processed in a scant few weeks before you drink it (as opposed to quality wine which is made over several months, if not years) is the creation of producer/negociant Georges Duboeuf. This guy took the Old World idea of festivals that celebrated new/young wine —  wine made from grapes fresh off the vines — and put a marketing machine behind it to get the world to support Beaujolais Nouveau.

 

The problem: young wine is best when it’s fresh and sipped at the winery. When it travels overseas and is stored for a month the wine is terrible. But even then, I bet if we tasted it fresh, Beaujolais Nouveau tastes like bananas, bubble gum, and pear candy, with little acid or tannin. Apart from color, it has more in common with a white than a red. It’s fun, but it doesn’t taste that great and as we’ve become more sophisticated in our wine drinking, Beaujolais Nouveau has become less exciting to most people. 

 

Sadly this increasing sophistication has had terrible repercussions in the region of Beaujolais — forcing some growers out of business and creating tensions among those who depended on this product for their livelihoods. So the question for Beaujolais is: Now that Beaujolais Nouveau is on the rocks, what else is there?

 

Enter higher quality Beaujolais. This is the stuff wine people go nuts over but that few others know about: the 10 Beaujolais Crus that make distinctive, floral, fresh wine from the Gamay grape. Just south of Burgundy and north of Rhône, on a swath of granite, which is Gamay’s preferred soil, are scattered areas that make outstanding wine. From north to south these are: Saint-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié, Côte de Brouilly, and Brouilly.

 

The wines produced in these Cru run the gamut — from floral and fruity to rich, earthy, and complex. Here’s a quick grouping of each type: 

 

  • Lighter bodied, more floral, less age worthy: Chiroubles 
  • Medium bodied, fruity with mineral notes:Brouilly, Côte de Brouilly, Fleurie, Régnié, Saint-Amour
  • Fuller bodied, spicy, earthy: Chénas, Juliénas
  • Even fuller and more age-worthy, spicy, and like a cross between Pinot Noir and more floral Gamay: Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent

 

Most of these wines are incredibly well priced for what they are — around US $20 or less — and they taste like nothing else you’ve ever tried. I don’t know of other wines that can boast flavors of iris flowers, violets, or lily of the valley and also have raspberry, earth, and spice notes. The combination of freshness and structure — most Cru have excellent acidity but also a round, soft texture — make these wines like nothing else you’ve ever had. 

 

So clearly, I love the stuff. Go get yourself one from an area I just mentioned that sounds best to you and report back on the blog: winefornormalpeople.com/blog and we’ll compare notes.

Direct download: Audioblog_11__Beaujolais_Cru.mp3
Category:French wine -- posted at: 6:08pm EDT

The EU classification of wine, based on the French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée system, is a complex system that designates and controls names of wine, and I think it's great, despite what others would say...

 

For the transcript and more detail please go to winefornormalpeople.com/blog

Direct download: Audio_blog_8__In_Defense_of_the_AOC_System.mp3
Category:French wine -- posted at: 12:33pm EDT

I know you were wondering...“What is Côtes-du-Rhône? What's in it? Where is it from?" I've got you covered!  

 

For the transcript and details, go to http://winefornormalpeople.com/blog

Direct download: Audio_blog_6__What_Exactly_IS_Ctes_du_Rhne_.mp3
Category:French wine -- posted at: 2:56pm EDT

In this short podcast we bring back Ian Renwick, winemaker and former travel planner to answer one of the top questions I get from you: "I'm going to France. What's the best way to explore the wine regions?"

 

The options are limited, but we tell you what you can do to get the most out of your trip! 

Direct download: 140_Ep_140__Wine_Travel_in_France.mp3
Category:French wine -- posted at: 12:25pm EDT

Apart from the obvious (which, M.C. Ice states): there's an ocean and a continent separating them, what IS the difference between the Caberet Sauvignon based wines of Napa and those of Bordeaux (Left Bank). Here are the things we address:

  • Latitude -- Bordeaux is at 45˚ and Napa is at 38˚ and it makes a difference
  • Terrain -- the Left Bank is on a high plateau, near rivers, and is on gravel and clay. Napa is in a valley with big mountains flanking it on each side and Bay and Ocean providing cooling influences
  • Soil -- the Left Bank is relatively uniform. Napa contains half of the soil types that exist on earth
  • Flavors -- Bordeaux is more earthy, Napa more fruity
  • Blends -- Merlot factors into Bordeaux in a more significant way

 

Enjoy and for more information visit www.winefornormalpeople.com

Direct download: Ep_125__Napa_v_Bordeaux_Cab.mp3
Category:French wine -- posted at: 2:30pm EDT

This huge wine producing region of southwest France is old, varied, and sort of inconsistent. There are a lot of misses here but a few big hits, mostly in the form of bubbles and sweet wines. If you know what you're looking for, you can get great wine.

Good AOPs include:

  • Languedoc
  • Corbières
  • Minervois
  • Roussillon
  • Saint-Chinian

It's quite possible sparkling wine originated in Limoux -- Blanquette, made in the ancestrale method of the Mauzac grape, and Crémant, made in the Champagne method, are both exceptional here. 

Maybe the best stuff the Languedoc-Roussillon is the Vin Doux Naturel, or the sweet wine of the region. From Banyuls (great with chocolate) to Rivesaltes, the sweet wines are not to be missed! 

Although from my experience most of the still wines from the Languedoc are lackluster, it's an emerging region and worth a concerted effort to keep trying to see whether it will capture some of its former glory.

Direct download: Ep_124__Wines_of_Languedoc-Roussillon.mp3
Category:French wine -- posted at: 12:02am EDT

This week we cover a bit about the Rhône Valley and then discuss specifics of the 8 communes of the Northern Rhône and what they have to offer. 

From north to south, the communes are:

1. Côte Rotie

2. Condrieu

3. Château Grillet

4. St. Joseph

5. Crozes-Hermitage

6. Hermitage

7. Cornas

8. St-Peray

and we throw in Clairette de Die for good measure! Some of my favorite wines are from here, so I hope you like the podcast! 

Direct download: 107_Ep_107__The_Northern_Rhone.mp3
Category:French wine -- posted at: 12:26pm EDT

You don't have to watch the Tour to love this podcast. We use the route of the Tour to cover the wine regions that the 2014 Tour de France pedaled through -- from the UK to Champagne to Languedoc and Southwest France. We provide snippets of info on each region, with commentary on the Tour sprinkled in. And we do it without blood doping or steroid use, thank you very much!

 

Thanks for listening! Enjoy!

Direct download: 106_Ep_106__Tour_de_France_Wine_Coverage_2014.mp3
Category:French wine -- posted at: 12:00am EDT

Ep 086: All About Bordeaux's Chateau Palmer

In a continuation of my amazing interview with Jean-Louis Carbonnier of the prestigious Bordeaux property Château Palmer, this week we talk more about the wines of the Château and what makes them so good. 


(WARNING: You may want to brush up on the Bordeaux podcasts before listening -- we get into some nerdy details!)


We weave through a bunch of sub-topics, but here are the main points:

  • The 1855 Classification of Left Bank Bordeaux Chateaux, where Palmer got the shaft
  • Is Bordeaux pricing fair? Do the wines measure up?
  • Palmer: its history, the blend, the terroir, the winemaking, and how it comes to taste that great.
  • Alter Ego, Palmer's lower cost wine with a slighlty different blend
  • Then we wrap up with Jean-Louis's takeaways about Palmer & Bordeaux

Thanks again to Jean-Louis and Château Palmer for their time and for educating us on this historic, classic, and unbelievably delicious wine! 

Direct download: 86_Ep_086__All_About_Chateau_Palmer.mp3
Category:French wine -- posted at: 1:39am EDT