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Dealing With the Finer Stuff: After Red Mountain, What?

A guide to understanding wines of France, how tannins and aging impart flavor, and selecting the right vintner and vintage

Country Road, Vineyard, Provence, France, Wine

Country Road and Vineyard, Provence, France on January 1st, 1969.

MyLoupe/UIG Via Getty

You see a lot of nervous-looking people in wine stores. Some are edgy because they don’t know wine and are afraid of letting on. The connoisseurs, though, are nervous because of the recent incredible rise in prices.

It’s partly fashion, partly the great rarity of great wine. The possibilities of wine happen to be immense, greater than any other food. Grape varieties are just the start. Anyone who has tasted California varietal wines knows the differences that are due to grapes. But because most American wines are mass-produced and homogenized for a public that has not basically been into wine, they don’t show how much the flavor can reflect the whole local ecology of the vines.

The soil, for instance. Just as the marijuana plant concentrates its strength when it grows in a difficult environment, the wine grape concentrates flavor. Much of the best wine land is essentially useless for any other crop: rocky, gravelly hillsides, some of them so steep that each spring vineyard workers have to haul up on their backs the soil that washed down during the winter. In the Côte-d’Or region, which produces some of the most famous wines in the world, they have a saying that runs, “If ours was not the richest part of Burgundy, it would be the poorest.”

The weather, too. Where there isn’t much sunshine during the year to ripen the grapes, there won’t be much sugar in the juice to ferment into alcohol, and the wine will be tart and light in body. Where there is too much sun, the wine comes out heavy in alcohol but flat and uninteresting in flavor. This is broadly true over degrees of latitude, and explains the difference between German and Italian wines. To a lesser but detectable extent, it’s true of the different exposure to sunlight of different parts of the same hillside.

The man who grows the grapes has much more influence over the final product in France, where the average holding is two and a half acres, than on the sprawling vineyards of California. He decides when to harvest, how to deal with various diseases and climate disasters, which grape varieties to grow (within limits prescribed by French law), and how to handle the fermenting juice. Each man who makes wine will come up with a distinct product, which the French think of as reflecting his personality. The amiable saying is, “When the wine is in the field, you must be a good lover. When it is in the bottle, you must be a good father.”

Four hundred years ago, though, things must have been different, because wine was not bottled. It was stored in casks and poured out glass by glass as needed. When the cork was invented, a secret was discovered that might have been known to the ancient Romans, who had wines that were drunk after a hundred years of storage: Certain wines underwent mysterious changes when left to age a few years.

There is still some mystery about it, though the broad outlines are clear. One thing that happens is that the wine loses its rawness and becomes softer and smoother. The grapeskins that color red wine red (and the oak barrels many wines are stored in after fermenting) contain tannin, a substance also found in tea, where it does the same thing it does in wine: gives zest to the tongue. In itself tannin is a drag—a strong enough does will tan leather. But the longer red wine is stored, the more the tannin settles out as a muddy sediment in the bottom of the bottle. White wine is made from grape juice with no grapeskins in it, so of course it has less tannin to get rid of.

The other changes are a little more obscure. Part of the alcohol combines with oxygen in the bottle to form acetaldehyde, which has a plush, marshmallowy aroma. There are other compounds, called higher alcohols or fusel oils, that arise at the same time as the wine alcohol but come from the fermentation of grape proteins rather than grape sugar. They are also found in whiskey, and in both whiskey and young wine they give a burning taste. They also oxidize into acids: very important, odd as it may seem to the aroma of the wine.

The most interesting changes come when the alcohol combines with the acidity of the wine. The resulting compounds belong to the chemical class called “esters,” which gives the characteristic aromas of many fruits. So in time a wine may develop a flavor like peaches, or some kind of berry—or several fruits at once, including some that have never existed anywhere. These subtle flavors are responsible for a lot of silly-sounding wine rap, but of course it only sounds silly to you if you’ve never tried to describe a flavor. Anyway, a couple of glasses of wine make for a generous, tolerant attitude toward any kind of silly-sounding rap.

* * *

Before the discovery of bottle ageing, the wines of Bordeaux were not much esteemed, and no wonder. The greatest of them are so full of tannin that they can’t be drunk until they are seven or eight years old, and they don’t approach their peak until they’re about ten. But they often last and even improve for 50 years just because of the tannin, and they have a concentrated inky taste on the tongue and a fascinating complexity of flavor when they age.

When wines could be aged, claret (as red wine of Bordeaux is called) started commanding high prices. In the 18th and 19th centuries there was a veritable land boom in Bordeaux, with forests being hacked down and Château This-or-thats popping up wherever vines would grow. The vineyards were much larger than the French average, some of them more than a hundred acres. Because of their size, it was later commercially practical for the vineyard owner to bottle his own wine under the label of the château—a practice called “estate bottling” that distinguishes Bordeaux from other wine regions.

The district called Haut-Medoc produces the most famous wines of Bordeaux, complex, refined red wines that take from eight to ten years to mature—sometimes up to 20. Upstream on the Garonne River is the region of Graves, which produces both reds and whites. Not so complex and refined as Medocs. Not so expensive, either. They are grown in gravelly soil and you can taste gravel (graves means gravel in French) in the wine.

Two rivers come together at the town of Bordeaux, the Garonne and the Dordogne. Upstream on the Dordogne are two important red wine regions: St. Emilion and Pomerol. They use less of the tanniny cabernet sauvignon grape than Graves and the Medoc, and their wines mature much faster for that reason: seven years or so. They are heavy, plush wines as a rule, easy to enjoy and to relish like Burgundies. People who are really into Bordeaux wines still prefer Medocs, though, because they paint a more finely detailed picture. But St. Emilions and Pomerols tend to be less disastrously expensive than Medocs.

In Bordeaux, getting to know the wines is simple. Any bottle of Château Gloria will come from the same vines and be made by the same man, and two bottles from the same year will taste the same. In most other regions of France it’s not so simple because the small-time winemaker can’t afford to bottle and market his wine himself. This is spectacularly so in Burgundy, where the average vineyard holding is just over an acre.

This extreme fragmentation dates from the time of the French Revolution, when the Church-owned vineyards were secularized. During a recession the lands were retailed out into tiny little plots, so that one well-known vineyard is usually owned in little patches by several men. In order to sell their wine, the winemakers deal with wine merchants who buy up wine entitled by law to carry some specific town or vineyard name, blend the wine from the different little patches until they have as much as they expect to sell, and put it out with a label that names them as negociant or eleveur. There can be 40 different bottlings of the same vineyard, all entitled to carry the name, but each coming from a different part of it—and tasting slightly different.

Good Burgundy is hard to buy for that reason. You have to learn which are the shippers you like. On top of that, there’s not much Burgundy to be had, only about a third as much as there is Bordeaux. The climate is more treacherous (Burgundy is located about the same latitude as Fargo, North Dakota), and a bad year in Burgundy can be a really bad year, with frosts, floods and hailstorms. Wine experts may dismiss vintage charts as simple-minded (“There are no good or bad years, only good or bad bottles”), but with Burgundy it pays to learn the years to avoid buying.

When Burgundy is bad, it can be pretty bad. But when it’s good, it’s probably better than the best of Bordeaux, though that’s a matter of taste. Where Bordeaux is subtle and aristocractic, most people find Burgundy warm and generous. And the white wines of Burgundy are without question the best whites in the world. Red Burgundy is ready to drink after five to seven years in the bottle, though it continues to improve.

South of the Côte-d’Or, the home of Burgundy rightly called, there are some excellent wines, though none as far out as real Burgundy. The red wines of the Chalonnais—Mercurey and Givry—use the pinot noir grape of Burgundy, and further south the Maconnais produces the undistinguished Macon reds and the excellent white wine of Pouilly-Fuisse. Beaujolais produces huge quantities of light red wine from the gamay grape (which is outlawed in the Côte-d’Or). Beaujolais is ready to drink right away and only the best of it improves in the bottle.

Further south in the valley of the Rhone River there are full-bodied red wines made from the syrah grape: Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage and the popular Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The last is drinkable at three years and in good years lasts much longer, while the first two take a good ten years to mature. Tavel, the best French rose wine, is also from here. The further south you go, the more consistent the weather, and the less difference between vintages. Some decent Beaujolais is produced practically every year, and the wines of the Rhone are even more consistent.

There are two other important wine regions, Chablis and the Loire Valley. Chablis is considered part of Burgundy, though it is separated from the Côte-d’Or by many miles. It uses the pinot chardonnay grape that produces the great Meursaults and Montrachets of Burgundy, but in a climate zone further to the north. In fact, good chablis is somewhat rare, because of the small acreage and frequent bad weather.

The wines of the Loire are mostly whites, often tending to be slightly sweet. They include Pouilly-Fume, Sancerre, Vouvray, Anjou and Muscadet. There are also red wines from Chinon and Bourgueil. Valued for “freshness and charm,” rather than greatness, they are cheaper than claret or Burgundy. They are also less often exported.

* * *

The less a wine is disturbed before it is served, the better it will taste, so when buying a bottle of wine it’s a good idea to get it a couple of days in advance of when it will be drunk. (People who are really into wines, of course, buy them years ahead of time to save the rise in price that aged wines acquire.) When a bottle is stored, it should be kept on its side, not standing up, because the cork can dry out and shrink in as little as 90 days, which would mean spoiling the wine. The ideal temperature is considered to be between 55 and 60 degrees, but anything under 70 or over 45 will not harm the wine, as long as the temperature doesn’t change rapidly and often. (The real time to worry about a stored wine is not the hot weather in summer, but winter, when heaters are likely to be going off and on all day.) In the absence of a cellar, the deep recesses of a closet make a good place to keep wine.

A white wine should be chilled slightly before serving. When a bottle of red wine is to be opened, it should be stood up on its base for a few hours to let the sediment settle to the bottom, and then decanted into a large flask of some kind. The point of decanting is not to look cute, but to separate the clear wine from the bitter sediment or dregs. With a light held under the neck of the bottle, the flow of wine can be stopped just before the muddy mass of sediment is about to pass into the decanter. (A candle is the traditional source of light—a pretty custom, but a flashlight is more practical.) The flavor of wine is aroused on contact with the air, and the bottle should be opened at least half an hour before the wine is served.

Great wine deserves concentrated attention, at least for a few moments during the meal. In fact, it usually demands attention. Like an unknown landscape it seems to reveal itself all at once in the first mouthful, but as it is drunk all its individual features become familiar.

In the first part of the flavor—the aroma, which is detected by the nose alone, without sipping the wine—you can tell the grape variety (with a little experience the cabernet grape of claret is easily distinguishable from the pinot of Burgundy), age (a sweetness and subtlety that comes from the years spent in a bottle), and fruit (the strength and particular qualities of the aromatic flavors). The total impression of the aroma is described in obvious but undefinable terms such as depth, complexity and roundness.

When the wine is sipped, the tongue can evaluate its tannin (the strong tannin of a young wine makes the tongue recoil, while in an aged wine, the tannin mellows down to a background impression of strength, perhaps with a bite after a second or two), body (feeling of weight in the mouth; heavy or light), acidity and sweetness (two different things—cheap wines are often tart and sweet at the same time), and flavor (the aroma as it appears on sipping—often it comes in several different parts, each lasting a fraction of a second, on each sip).

The general impression of the wine is described in terms of power, finesse and balance. Power is an obvious combination of such qualities as strong tannic backbone, heavy body and powerful fruit. Finesse, breed and elegance and such terms indicate that a wine’s all-over flavor is finely detailed and fully realized. Balance is the unmistakable impression that every element of the flavor is equally strong, no one part noticeably over- or under-developed.

The French have many strict customs about which wine to drink with which food. They’re actually pretty common-sense customs, and anybody who cared to experiment would probably come to the same conclusions. White wine is wasted when served with heavy, rich meat dishes, for instance. It might as well be water, because its flavor is overpowered by the food. Conversely, fish makes red wine taste bitter. Between the extremes, there’s plenty of room for variation. Chicken, veal and pork, for instance, could go well with either red or white wine.

The custom is that a white wine should come before a red wine when both are served at the same meal, and likewise a light wine before a heavy one and a dry one before a sweeter one. The ability to taste is naturally fatigued during a long meal, and reversing those orders would be using the wine wrongly. (Also sweetness kills the appetite and tartness stimulates it—one reason sweetness is considered a defect in a table wine, another being that sweetness can cover up defects in the flavor, which is why cheap wines are often sweet.)

* * *

The best place to buy French wine is at a wine merchant’s. Unfortunately there are all too few of these, and none outside the big cities. You can order wine shipped from a merchant if you live in the same state, but because of state sales taxes wine can’t be shipped across state lines to individuals. Of course, you can always make a wine run to the big city, but another way around the problem of getting wine in the sticks is to have a liquor store order for you and take its cut off the top. Local liquor control boards are all-powerful and you have to check with them first.

New York, as could be expected, has a number of excellent dealers such as Sherry-Lehmann. Boston has the Wine and Cheese Cask, and in San Francisco there is Connoisseur Wine Imports; Neimann-Marcus stores in Texas and Central Liquor in Boulder, Colorado, have good selections. Illinois and Washington, D.C., have a lot of bargains because wine is not fair-traded there. A good place in D.C. is Plain Old Pearson’s.

Outside of such places as these you’re stuck with whatever the local posh lush outlet cares to stock, and the prices they care to charge. All may be OK, but any place that stores wine bottles standing up or exposed to direct sunlight is mishandling the wine, and just on general principles can be discounted as lame.

The most expensive place to drink wine is your average French restaurant, which marks up the wine an average of 100 percent. On top of that, the selection is nearly always limited and the wines are usually too young. If you want good wine at a restaurant dinner, the best thing is to bring your own bottle and ask them to serve it to you. Restaurants will usually do this for a fee called corkage, which should never exceed 40 percent of the cost of the wine.

* * *

Since French wines vary so much in quality, certain rough guides have been established. One is the system of vineyard classifications. Another is the “vintage chart” of good and bad years. These are only rough guides, of course. Unheard-of vineyards can have a rare good year, and famous ones fall on their faces. There are good wines in bad years and vice versa. Still the years 1963 and 1965 were disastrous in both Burgundy and Bordeaux, and except for the sake of an educational experiment there is no point in buying any ’63s or ’65s.

To sum up the recent generalizations about vintage years: In Bordeaux 1961 is considered one of the greatest years of the century. Time will tell, because none of the red wine is drinkable yet, on account of the incredible amount of tannin in it. With the exception of 1961, any Bordeaux red wine from 1962 or earlier is ready to drink now—the trouble being that the ’62s have been drinkable for a year now and are fast disappearing, while the older wines are now getting pretty expensive because of their rarity. The 1964 is starting to be drinkable, particularly the Pomerols. In the white wines of Graves the years ’64, ’66 and ’69 are good. Whites from before 1961 are a gamble, might be too old.

In Burgundy the year list approximately coincides with Bordeaux’s, the good years being ’59, ’61, ’62, ’64, ’66, ’67, ’69 and ’70. All except the ’69s and ’70s could be drunk now, though some ’59s are oldish and ’66 and ’67 are still developing. The whites, of course, must be drunk younger. (The Bordeaux ’69s are not such great values for the price.)

Incidentally, some vineyards are now selling wines blended from several vintages, which of course don’t carry a vintage date (the label says: non millesime). This is a way of keeping bad years from being a total loss by blending them with good years, and the wines are low-priced. This puts them in the same class with many California wines—ironic, since California is only now making much of a gesture toward turning out respectable vintage wines.

It’s an obvious economic move in the case of the French vineyards (bottling non millesimes is more profitable than selling off the wine under a lower appellation contrôlée). The California vintners’ decision to make more vintage wine is also economic, because the prices of French wines are markedly on the rise, and soon we may be back to California wines except for a bottle or two a year. When that happens, they’ll have to have something to satisfy the growing taste for good wine.

How to Read a Wine Label

Most imported French wine has a little line on the label containing the words “appellation contrôlée.” This is the first clue to what is inside the bottle, the others being the vintage year and the name of the bottler or shipper.

This is what appellation contrôlée means: Certain plots of land, because of chance outcroppings of indifferent kinds of soil, special exposure to the sun and other factors, consistently produce exceptionally good wine. The appellation contrôlée designation states basically where the grapes were grown, whether a large general area, such as “Bordeaux” or “Bourgogne” (Burgundy), or a more specific area within a wine district. The more specific and limited the area in the appellation contrôlée, as a rule, the better and more expensive the wine. Most great wines are entitled to an appellation contrôlée that is the same as the name of the nearest town, such as St. Julien or Pommard. In Burgundy, even some individual vineyards, one of them only two acres large, have their own appellation contrôlée which may not be used by any other wine.

The appellation contrôlée also guarantees that the wine was made from specific types of grapes (the noble grapes are relatively small-yielding, and there is always a temptation to rip them out and plant commercial grapes), contains a certain percentage of alcohol, and was made in the traditional fashion of the district. In other words, it means it’s genuine wine of its type, though there’s no guarantee that it’s great wine. That’s why people memorize vintage years.

A summary of the most frequently imported appellation contrôlée wines:

Bordeaux: The lowest grade is Bordeaux, the next highest Bordeaux Superieur. The finer wines come from the following four regions: Medoc, Graves, St. Emilion, Pomerol, and are entitled to these appellations contrôlées.

Medoc: Better wines come from the smaller region with the appellation contrôlée Haut-Medoc. The very best come from the four townships of Margaux, St. Julien, Pauillac and St. Estephe. The famous “classed growths” of Bordeaux are all from Haut-Medoc, with one exception. The top four, premiers crus classes, are Château Latour, Ch. Lafite-Rothschild, Ch. Margaux, and Ch. Haut-Brion (the exception, a Graves). Ch. Mouton-Rothschild, classed in 1855 as a second growth, is now considered equal to the firsts and commands the same inflated prices, thanks to some Wall Street sharpies. There are some 50 other wines classed as second through fifth growths.

The 1855 classification referred to has nothing to do with appellation contrôlée. It has a whole lot to do with the prices certain châteaux could command 116 years ago, and no longer reflects their relative quality. Certain wines classed in 1855 as crus bourgeois rather than classed growths are now equal in quality to some classed growths and are called crus exceptionnels. Wines better than the average cru bourgeois but not that good are crus bourgeois superieurs.

Graves: Apart from Ch. Haut-Brion, there are about half a dozen each of red wines and white wines entitled to call themselves Graves cru classe.

St. Emilion: Premier grand cru (two wines—Ch. Cheval Blanc and Ch. Ausone, which are as expensive as the four top Medocs), followed by grand cru.

Pomerol: grand premier cru (one wine, the very expensive Ch. Petrus), followed by premier cru, then deuxième premier cru.

Burgundy: Bourgogne and Bourgogne Grand Ordinaire are two of the lowest appellations. The next step up is wine from one of the famous townships of the Côte de Nuits or the Côte de Beaune. They are as follows: red wines of Fixin, Gevrey-Chambertin, Morey–St. Denis, Chambolle-Musigny, Vougeot, Vosne-Romanée, Nuits–St. Georges, Aloxe-Corton, Beaune and Savigny-les-Beaune, Pommard, Auxey-Duresses, Volnay and Monthelie. The famous white Burgundies come from Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet (the last also makes red wine).

The next step up is a township name followed by the name of a single vineyard, as “Pommard Pezerolles” or “Vosne-Romanée Clos des Reas.” The vineyards of a township are classed, and will sometimes identify themselves as first, second or third cru (the word cuvée is used with the same meaning).

Then on top of all the others come the grands crus or têtes de cuvée, which are entitled to their own appellations contrôlées and need not specify a town at all. Many of their names are familiar, in fact, because the towns where they are located have turned it around and named themselves after the vineyards: thus the town of Vosne now calls itself Vosne-Romanée; Gevrey calls itself Gevrey-Chambertin. The red têtes de cuvée have the dazzling names Chambertin and Chambertin–Clos de Beze (followed in rank by Latricieres-, Mazoyeres-, Charmes-, Mazis-, Griotte-, Ruchottes- and Chapelle-Chambertin), Bonnes Mares, Clos de Tart, Clos de la Roche, Clos St. Denis, Musigny, Clos de Vougeot, Echezeaux, Grands Echezeaux, Richebourg, La Romanée, Romanée-Conti, Romanée-St. Vivant, La Tache and Corton. All are expensive rarities.

The white têtes de cuvée are Corton-Charlemagne, Montrachet, and Chevalier-, Batard-, Bienvenue-Batard-, and Criots-Batard-Montrachet. These hyphenated compounds of “Chambertin” and “Montrachet” should not be confused with the township wines of lower class that carry the appellations contrôlées Gevrey-Chambertin, Puligny-Montrachet or Chassagne-Montrachet.

Beaujolais: The lowest grade is Beaujolais. Better is Beaujolais-Villages, and the best wine comes from nine townships with their own appellations contrôlées: Moulin-a-vent, Côtes-de-Brouilly, Julienas, Fleurie, Morgon, Brouilly, St. Amour, Chenas and Chiroubles.

Chablis: The lowest grade is petit Chablis, rarely exported. Next step up is Chablis; followed by Chablis premier cru, usually with the name of a vineyard; and the top is the grands crus of seven vineyards—Vaudesir, Les Clos, Grenouilles, Valmur, Blanchots, Preuses and Bougros.

Wines of the Maconnais, Chalonnais, Loire Valley and Rhône Valley are not subdivided within their appellations contrôlées.

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