It may not be the biggest producer (that’s Italy) or the oldest, so why do our instincts still tell us that when in doubt, go French?
I’ve always loved all things Gallic: French bread, French plaits, French films. My wine memories are coloured by bottles of jammy pomerol stolen from the leftovers bin at the opera house I waitressed at during summer. I was 17 and knocking back Laurent-Perrier by the washing up pits with no concept of how good I had it.
Later it was €5 bottles drank from plastic cups, smoking out my tent with Toulouse sausage stews cooked on a gas stove in Vouvray. While cheap wine is universally classified as plonk, French wine, no matter how bargain basement the price, remains synonymous with the good stuff.
It’s rather telling that leading US wine critic Robert Parker (whose nose is worth $1 million) has only given 300 wines a perfect score on the 100-point scale, and 204 of them are French.
There are great wines around the world – Italy’s sparkling (non-vintage) franciacorta, for example, which is aged for a minimum of 18 months to non-vintage champagne’s 15, and cabernet sauvignon from cult wineries such as Screaming Eagle in California’s Napa Valley that can go for $2,500 a bottle, minimum. But here’s the thing: everyone in the
world uses France as a yardstick for quality. Every sparkling wine is compared to champagne; every bottle of pinot noir with Burgundy’s best. And nowhere has more benchmark wines of excellence than France.
I blame the goût de terroir – the French winemaker’s philosophical dedication to making wines that taste completely of the areas they’re produced in. While some regions around the world – Rioja used to be a prime example – demand uniformity, every bottle of French wine comes with an inherent sense of place. Think of the pudding stones clustered around the vines in Châteauneuf-du-Pape that give the grapes their ripe, sun-rich warmth; or the liquid gold of Sauternes made all the more precious because of how the grapes are left to shrivel after the morning mist has rolled in over the Garonne river before being hand-picked and pressed into something as rich and sweet as honey.
It’s the vast array of native grapes, from the ones shipped around the world like chardonnay, cabernet, merlot and malbec, to the less common, such as piquepoul, which makes the crispy, summer-ready white, picpoul de pinet.
And that’s not to say when other countries use their native grapes, they don’t do it better. My Italian teacher from the UK Sommelier Association was keen to
mention the 1978 Decanter challenge, where a six-year-old Sassicaia, made with a blend of bordelaise grapes grown in Italy’s Bolgheri region, came out on top of an assortment of Bordeaux grands crus.
But sometimes only a bit of Gallic charm will do. Find a wine worth fighting for with my round-up of the best from my favourite regions.
Home to my favourite, Saint Emilion. Try our Christian Moueix Saint Emilion with your next cheeseboard or roast lamb dinner and let the unoaked plummy gloriousness of it wash over you (preferably into your mouth). You’re welcome.
The Loire Valley
This winding stretch has many highlights – mineral, lemon-sharp muscadet or our citrus zinger, Côte de Charme sauvignon blanc that tastes like a glass of actual sunshine, to start with. Try our flinty, citrus-rich and smooth-as-butter Les Ruettes sancerre. You could have something else with your fish, chicken or salad… but why would you?
The home of Côte d’Or – where you’ll find Nuits-Saint-Georges and Puligny-Montrachet, Beaujolais and Mâconnais, it’s safe to say most of what you pick here will be pretty good. Chablis is always a good idea, especially when it’s our dinner-party-perfect Chablis premier cru.
The Rhône Valley
There are three things you need to know here. One: Hermitage – maker of the kind of syrah-based wine revered by wine buffs the world over. Get a taste with our cinnamon and black fruit Crozes-Hermitage. Two: Côtes du Rhône. If you’re looking for a year-round red cheap enough to crack open with steak and chips and hearty enough for a cottage pie or garlicky roast lamb, our Côtes du Rhône Villages is it. Three: Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Forget the Del Boy references and splash out on a single bottle of our Châteauneuf-du-Pape Le Vieux Grès. Bonnet de douche toast optional.
Like Lily Bollinger, “I only drink champagne when I’m happy, and when I’m sad,” try Pol Roger Brut Reserve, which tastes as good champagne should: delicious on its own.
Despite this quality in French wine it is becoming harder to get hold of. In 2017 wine production hit a historic slump, down 19 per cent on 2016, which had already dropped to a 30-year low. If ever you needed a reason to stock up, that should be it.
Wine editor: Emma Sleight / Photographer: Nassima Rothacker / Hair and make-up artist: Lindsey Poole / Props stylist: Wei Tang