Wine Talk

Snooth User: Bartond

Where to Begin With French Wines?

Posted by Bartond, Feb 24, 2011.

Hello all,

I'm your typical wine novice from the US and I absolutely LOVE wine, and now I am trying to venture in to the world of French wine, especially reds. Honestly, it intimidates me as the prices for Bordeaux's are crazy so I'm much less likely to test out many of them.

I have been to many French restaurants and usually find pretty good wines on the list but I have not bought many bottles to try at home. And honestly, I've never been really blown away by a French red I've had. I know there are tons of great options out there so I have a few questions:

- Where should I look to find good values in French reds?

- Are there a few wineries that provide good values within Bordeaux or another region known for good, bigger reds? I typically like Syrahs, Zins, and Cabs from Washington State and California.

- Now, I know that most French reds will not be made in the same style as reds from the US west coast but I would like to try a few that are closer to new world style, just to transition my palate in to French styles.

- My budget is $10-18 or so

Thanks for any and all help you could provide. I know those points above are very general and might be difficult to figure out, but anyone that could provide a few ideas to get me started I would really appreciate it.



Denver, CO


Reply by GregT, Feb 24, 2011.

"Now, I know that most French reds will not be made in the same style as reds from the US west coast but I would like to try a few that are closer to new world style, just to transition my palate in to French styles."

Why would you say that?

The south of France can be pretty warm.  There are wines all over there made from Garnacha, Syrah, Carinena and other grapes that are very much like many wines in CA, which can also be quite warm.  In fact, if you get any of the 2007 Southern Rhones, they'll be ripe, fruity, and "big" in many cases, if not most.  Some are also excellent values, depending on how you define that term. Some of the red wines from the Loire are good values too, in that they're not typically very expensive, but they're very different from most things produced in CA.  

Reply by Bartond, Feb 24, 2011.

Hey Greg,

Thanks for the response. I guess I've always heard that the majority of "Old World" wines and especially French wines are produced in a less fruit-forward style as compared to California. I know this is a massive generalization but I'm looking to whittle things down a bit and focus on a few areas/regions/vintages that I can check out to get started.

I appreciate the information and will try out some 2007 southern Rhones and Loire wines. Thanks!

Reply by mwismeier, Feb 24, 2011.

That is a great question actually as most of us start here in the U.S. drinking the fruit forward Cali reds.

It is not the easist task to accomplish but it can be done.

I suggest starting in the area of  South West France(as the grapes primarily used to make red wine are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec) the AOC(this is wine speak for wine region) Bergerac, Gaillac and Buzet. I listed these is most readily available in the states to least but with all the wine internet sites you can find almost any wine now.

I list the wines by region because that is how it is done for french wine as well versus for wine in the U.S. where the grape is listed on the label.

Here is a great french wine site that can start to explain the regions/wines and what grapes are used in those wines/regions:


Also I should mention Cotes du Castillon( AOC)a Bordeaux wine  that offers great price Cabernet Sauvignon based wines.

AND Bordeaux Superieur as that is again great price point wine based on Cabernet Sauvignon blends



A couple of wines to look for:

Chateau du Pintey BORDEAUX SUPERIEUR .

Chateau Haut-Lamouthe Bergerac


Hope this helps don't sweat the details when you go to the retail shop ask the person whom works there they will be able help as well.


Reply by GregT, Feb 24, 2011.

Bartond - wasn't sure if you were serious or not.  The idea of "fruit forward' is a kind of recent invention.  People in the 1960s and 1970s wrote about Chateauneuf du Pape as fruit forward wines.  That would be as opposed to the more "serious" wines of Bordeaux. 

You collected one to put away and another to enjoy.  Why?

Because in Bordeaux and Burgundy, they get a lot of rain and clouds.  In the south, it's sunnier. 

Over the next few decades, plenty of other places started producing good wine or woke up from their slumber and improved.  Suddenly CdP wasn't the fruity wine any more - you have Spain, South America, CA, etc.  But the people in CA had done something interesting.  When they started trying to produce world-class wine in the 1970s, they looked around for the "best" in the world.  At that time Americans thought France was the epitome of chic.  So we target France.  And which wines?  Well, the only wines with a reputation, other than Champagne, were those from Bordeaux.  So we plant Cab and Merlot and Cab Franc in Napa.

Those early wines matched the French wines in blind tastings.  Then the producers started thinking if a little is good, more is better.  So, untroubled by the fog, clouds, and rain that they have in  Bordeaux, they got the grapes riper and riper.  That meant wine had more alcohol and/or sugar.  At some point, a few people started to squawk.  Meantime Bordeaux, realizing that they had competition now, improved their wines. 

Today wine is better than ever.  And partisans take sides just like they do in religious disputes.  Bordeaux CAN'T regularly make super-ripe wines (except perhaps in 2003) and consequently their partisans claim that the Napa wines, and by extension all of the CA wines, are too ripe and not "food friendly".  Some producers in CA disdain that argument, but unfortunately for them, France has a head start in the prestige thing when it comes to wine.

However, Bordeaux is only one region in France. And Americans got used to Cab Sauv, Merlot, etc.

I've said a few times on this forum that if the US wine industry were starting today, they'd probably plant Italian grapes in Napa, or at least Spanish and southern French grapes. 

The Loire is cold and damp, even more than Bordeaux. It's the home of Cab Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, and probably Chardonnay, but the wines there are nothing like their CA iterations.

OTOH, the south, along the Mediterranean, is warm and sunny.  So those wines are usually juicy and fruity. You find Merlot and Cab, but the region is the home of Grenache and Carignan.

The wines in CdP have a lot of competition these days - Australia, CA, Spain, Italy, etc.  Even tho some of the old line wine writers stll talk about CdP as being the fruity wine and Bordeaux being the "serious" wine, that's old-school.  Fact is, not all the CdP wines are that great when tasted side by side with other wines.  Some are pretty good though.  And some wines elsewhere in the south of France really are fruit-bombs, while others are just horrid.  And of course, some of the wines from Bordeaux are ghastly!  Any place that produces oceans of wine is bound to make some swill, no?

So look for Cotes du Rhone.  Look for some wines from the Languedoc, specifically Pic St. Loup - it's south but high elevation and their Syrahs can be wonderful.  Also look for some Minervois and Corbieres.  Not all, but many of those that are imported into the US will be decent wines at good prices.  That's where the people in CA should be looking for inspiration IMHO. 

France is a weird place.  They have some of the most overpriced wine on the planet and some of the worst and at the same time, they produce some of the best values on the planet.  They produce some wines that are cheaper and better than what we do right here in the good old USA.  And they produce stuff that people pay thousands for and that without labels, would get maybe $30.  I don't get it. 

In any event, for someone raised on CA wines, go to the south of France and branch out from there. And in fact, you don't really need to branch.  There are increasing amounts of really good, tasty wine being produced down there. Don't focus on the varieties so much as the wine, . 

And I'll give this to the French - they also know how to eat!

Reply by mwismeier, Feb 25, 2011.

Serious I guess but also informative and approachable. So much of wine or as I like to call it wine culture is not approachable. For in the rest of the world France especially wine is just another everyday occurance. People grow up with vines in their back yards and are surrounded by the presence of wine on their dinner tables readily.

So to that point I like to explain the wine speak as I call it to break down the cultural barriers or complications that seem to occur in our relationship with wine here in the States. In France they label their bottles by region or place. We have to look up what the grapes are..not always necessary but can be helpful. There is also the whole wine law thing. Boring really but can be helpful.

Yes, back in the 60's and 70's they were writing about Rhone as fruit forward...there were however very few writers and here in the States not as many people were even drinking wine let a lone reading about it or buying it. And what has happened with the recent demographic that is discovering wine now is that they usually start  drinking with California Reds. This happens for a myriad of reasons mostly because of the number rating system(which opens up a whole other discussion) but also because the labels are easier to understand. What I call face relation instead of face value.

I do think that with the explosion of the internet and exchange of information that wine will hopefully be better understood and consumed even more because of that.


So yes, Rhone is an alternative place to go when looking for a fruit forward style of wine. I usually recommend that drinkers go to similar grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon based wines in France and get used to the taste profile that those wines have to offer. Some fruit but  more structure. And then move on to other places such as South of France: Roussillon, Languedoc, Provence and the Rhone Valley.

Wine is after all a journey or a discovery..endless and bountiful.

Wine does have it's own language which I try to explain when I am recommending wines to people especially when you have such a wonderful forum as this site!!! I hope I accomplished that a bit better.



Reply by Richard Foxall, Feb 25, 2011.

Transition your palate by drinking Spanish garnacha then try grenache from Southern France.  Or don't.  Just try it and see if you like it.  If you don't, try something else. Then come back and try it again.  Everything you drink will change your idea of what is good.

Why worry if it is French?  Is there some reason you want to branch out to French particularly?  If you don't know what you like in French wine, why not try wines of Spain, some great values, or wines of Italy, which has great diversity of table wines?  Does failure to appreciate French wine equate with failure to like the great operas or symphonies? 

I disagree with GregT that the vintners of Napa would plant Italian wine, because the truth is still that only French wines, Bordos mostly, have the reputation that makes it possible to sell in huge volume AND at high prices.  Sure, many Barolos and Vega Sicilia sell for steep prices, but the chances you see an auction like with Bords and some Burgs?  Forget it.  I DO agree with GregT that a lot of bordo got better in winemaking because Cali shook them up, and also that a lot of Bordo (Bordo superiour means NOTHING to me) is just average.  Finally, I agree with GregT and others that France sells lots of really nice wine at low prices, just as many countries do, because good winemaking is becoming a commonplace and no one can get away with making swill unless people never open the bottles or they appeal to the swill end of the market.  Which does exist.

Cotes du Rhone can come from a lot of places and be a lot of things.  If it has a style, it's friendly, approachable, but not horribly serious.  It could come from the north of the Rhone (or farther north, anyway) and be a little more Syrah based, but it's most likely some GSM blend and you would have to figure out whether it's estate or negociant--if the latter, who knows where the grapes are from exactly, as Cotes du Rhone is spread through the area.  Buy some, drink it with Weds dinner.  What you like now will be different next vintage, although some makers have a higher end "cuvee" or two that they try to keep in a style.  Even so, vintage will make that impossible to match exactly. 

Then get some Cotes du Ventoux and Vacqueyras--less expensive than the northern Rhone appellations, a little more reflective of a particular place than standard Southern Cotes du Rhone. 


Reply by JonDerry, Feb 25, 2011.

Good question Bartond, I pondered the same thing as I wanted to branch out and try different regions, especially the mother of all - France.

To me, Burgundy is one of the main region's in France i've had a hard time penetrating.  I'd definitely say Rhone is the place where you can get the best wines for your money.  But Bordeaux is definitely something to look in to.  You'll find some good values in St. Emilion - mostly Merlot based reds, but trust the Merlot tastes a bit different and more interesting than what you're probably used to in CA.  For other regions in Bordeaux, you might try lesser names but in good vintages. 

Vintages (years) don't make a huge difference in cali, but they definitely do in Bordeaux.  Try to find some value reds from 05 and 03' to start.

Reply by duncan 906, Feb 26, 2011.

I am a French red wine lover from the UK so  know little of prices in America but here and in Calais the value for money ones are Corbierres,Cahors,and the Southern Rhones[apart from Chateauneufdupape}Bordeauxs,like many French Apellations are a blend,in this case of Merlot and cabernet sauvignon and/or cabernet franc.The classed growths are expensive but it is possible to get nice wines at reasonable prices,particularly in some of the Right Bank apellations like Cotes de Blaye and Cotes de Castillon.However,my favouite red wines, Burgundys,are not cheap but they are Pinot Noir at its very best 

Reply by GregT, Feb 26, 2011.

Fox -  reason I said they'd probably plant Italian has to do with the context of the times then and now.  Back in 1972 and 1976, when a lot of the Napa wineries were starting up, things French were considered the definition of good living. Pizza was still a novelty to many Americans and Italian food in general meant red and white checkered tablecloths and spaghetti and meatballs and Chianti in a straw covered bottle. 

Today of course, Italy rules in the US food consciousness.  In Manhattan there are a few French places remaining, but they're not at the top of anyone's list of the hot restaurants.  OTOH, there's a new Italian or Italian-derived place opening weekly, from little neighborhood pasta or pizza places to huge endeavors like Eataly.

Of course, in the 1970s the miniscule percentage of the US population that cared about wine drank Leibfraumilch or Blue Nun or Hearty Burgundy, with only a very few eccentric types buying the better stuff, which was pretty much Bordeaux.

But a lot happened in the 1970s.  New rules were created for Brunello, Chianti, Austria, Germany, Bordeaux and other regions. Millions of dollars poured into places like Napa and elsewhere in CA, and Australia launched their 25 year plan.  Spain woke up from Franco and began replanting.  Today we see the results of all this but back then the big dog was Bordeaux so that's what ambitious folks planted. Thus, it's an accident of history that Cab became the defining grape for the US.  It's not because Cab was better suited to Napa or anywhere else in CA than any other grape was.  With a better understanding of site selection that we have now and with all the different imported wines, I'm not so certain that were the US starting up a wine industry today it would focus on Bordeaux grapes. 

Moot question obviously, but kind of interesting to muse on.

CA can and probably  will eventually be doing great work with a lot of other grapes and I wish they'd hurry up!  It's just that when Napa and even Sonoma were becoming wine regions, for quality wine, nobody was talking about or even knew about some of the possibilities.  They surely knew about Barbera, Carignan, Charbono, Zinfandel, and so on, and those were very widely planted. But they weren't respected and they went into jug wine.  

Anyhow, given the preferences the original poster, seemed that there wasn't going to be any preference for tannic, green, weedy wines.  Consequently, I'd steer clear of just about any Cab and Merlot-based wine from France and stick with the other grapes - at least initially.  For an American who likes Zin and Syrah, something from Bergerac or Cahors or the Loire may be distressing. 

Or just dive right in - that works too.  As mentioned, there's just so much variety if you don't like one thing, just go for something else.  Good luck.

Reply by Richard Foxall, Feb 27, 2011.

GregT--the French restaurant is definitely on the wane as the epitome of good eating, but the wine market seems to only sustain price X enormous volume for Bords, from what I can see.  I still think that they would plant French varietals, but of course the whole field is changed now, and many people who think themselves sophisticated about wine don't know much but Cali.  I was kind of like that, and there is certainly a lot to know about California wines, which some other sophisticates don't care to know about at all.  Napa might do better with something else, esp as the planet warms, but they are capable, even now, of making insanely good cabs, when they choose.  With the exception of a Yountville grown Chardonnay I tasted at Bell, I don't think they should do any Burg varietals except a little PN in Carneros.  (And you can't buy that Chard--they will blend it with something oakier to bottle, as we were drinking from the tank.  Sigh.)

Right you are that other varieties need to be emphasized.  Careful study of terroir--soils, microclimates, sun exposures--to determine what to plant is essential if they want to emulate existing regions and their wines.  Or winemakers can go with their gut, make their own blends a la Owen Roe and Sean Thackery, and turn out a product unlike any other.  Because Syrah grown in St. Joseph isn't identical to Hermitage, to be obvious, so why should carignan grown in Dry Creek have to taste like something from the south of France?  I drink Rhone-ish blends from all over the state, and actual Rhones, and that's half the fun:  Can you even figure out where it came from?  I also recently suggested in posts on Brunello that the Two Mile Sangiovese was a good one to throw into a blind tasting and see if anyone could tell which was which. 

Reply by zufrieden, Feb 27, 2011.

Somewhat of a Renaissance this thread - due in no small part to the continued, informed responses of GregT and a newcomer or two.  In general, the question is how to branch out - particularly with budget restrictions.  I would agree that you should focus on the south of France - Languedoc, Rousillon, Bergerac, Corbieres, Minervois and some of the leseer know Rhone sub-regions such as Cotes du Ventoux (Cahors might be another sugggestion).  These have value for your drinking pleasure in the price range you specify.

But if you want to tread into the more expensive Bordeaux, there are actually many quaffable Bordeaux under the Medoc, Haut-Medoc and even Bordeaux Superieur applelations.  I have my favorite "go-to" properties, but you need not rely on my personal tastes.  I might suggest a couple of wines in your range to taste the typical style you can expect from Bordeaux - such as Chateau de Gironville or Bolaire (the latter is Bordeaux Superieur from palus - but actually is superior rather than simply meeting an alcohol percentage limit).

In recent years, I've tended to drink more expensive cru but then that is the result of suffiencient cash reserves to indulge in certain love interests.  But I want to quickly add that much of that additional lucre is often misspent; you would be well advised to keep looking for the best epicurean experience for the least money.  I firmly believe that the 20-30 dollar range (USD) is the best region to ply.

And keep listening to GregT and others and you will not go wrong.

Cheers, and have a lifetime of enjoyment in your exploration of wine!



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