A wine expert shares his top tips to help you choose wine that’s just right for you…
Standing in the wine aisle of the super-market, confronted with a range of 500 different wines, or perusing a 4-page wine list in a restaurant can be quite a daunting experience. France produces more than 2,900 different types of wine, more than 360 different appellations (a legal defined area of production) and over 200 indigenous wine varieties. So, how do you know where to start?
If price isn’t an issue, then simply picking the most expensive bottle seems like it might work. But – will the wine actually suit your taste rather than that of the collectors and critics who determine market prices? Besides, for most of us wine is a regular purchase where cost is definitely a consideration – and even most wine buffs I know like to think they can spot a bargain.
My advice is to tackle this from first principles, trusting your own taste buds. Start by thinking about what kind of wine do you generally prefer to drink? Do you like dry or sweet? Do you like your red wine beefy and powerful or lighter and fruitier? If you prefer white wine, is it full and oaky, or crisp and refreshing that gets your taste buds humming?
Once you’ve broken down your style preferences in this way then a little advice from a retailer or a little bit of research will lead you to the wine regions and key varietals of France that are “classic” examples of these styles. You shouldn’t need more than around 8 appellations/varietals to get you going.
Here’s how this might work:
“I like Chardonnay but I’m not too keen on all the oak”.
A Chablis from Burgundy is my classic choice here, usually unoaked or very lightly oaked. There are wines at prices to suit all budgets – from the excellent wines produced by co-operatives up to some very fancy Grand Crus. Pretty well every store or restaurant is going to stock a Chablis precisely because it’s an acknowledged classic.
“I like my whites dry but with some floral tones, not keen on that buttery thing.”
The classic here would be a Sauvignon based wine from Sancerre in the Loire Valley, very dry with attractive grassy/gooseberry aromas and pleasing saline minerality.
“I like bold reds with some bite, love that cigar box thing.”
If this is you, go for a Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend from Bordeaux. You don’t have to pay high prices, look for the entry level Medoc appellation or the satellite Cotes de Bourg. These will deliver the style without hurting your pocket.
“I’m more of a white drinker than a red. But when I drink reds I’m looking for easy fruit flavours and not too much alcohol.”
A classic Beaujolais from the Gamay grape produces juicy wines that slip down easily and are often only 12.5% alcohol, low by today’s standards.
The wine challenge
If you approach the challenge of how to choose a good French wine that suits your taste in this way, you will swiftly build a reliable list of appellations and varietals that suit your palate.
Of course, not all Chablis is great Chablis. The next stage of your adventure is to get to know the better producers. Be bold and seek advice wherever and whenever you can find it. And taste it if you can to make sure you agree! Talk to your sommelier and the manager at your wine store – they love nothing better than being quizzed.
Once your base camp is established, continue the taste journey and venture out into the unknown… Try the explosive exotic fruit and rose petal flavours of a Gewürztraminer from Alsace, the intense sweet strawberry and herbal spice of a pure Grenache from the Rhone, the adventure continues..
I offer the above advice in the knowledge that this process is precisely how I have come to know and appreciate French wines over more than 40 years. It’s not a quick fix but it is true to what your unique palate enjoys in a wine – and the learning curve is a constant delight!
Philip Reddaway holds a Wine and Spirit Educational Trust diploma, qualified as an AIWS (Associate of the Institute of Wine and Spirits) and is a WSET approved wine instructor.