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Most of us are familiar with the famous French red wine denominations (Bordeaux, Burgundy, etc). However, many people have a hard time understanding French wine labels. That difficulty to understand what you’ll get based on the information on the bottle label causes many people to skip French wines altogether and stick with regions that make the buying process easier.
We are huge fans of French wines, but we have to agree: the labels can be challenging! No grapes, dozens of different village names to memorize, cru classifications, the whole thing can be confusing and intimidating.
So, how can you get over the rocky start and fall in love with French wines just as much as we did? Here’s how we can help: we looked back at when we first started drinking them so we can share with you the wines are always approachable, great value and that can be enjoyed young.
We guarantee: by the end of this article, you’ll have all the info you need to confidently start buying and trying French red wines.
Beaujolais – where gamay is king
Beaujolais is known for wines produced with the Gamay grape. This French wine region got in everyone’s radar with “Beaujolais Nouveau,” the super commercial, affordable and juicy young red wines that inundate the market every November.
However, we suggest you skip the “nouveau” labels and look for the better Beaujolais denominations.
Beaujolais wines are light-bodied, similar in taste to Pinot Noir. In fact, Gamay is a cousin of Pinot Noir. Their delicate floral aromas, subtle earthy notes, and surprising ability to pair with food (even fish!) will make them an instant staple in your wine fridge!
Beaujolais has actually 10 different crus or denominations. For your intro to French red wines, start with a simple “Beaujolais” or “Beaujolais Villages.” If you love it, you can look into other crus such as Fleurie or Brouilly, which produce wines that are a bit more complex.
Cahors – The original Malbec
Malbec has become so associated with Argentina that many people assume it’s an Argentinian grape.
However, Malbec traces its roots back to France! More specifically, to the Cahors region, where it was known for centuries as “the black wine from Cahors.”
Malbec wines from the Cahors region share only a couple of similarities with the Argentinian version: tight tannins and deep color. Everything else is completely different: Cahors Malbec is leaner, has lower alcohol content and higher acidity. These are elegant, structured and linear wines that should get much more recognition than they currently do!
Côtes du Rhône – The Rhône Valley young cousins
Rhône is famous for bold and usually expensive red wines (Châteauneuf-du-pape, Côte-Rotie, etc). Those are great, but today we would like to put the Rhône family’s more approachable cousins in your radar – the Côtes du Rhône Villages wines.
Côtes du Rhône is an umbrella denomination for wines produced in the flanks of the Rhône river, which are usually a blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mouvérdre. The levels of quality vary, but we suggest you look for a small producer from the Côtes du Rhône Villages denomination (these words will be clear in the label). This should be a good indication that the wine is a good representation of the region.
Bourgogne Rouge (or Red Burgundy Wines)
Bourgogne (or Burgundy, as the region is mostly called in English speaking circles) produces wines primarily with two grapes – Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. However, it still manages to have some of the most confusing wine labels out there.
If a region deserves an entire youtube section on how to read its wine labels, we know things are complicated:
However, it’s impossible to talk about French wines without talking about Bourgogne, even at a beginner level.
But don’t worry – we’ll make things super easy for you: we’ll tell you exactly where to start and what to look for to take your baby steps with Burgundy wines.
Start simple: get a “Bourgogne Rouge”. They are very easy to spot:
Chinon Cabernet Franc – A French Red Wine With Attitude
Back in 2015, the New York Times already hailed Chinon as the “red wine wine attitude,” and they couldn’t be more correct.
Chinon is a denomination within the Loire Valley region. This is considered by many the place of rebirth of Natural wines in Europe, so sustainability and organic farming is huge in the area. The large majority of the Chinon production is natural and biodynamic wines.
When you see “Chinon” on the label, think Cabernet Franc. The large majority of Chinon wines are produced with 100% Cabernet Franc grapes.
Chinon reds are intensely colored, with lively cherry-red to deep garnet, with aromas of red fruits, herbs, and a peppery earthiness. Some wines are light and delicate with pronounced scents of red fruit and very pleasing when young; others are more robust and structured, developing complex flavors of cooked black fruit, baking spices and game.
Similarly to the other wines we suggested, Chinon are super easy to spot. Just look for the word “Chinon” front and center on the label. That guarantees that the wine was produced with grapes harvested within the geographic delimitations of the region and that it follows the techniques and quality control established by the AOC.
Bordeaux – The Ultimate French Red Wine Region
Bordeaux wines are some of the most recognized and respected labels in the world, and produces some of the most expensive and age-worthy wines from denominations such as Margaux, Paulliac, Pomerol (you know, the big guys).
However, when you’re just starting with French wines, you might want to look for something more approachable. We actually suggest you build up and develop your palate to the nuances of the wines in the Bordeaux region, so when you taste a 20+ year aged bottle from a top Chateau, you can fully enjoy it.
To get you started with Bordeaux wines, you want something approachable, affordable and ready to drink now. Here’s the good news: we have just the perfect Bordeaux regions for that!
1st Bordeaux for beginners appellation: Côtes-de-Bordeaux
According to Wine Enthusiast, Côtes de Bordeaux “should be your go-to Bordeaux wine region,” and we couldn’t agree more.
This young AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) was created in 2009 with the union of 4 régions: Côtes de Blaye, Côtes de Castillon, Côtes de Francs and Côtes de Cadillac. When shopping for these wines, you’ll notice that some labels will say just “Côtes de Bordeaux” and others will say the Village name + Côtes de Bordeaux. Either way, you’ll be getting a great wine that can be enjoyed even just 2-3 years after bottling.
All Côtes de Bordeaux wines are produced with the classic Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The appellation covers about 30,000 acres, produces about 10% of the Bordeaux wine production, and there are new winemakers and bottles to be discovered all the time.
And the best part? These wines currently represent some of the best values in Bordeaux.
2nd Bordeaux for beginners appellation: Lalande-de-Pomerol
Lalande-de-Pomerol is a denomination just north of Pomerol. Lalande wines are primarily Merlot, but Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec can be added to the blend. These wines are more fruit-forward, and with much smoother tannins than wines from other Bordeaux areas.
They are also lighter – alcohol levels are usually between 12.5%-13.5%. Add all these traits and what you have is a perfect summer bbq or carne asada wine!
Geographically, Lalande is a continuation of the Pomerol area. The region was considered the “poor people Pomerol” for a long time. However, in the past 20 years, the Lalande-de-Pomerol winemakers invested in modern winemaking techniques and did a big push for quality.
Today you can get great quality wines that reflect the Bordeaux right bank terroir without the Pomerol price tag.
We hope you enjoyed the suggestions, and learned a bit more about French red wines with us today. If you find this info useful, make sure to share the article with your friends. Au revoir!
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