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wedding toast Wine costs vary significantly in France; especially when you consider the price tags attached to top Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne. However France is rife with bargains too. There is plenty of wine from less expensive areas which are less laborious  to produce and are, therefore, a bit easier on the back pocket.

So when some friends asked me for advice on how to buy good French wine to serve at their wedding, for between £6-10  ($10-16 US) per bottle, I needed to do two things to set them on the right path:

1) Give them a crash course in reading a French wine label
2) Steer them away from well known wine regions in order to find the best value for their budget

French labels are not simple. But here are the basics of understanding what is on the front of the bottle:

French Wine is traditionally named after the region where it is produced, Bordeaux for example. To legally add the region to the label rules must be followed in the vineyard and winery that ensure the wine is of a certain quality. These rules also include permitted grape varieties. What makes it complicated is the sheer number of designated regions which all have different rules.

Below are recommendations of good value French wine listed by region. The region will be listed on the bottle amongst the words Appellation Contrôlée (AC).

The region will be listed on the bottle amongst the words Appellation Contrôlée (AC).

The region will be listed on the bottle amongst the words Appellation Contrôlée (AC).

White Wine Recommendations:

Chardonnay:

Petit Chablis AC: is tangy and light, with notes of lemon and green apple. It pairs especially well with seafood and makes a great aperitif.

Chablis AC: is a very similar style to Petit Chablis AC, but the grapes come from better vineyards, thus are more expensive; but if you’re lucky you will find some Chablis AC to fit this price bracket.

Mâcon AC: offers soft but full flavours of juicy peach and tropical fruits. As it has spent time in contact with charred oak it smells of toast and baking spices too. You’ll even find some buttery aromas in this one. It is a great match for roasted goodies.

Sauvignon Blanc:

Menetou-Salon AC, Touraine AC*: will be found in the Loire section of the wine shop. Production costs are low as this wine sees only hand-me-down barrels or no oak at all. These Sauvs have plenty of mouth-watering citrus and herbal flavours. They are great aperitifs and pair well with salads and lighter summery cuisine.

Red Wine Recommendations:

Gamay:

Beaujolais AC: is vibrant, full of sweet red berry aromas and best drunk while it is young. It is easy to enjoy on a warm afternoon or at cocktail hour, and due to its light colour it won’t turn your teeth purple. It pairs nicely with lighter foods; heavy meals are likely to overpower it.

GSM: (Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre are commonly blended together and referred to as GSM)

Côtes du Rhône AC: is a Grenache dominated blend of grape varieties. It bursts with intense ripe berry flavours. It is strongly coloured and considerably easy to drink. It is also great with grilled meats.

Côtes du Roussillon AC, Languedoc AC, Minervois AC, Pays d’Oc IGP**: are all located in Southern France, where more bang-for-buck wines are readily available. They use oodles of grape varieties throughout the greater area, and the appellation contrôlée quality control system is frequently overlooked by creative producers who invent their own rules as they go. Sure, there is some less-than-spectacular wine being produced there, but if you are up for a bargain hunt you’re likely to stumble across a gem.

wedding table

In your search, save yourself time by asking your local wine shop guru for specific recommendations and try a few different bottles before you commit to one for the big day.

If you’re interested in some more French wine suggestions, whether it’s for your wedding day or to try at home, message me in the comments section below or get in touch via Twitter.

*Touraine AC: in rare cases it is made using the Chenin Blanc grape instead of Sauvignon Blanc. It will usually have a varietal indication like Appellation Touraine Sauvignon Contrôlée to indicate the variety.
**Pays d’Oc IGP: These wines are made outside of the Appellation Contrôlée regulations and are usually labeled by grape variety

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How cool is it when someone can tell what wine they are drinking just by swirling, sniffing and sipping it? At the beginning of my career I was wowed by someone with this skill, and I have been developing it myself ever since. If you want to impress your friends or just get a kick out of drinking blind, then this is my advice to you

1.  Build a collection of wines

Start buying wine made from popular grape varieties that come from regions with a reputation for making them well. Buy quite a few bottles, and get them far enough in advance that you can forget what you bought. Another option is to get a mixed case, available from most wine shops, online and otherwise. Alternatively you could ask a wine shop assistant to secretly pick a few bottles for you. Just make sure that they are clear on your tasting objective and budget.

2.  Get a private wine waiter (or a drinking buddy)

You will need a get a friend to pick a wine from your collection and pour it into a tasting glass, out of your sight. The bottle shape and closure (cork, screw top) can give away almost as much information as the label does, so be true to your senses and don’t peek.

3.  Write notes

Writing notes allows you see how different brands made from the same grape variety have similar tastes, aromas, and textures in your mouth. Pretty soon you’ll be able to recognise some wine varieties without your notes. You can jot your notes any way you want to, but for consistency I recommend using the The Court of Master Sommeliers Tasting GridsThe Wine & Spirit Education Trust’s Systematic Approach to Tasting, or the chart below from bettertastingwine.com

 

Wine tasting note aid, courtesy of bettertastingwine.com

4.  Decode your notes

Every grape variety has some tell-tale characteristics no matter where the grapes were grown. Check a website to see if your findings correlate with what flavours and aromas this type of wine usually has.

5. Recognise your wins and learn from your losses

If you taste grapefruit when you should taste lemon, or if you smell apple when you should smell pear, count it as a win. No one’s palate is the same, and if you’re finding features from the same aroma families then you are doing well.

Where the grape is grown also affects the wine. But that is a blog post for another day. At this stage start making yourself aware of regions and wines that go hand-in-hand, but don’t beat yourself up if you can’t taste the difference between a sauvignon blanc from New Zealand or Chile. Be please that you can identify the variety, and know that NZ and Chile both produce great examples.

It is a great feeling when you have identified a wine correctly, but there is a lot to learn from what you get wrong, too. Don’t give up, just keep thinking while you’re drinking.

Do you need a little help choosing? Wine shop staff can be an invaluable source of information and suggestions.

Below are some suggestions to kick-off your blind tasting wine collection. These are examples of popular grape varieties from regions or countries that do them well:

Riesling: Germany, New Zealand, Alsace (FR), Clare Valley/Eden Valley (AU), New York (US), Canada

Chardonnay: Chablis / Burgundy (FR), Yarra Valley / Margaret River (AU), California (US), New Zealand

Sauvignon Blanc: Bordeaux / Sancerre / Pouilly-Fume (FR), New Zealand, Chile, South Africa

Pinot Noir: Burgundy (FR), Oregon (US), New Zealand, Canada, Victoria Australia

Cabernet Sauvignon / Merlot (These two grapes are commonly blended together): Bordeaux (FR), California (US), Chile, Coonawarra (AU), Argentina, South Africa

Don’t let this limit you though. There are plenty of grapes that display their traditional characteristics intensely. Try Viognier, Gewürztraminer, Beaujolais, Temprenillo (Rioja, SP), Nebbiolo (Barolo, Barbaresco, IT), or Torrontés and Malbec from Argentina.

Click for Seven more tips on training your palate, or for advice on setting up the best wine tasting environment.

Be sure to share if found this post helpful or if you have any questions.

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Sommelier, Cara De Lavallade, sniffing out a selection of Argentine wines.

In my last post I wrote about how the close link between your memories and your sense of smell is key to your ability to describe wine. So whether you have had lots of experience with wine or not, it’s time to put your nose in a glass and your memories to work. Here are seven tips on how you can start developing your skills, and begin identifying a wine’s characteristics like the pros do.

1.  Know the importance of smelling the wine: You may well know that flavours are largely experienced through sense of smell. Your mouth is more useful in experiencing textures, sensations, and basic flavours like salty, sweet, bitter, etc. It is an obvious one but take the time to sniff out a wine and get acquainted with delicate nuances before you tip it back.

2. Taste two wines, of the same colour, side by side: By comparing them directly, you will be able to move past a wine smelling like wine. You will find that one is fruitier, one is more intense, and one has a longer finish (sensations and flavours of the wine that you can still sense after you swallow. A long finish also indicates higher quality…more about that in another post).

3. Reference an aroma wheel: It is likely that you will smell something familiar when nosing a wine, but without a visual reference, the words to describe the fragrance may be hard to find. An aroma wheel lists common wine odours from vague to specific. For example, if you think a wine is fruity, the wheel will help you determine if the fruit is tropical, citrusy, or dried. If you decide it is tropical, then the wheel will suggest banana, guava or pineapple (each grape variety has a typical set of characteristics. By identifying specific fruits you are progressing towards your ability to blind taste). Basically, an aroma wheel can put the words back in your mouth.

4. Don’t be shy to share your descriptions: “The wine smells like Nana’s cottage.” Sure, it is a bit nuts to describe a wine this way but that is only because no one else has been to Nana’s cottage. The trick to making sense of your descriptor is to change it into terms that others can relate too. This wine smells like Nana’s cottage, but what does Nana’s cottage smell like? Dust? Camp fire? Drift wood? Perfume? Strawberry jam? Remember this little tip and you will be a believable wine geek in no time. Whatever weird wine descriptor you come up with, there is probably a good reason for it.

5. Keep notes of what you have tasted:  You may never read these notes again, but they are helpful to:

a. Organize your thoughts if you are tasting multiple wines at one time

b. Remember your first impression of a wine, and to track it as it changes. Exposure to oxygen changes the wine right in your glass. New smells will become apparent and the initial fragrances will dissipate.

c. Track similarities between wines of the same variety, region, and age. It won’t be long until you learn the difference between light pink and salmon coloured, and figure out that Sauvignon Blanc, the world over, smells like cutgrass and grapefruit.

Friends tasting and toasting at O. Fournier winery in Mendoza

6. Taste with friends: By bringing together different palates, and comparing notes, you will discover new ways of describing the same smell, growing your palate and diversifying your wine vocabulary. For example, what one person describes as baked bread, another person will describe as buttered toast. Don’t underestimate the importance of drinking with friends as a learning tool, especially now that you are not reluctant to share your whacky findings.

7. Visit a facility that offers a wine sensory kit, or make your own: These are a great way to start to strengthen your ability to recognise a smell and then describe it.

What methods work for you? Perhaps you have already started noticing a consistent aroma from one Cabernet to another? Feel free to share  how these suggestions work for you and to offer your own tips in the comments!

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There are plenty of wine-relevant smell memories in here

I grew up in Northern Ontario, a region not generally thought of as one of the great wine destinations of the world. When starting out in the wine industry I knew that I had a lot to learn to catch-up with those who had a natural introduction to the vine. What I didn’t know then, was how relevant those early years were to how I experience wine now. Continue Reading »

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I was absolutely blown away the first time I tasted Torrontés. It had a nose of tropical fruit and flowers, not too dissimilar to that of a Gewürztraminer; but with slashes of refreshing citrus. It was intense, crisp, and richly perfumed. My experience was all that and then some. I had not been this excited about an aromatic wine since I learned how to pronounce Viognier properly! So, if you’ve been thinking about making the plunge, but haven’t yet, here are three more reasons why you should:

1. Bang-for-buck: Torrontés is generally made in stainless steel tanks and is intended to be guzzled young in order to capitalize on its fresh fruit characters. Translation: it is inexpensive to produce meaning you can expect great value for money.

2. Impress your friends with a little wine trivia: At1683 metres above sea level (5522 ft.), Torrontés shines its brightest in the world’s highest wine producing region, Cafayate, Salta in the northern reaches of Argentina’s Andes mountain ranges.

3. It’s becoming trendy and winning awards: Torrontés based wines took two top accolades at the Decanter World Wine Awards in 2011: International Trophy Dry Aromatic under 10£ and International Trophy  Dry Aromatic over 10£. In the same competition Torrontés won an additional eight awards, plus five more were commended.

For those interested in developing their palates, I recommend tasting a Torrontés against aromatic wine varieties of a parallel character. Try varieties that contain the same (low) level of sweetness so that the sugar content does not interfere with the way you perceive the sweetness of the nose, the acid levels, or the texture of the wine.

Recommended wine varieties for comparisons with Torrontés are:

Riesling: Typically displays a green apple, lemon/lime, and floral nose, developing honey, toast and kerosene characters as it ages. While it consistently has high acidity, its sugar content can fall anywhere from bone dry to sticky sweet. It is also typified by its light body and low alcohol. Its homes are in Germany and the Alsace region of France, but there are great examples being produced in Austria, Australia’s Clare and Eden Valleys, Canada’s Niagara region, and New Zealand’s South Island.

Gewürztraminer: Typically displays intense floral, tropical fruit and spice aromas. Rose and lychee scents are very common, along with notes of stone fruit, musk and ginger. It is generally dry to medium-sweet with low to medium acidity. This can give the impression of high alcohol and an unctuous texture. It is one of the few varieties permitted to be grown in Alsace and it is also produced extensively in Germany; that being said, many a cool climate wine regions are having success with this variety.

Viognier: This medium to full body wine is known for its intense bouquet of dried apricot, flowers, stone fruit, and musky perfume. It generally has a high alcoholic content and a medium to full body. It is the most predominant white grape of the few produced in northern Rhone; however, curious oenologists world over are yielding good results.

I am certain that once white wine lovers wrap their laughing gear around Torrontés, they won’t be able to put the bottle down. Get ready world! Torrontés is the next hot trend in summertime wines, and will soon join Malbec as being synonymous for great Argentinian wine!

More blog post from my escapades in Argentina:

Unexpected Weather, Argentina vs New Zealand: Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, Rats in the Cellar, Wine Cellar Dinning at Azafran, Cellar Update: Here comes the Malbec , Bocce and BBQ, Vinos y Tapas at The Vines Wine Bar and Vinotecha, Mendoza Cabernet Sauvignon Compared, Training your Palate with a Wine Sensory Kit, Wine Camp is in Session, Mendoza Malbec Under $25, Winemaker Night with the team from Delmino Del Plata Estate and Susana Balbo Wines , Reporting Live from Mendoza.

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