Randy Mayor

No need to be intimidated by the wine list--here's a user-friendly guide to France's top wines.

By Karen MacNeil-Fife
August 14, 2008

France produces more fine wines than any other country in theworld, and some French wines have rightfully achieved mythicstatus. There's a drawback to the prestige, however. As impressiveas French wines can be, they're also a little intimidating.Somehow, ordering from the French section on a restaurant's winelist seems to take a little more sophistication than opting for,say, a California Chardonnay. But it shouldn't. France producesscores of simple, soulful every-night dinner wines.

One easy way to get to know French wine is to become familiarwith the flavors of the country's different regions, for which itswines are named. You can do this systematically by beginning withany of the major wine regions below and creating a dinner aroundone of its wines.

Alsace
The Alsace region--which lies in northeastern France alongthe German border--produces France's most extroverted, dramaticallyfruity, and aromatic white wines. Because their flavors are notcovered with oak, which is almost never used in the fermentationprocess, fans love Alsatian wines for their purity. The leadingvarietals (all white) are Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Gewurztraminer.Drink them with a hearty beef stew such as our Baekeoffe, just asthe Alsatians do. You'll change your mind about the old idea thatmeat needs a red wine. Top producers: Trimbach, Hugel,Zind-Humbrecht.

Beaujolais
Red wines just don't get more lip-smackingly fruity thanthose found in Beaujolais, an area within the Burgundy region ofeastern-central France. The wines of Beaujolais are best whenthey're paired with the humblest fare--grilled sausages, warmpotato salad, and the like. (You can even try Beaujolais with meatloaf.) To enhance Beaujolais's exuberant fruitiness, pop it in thefridge for 10 or 15 minutes before serving. Top producer: GeorgesDuboeuf.

Bordeaux
The big gun of French wine, Bordeaux can definitely beravishing. Though there are good inexpensive Bordeaux, I prefer tosave up and buy something really sensational (which can easily run$50). Bordeaux wines are made primarily from a blend of Merlot andCabernet Sauvignon. For centuries, the classic partner for Bordeauxhas been roast leg of lamb, seasoned with garlic and rosemary. Topproducers: Lynch-Bages, Pichon-Longueville Baron, ChateauPalmer.

Burgundy
The wines of Burgundy can be frightfully expensive. But agreat Burgundy is more than just an excellent wine--it can be alife-altering experience. Red Burgundies are made from Pinot Noir,white ones from Chardonnay. If you like California Chardonnay buthave never tried a top white Burgundy such as a Puligny-Montrachetor a Chassagne-Montrachet, why wait? There's nothing better with arich, sweet seafood dish like Coquilles St. Jacques With Curry. Topproducers: There are thousands of tiny Burgundy producers; ask yourbest wine shop for its top pick.

The Loire Valley
The Loire Valley is often described as the garden of France.Not surprisingly, the lively white wines produced in this regionpair wonderfully with salads and vegetables. The Loire offers atreasure chest of dozens of different wines, but the one every winelover absolutely must know about is Sancerre. Possibly the all-timefavorite wine in Parisian wine bars, Sancerre is a refreshing,tangy, and limey wine with distinctive mineral flavors. It'sconsidered the classic white wine partner for goat cheese salads.Top producers: Henri Bourgeois, Cotat, Henri Pelle.

The Rhone Valley
This southeastern region produces some of France's mostdelicious, slightly rustic country wines. Roast chicken, duck, andmeat stews could have no better partner than an earthy red Rhone.For every-night drinking, Cotes-du-Rhone wines are not onlyaffordable (it's easy to find one priced under $10) but alsogenerously flavored. Top producers: Domaine Santa Duc, Perrin, andE. Guigal; for a splurge, try a Chateauneuf-du-Pape such as VieuxTelegraphe, Chateau La Nerthe, or Font de Michelle.

Cooking Light wine expert Karen MacNeil-Fife is chair of the wine programs atthe Culinary Institute of America in California's NapaValley.

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