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French Toasts

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

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

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

The Alsace region--which lies in northeastern France along the German border--produces France's most extroverted, dramatically fruity, and aromatic white wines. Because their flavors are not covered with oak, which is almost never used in the fermentation process, fans love Alsatian wines for their purity. The leading varietals (all white) are Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Gewurztraminer. Drink them with a hearty beef stew such as our Baekeoffe, just as the Alsatians do. You'll change your mind about the old idea that meat needs a red wine. Top producers: Trimbach, Hugel, Zind-Humbrecht.

Red wines just don't get more lip-smackingly fruity than those found in Beaujolais, an area within the Burgundy region of eastern-central France. The wines of Beaujolais are best when they're paired with the humblest fare--grilled sausages, warm potato salad, and the like. (You can even try Beaujolais with meat loaf.) To enhance Beaujolais's exuberant fruitiness, pop it in the fridge for 10 or 15 minutes before serving. Top producer: Georges Duboeuf.

The big gun of French wine, Bordeaux can definitely be ravishing. Though there are good inexpensive Bordeaux, I prefer to save up and buy something really sensational (which can easily run $50). Bordeaux wines are made primarily from a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. For centuries, the classic partner for Bordeaux has been roast leg of lamb, seasoned with garlic and rosemary. Top producers: Lynch-Bages, Pichon-Longueville Baron, Chateau Palmer.

The wines of Burgundy can be frightfully expensive. But a great Burgundy is more than just an excellent wine--it can be a life-altering experience. Red Burgundies are made from Pinot Noir, white ones from Chardonnay. If you like California Chardonnay but have never tried a top white Burgundy such as a Puligny-Montrachet or a Chassagne-Montrachet, why wait? There's nothing better with a rich, sweet seafood dish like Coquilles St. Jacques With Curry. Top producers: There are thousands of tiny Burgundy producers; ask your best 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 region pair wonderfully with salads and vegetables. The Loire offers a treasure chest of dozens of different wines, but the one every wine lover absolutely must know about is Sancerre. Possibly the all-time favorite wine in Parisian wine bars, Sancerre is a refreshing, tangy, and limey wine with distinctive mineral flavors. It's considered 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 most delicious, slightly rustic country wines. Roast chicken, duck, and meat stews could have no better partner than an earthy red Rhone. For every-night drinking, Cotes-du-Rhone wines are not only affordable (it's easy to find one priced under $10) but also generously flavored. Top producers: Domaine Santa Duc, Perrin, and E. Guigal; for a splurge, try a Chateauneuf-du-Pape such as Vieux Telegraphe, Chateau La Nerthe, or Font de Michelle.

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