In the spirit of the coming spring and the euphoria it always brings, I wanted to take a moment here to piss off a large number of people and address a question that any of us who develop even the mildest wine-mania will eventually face: French wine. I don’t do this gratuitously. It just happens that, roughly every three or four years, I get a sudden tsunami of questions related to French wine, after which I pop off like this and give my detractors – a group about the numbers of the Chinese military – all the ammunition they need for another half-decade.
For many years, I had a relentless collection of pals on a nearby Island which shall remain nameless, (okay, Bainbridge) who blustered on constantly about how you have to appreciate French wine to ever become a “serious” wine lover. During these tirades, I would fidget noticeably and was usually asked to explain myself – until I did explain myself several times, after which everyone knew better than to ask. I finally refused, and do even now, because I know what the response will be: a chuckle, and indulgent pat on the head, and an assurance that eventually my tastes will evolve into the inevitable adoration of Bordeaux and Burgundy.
That’s what you have to expect from Francophiles. They believe that they walk upright on the dry land of certainty while the rest of us are still trying to evolve away our gills and flippers and grow feet. Even this blog entry, read by a devout Franco-weenie, will do nothing except convince them that I’m another one of the unwashed, albeit with a podium.
The origins of this attitude, I believe, lie squarely with the French, while its ongoing persistence, like some feral foot fungus, belongs totally to US, the garden variety American wine weenie.
In the past 20 years, shoved brutally along by their reaction to Iraq, the French have seen what they feel is their God-given lion’s share of the world’s wine market shrink pretty dramatically. As ever, they simply dismiss criticism with a haughty, “Well, you just don’t know anything about wine!” They’ve sold this idea for generations; that their wines are so inherently superior and so unique that you have to achieve a high level of wine knowledge to properly understand them, at which point their greatness unfolds like the lotus blossom and you achieve vinous satori, Grasshopper. The fact that younger French winemakers, like younger American winemakers, have stopped taking themselves so oppressively seriously – starting to extract the pole from their posteriors and nudge their wine styles closer by millimeters to what’s going on in the rest of the world – only serves as stark contrast that amplifies the conventional French wisdom that says that we are all soda pop drinkers who may, someday, grow up in our wine tastes and finally, mercifully Find France. A stunning number of “serious” American wine lovers have bought this smarmy propaganda, almost unquestioned, for their entire lives. I can’t really blame the French for selling their viral fiction, either. If somebody came along with what you regard as a fad and an inferior product that suddenly threatened to usurp your livelihood, wouldn’t you drop the gloves and start fighting back? Of course you would. They shouldn’t be censured for trying to survive. We should, for buying the blather.
The main reason, aside from politics, for the French slippage is simply that their unquestioning devotion to their own wine aesthetic keeps them out of the rest of the world’s mainstream. The French value Place above all: a Bordeaux must bear the hallmarks of that soil, water, air, and climate. The catch-all term for this is terroir (tehr-wahr). They look with scorn on our California, Washington, and Oregon “fruit bombs” because they claim that the wines don’t speak about their origins or, conversely, that the origins are not sufficiently distinctive to produce great wines in the first place. This, of course, is hogwash. If you taste critically and have a sense memory, you can distinguish a Walla Walla Valley wine from a Sonoma wine pretty easily. We’re not, by any means, the only target of the classic French up-turned nose: the Aussies are “industrial“, the Germans are “formulaic“, the Spanish are pretty much a gang of unwashed thugs, the Italians fare best at “occasionally brilliant but misguided“, Oregon is “promising but, of course, they’ll never have French soil“, and everything below the equator, for the French, exists not at all.
French winemakers have evolved a complicated set of winemaking values designed to play up terroir and play down what they regard as the world’s fixation with gauche fruitiness. The vintners and their marketers harp endlessly on elements like “restraint“, “nuance“, “elegance“, and “harmony“, which they say we don’t achieve or really understand. This is all just one guy’s opinion, of course, and you should take what I say with the same large grain of salt you take everybody else’s wine opinions, but what those words generally mean is that a whole lot of engineering is going on in the winery. And that ain’t always a good thing. The chief tactic in this ethos is picking the grapes under-ripe. Ripeness is the knock against California and Australia: Hot weather = rising sugar + falling acidity = high alcohol = excessive fruitiness = American soda-pop drinkers. And some of us soda-pop drinkers adopt the French aesthetic with a fervor that’s only matched by a tent-revival evangelist or the underdog in some boondocks congressional election.
There are, unquestionably, those rare Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone, and Champagne bottles that completely transcend a simple potable liquid and move into the realm of fine art, like the Mona Lisa, George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today”, or a Steph Curry rainbow in its lazy, unerring arc into that tiny, round hoop. Those wines do emerge from France with regularity but, if you believe wine critics like Robert Parker, they emerge all over, as witnessed by his lists of a couple of years back when he gave out four 100-point scores to California Cabs and three more to Aussie Shirazes while granting only one to Bordeaux. That same aesthetic also produces a vast number of wines that even some French critics say – at their peril, of course – are stingy, insipid, undistinguished or just plain bad. I try hard never to dis someone’s craft, so I generally pass along wines I just don’t like to friends. I’ve poured nine bottles of wine down the sink in the past ten years. Eight of those were from France.
But what happens to those utterly transcendent bottles, the ones upon which the lofty rep of French wines is based? Have you ever tasted, say, a 1982 Chateau Petrus or a 1990 Mouton Rothschild or a 1953 Chateau Margaux or a 1929 Romanée-Conti “La Tache”? No? Me neither, and I’ve worked in the wine trade for a long time. The average wine drinker stands, realistically, NO chance of ever experiencing the wines upon which the claims of French supremacy are based. Eventually, most of the wines from those spectacular vintages wind up roosting for what amounts to eternity in the cellars of wealthy collectors who have no earthly intention of ever doing anything as mundane as actually drinking them. They may be as transcendent as the experts claim but all the vast majority of us have to go on is the word of wine critics who, let’s be honest, seldom reflect our own tastes. The simple fact is that all that hoorah about the glories of French wine requires that we accept that ALL of faith, relying on someone else’s opinions, which obly fools and small children are ever comfortable doing. I’ve sampled a fair number of wines that are supposedly among the best of their types ever made, including a 1900 Chateau D’Yquem, two vintages of Sassacaia, eighteen 100-point wines, seven Washingtonians above 95 points, nine Aussie Shiraz and blends that rated 98+ points, six Californians that rated +98, and fourteen Champagnes that racked up scores in excess of 95 points. Some were among the best things I ever tasted. MANY were not.
The view that French wine is inherently superior to every other region’s is largely built on past glories. And, of course, it’s very much in the best interests of the French economy, tourist trade, wine industry, their government, and their national pride to continue to toe the party line that says that the rest of us have simply not yet achieved enlightenment. The fly in the ointment, for the French, is that tastes in wine, like tastes in everything else, have a fierce resistance to being steered. Their wines sales in the US, over the past ten years, are down by over 20%. As I frequently put it, the French are resolutely headed one way in their wine practices while the rest of the wine-producing and drinking world is headed in exactly the opposite direction. The result is that, starting when I worked at Esquin Wine Merchants, back in 2003, I began to hear younger drinkers refer to Bordeaux and Burgundy as “old people’s wines”, a phenomenon that has gained considerable momentum since. By 2017, for vast numbers of wine lovers, the French are an afterthought; really more of a source of uneasiness as they realize that, hey, I don’t have a single French wines in my cellar! What’s WRONG with me?
Answer: not a stinkin’ thing. Drink what you like and turn a deaf ear to anyone, any time, who suggests that, for some sort of specious validation, you “must” appreciate the wines of any region, any county, or any style. People who would even form their mouths to suggest such things are servicing an Agenda, worshiping their own and their circle’s tastes and expressing their insecurity that criticism might somehow invalidate them.
You should NOT – not, not, not! – take what I say here as gospel. Know this: I love many, many French wines. Domaine les Pallieres Gigondas, J.L. Chave “Offerus” Sainte Joseph, Vieux Telegraphe Chateauneuf du Pape, Rene Rostaing Cote Rotie and Condrieu, E. Guigal Hermitage, Marcel Deiss Muscat d’Alsace, Marcel LaPierre Morgon, Loire Valley whites and sweet wines, most of Alsace, even more of Porvence, and pretty much all of Champagne all make me swoony with delight, and that’s just skimming the surface. I also, to my own shock and awe. go batty for the odd Bordeaux. I even appreciate and like the odd Burgundy red, even if I wouldn’t sit down and actually drink a glass, upon pain of gooey death. I can’t, and wouldn’t ever, suggest that you to simply skip the wines of any country, region, or producer. What I do want to convey here is two things: 1) The wine world is, and always has been, conflicted about the relative merits of French wines, and 2) You’re not required to “get” French wine – or the wines of any other region, producer, or type – to be considered a “serious” wine connoisseur. I’m not even sure what “serious” means, anyway, as applied to wine. Does that mean you can’t have any fun or drink the occasional Asti Spumante or White Zin? If that’s what it means, I’m disqualified. But then, I’m not very serious, to begin with.
TRY French wines, by all means. But, if after trying a large number of them and finding out that you simply prefer Aussie, Washington, Argentinian, Californian, Chilean, South African, of even Oregon Pinot Noir (kinky but entirely possible), don’t worry about it. It’s not you and you’re not a peasant. For you and your tastes, you’re right…and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.