Image: wine tasting in Paris
Rick Steves
Taking a wine-tasting class — like this one in Paris — helps make French wine less intimidating
By
Tribune Media Services
updated 2/4/2011 5:41:00 PM ET 2011-02-04T22:41:00

France is peppered with wineries and wine-tasting opportunities. For some people, it can be overwhelming to try to make sense of the vast range of French wines, particularly when faced with a no-nonsense winemaker or sommelier.

I'm no wine expert and would never claim to be, but I've learned a lot from Olivier Magny, a young Parisian sommelier who gathers tourists for wine-tastings in a royal cellar a block from the Louvre (see www.o-chateau.com). The last time I was there, Olivier gave us a wonderful commentary. Here's what I gleaned from his presentation:

White wine should be clear ... if not, it's Spanish.

Acidity is like salt. It gives wine character. "Legs," a.k.a. "tears," indicates how much sugar is in the wine. Dry wine has fewer legs; sweet wine has more and faster-running legs.

When you sip a little wine and then suck air in, it exaggerates the character. You're not making it better, but bringing out its flavors, so that it's easier to identify the characteristics of that particular wine. Olivier feels that Americans need to break out of their four favorite words to describe the taste of wine: "dry, sweet, fruity, oaky."

The Champagne region defended its name and therefore has a strong image today. The Chablis region did not, so wine growers outside of France used the name and made it cheaply. Today the real Chablis is better than its reputation.

Terroir (pronounced "tehr-wah") is a uniquely French concept. The French don't call a wine by the grape's name. Two wines can be made of the same grape, but be of very different character because of their terroir. A real Chablis made from the Chardonnay grape is better than Chardonnays made elsewhere because of its terroir. Terroir is "somewhere-ness," a combination of the macro- and microclimate, soil, geology, and culture (the accumulated experience of the people and their craft).

Grapevines are creepers, with roots going through the topsoil and into the geology deep down. The roots are commonly 150 feet long and deep. While a vintner can influence the topsoil, a vintner cannot influence the deep geology; and this gives the wine a distinct character. The French do not allow irrigation, thus forcing the grapes to search deep for water.

There are two basic kinds of wine in this world: that of big growers and that of little growers. Big business works better for wine in places like Argentina and Australia (where three companies dominate the wine industry). Most French wine is still made by thousands of small, independent, and passionate vintners.

The French are not enthusiastic about the oaky taste of American wine. A French vintner went to a wine conference in California, where some wineries use barrels made from American oak rather than French oak. When pressed to comment on California wines, he said, "I don't like oak shaping my wine. When I drink Californian wine, I feel like I'm kissing Pinocchio." (Actually, he had a more graphic way of describing it.) Without the focus on oak-barrel aging, and because of the business environment that encourages small outfits, Olivier says French wine is lighter and more diverse.

Because of global climate change, wine in general is sweeter these days. A grape can't be harvested properly until it's sweet enough and the tannins are right. This used to happen at about the same time. But lately the grapes are sweet many days before the tannin level is ready. Consequently, when the tannins are right and the grapes can be harvested, they are sweeter than is optimal. Before, the average wine was 11 percent alcohol; now it's 13 percent.

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Everyone wants Bordeaux Grand Cru, and that demand drives up the price. That's why Bordeaux, while very good, is overpriced. Burgundy makes only about 3 percent of all French wine. Because of its reputation and the demand, it is overpriced as well.

Back when rooms were cooler, the idea that red wine is best drunk at room temperature was established. But room temperature is higher now than it used to be. Consequently, many restaurants serve their reds too warm. It's perfectly acceptable to ask for it to be chilled. Five or 10 minutes in the fridge, and it'll be just right.

Generally, in France you'll get light wines in the north, and big, full-bodied wines in the south where it's sunnier. A big name (e.g., Bordeaux, Burgundy) means a big price. A small name (e.g., Languedoc, Sud-Ouest) means potentially better value. Languedoc can be a great value for a big Syrah. A high-end Languedoc costs less than a low-end Bordeaux. Of the thousand different grapes that make good wine, 10 are famous.

Olivier's best tip about French wine came at the end: Don't be intimidated — break out and experiment. Sante!

(Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at rick@ricksteves.com, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, Wash. 98020.)

© 2011 Rick Steves ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Photos: Perfectly Paris

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  1. Mood lighting

    The Eiffel Tower and the Hotel des Invalides are illuminated at dusk with in Paris. (Mike Hewitt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Heart of the Louvre

    The intricate ceiling of the Appolo Gallery at Paris' Louvre Museum is reflected in a display case in the foreground. Built in 1661, the gallery was not fully completed until 1851. In all, over twenty artists worked on the decoration. The Appolo Gallery gallery contains more than two centuries of French art, and houses such wonders as the French Crown Jewels, including the famous Régent (140 carats) and Sancy (53 carats) diamonds, as well as the 105-carat Côte de Bretagne ruby. (Joel Robine / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. To the heavens

    The Sacred Heart Catholic church (Basilique Sacré-Coeur) is seen on Paris' highest point, in Montmartre. The view at the top of the dome is excellent -- 271 feet above Montmartre Hill -- and is the second-highest viewpoint after the Eiffel Tower. (Benoit Tessier / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Looking glass

    This elaborate stained-glass cupola (dome) inside Magasins du Printemps department store is located above the main restaurant in the store. Installed in 1923, it is composed of 3,185 individual pieces of stained glass. (David Lefranc / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Keeping cool

    Tourists soak their feet in a reflecting pool at Place du Trocadero, an area of museums and gardens. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Sights from the Seine

    A "Bateau Mouche" tourist boat travels near the Paris Justice court. These boat tours are a popular, but relaxing way to view the sights of Paris along the Seine River. (Benoit Tessier / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Museum of masterpieces

    Originally a royal fortress for kings, and open to all since 1793, the Louvre is one the world's greatest art museums, housing 35,000 works of ancient and Western art, displayed in over 60,000 square meters of exhibition space. More than 6 million visitors see the Louvre per year. (Mike Hewitt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Shopper's haven

    Local art, food and other goods are sold in passage Jouffroy, across Boulevard Montmartre. Originally designed to protect pedestrians from mud and horse-drawn vehicles, the passages (shopping arcades), arre located between the Grands Boulevards and the Louvre. (Amélie Dupont / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Modern art

    A view of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Its 1977 factory style architecture contrasts with the surrounding buildings of Paris' oldest district near Notre-Dame cathedral. It has a public library, and the French National Museum of Modern Art. (Loic Venance / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Holy architecture

    One of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture is the Notre Dame Cathedral, attracting 13 million visitors each year. The name Notre Dame means "Our Lady" in French. (Stéphane Querbes / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Practical protectors

    The famous stone statues of Notre Dame. (Amélie Dupont / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Tranquil gardens

    The Jardin des Tuileries is Paris's most central garden. Its fountains, sculptures, cafes, formal gardens, and central location, make it a popular destination for visitors and locals. (Amélie Dupont / Paris Tourist Offi) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Tuileries Palace

    Tuileries Palace encloses the western end of the Louvre and the formal gardens that make up Jardin des Tuileries park, stretching from the Louvre to the Place de Concorde, and bordered by the Seine. (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Moulin Rouge

    The cabaret Moulin Rouge was built in 1889, in Paris' red-light district of Pigalle on Boulevard de Clichy. The Moulin Rouge is best known as the birthplace of the can-can dance. (David Lefranc / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Flowing with history

    The Fontaine des Mers at one of the main public square, Place de la Concorde. At 20 acres, it is the largest square in Paris. (Henri Garat / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Honoring warriors

    The Arc de Triomphe stands in the center of the Place Charles de Gaulle, at the western end of the Champs-Elysees. The arch honors soldiers who fought for France. The names of generals and wars fought can be found on the inside and top of the arc. Underneath, is the tomb of the unknown soldier from World War I . (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Coffee break

    People walk past a boulangerie (bakery) in the Montmartre district in Paris. (Michel Euler / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Paris blues

    A piece of renowned French Roquefort blue cheese is displayed in a shop in Paris. (Philippe Wojazer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Pricey real estate

    The Place Vendome is an octagonal square located to the north of the Tuileries Gardens and east of the Eglise de la Madeleine. The bronze spiral column at the center of the square was constructed in 1810 by Napoleon to celebrate the French army’s victory at Austerlitz. Within the square are apartments, and posh hotels and high-end retailers, including Cartier, Chanel, and Bulgari. (Benoit Tessier / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. French connection

    The high-speed rail network in France goes to several Parisian train stations, including Gare Du Nord shown here. The name was derived by the idea that travelers would be able to travel to Belgium, Netherlands, Northern Germany and the Scandinavian countries. It is the busiest railway station in Europe, and the third -busiest in the world. (Cate Gillon / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. The grandest address in Paris

    The Pere Lachaise cemetary (Father Lachaise Cemetery) on the eastern edge of the city, is named after the Jesuit Father Lachaise, King Louis XIV's confessor. Many famous people are buried here, including Musset, Chopin, Moliere, Oscar Wilde, Delacroix, Balzac, Jim Morrison. (Amélie Dupont / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Impressive collection

    The Musée d'Orsay is one of Paris' most popular museums, housed in the former railway station, the Gare d'Orsay. The museum houses an extensive collection of sculptures and impressionist masterpieces by Monet, Degas, Renoir, and Cezanne. (David Lefranc / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Grand design

    The Grand Palais (Big Palace) was built for the World Fair of 1900. The building is best known for its enormous glass-domed roof, making it one of Paris’ most recognizable landmarks. The Grand Palais was the work of three different architects, and is currently the largest existing ironwork and glass structure in the world. (Marc Bertrand / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Prestigious avenue

    The Louis Vuitton department store is located on the stunning Champs-Elysees, one of the world's most famous and beautiful streets. (Mike Hewitt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Le Pantheon

    Le Pantheon was originally intended to be a church dedicated to Saint Genevieve to fulfil a vow made by Louis XV while he'd fallen ill. It was used for religious and civil purposes until 1885 and now functions as a famous burial place. (David Lefranc / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
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