They are fabulously diverse. They brim with romance and sex appeal. They are regarded the world over as benchmarks of flavor. So why can French wines seem slightly intimidating? The truth is, French wines are complicated, in part because of their stunning variety. But in the end, that's also one of their fantastic pluses. You'll never run out of great French wines to try, which means learning about them can easily become a lifelong pleasure.
In France, "terroir" (which means the land itself, the composition of the soil) is all-important, which means there is considerable emphasis on where the grapes of any given wine are grown. In fact, one good rule of thumb is that French wines often bear the name of the region or village in which they were produced, a practice that can be confusing to anyone accustomed to seeing wines identified by grape. Almost all red wines from Burgundy, for example, are made using Pinot Noir grapes, yet one will rarely find these words on bottle labels.
After Champagne, the most famous French wines that arrive on U.S. shores come from five regions: Bordeaux, the Loire Valley, Burgundy, Alsace, and the Rhone Valley. Certain grapes and wines are associated with each region. Although these generalizations have their exceptions, they are useful to know when you're scanning labels.
Bordeaux, in the southwest, is famous for its complex Cabernet Sauvignon- and Merlot-dominant blends that age beautifully and make great matches for roast beef and pot-au-feu.
The Loire, near the Atlantic coast, is known for crisp white wines made largely from Sauvignon Blanc or Chenin Blanc grapes. These are prime partners for oysters on the half shell.
What we call Burgundy (and the French call Bourgogne) is a collection of winemaking areas southeast of Paris that produce great whites (Chablis, for example, made from Chardonnay grapes) and masterful reds -- many Pinot Noir based, as you now know. These can be every bit as elegant (and expensive) as fine Bordeaux. Beaujolais, the region where the famously fruity wines are made from Gamay grapes, is also part of Burgundy.
The cool Alsace region, near the German border, is an underappreciated source for outstanding white wine -- Riesling and Pinot Gris especially -- that can be as refreshing as a green apple or, in sweeter versions, as heady as tropical flowers.
The Rhone Valley, near the Mediterranean, is divided into two areas: the north and the south. In the northern Rhone, the reds are largely based on Syrah grapes. This includes the esteemed Hermitage, a mulberry-dark wine that would suit a roast leg of lamb at a black-tie dinner. The area's unique Condrieu wine, an orange-blossom-scented white made from Viognier grapes, would be a distinctive brunch offering with smoked salmon. Southern Rhone wines often blend multiple grape varietals in a single bottle. Such is the case with one of the region's best-known wines, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, which can contain as many as 13 types, including Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre. Wines marketed simply as Cotes du Rhone are made from northern or southern Rhone grapes, or both, and can be reds, whites, or roses. These make solid everyday wines, thanks to their reliably good flavor and value.
A great way to get started is to start small -- with a single wine that you already adore -- and home in on the region where it's from. You might turn to Sancerre, for example, which is made in the appellation of the same name from Sauvignon Blanc grapes. After you sample a range of bottles from throughout the area, you could branch out, delving into wines from Sancerre's Loire neighbors. These include the regionally named Pouilly-Fume (more Sauvignon Blanc) and Vouvray (Chenin Blanc). If you find yourself emboldened to dip into less familiar territories, you'll be in good company. The thrill of a new discovery, after all, is the best part of the ride.
This Month's Picks
Tardieu-Laurent bottles wine from vineyards throughout the Rhone. The Syrah and Grenache grapes in its Cotes du Rhone Les Becs Fins (2004, $15) create a richly textured wine for serving with hearty dishes, such as boeuf bourguignon or roast chicken with garlic. Nuances of spice, licorice, and black cherry are classic Rhone qualities.
A clear-violet tint and a fresh strawberry note are characteristics of Beaujolais, one of the only wines worldwide made from Gamay grapes. Finer versions, such as Louis Jadot's Beaujolais-Villages (2005, $9), have an added earthiness and maturity that befits turkey hash or a leek and olive tart.
The note of tropical fruit and the ripe intensity of Domaine des Baumard's Savennieres Clos du Papillon (2002, $30) make this expression of the Chenin Blanc grape seem more like Sauvignon Blanc. Its dry, flinty finish makes it a nice table mate for lighter savory dishes, such as an herb frittata or an arugula and green-bean salad.
Chateau Carbonnieux's 1996 Bordeaux ($28) is a traditional red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. It has suggestions of cooked fruit that yield an appetizingly mellow finish. The wine would be equally at home with roast leg of lamb or a late-night grilled-cheese sandwich.
A Chablis of quality, such as the one made by Domaine Louis Michel & Fils (2004, $30), is the leanest, most steely expression of the Chardonnay grape and may seem pleasantly unfamiliar to anyone who is more accustomed to oaky, fruity California versions. These wines pair beautifully with shellfish of all kinds as well as poached salmon.