Bordeaux [bor DOE] is the world's largest fine wine-making region, and perhaps the most famous. With its many chateaux (SHA toes) and blends, it is also the most difficult to keep the grapes straight. There are five main red grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, with Petit Verdot and Malbec used as blending grapes, to smooth out the wines and create a more palatable product.
Under these rules, Bordeaux is broken up into four red wine-producing districts that you'll see a lot on the labels: St. Emilion, Pomerol, Graves, and Medoc. If you see St. Emilion or Pomerol, you'll most likely be buying Merlot, a lighter red wine. Graves has both red and whites, with Cabernet Sauvignon being the main red grape of choice. Medoc has sub-appellations Saint-Julien, Paulliac, Margaux, and Saint-Estephe that have mostly bolder, earthier Cabernet Sauvignons.
It's much easier to determine the red grape variety in Burgundy (BER gun dee) or Bourgogne (BOR gun NYA). It's all Pinot Noir. These wines are often heavier than California or Pacific Northwest Pinots, and can even be aged for decades. But they are normally softer than Bordeaux wines. When looking for a bottle of Burgundy, if you don't see "Bourgogne" on the label, follow the phrases "Cote de Nuits," "Cote de Beaune," or "Cote d'Or," -- wine-producing areas within Burgundy. Beaujolais (BO jo LAY) is a smaller region in southern Burgundy, and wine from this area is made from a grape called Gamay. Lighter, lip smacking grape flavor is what emerges from Beaujolais wines.
The Rhone (RONE) Valley has fewer regulations than its brethren. There are also fewer appellations, making it more difficult to know what you're buying. The region grows 13 grapes, with Syrah and Grenache being the big daddies of most Rhone bottles. Syrah is for fans of bigger, fuller wine; while Grenache-based wines will appeal more to the lighter, fruitier wine fans. However, the wine labeled "Cote du Rhone" could be either Syrah or Grenache, and is more than likely a blend of the two. You will need to experiment with brands to determine your favorite, and the lower prices will help you with bargain hunting.
To begin navigating the French Maze, try a few of these gems and find out what the French are drinking.
Chateau Plagnac, Cru Bourgeois, Medoc 1996, $22
Big, dry, tannic hit when first poured, but swish & swirl and it mellows out for good drinking. Pretty typical of Medoc Cabernet/Merlot blends.
Georges Duboeuf Morgon, 2000, Jean Descombes $15
Beautiful, fruity Beaujolais with raspberry oozing out its every pore. This wine's even good all by itself. 1/2
Chateau Petit-Figeac, Saint Emilion Grand Cru, 1997, $18
Smooth, palatable tannins and well-balanced fruitiness define this Bordeaux red. Mostly Merlot and quite delicious. 1/2
Jaboulet "Parallele 45" Cotes du Rhone, 1998, $13
Wow! This stuff's amazing, especially for the price. Made with mostly Syrah grapes, it's soft, and perfect for drinking anytime, with anyone.
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