French wine has an exalted reputation in the U.S. — so exalted, in fact, that some people think they can only afford French wines for special occasions. Or that the wines are so snobby and intimidating that people don’t want to buy them. Some wine critics, knowingly or unknowingly, reinforce this reputation through their extraordinary praise of what are, to be sure, deservingly excellent wines. But most of us aren’t going to buy those life-changing vintages. The best we can hope for is to be treated to one of them by somebody with so much money that they don’t mind wasting it on us!
Wines from France can be excellent bargains, cheaper than many U.S. wines. Especially wines from southern France, like many of First Vine’s selections. Cy and I did a tasting at Alliance Française last week, featuring 12 everyday southern French wines costing less than $15/bottle. The tasting reminded me of something that never ceases to be a surprise. Although many of the wines are the same style and combinations of grapes, there are differences — some subtle, some not — that create a greater variation than you might expect.
How can great wine be so varied and cheap? Here are a few reasons:
Grape blending. Many (but not all) wines in southern France are blends of different grapes rather than a single varietal, which not only smooths out large year-to-year variations, but protects against years with low yields of any particular grape.
Cooperative wineries. Sharing the expense of winemaking equipment, expertise, and lower production costs can result in outstanding wines with lower prices.
Long-time land ownership. When a winemaker’s land and equipment has been in his or her family for generations, there’s no mortgage to pay. This is especially important for independent producers.
French winemaking rules. The AOC, the French winemaking regulatory authority, sets out rules for quality and labeling, even for everyday wines. Adhering to these rules makes for a consistently good product.
Terroir. Very small variations in soil, terrain, and climate from field to field make for interesting differences in the wine, even wine made with the same grapes. So while the style of wine might be similar, the taste is different. An infinite variety of possibilities to explore.
Culture. French people drink wine every day. You don’t think they’re going to settle for bad wine at a high price, do you? Well, neither should you!
France isn’t unique in having inexpensive good wine, but they’re great wines for exploring. And if you feel like doing a little tasting of your own, here’s a recipe you can make in a few minutes and pair with nearly any wine. It’s an herbed goat cheese spread. Serve it on bread or crackers — or thin it out with a little sour cream and use it as a dip for vegetables. We serve this at our tastings all the time, and people seem to love it — I’m almost embarrassed to reveal just how simple it is to make. Use whatever herbs you have around. I always put parsley and thyme in, but added fresh basil last week and it was delicious. I’ve put the basic recipe below, you can easily double it and have enough for a big spread, or to keep around for a few days as a snack. I have used leftovers in omelets, or stirred into scrambled eggs. You can also use it to make a savory stuffed French toast. No end of possibilities.
What to pair with it? Go to our everyday reds and whites pages and pick at will. But if you want specific recommendations to start, I like Cave la Vigneronne’s Templiers Red ($10) for an everyday red wine. It’s light-bodied so it works in hot weather. And about 20 minutes after you open it, it becomes wonderfully smooth. For a white, try Domaine la Croix des Marchand’s Gaillac Blanc Sec ($12). It’s dry and refreshing, with great light fruit flavors but enough body to stand up to food.
And remember, no one needs to know how much you paid for them!
8 ounces cream cheese (low fat is fine), at room temperature
7-8 ounces soft goat cheese (depending on the size of the packages you can find), at room temperature
Zest of one lemon, finely grated
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/4 cup chooped fresh basil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
In a large bowl, mix the soft cheeses with the lemon zest and a little salt and pepper. You can also do this part in a food processor, but if the cheeses are softened you don’t need to. Gently fold in the fresh herbs (not in the food processor, or the mixture will turn bright green), taste for seasoning, and add more salt and pepper if you like.