Vive la France

What is it that makes French wines so special? The fact that there's agreat wine for every occasion, or just the sheer diversity of the range?Well, actually, it's both, and more besides, says Richard Ehrlich
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Diversity is the greatest joy of wine. There are dozens ofwine styles, from light and delicate to huge and robust.

Each grape variety has its own set of characteristicflavours, each of which can be emphasised or restrained by the place where it’sgrown and the way that it’s handled by vineyard managers. The cost: anythingfrom £2.99 to the price of a new BMW. The sources: a couple of dozen countriesin every continent except Antarctica.

No one would want to give up any of the wines that they likedrinking, wherever they come from. But if you had to give up any wine exceptthe products of one country, you would end up with more diversity – andexcellence for every occasion – if you made France your single country.

No other country has the range of French wine, whichencompasses everything from the world’s greatest sparkling wine to the bestCabernet Sauvignon-based blends, not to mention a depth of choice from vin depays to worldbeating fine wines.

For me personally, a bottle from France will always rankamong the very top entertaining choices for any occasion. It might be a bigparty, where a vin de pays from the Cÿtes de Gascogne, the Oc, or Roussillonprovide pleasurable drinking wine at low cost.

For a picnic, a bottle of Muscadet, Sancerre or chilledBeaujolais would work well.

For a midweek dinner at home, it’s more likely to be a Cÿtesdu Rhÿne or one of the many good value wines of the southwest.

To impress dinner guests, I do so with something stunningfrom Bordeaux, Burgundy or the Rhÿne. And on any major celebration day,birthdays and important feasts, no meal is ever complete without a faithfulbottle of Champagne.

Why is French wine so good and so diverse? Well, if you hadbeen making and drinking wine for nearly two millennia, you would be prettygood at it too.

Some vineyards in Burgundy, for instance, were alreadyrecognised for their excellence in the sixth century. That long history hasgiven French winemakers an unequalled accumulation of knowledge – about what toplant, where to plant it, how to tend it and how to handle it after harvesting.

That?s why the vine is so closely bound up with French cultureand gastronomy. From the simple carafe of local red in a roadside bistro to thevenerable dusty bottles in a palace of haute cuisine, mealtimes in France areoccasions for drinking wine.The winemakers know this, and do more than anyother country to make their wines as food friendly as possible.

And, if diversity is the greatest joy of wine drinking, thennowhere on Earth is more joyful than France.

You think you know about Chardonnay, Cabernet, Merlot, PinotNoir, Syrah (also called Shiraz) and Sauvignon Blanc because you’ve drunk wineswith those names? Well, they were all brought to their highest peak ofperfection in France.

In every single case, the best wines containing those grapesare still made in France. Burgundy provides the model for Chardonnay and PinotNoir all over the world, Bordeaux the model for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot,and the Rhÿne for the Syrah. And, needless to say, just about every serioussparkling wine on earth wants to be as good as Champagne – and is made usingthe same principal grape varieties: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

And those famous names are just the tip of the iceberg.

France has a rigorously defined and defended classificationsystem for its wines, from vin de table through vin de pays and up toAppellation Contrÿlée (AOC), with wines at every level made in almost everyproducing region.

Once you start exploring, you never stop making discoveries.

You probably know, for instance, that the Alsace region isfamous for its Gewurztraminer. But did you know also that its Riesling is amongthe world’s finest, or that there’s a very good Pinot Noir there and they alsomake a good-value fizz called Crémant d’Alsace? Or that the Loire, most famousfor its white wines, makes some of the best reds in France, with the Chinon,Bourgueil and Saumur-Champigny the pick of the crop.

The Languedoc alone, France's largest wine region, contains a staggering variety of wines whose quality continually improves year by year.

In my professional capacity, I get to taste - and sometimes even to drink - wines from all over the world. It's one of the great privileges of the wine writer's life and I cherish it anew every single day. But, when I'm off duty, and just drinking for pleasure, I know where my first allegiance lies. It lies with France, in the vast range of bottles, from the humblest to the grandest. So start making friends with French wines. I'll bet you end up agreeing with me.

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