French Wines that reflect age-old traditions
Most wine aficionados commonly hold it as gospel that the greatest of all wines originate in France, and have in fact done so for the past several hundred years. The French have elevated winemaking to a fine art and in doing so have raised the bar for others who might attempt to duplicate their efforts. It is noteworthy that practically every other winemaking country uses French varietals as the core of their plantings.
By far, the finest of French wines are made in the country’s three greatest winemaking regions; Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne, each a distinct area unto itself with a variety of conditions and specific controls that govern the making of its wines. French wine law, appellation controlee, actually dictates what grapes can be used in making certain wines as well as the time of aging for each wine as well as other important aspects of the wine.
But the true heart and soul of the French wine industry comes from the country’s adjacent winemaking areas that actually produce far more bottles of wine than their more famous neighbors. These wines are generally consumed either locally or within the confines of the European market, while the more famous (and more expensive) wines are generally exported abroad.
For the past twenty years, a great number of these lesser know wines have found their way into the export sector and ultimately and onto the shelves of a number of countries that have always sought an alternative to higher priced wines. Appellations like Cotes de Blaye, Coteaux du Languedoc and Vins de Pays d’Oc began appearing with regularity in America and other markets that provided their customers with French wines once thought too obscure for the sophisticated international market.
Meanwhile, the ongoing French wine industry seems to have not missed a beat. Wine and food magazines continue to sing the praises of French wine in the face of direct and often fierce competition from both California and Italy for the very top of the wine market. The emphasis from these new wineries and producers has been on low production and individual vineyard designation, a practice first utilized in Bordeaux over two hundred years ago.
The two mainstays of French wine, Bordeaux and Burgundy owe their origins to a result of the French Revolution. The Bordelais generally supported the revolution and their wine estates were generally left in tact when the revolution swept into power. Many of the great Bordeaux chateaux continue to exist in much the same fashion as they did during that period.
In Burgundy, the summer home of the Kings and Queens of France, the story was not the same. The leaders of the revolution confiscated these prized vineyards and individual pieces in the vineyards were awarded to those active supporters of the revolution. Today, the practice of utilizing negotiants is still used in Burgundy to achieve quality standards, where vineyards can have many different owners.
Today’s modern French wine industry presents a dichotomy in purpose. One side is abjectly traditional in its approach and the other exceedingly progressive and somehow the two seem to thrive together. The main beneficiaries of this interaction are the members of the wine-drinking world that have come to expect greatness from France’s beloved crops.
It is the intention of our International Series to present a cross section of this French phenomenon for your enjoyment. We have carefully selected three wines that compliment each other in style and presentation, and that also offer a rare insight into both the past and the future of French winemaking.
Les vins internationaux
Our first wine, Chateau Pontet-Teyssier is steeped in the grand traditions of Bordeaux. It carries a Saint Emilion Grand Cru designation, one of the highest in the entire commune of more than 2500 wineries. Saint Emilion is the only commune in Bordeaux that continually classifies itself, insuring absolute quality and controls. Chateau Pontet-Teyssier is actually about 3 hectares (about 8 1/2 acres) and produces between 1250 -1500 cases annually, depending upon the yield differences of each vintage. Martine and Julian Palau purchased Chateau Pontet-Teyssier in 1976 along with a larger property called Chateau Laroche on the opposite side of the Garonne River. Madame Palau immediately set out to upgrade both the properties and vineyards. Today, the combined chateaux has more than doubled to 48 hectares, with more than 31 under vine, making it a rather sizeable estate for the area. Chateau Pontet-Teyssier contains about 80% Merlot with the remaining 20% comprised of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, a normal blending for Saint Emilion estates. The wine is considered very fruity and subtle with a distinctive red ruby color. It is the epitome of finesse and elegance, a fitting start to our International Series selection.
The second International Series selection is from the respected house Chauvot-Labaume, who traces its inception back to 1784, and whose longevity is commonplace in the world of Burgundy. Slightly east of the town of Beaune in the middle of what is referred to as the Cote d’Or, sits the spectacular vineyards that are known to the world as Puligny-Montrachet. Its wines are all white, made with the noble Chardonnay grape, and considered among the finest produced in France and the entire world. Chauvot-Labaume is known as a negotiant, a firm that buys, bottles and sells wines. Chauvot-Labaume also owns its own vineyards and ages its wines in rustic 12th Century cellars, located under the City of Beaune. Additional cellars are located under a number of 16th Century buildings that add to the charm and allure of the Burgundy Region. Among its peers, Puligny-Montrachet has few challengers. It is grown at an altitude of between 300-500 feet, in chalky, stony soil that has great drainage, and with great care given to the actual yield of each vine. Puligny-Montrachet is considered best at from four to six years depending on vintage, when its steely vibrant core in the very center of its flavors produces a complexity rounded with great natural fruit. The Chauvot-Labaume Puligny-Montrachet is a prime example of great white Burgundy and will remain drinkable for several years
Our third International Series selection, Domaine d’Escary, comes from a different area of France, not far from the City of Montpelier in Southern France, almost due west of the prestigious Rhone Valley. The wine-growing region is officially known as Languedoc-Roussillon, and is the home to many of the newer stars in the French wine industry, including the Domaine d’ Escary. The Domaine d’Escary represents five generations of the Escary Family, dating back to 1830. The family first grew vines on small plots of land that were perched on the hillsides around the town of Montarnaud. In those days, the land was cleared by hand and stonewalls were built to retain the soil. Remnants of those original stonewalls can be seen at Domain d’Escary today. In 1976, Jacky Fournier took over as the fifth generation owner and winemaker for Domaine d’Escary. He spent a great deal of time and attention toward improving the vineyards that were grown at an altitude of almost two hundred feel and that benefited from nearby warm Mediterranean sea breezes. Fournier also employed deep pruning methods that in turn produced low yields, so important to really top quality wines. The resultant Domaine d’ Escary is composed of 60% Syrah and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, again a typical blending of varietals for that section of France. The Vin de Pays d’Oc appellation it carries is one of the most progressive in France and has gained additional respect with each vintage.