Do the Frenchs really make a better red?
October 19, 2009 5:13 PM   Subscribe

I find that French red wine has a very distinctive body and aftertaste. Is this truly specific to French wine, or have I not found some equivalents elsewhere in the world?

I'll be very specific in my observations.

Much wine I've tasted has had a nice nose, and even a nice initial hit in the palette. However, it's once the wine goes towards the back of the mouth that it is easy to spot the difference between French wine and other countries.

Once the wine hits the back of the palette, non-French red wine starts to break up, and the individual elements start to separate in the sense that one can almost feel the water separate from the alcohol and from the flavours. It's not a pleasant experience. I find it especially disagreeable the sensation of the water separating from the wine, if that makes sense.

Secondly, with the aftertaste, there is often a kind of bitter or sharp nose that comes back through the palette. I find with French red wine there is sometimes a tannic hit, but rarely that sharp reflex. If anything, sometimes it feels slightly gravelly, or earthy.

Ok, so these are some vast generalisations, and I've definitely drunk crappy French wine. My main sample regions from France are St. Emilion and Cahors, but by no means only these areas.

To summarise, of all the wine I've drunk from around the world, I've yet to find non-French wine (except for some nice Italians) which avoid those two main pitfalls listed above.

This is defiinitely not just exaggeration or hyperbole, or whatever. I would super appreciate any input from other readers who have made an effort to really analyse red wine and especially some of the distinct characteristics between new world and old world wine.

I'll add, that one other nice thing I've noticed with some French wine is a kind of floral richness which isn't just sweet, but full. Some French has a nice round tone or ovalness to it, but others have this very full and rich palette to it. Again, I've yet to find this elsewhere (except for the richness part which I've found sometimes with Italian reds).

Disclaimer: I've never drunk a bottle worth more than a 100 dollars (give or take) and I'm ignoring stuff cheaper than 5 bucks.

posted by fantasticninety to Food & Drink (12 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: French oak barrels. You'll see some non french wines indicate that the wine has been fully or partially aged in french oak. This might be what you're gravitating towards.
posted by muscat at 5:30 PM on October 19, 2009

Broadly speaking, French wine is often more complex than New World wines. The making processes can also be very different.

New World wine tends to, but not always, stick to single grape varietals eg Merlot, Pinot, Shiraz, Zinfandel etc while the French like to mix it up. A typical St Emilion for example will be a blend of Merlot, Cab Franc and Cab Sav with different vineyards producing wines of different proportions.

The best wines are aged in oak barrels as muscat says, a perfect marriage between wood and wine, adding further complexity to the taste. Then you throw in the the whole terroir thing for good measure.

Finally the French have hundreds of years of winemaking experience to draw on, they know what grapes work where and how to get the best out of them. That's not to say all French wine is great, in my experience finding great French wine at a decent price isn't particularly easy but when you do it's the best in the world.

Do a bit of digging however and you'll find equally impressive drinking all over the world and it can be far easier (and cheaper) to procure than the complex world of Bordeaux and Burgandys. Try some of the new and rapidly improving Spanish wines and the many, small, independent Californians to get a handle on how much competition the others can give.
posted by theCroft at 6:00 PM on October 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

New World wine tends to, but not always, stick to single grape varietals eg Merlot, Pinot, Shiraz, Zinfandel etc

Not sure about that. Speaking of Australian wines here, it's rare to find one labelled as, say, "Merlot" that is ever 100% Merlot. Far more commonly, it'd be something around 60-80%, with at least one, but often two or three other grapes blended in, in smaller proportions.

This goes especially for Cabernet Sauvignons, which have a characteristic "hole"in the central palate that needs to be filled with another varietal or they will end up seeming unbalanced & hollow.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:18 PM on October 19, 2009

To help you with further research: a palette is associated with painting and color selection (or a set of colors); a palate is an area in the mouth, or a perception of flavor. I think you mean the latter here.
posted by amtho at 6:26 PM on October 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

French wine is also tightly regulated (for example, only some wines may be aged in oak.) This helps give it a distinctive terroir, or the taste of where it was grown.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:46 PM on October 19, 2009

Ubu: Yeah, but was def speaking broadly to make suggestion about complexity for OP and yeah, in Oz Merlot is rarely sold as single varietal. Other blends are common too e.g. Shiraz and Cab Sav, also Grenache / Shiraz. Western Oz has a few Cab Sav / Merlot blends, Cullen & Howard Park being good examples.
posted by theCroft at 6:56 PM on October 19, 2009

Best answer: New World reds tend to have a considerably higher alcohol content then French reds. On the order of 1-2% higher. The alcohol content could be behind both what you refer to as the "sharp nose" and the back-of-the-palate feel you're detecting in New World wines.
posted by mr_roboto at 7:01 PM on October 19, 2009

mr_roboto is spot on. I know exactly what you are talking about. I've been drinking French wine for 25+ years, and New World wines for the past 15, and I've been seeing a steady increase in alcohol content for all wines, particularly the New World wines (very regrettable). French wines are much more tightly regulated, though sadly this looks like it might be coming to an end in many ways, as French producers try to recapture more of the world wine market. The hit to the back of the palate is mostly the effect of alcohol, and unless you really drink a lot, you'll definitely feel the difference in of little as 2%; I rarely drink hard liquor, so I've retained some sensitivity. These days, it's not uncommon to encounter New World wines as high as 15% (and I mean ordinary wines, not specialty stuff like ports etc.). That said, there are many small California wineries which are sticking to good standards and avoiding the quick fix of "wood chips + sugar". The problem is getting to the product, since they don't advertise or really market far from their region - I take a trip every other year to wineries around the Russian River and stock up.
posted by VikingSword at 9:35 PM on October 19, 2009

Best answer: The French wines I know best are from the Faugères and St.-Chinian appellations. These draw on the soil in a way that is not often matched by the New World wines I have tried (though the wines of August Briggs are pretty damned close, and expressive in their own right). Faugères and St.-Chinian are adjacent and the minerality of the schistic soil of Faugères has a presence that the St.-Chinians, with calcareous soil, lack. Each is appropriate for a certain kind of food, BTW: St.-Chinian is good with duck but Faugères and lamb are made for one another.

I happen to know a struggling but to-be-successful Languedocien winemaker. We've talked about this. The French are serious, in a way few New World winemakers are, about depicting the feel of their particular vineyards in the bottle. These people work their own fields every day and shaking hands with any of them, you'll know they are farmers. The hallmarks of wines made in the traditional French way are: no micro-filtration, which is a UC Davis perversion that is increasingly seen to make dead, insipid wines; low yields, even considering the requirements of the appellation which can be severe; and small houses. There aren't many wineries in either appellation that create in a year what Mondavi makes in a day.

In chatting with people at August Briggs, they neither micro-filter nor irrigate (as with the French - who almost exclusively dry-farm) and they discuss in detail their barrel program where the first use of new oak barrels - and it matters whether they're French oak, American oak or Croatian oak - is for a limited time in strong wines like Zinfandels. As the barrels age, they are used for successively lighter wines.

If you want to explore the sensations you would do well to compare a Mas Champart St.-Chinian with a Mas Gabinele Faugères. I suspect you will detect the austerity of the Mas Gabinele wine that allows the schist to make itself known. Neither bottle will set you back more than twenty bucks and both have the integrated quality you mention, where the wine is a single, living fluid. BTW: both wines are 14% alcohol in the vintages I have, which is on a par with most non-Zinfandel Californian or Chilean wines.
posted by jet_silver at 9:57 PM on October 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Cahors is an interesting sample to cite, because it's such a different beast from most Argentinian Malbecs, and not the kind of wine that fits easily into the general American wine-buying palate.

That makes me wonder whether that kind of structure you're describing is basically a function of old-fashioned barrel age followed by good cellaring, which generally takes off the tannic edge of an old-school Tannat-heavy Cahors but also often calms down a lot of the fruit. You're not likely to be drinking anything much younger than a 2005/6 Cahors now; similarly, St.-Émilion is just hitting "drink now" for a minority of grand cru wines from the early 2000s, while most are still well in "keep" territory. And since many Italian reds also appear on the shelves a good few years after harvesting, that makes for a third example.

Point is, you're not going to find a big selection of wines in most general outlets that are either made to grow old gracefully, or put on the shelves with age in them at a price that's affordable to you. And while follow-the-year feels like an outdated approach, my guess is that you might have the same luck with those New World wines that do get released with an eye on being kept around for a while.
posted by holgate at 11:12 PM on October 19, 2009

No. This idea is based on a preconceived notion that you have about French wine, and I think your expectation is clouding your judgment. Certainly, there are excellent French wines out there. Maybe the best in the world. However, this is not a product of their 'Frenchness.' Different regions of France produce wines that stand in stark contrast to each other, and I can't imagine what this unifying quality that eludes all other wines of the world is (except, of course, for a few Italian wines).

There is plenty of North and South American wine that is aged in French barrels. There are meritages out there that certainly taste a hell of a lot more like a Bordeaux than a Burgundy does. Hell, a left bank Bordeaux and a right bank Bordeaux taste hella different to someone with a discriminating palate, and you could find wines from elsewhere that were more similar to either of the two than they are to each other.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 12:38 AM on October 20, 2009

Response by poster: Some very interesting answers here. If I marked them all best answer it might be a little redundant, but I did appreciate all the answers. I look forward to reposting this type of question in about 5 years when I will have had more experience myself sampling different wines.

Thanks for all the tips, and time for me to invest in some French oak!
posted by fantasticninety at 4:04 PM on October 20, 2009

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