This is not the Paris of Hemingway. Of Morse, Fenimore Cooper, or Thomas Jefferson. This is not the Paris of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Woody Allen or Dan Brown. This is not the Paris of Communards, Toulouse-Lautrec or ninth century Viking invader Bjorn Ironside – commanding longboats into a city that no longer resembles the skyline we know.
The Paris of these people is attractive – including the alleys and rues they breezed through, or used as imagery to paint, write, invade, or as a backdrop for film.
This Paris is different. Fresh and vibrant. Modern merged with ancient. Put your coffee down, click out of your email, scoot closer to your screen – because it’s time to open wine in a city of constant change.
December weather mixes sunshine, spitting rain and slapping wind. Citroens splash puddle water at men with dogs and women clutching white shopping bags. This is a fashion runway soaked by elements. Pride, disdain, joy, and innocence hustle below gnarly clouds dealt like a slow hand of cards above Paris.
Time to taste wine.
O Chateau – 68 rue Jean Jacques Rousseau
Just a few minutes from the Louvre, this new wine bar appears both stately and old – and is decked with leather and wood. I signed up for a wine tasting, and was joined by an American couple from Denver and two English chaps from London. We sat at a high wooden table surrounded by shelves of wine, while our host Lionel (“Like Lionel Richie,” he said) provided a tour of six wines and six cheeses.
Lionel is grounded in French tradition, but also spent years working in California….so knows the benefits and limitations of French wine regulations. First – a Monmarthe champagne comprised of three traditional grapes – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meuniere (my friend Alex tells me that ‘meuniere’ refers to a miller, or a miller’s wife – which explains ‘sole meuniere’ – where fish is covered in flour…and also Pinot Meuniere, where the undersides of vine leaves are covered by a dusty white coating).
Pinot Meuniere has recently gained hefty respect in the Champagne region, and the centuries old disdain for the grape (apparently foisted by Moet, who lacked plentiful access to the grape) – is vanishing.
We sampled five other wines from throughout French regions (Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc, Burgundy Chardonnay, Bordeaux Haut Medoc blend, a Rhone Valley blend of Grenache and Syrah, and Languedoc (Grenache/Carignan/Syrah from St. Chinian).
Here are a few jewels of insight from Lionel:
- The only French region that allows wines produced from different harvest years in Champagne.
- “In the United States, you can mix Champagne with orange juice to make a Mimosa….in France, you do that and you go to jail.” (Not really….but you can add Creme de Cassis – which boosts the alcohol content and is great for a first date.)
- When you check the clarity of wine – cloudiness can indicate the presence of microorganisms, which are turning your wine into vinegar.
- When tasting a Sauvignon Blanc wine from the Loire Valley of France – the fruity and citrus flavors may come from the grape….but the passion fruit and pineapple? They come from the soils of the region around Sancerre village.
- Food can help balance the sweetness, alcohol, and acidity of wine – oysters, for example, can neutralize acidity.
- To complement a wine, it’s usually good to choose a cheese from the same region. A Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc is balanced with a Loire Valley cheese (and if it’s aged in oak ash – it’s even yummier).
- If you’re drinking a creamy Chardonnay from Burgundy, consider complementing it with a creamy cheese – such as a Comte (a fruity cheese from the Aix region).
- The Burgundy region only produces about 2 percent of wines in France (while Bordeaux produces about 40 percent). Burgundy wines summarized? Limited production, quite expensive, and predominantly only made from only two grapes (Chardonnay for white, Pinot Noir for red).
- French wine labels are confusing even for the French. “In France,” said Lionel, “maybe 99 percent of people know different wine regions, but not the type of grapes produced there.”
- Very basically (without getting into the French Revolution) – ‘domaine’ wines come from small wineries (the majority in Burgundy), whereas a ‘chateau’ is a bigger winery, often producing wine from grapes grown in different regions.
- For the past forty years, wine consumption in France has decreased by about 1 liter per person per year.
- ‘Legs’ on the inside of a wine glass can show the relative balance between sugar and alcohol – slow moving legs indicate higher sugar content.
- “We consider the Rhone Valley like the Napa Valley – warm and dry.”
- Most Rhone Valley wines are powerful – 14 percent alcohol is typical.
- To neutralize high alcohol and low acidity? Use red meat, strong blue cheese, or bitter dark chocolate.
- Which is more important, the terrain or the winemaker? Lionel says that “for me, at least 95% of the greatness of wines comes from the grapes, not the winemakers. Nature always decides the quality of the wines.”
- What about organic wines? “In France, we like pesticides,” Lionel admits, and tells how even Grand Cru vineyards include them. “I think organic wines will remain a niche market,” he admits.
- There are more than 600 different grapes available to use in France.
- Lionel’s favorite wines? “I like Châteauneuf du Pape. I am also a big fan of Chenin Blanch from the Loire Valley – often available for just 6 or 7 Euros a bottle. I think Pomerol in Bordeaux is my favorite village for wine.”