Why France still makes the world's best wines.

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
July 14 2009 1:31 PM

Two Cheers for France

The country's vineyards are in trouble. But it still makes the world's best wines.

France. Click image to expand.
The French still make the world's top wines

These are grim days for the French wine industry. It is hemorrhaging market share abroad, domestic consumption continues to plummet, and thousands of vintners are in desperate financial straits. Compounding the crisis, the appellation system that regulates much of French viticulture is a shambles, and French politicians are exhibiting bizarrely prohibitionist tendencies. The problems in France's cellars and vineyards add up to, probably, the biggest wine story of the decade. (I even devote a chapter to the subject in the book I've just published.) Judging by all the dire headlines, one might well conclude that France is becoming a grape-soaked has-been. But don't put a cork in the country just yet; despite its woes, France is still the wine world's beacon and will surely remain so long into the future.

For one thing, it continues to churn out most of the planet's truly great wines. Sure, that's a subjective claim, and might even be taken as fighting words in Napa and Sonoma, but I don't think there are many wine geeks who would dispute it. Chave, Guigal, Raveneau, Dauvissat, Romanée-Conti, Leroy, Coche-Dury, Pétrus, Lafleur, Latour, Haut-Brion, Margaux, Yquem, Krug, Salon, Beaucastel, Huet, Trimbach—these are the most venerated names in all of winedom, and all are French. Exceptional wines are made elsewhere, including the United States, but no other place comes close to matching France for sheer number of bench-mark wines.

And they are bench marks: For all the viticultural progress in California, Australia, Argentina, and elsewhere, most of the major grape varieties—pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, grenache, syrah, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc—still achieve their finest expressions on French soil. I think France also makes the best sweet, sparkling, and rosé wines. Certainly, there is no other bubbly that can rival a premium Champagne for complexity and pleasure. Hang out in wine circles long enough and you will meet scores of people who were once hooked on Napa cabernets or Australian shirazes but who have now partially or completely sworn them off in favor of Bordeaux, the Rhône, and other things French. You don't find much traffic heading in the opposite direction.

Why are the French so good at wine? One reason is that they've been making it a lot longer than the rest of us. But like many oenophiles, I'm convinced that it's also a function of the philosophy that guides their efforts. At the heart of the French viticultural system is the concept of terroir: the idea that wine is chiefly a product of the physical environment (the soil, the microclimate) in which the grapes were grown, that matching the right grape to the right soil is the essential first step to making fine wine, and that a wine should not just taste good but exude a sense of place. This notion took root in France during the Middle Ages and remains the organizing principle of French winemaking. But many New World producers, explicitly and implicitly, have shown contempt for it. They have allowed commercial considerations to dictate which grapes they plant, paying little regard to whether those grapes are really suited to the sites in question, and they have demonstrated a proclivity to make wines that emphasize fruit, alcohol, and new oak over any expression of terroir. Their wines exude an unmistakable sense of place, but it's the wrong place—the cellar rather than the vineyard.

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Not surprisingly, these wines often seem indistinguishable from one another, and I think this sameness goes a long way to explaining why so many oenophiles are ultimately drawn to France. Terroir is a somewhat elusive concept, and the extent to which the vineyard really influences the taste of a wine is something we may never know. But the French continue to try to produce wines that convey a sense of "somewhere-ness," to use wine writer Matt Kramer's felicitous phrase, and they fashion wines that, on balance, show more nuance and individuality than most of what emerges from Napa or Barossa. When it comes to crafting interesting, multidimensional wines that will improve with age, France still leads the way.

Many of its finest wines have the added virtue of being incredibly affordable. Bordeaux and Burgundy may not be cheap, but there are scores of delicious wines from the Loire, Alsace, the Rhône, and Beaujolais that are as modestly priced as they are sublime. Obviously, the market dictates prices. But in contrast to, say, Napa, where cost is considered commensurate with quality and a wine's "seriousness" is often measured in dollar signs, there's no stigma in France to making bargain wines. In the United States, you seldom find superstar vintners peddling $20 chardonnays and merlots; it would be considered beneath them. By contrast, some of France's most esteemed producers—Aubert de Villaine, Christian Moueix, Dominique Lafon—proudly offer relatively inexpensive wines alongside their loftier bottlings. In France, wine continues to be regarded as a beverage, not a trophy, and that's an attitude worth importing.

Finally, what also sets France apart is the amazing variety it boasts. Charles de Gaulle once griped about having to govern a country that manufactured a couple hundred different kinds of cheeses; France doesn't have quite that many types of wines, but its viticultural diversity is remarkable all the same. Champagne, Chablis, Chinon, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Condrieu, Cornas, Cahors; this short list contains an astonishing array of wines, from taut, mineral-driven whites to effusive, sun-splashed reds—and these are just a handful of appellations whose names happen to begin with the letter C. I like to drink wines from everywhere, but if I were limited to just one country, I can safely say that France is the only one that would never leave me bored.

Today happens to be Bastille Day, which is a good excuse to take a break from dwelling on what's wrong with France and to celebrate all that's still great about it. For my taste, no wine oozes Frenchness like a good Beaujolais, and I will probably open a bottle of Marcel Lapierre's Morgon or the Clos de la Roilette Fleurie Cuvée Tardive (either one served slightly chilled, as is the custom with Beaujolais in summer) to mark the occasion. If you don't have a specific wine in mind, the best bet is to look for something brought in by one of the many excellent importers specializing in French wines. These may be challenging times for the French wine industry, but when it comes to quality and variety, France still rules.