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Getting into French White

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I am a red wine drinker who occasionally likes white when in the mood or with the right food.

I would like to explore old world white. My white experience has been mainly new world.

I enjoy what I think of as 2 different styles of whites:

Fruit forward (but not overly fruity, to me this was exampled by the Cline Viognier, I have liked this varietal in other preparations, but hated the Cline b/c it was far too fruity), crisp, not too acidic (well balanced), I have liked NZ Sauv Blancs that have fit this description.

Heavier, unoaked, higher malactic acid fermentation (is that the correct term for buttery?). I taste many chardonnays in hopes of finding this, and have found some. However not many were overly memorable. I am not sure if I like minerality or not.

i have noticed French Chablis and other French whites spoken of here. Can you recommend where to start for a beginner?

Price range would be under $30 Canadian. I am in Alberta, our selection is pretty good, I have some great wine stores to help me out as well, but I thought that I would see what comes up from here....

Other whites I have enjoyed:
roussanne/marsanne blend
gruner veltliner (but only in the summer)
viognier

thanks as always for the help!

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  1. Obviously no easy, quick answers . . .

    FRANCE:

    When it comes to CHARDONNAY, you are right to look to the wines of Chablis. Keep in mind there are four separate appellations within the Chablis region. In ascending order, they are Petit, Chablis, Chablis, Chablis 1er Cru, and Chablis Grand Cru. Stick with the first two categories. Yes, the latter two are better, but also more expensive. Two other appellations, besides Chablis, to look for are Mâcon-Villages and Viré-Clessé.

    When it comes to SAUVIGNON BANC, it can be found in bot hthe Loire Valley and in Bordeaux. Generally it is 100% Sauvignon Blanc in the Loire, and often blended with Sémilion in Bordeaux.

    Although Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé (not to be confused with Pouilly-Fuissé, which is Chardonnay) are the stars of Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc, you can find great buys from Reuilly (not to be confused with Rully, which is Chardonnay) and Quincy. This does NOT mean you can't find great values in Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé; these are just two other options. In Bordeaux, look for wines from the Entre-Deux-Mers appellation for very affordable dry whites. The finest whites from from the Pessac-Léognan appellation.

    Also from the Loire Valley are dry and off-dry wines produced from CHENIN BLANC, from appellations like Anjou, Vouvray, Savennières, etc. Delightful!

    RIESLING, GEWURZTRAMINER, PINOT GRIS, and PINOT BLANC all thrive in Alsace, are generally very dry, and very affordable -- great match for food. The exceptions are wines labeled Vendanges Tardives (late picked) and Sélection des Grains Nobles (think German TBAs -- botrytis-affected grapes individually picked). Beware of wines from Zind-Humbrecht: although very good, they are very expensive and, often, sweeter than similar wines from other producers.

    BLENDED WHITES are the norm in the Southern Rhône, and you can find some very delicious wines from the Côtes-du-Rhône appellation. Some of these **may** be (for example) 100 percent Viognier, but that will be indicated on the label.

    From the Languedoc region, look for wines labeled Picpoul de Pinet -- light, dry, crisp, and delicious. So, too, are the Muscadet wines from the far-western portion of the Loire region.

    OK, vast over-simplification, but . . .

    Cheers,
    Jason

    3 Replies
    1. re: zin1953

      LOL....that is a little confusing to say the least, thank you for trying to explain it as simply as possible.

      if I wanted to do a side by side tasting, to see what I actually like which 4 or 5 wines would you suggest? or would I be better off tasting a region?

      It would be great if I could find a French white tasting here, but I have not come across one, I guess I have not really been looking for it.

      I really had no idea that France really encompassed almost all the new world white varietals (guess it would have been an easy comparison had I really thought about it).

      How does a Chablis compare to a new world Chard? I find that when comparing Old World and New World Reds there is often more complexity to the OW, is this the case with the Whites, specifically Chard/Chablis?

      1. re: cleopatra999

        >>> How does a Chablis compare to a new world Chard? I find that when comparing Old World and New World Reds there is often more complexity to the OW, is this the case with the Whites, specifically Chard/Chablis? <<<

        Yes.

        Keep in mind that all the NEW World grapes came from the OLD World, so it's natural to find them there . . . but most European wines are labeled for the REGION in which they are produced, rather than the GRAPE from which they are made . . .

        There is, of course, more than one way to have a wine tasting.

        First, I would go to the best wine merchant you have locally, and ask them to suggest wines which are TYPICAL or CLASSIC to appellations like Chablis and Sancerre (not expensive -- just representative of the region), as well as a typical dry Riesling from Alsace. Then, grab a TYPICAL (and comparably priced) California Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling. Taste them side-by-side.

        Second, once you find a region/style of wine you like -- let's say Chardonnay -- THEN try 4-6 different wines from Chablis, all side-by-side (some may be 100% stainless, some may have been fermented in oak, etc., etc.) . . . or try a Chablis (and perhaps a Chablis 1er Cru from the SAME producer), side-by-side with a Mâcon Villages and a Viré-Clessé. Or, if it's Sauvignon Blanc, try a typical Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, Reuilly, Quincy -- all side-by-side.

        And so on . . .

        Cheers,
        Jason

      2. re: zin1953

        I am with Zin here. Even with Chardonnay, there are different "styles," and each has its positives. Just with this one varietal, I'd do a Pouilly-Fuissé (not my fav.), a Chablis, a Meursault and a Montrachet. The latter will likely take some work given the budget, but a good wine shop (forget what they call the national wine control board in CA) that handles the "reserve" wines can probably find good examples for you to try. Each will be different. All are likely to be generally more food-friendly, than their US counterparts.

        Beyond that great varietal, there are so very many others to choose from - where to start?

        I'd look down Zin's list, and start there. It'll take a while, but will be a fun trip.

        Enjoy,

        Hunt

      3. In the price range, start with Alsace and Loire. In Alsace, try riesling and pinot gris. I don't know what producers you get through the LCBO. In Loire, try Sancerre, Pouilly Fume, Vouvray, and don't forget Muscadet!

        1. Jason's given you a very good starting list of the different grapes.

          If you're looking for distinctively French white wines/grapes that they are unable to make anywhere else in the world, I'd shorten that list to these:

          1. blanc de blancs champagne. It's unlikely that $30 will get you a full bottle, but there are great halves to be found at $25 or so.
          2. chenin blanc - I'd go with a sec or demi-sec Vouvray. They're the quintessential white wine for me in France. Also my favorite white grape.
          3. Bordeaux blanc.
          4. Chablis. Chardonnay doesn't taste like this anywhere else.
          5. Gewürztraminer from Alsace.
          6. South/Rhône blend.

          13 Replies
          1. re: mengathon

            thanks all, this is a good start.

            I tried a blanc de blanc this year for New Years eve and loved it! I love champagne (and sparkling) in general, but this may have fast become my favorite.

            I have to admit the only Gewurzt I have been exposed to have been very sweet Canadian or German, I am not a fan of them, but I am open to trying a different style of them

            What is a Chenin Blanc comparable to? or what are its qualities?

            1. re: cleopatra999

              Much of the Chenin Blanc grown in the Loire is bone-dry and will improve with bottle age for a long time. Some are off-dry, and others may be very sweet. It depends upon the appellation and/or its designation. For example:

              -- Vouvray Sec is bone dry.
              -- Vouvray Sec Tendre is dry, but with a tiny amount of residual sugar (rs) to "soften" the wine.
              -- Vouvray Demi-Sec is off-dry.
              -- Vouvray Moelleux is sweet, Botrytis-affected, and delicious.

              Also look for Savennières (bone dry), Jasnières (slight rs, but still dry), Coteaux-du-Loir (sweet), Coteaux-du-Layon (sweet), and more . . .

              In contrast, most California Chenin Blanc is always "off-dry" with about 2.0-2.5 percent rs.

              1. re: zin1953

                wow, they really run the gamut.

                I find most french reds that i have had are generally better (enhanced)with food. Does this go for the whites as well?

                french wine is truly overwhelming. Any books that you would recommend on the subject?

                1. re: cleopatra999

                  Jacqueline Friedrich's *The Wines of France: the Essential Guide for Savvy Shoppers* distills it down into digestible chunks and provides pointers to many good producers.
                  www.jacquelinefriedrich.com/the_wines...

                  For something more exhaustive, look at the *World Atlas of Wine* or *Hugh Johnson's Wine Companion*, among others.

                  1. re: cleopatra999

                    There is nothing overwhelming about French wines that isn't just as overwhelming about New World wines. For example,

                    At one point, you had to LEARN that Pinot Noir was a grape, and that the California (or Oregon or New Zealand or the Okanagan) is a region where it is grown. Right? OK, well, Pinot Noir is still a grape, and Burgundy (Bourgogne) is a region in France where it is grown.

                    And just as you had to learn that the Russian River Valley, the Santa Lucia Highlands, the Sonoma Coast, the Santa Cruz Mountains, the Anderson Valley, the Santa Rita Hills, the Santa Maria Valley, the Edna Valley, and Carneros (to name a specific few) are all places (or appellations) *within* California where Pinot Noir is grown, so to are places like Gevrey-Chambertin, Vosne-Romanée, Chambolle-Musigny, Savigny-les-Beaune, Nuits-St.-Georges, Pommard, and Volnay (to name a specific few) are all places (or appellations) *within* Burgundy where Pinot Noir is grown . . .

                    In other words, the primary reason you *think* "French wine is truly overwhelming" is simply your lack of familiarity with them. If you learned about French wines first, you'd think trying to understand California wines is "truly overwhelming." ;^) It's no different.

                    Hugh Johnson's "World Atlas of Wines" is a good place to start. It will give you an excellent idea of the different appellations. By looking at the excellent maps, you can see WHY this appellation is different than that . . . the lay of the land, which side of the river, and so on.

                    Jancis Robinson's "The Oxford Companion of Wine" is another, comprehensive book -- encyclopedic in scope -- that is packed with information.

                    Jacqueline Friedrich wrote a great book on the Loire Valley, "The Wine and Food Guide to the Loire." "The Wines of the Northern Rhône" by John Livingstone-Learmonth is quite good, but limited in its geographic scope. You might also want to look at "Rhone Renaissance: The Finest Rhone and Rhone Style Wines from France and the New World" by Remmington Norman. There is also "Burgundy" by Anthony Hanson, "Wines of Burgundy" by Serena Sutcliffe, and . . . and . . . and . . . .

                    There are many more -- it all depends upon which region you are interested in!

                    1. re: zin1953

                      I, too, just started learning about French wines and found it overwhelming at first. But instead of focusing on the whole country, I chose to limit myself to one area (Bordeaux) to start. As Zin says, France now feels much more manageable, not so overwhelming. Next, I'll focus on either Rhone or Burgundy.

                      As for books, I read so many good reviews on this site about "Wine for Dummies" that I bought it and find it to be fantastic.

                      Can anyone tell me anything about the book "French Wine for Dummies" by the same authors?

                    2. re: cleopatra999

                      Yes, most good French whites are generally enhanced with food, though this can or should be said about any good bottle of wine.

                      In the case of dry or off-dry chenin blanc, I would actually not drink them without food.

                      1. re: cleopatra999

                        I cannot say that all are enhanced by food, but in very general terms, most are highly food-friendly. With exceptions, we normally look to FR for food wines. Italy, with the proper cuisine is a definite exception.

                        Personally, I find FR wines (really general here) to be better without food, than many Italian wines. Still, with the right meals, each will reward.

                        Hunt

                  2. re: mengathon

                    I'd suggest adding the mansengs, petit and gros, found largely in Jurançon and Côtes de Gascogne.

                    These wines tend to be very aromatic (mainly with citrus notes, but that's just the beginning in most cases). I've yet to taste an example that wasn't "crisp and well-balanced", to quote the OP's preference.

                    Domaine Cauhapé is a top Jurançon producer whose wines should be available in Alberta. I've been most impressed with the sweeter bottlings (Noblesse du Temps, Symphonie de Novembre). At the dry end of the scale, I've found Cuvée Marie (Charles Hours) to be superior to Cauhapé's offering.

                    The sweetest Jurançons can be reminiscent of Sauternes (only much, much better QPR).

                    If I had to compare a dry manseng-based wine to something, I'd say it pushes most of the same buttons as sauvignon blanc, but more on the citrusy/fruity end of things, not the grassy, pissy character.

                    One inexpensive example you should be able to find is a gros manseng/sauvignon blanc blend: Brumont vin de pays des Côtes de Gascogne. (Should be in the $10-15 range.)

                    A crowd pleaser: Domaine Tariquet Les Premières Grives, also a vin de pays des Côtes de Gascogne. Off-dry bordering on sweet, but with very refreshing acidity.

                    1. re: Mr F

                      My only disagreement here is with timing, not with the wines/grapes themselves. For someone who is just STARTING to explore French wines, not only are these suggestions much more difficult to find, but they have no comparable examples in the New World. Thus, while certainly worthwhile suggestions, I would wait on these until after the OP is a bit more familiar with the "main" regions and wines.

                      Also, remember the OP is in Alberta, not Quebec, San Francisco, or the Sud-Oeust de France . . . .

                      Cheers,
                      Jason

                      1. re: zin1953

                        I understand that availability and selection will be fairly limited -- even in Quebec, there are no more than ten Jurançons and a small handful of other manseng-based wines available.

                        But when it comes to obscurity and comparables, I think my suggestions are no more problematic than some of yours, namely "Savennières (bone dry), Jasnières (slight rs, but still dry), Coteaux-du-Loir (sweet), Coteaux-du-Layon (sweet)".

                        Even here in Quebec, where French wine rules the roost, I can't get Jasnières or Côteaux du Loir (at least not without buying a case from an importer), and there are only a handful of Côteaux-du-Layon and Savennières on the shelves. I don't know the Alberta scene very well, but I'd be surprised if these wines were easily found there.

                        I'd argue that something like the Brumont is likely to be more accessible (in every sense) than any of those relatively obscure Loire wines.

                        And Jurançon in general may be harder to find than Vouvray, but in most cases it's going to be on roughly the same level in terms of accessibility to the palate.

                        So the grapes are rarely grown outside the Sud-Ouest? Not a problem, IMO. Chenin is grown outside France, sure, but is anyone making anything remotely similar to Savennières anywhere outside Savennières, let alone France?

                        1. re: Mr F

                          >>> I understand that availability and selection will be fairly limited -- even in Quebec, there are no more than ten Jurançons and a small handful of other manseng-based wines available. <<<

                          Outside its region of production, ten is a HUGE selection of Jurançon wines -- except in Sud-Ouest, I've never even seen 10 different bottlings in one place.

                          >>> But when it comes to obscurity and comparables, I think my suggestions are no more problematic than some of yours, namely "Savennières (bone dry), Jasnières (slight rs, but still dry), Coteaux-du-Loir (sweet), Coteaux-du-Layon (sweet)". <<<

                          Each of these wines is readily available where I live, in the San Francisco Bay Area -- as is a tiny handful of Jurançon producers, as well -- but you illustrate the point of French wines being "overwhelming," while I am trying to UNDERwhelm: each of those separate appellations is Chenin Blanc, a grape with which the OP is (in all probability) already familiar. Thus, a taste of "French Chenin Blanc," regardless of the specific AOC, will have a reference point. Gros- and Petit Mensang? Probably not. Thus my thinking that, while these can be delicious wines, they might not be great wines with which to launch one's first exploration into les vins de la belle France.

                          >>> Chenin is grown outside France, sure, but is anyone making anything remotely similar to Savennières anywhere outside Savennières, let alone France? <<<

                          In France, there are some very dry, long-lived Chenins from producers in Anjou and within Vouvray. In California, there is Weinstock's "Contour" and, to a lesser extent, Chappellet's Chenin Blanc . . .

                          Cheers,
                          Jason

                          1. re: zin1953

                            "...each of those separate appellations is Chenin Blanc, a grape with which the OP is (in all probability) already familiar. Thus, a taste of "French Chenin Blanc," regardless of the specific AOC, will have a reference point."

                            Would you also recommend the OP pick up a random Jura chardonnay on the same basis? After all, it's chardonnay, it's French... how different can it be?

                            In my admittedly limited experience, some Savennières and Côteaux-du-Layon (don't know about the others) can be as challenging and unusual as some Jura chardonnays. Some are quite approachable, but I wouldn't steer a self-described beginner that way without some pretty specific guidance.

                            So, I agree that expanding a person's experience with Loire chenin is a good thing, but I still maintain that immediately branching out from Vouvray -- almost always appreciated by aficionados and newbies -- is just as much if not more of a leap than sampling some equally obscure but generally very approachable wines whose only real drawback is that they're made from uncommon grapes and not widely distributed.