Beginners’ guide to French wine tasting – learning the ropes at Ô Chateau in Paris
In this post:
- about Ô Chateau
- why we say santé
- the history of viticulture
- on buying wine en primeur
- on wine fraud
- on corks, cork alternatives; and what to do if you think your wine is corked
- how to tell how old a red wine is…broadly
- on organic wine
- on describing wine
- a word about tannin
- on smelling and tasting wine
- Tour de France of Wines
- Wines from the Loire
- Wines from Alsace
- Côtes du Rhône
“The first thing you experience is the attack. That initial flavour and texture in the mouth. Then as the complexity of the wine develops, you should start being able to distinguish all the flavours. And after you’ve swallowed there’ll be an aftertaste, what’s called the finish. The longer that lasts, the better. Provided, of course, that it’s a pleasant taste.”Peter May, The Critic
1. About Ô Chateau
We’d (mother and daughter) got the basic low-down on Italian wines when we were in Rome – see How to Read an Italian Wine Label – and now we were in Paris and we wanted to know about French wine. Ô Chateau seemed to rate well on a number of sites, so Ô Chateau it was.
Our trainer-sommelier was the knowledgeable Alain Echalier. His challenge was to educate eight beer-drinking Norwegians; a German marrying a Parisian, both wine novices; and us, keen learners. The make-up of the group varies – sometimes there is a range of experience – but Alain’s knowledge and sense of humour are able to cope with all kinds of audience. Ô Chateau offers other kinds of tasting sessions too.
By the end of the session we both felt much more confident about wine and we felt we had a good foundation of knowledge on which to build.
2. On why we say, ‘santé’
Alain kicks off the session with a question: “anyone know why we say ‘santé’ when we toast each other?” We all look blank.
“Wine”, he tells us, “is healthy”. I like the sound of this. “Bacteria don’t like alcohol, and they don’t like acid,” he explains. “In the middle ages when water wasn’t always free of bugs, they would add a little wine …. hence, ‘santé’,” and he raises his glass to us with an enthusiastic flourish.
3. The origins of viticulture
Then another question. “Who knows where wine was first made?” he asks. None of us know, so “it was in Georgia” he tells us.
We now know that viticulture began about 8000 years ago in Georgia. About a thousand years later they began making wine in Persia. Five hundred years after that they were making wine in Greece and archaeologists have discovered the site of the oldest winery yet found in Armenia – see this interesting article all about Areni-1.
From the beginning the effects of drinking alcohol have been connected to religion – see Inviting the Gods to Dinner – and Romans, Jews and Christians have continued the tradition.
Wine production has continued to grow and expand since then (see Indian red wine) in spite of a set back in 1887 when European vineyards (those in France in particular) were devastated by the phylloxera aphid which had come over from North America.
4. On buying wine en primeur
One of the Norwegian beer drinkers asks Alain about buying wine en primeur. There’s a negative murmur around the group and Alain picks up on this. “You’re right,” he agrees. “It’s not such an attractive way of buying wine cost effectively as it used to be”.
Buying wine en primeur is a little like buying futures. You buy the wine before it’s bottled (you need to feel confident that that year has had a good harvest, not too much rain etc). Those who are especially keen, or who have the luxury of time, will potter down to France in the spring to taste and assess the previous year’s vintage themselves.
When the bottles are delivered a couple of years later you will need to pay duty and VAT (on the original purchase price, plus the duty).
You can either store them yourself, or with your wine merchant; or in bond (in which case you only have to pay duty and VAT on delivery).
Originally this was a magnificently mutually beneficial arrangement: the wine producer got money upfront to pay for overheads and the buyer paid for his or her wine in the most cost-effective way.
However since 2008 most wine bought en primeur has actually turned out, all things considered (storage costs, interest rates, exchange rates) to be more, rather than less, expensive. Then, when there’s a good year, such as 2015 (although some comment that this vintage has been ‘bigged up’ beyond its just deserts), everyone piles in, the price goes up, and the cost-effective advantages recede.
Originally (in the halcyon seventies) it was possible to sell half of what you’d bought en primeur a couple of years later, double your money and keep yourself in drink for free. Then the Chinese got into the market. Anti-corruption measures introduced over the last few years have reduced this, but other buyers have emerged, and the en primeur market has changed.
Buying en primeur may still make sense where there is a certain rarity value – ie from small specialist areas such as Burgundy, Barolo or California. But the focus on Bordeaux has dimmed – it’s a much bigger area and there are still extensive reserves of wine stored there. Some very modestly priced wine from Bordeaux may still be worth buying (see From Vineyards Direct below) – again, there’s a rarity value there – most Bordeaux bought en primeur isn’t modestly priced.
But in a post-Brexit world uncertainties regarding exchange rates, interest rates, and duties start to make the advantages of buying, particularly classic Bordeaux wines, en primeur look pretty dubious.
The trends in the market reflect all this. In 2009 Farr Vintners sold £75 million of en primeur Bordeaux. Five years later that figure was £1 million.
You can buy en primeur in the UK at:
- Averys of Bristol
- Berry Bros and Rudd
- Farr Vintners
- From Vineyards Direct (this company supplies wine for people who aim to drink what they buy rather than those aiming to fund their habit by canny purchasing and then reselling) – they currently have some 2015 Rhone wines on offer.
- Fine and Rare Wines
- Lea and Sandeman
- Private Cellar
5. On wine fraud
Alain warned us that 15% of expensive wines were faked. “It’s easy to remove the metal foil covering the cork…. and simply replace it.” he tells us, demonstrating exactly how at the same time.
“It’s also easy,” he continues, “using a cheap, two pronged ‘butler’s thief’, to remove the cork completely intact – and then replace it. This tool also has a very bonafide use for removing corks which are crumbling or damaged and it was immediately purchased as the Saucy Dressings’ Chief Taster’s next birthday offering. They’re available on line at Wineware.
6. About corks, cork alternatives; and what to do if you think your wine is corked
One of the wines we are going to try has a screw top. Alain asks us if we think it is inferior wine because of its lack of cork stopper, some of us nod ‘yes’. “It’s important for red wines that you want to age [see en primeur, above]” Alain tells us, “but for everything else it’s not important.”
How to tell if your wine is corked
Corks and the method they are put into the bottle have improved over recent years and the chances of having a corked wine have reduced (now about 1% from about 7% in the 1990s).
Corked wine isn’t wine with bits of cork floating in it, it’s wine that has become contaminated with cork taint. Cork taint is a chemical formed when natural funghi found in corks come into contact with chlorides, usually those used in the sterilisation products used in wine production. It spreads like wildfire and is difficult to eradicate. It’s also very powerful – just half a teaspoon could infect a whole swimming pool. So not surprisingly most cork producers have stopped using this type of cleansing agent, and either use a peroxide-based product, or a steam-cleaning method, or, the newest, most effective but also most expensive process, carbon dioxide washing.
Another solution being used by some wine makers is to use DIAM – a sort of milled, processed and reconstituted cork. Go to this link for more information on that.
Cork taint won’t do you any harm, but it tastes, by degrees, disgusting. At the worst it’s like soggy rotting cardboard. I tasted my first corked wine not long ago and I thought it smelled of mouldy cork – not so surprising. Some people are more sensitive to the smell and taste of it than others. Where the taint is mild it can be hard to spot – the wine just becomes ‘muted’, flavours are dulled
Cork taint is the most widely known defect in a wine, but there can be many other causes which affect the condition of a wine.
If you think a wine is corked, return it, the bottle and the cork immediately.
Why use cork in the first place?
When wine first began being stored in glass bottles, cork became one of the most popular stoppering methods (previously glass stoppers had been used, but they tended to fuse with the bottle and result in breakages). Sealing the wine in the bottle slows down the oxidisation process and allows it to develop and age, but it’s important not to seal the wine entirely. A minimal air flow is needed to enable the ageing process to occur (see tannins, below) as well as to allow some less than pleasant sulphide smells (originating from the bottling process) to be expelled.
Cork is a natural product and every individual cork is unique. As a result the wine within different bottles will age slightly differently.
What are the alternatives to cork?
About 35% of wine now is sealed by a non-cork material.
Screwcaps were invented originally in Australia, and they are still more widely used there than in any other country. There is a liner inside the top of the cap that contacts the bottle top and acts as a seal. Manufacturers have been developing seals which, like cork, allow a minimal amount of air flow, and therefore controlled ageing of the wine. Possibly the best on the market is the VinPerfect.
Plastic ‘corks’ offer another alternative, but they don’t always seal as effectively as they should and there have been complaints that they sometimes imbue the wine with a slightly chemical smell. The ArdeaSeal is possibly one of the best available.
To become a real expert on this subject read George Taber’s To Cork or Not To Cork.
7. How to tell how old a red wine is…broadly
The first time I tried to do this was at the Wine Academy in Rome, where I was reduced to hysterics by a pompous fellow student and found it impossible to concentrate. This time I had more success.
It’s easier with a plain, white background, Alain told us. Check first that the wine has a good colour – it should be clear, not hazy. Then look at the edge of the wine. Young wines will be a purply-pink. As they get older the colour develops to become, as it oxydises, red, then orange, and then finally orangey-brown.
8. On organic wine
Alain explained that we’d be tasting wines from different parts of France. Whether or not it was organic would largely depend on which part of France it came from. On the east coast, where there is very little rain, about 50% of wine is organic. On the west coast on the other hand, there’s lots of rain and only heroes attempt making organic wine – about 5% of wine made on the west coast is organic.
9. On describing wine
Alain suggested three rules for drinking wine, the first two of which can be usefully applied to any alcohol:
- Don’t drink on an empty stomach
- Never drink alone
- Savour the wine and try to think of one word to describe it as you drink.
This third rule is wise (effectively, ‘don’t just knock it back’), but not that easy. Ô Chateau’s founder and owner, Olivier Magny, suggests in his book Into Wine,
“Try to describe wines as you might people – ‘shy, generous, sensual, rugged, troubled, energetic….’”
It’s a thought, but it can sound a bit foolishly pretentious (see Vecchio Sogno).
You can also consider the colour, the reflections, the smell, the changes of taste as the wine develops (either in the glass, or in the mouth), the length of time the taste lingers on the tongue, and of course the flavours themselves. The Bordeaux École du Vin and the École des Vins de Borgogne suggest the following aromatic families for red wine (this is a combined list and the sardonic comments are mine):
- Animal – leather, game, amber – ‘wet dog’?
- Woody ‘undertones of oak’…. often accompanied by a ‘vanilla’ taste*
- Chemical (to be avoided I imagine)
- Spicy – pepper, cinnamon, clove, thyme*
- Burnt – coffee, toast, roasted nuts, chocolate (related to ‘woody’)*
- Ethereal – so sublime it defies description?
- Floral (more usually used to describe white wine)
- Fruity – both fresh and preserved – raspberry, citrus, prune, orange peel….
- Mineral – especially where the vines are growing on rock (stone, rust, iron and blood – see Blood and Stone, my post on Priorat )
- Undergrowth – mushroom, truffle, damp earth
*Obviously there are overlaps here. Vanilla, often associated with ‘woody’ flavours is a spice. When something has been in oak it’s often described as chocolate or coffee… both beans which have been roasted – and the oak has been burnt to get it to fit the shape of the barrel.
And then, of course, there is tannin.
10. A word about tannin
Tannins are key to the character of red wine. Alain explained that the effect of tannin in the mouth was just as much about effect as about flavour (it’s registered on the tongue as bitter). The word ‘tannin’ comes from the same root as a ‘tannery’ – a workshop which makes leather by drying hides. The effect of tannin in the mouth is to make it go dry.
Intrigued, following the tasting I did a bit of additional research into tannins (the most useful source I found being by Jamie Goode on Wine Anorak). You’ll need to wrap your head in a wet towel to get through this informative article, but essentially it tells us that although much has been written about tannins very little is really known about them, in particular about the part they play in red wine. For example, traditional thinking is that, as wine ages, the tannins get bigger, become insoluble and separate into deposits. Thus the remaining wine becomes softer with less of the sharp, bitter effect of the tannins.
However, this doesn’t explain why some red wines age very well without producing a deposit. There are some suggestions that the acidity of the wine causes the tannins to break up and become smaller.
This last theory is what happens in the grape itself. Tannins are part of nature’s cunning plan to protect, Goode tells us. They occur principally in bark, leaves and young fruit. The dry, bitter taste puts off a hungry animal. The young red grape is green to camouflage it with the leaves. It’s highly acidic with lots of bitter, astringent (‘astringent’ means to cause the contraction of skin cells – eg by drying – the effect described by Alain above) tannins. Marauding wildlife will avoid it. When the seeds are ready to be scattered the grape skin morphs into a look-at-me red. The acidity has softened the tannins, and the sugar has developed. The grape is now an attractive proposition. They get eaten and the precious seeds contained within are spread far and wide by their accommodating hosts.
So some wine tannins come from the tannins contained in the skin, stems and seeds. Their effect when drunk depends heavily on the wine making process.
Other tannins develop as part of the aging process.
And some tannins are derived from the barrels (especially those made of new wood) in which the wine is aged.
Goode describes how the chemical properties of tannins (they are polyphenols) combine with proteins in the saliva to result in what is now termed ‘mouthfeel’, a sense of dryness or roughness, friction between the mouth surfaces.
A final, positive, word on tannin – it’s apparently healthy – it cleans the arteries.
11. On smelling and tasting wine
You start to get a good feel for the wine before it ever reaches the tongue. To begin with you need to smell. “The first ‘nose’ is usually strong, it’s not really likeable because it’s still not oxidised.” Alain tells us.
”Then you swivel it around for ten seconds or so – this helps to aerate the wine”.
“Then you sip, at the same time trying to breathe in air over the tongue. The more air you breathe in the more you will taste.”
We all slurp and splutter inexpertly. It’s the oxidisation, apparently, which helps to open up the wine, to get the best flavour.
And with that we began our Tour de France of Wine.
1. First wine up was a Champagne.
- This was a Monmarthe, Secret de Famille
- 24 euro per bottle
- It’s a blend of Chardonay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.
This last grape, the Pinot Meunier, gives the Champagne body, a feeling of density. The result is a better balanced drink, and one which will suit more customers, and cuisines.
Our verdict was that it had a feeling of freshness, of citrus. Rather nice.
Useful things that Alain told us about Champagne
- Don’t try and age your own – once bought, drink
- Brut (developed to satisfy British tastes) is a new-fangled dry version of the original with only 8-10 grams of sugar per litre. Sec, with 30 grams is fine (good even) to drink with a sweet pud.
- There are some vintages for Champagne, but this is rare, usually various years are mixed together. This is a personal decision every wine maker makes each year, based on the quality of the juice : if it is excellent he/she would make a vintage (bottle with only the wine from this year).
Alain also told us, with disarming honesty, that there was much about Champagne which was in fact English.
Champagne was invented by an Englishman
The first surprise was that Champagne was not invented by Dom Pérignon as most people think, but by the English scientist and doctor, Christopher Merret who came up with the idea of adding sugar to a finished wine in order to produce a second fermentation. He presented his technique, now known as méthode champenoise, to the Royal Society in 1662 (when Dom Pérignon was just 24).
Champagne bottles were invented by the English
At about the same time the English glassblowers had developed a way of producing glass bottles which could contain the pressure of the fizzy wine within – this technology had still not reached the other side of the channel.
Champagne corks existed in England before they did in France
Nor were the corks devised by Dom Pérignon. George Taber (see To Cork or Not To Cork above) writes that in 1665 the Duke of Bedford included Champagne corks in his household inventory.
But Dom Pérignon gets the credit for a breakthrough in blending techniques
However, it is fair to say that Dom Pérignon did play a crucial part in the development of Champagne and this was in the blending process. He didn’t introduce the concept of blending itself, but he was responsible for the innovative idea of of blending the grapes prior to sending them to press.
How cold should Champagne be?
In Champagne: A Global History, Sue Epstein states that Champagne should be served just under 50°F when you will be able to:
“ease the cork out of the bottle so it emerges with a gentle sigh.”
If it makes a loud pop, it’s not cold enough.
How is pink champagne made?
Alain told us that pink champagne makes up about 15% of the market.
Sometimes it can be made by using black grapes with a white centre, and, in the initial winemaking process, not taking the skin out until later than normal. This is also the method used for non-sparkling rosé.
A second method, which is ONLY allowed in Champagne is to allow 10% of the liquid to be made up of red wine from the region.
For my post, Champagne: English sparkling wine throws down the gauntlet follow this link.
For my post on Champagne cocktails follow this link.
2. Number two wine was a Muscadet
- This was Le Lapin de 6 Semaines, from the Loire, 2016
- 11 euros per bottle
- Its producers were Jérémie Huchet and Mourat who made the wine out of Melon de Bourgogne grapes.
This is the classic wine to drink with oysters and cerviche, also sushi. “It’s close to lemon juice, it makes the texture more acceptable”, explains Alain.
I thought it was very refreshing, but it’s extremely delicate, not big on taste in my view…on the other hand it really doesn’t interfere with anything you’re eating.
These Muscadets should not be ignored.
This is what wine writer, Jancis Robinson, had to say:
“I tasted a 2016 Muscadet – Jérôme Choblet’s Château de la Pierre, selling for less than 3 euros a bottle from the cellar door – that would put to shame white burgundies at ten times the price.”
Other Muscadets she suggests trying are Bonnet-Huteau, Les Dabinières 2016 and Pierre Sauvion, Château du Cléray 2016
In the UK, the main importer of Loire wines is Yapp Bros.
3. Number three was a wine from Alsace
- Albert Mann, Senteur des Vignes. 2014
- 14 euros per bottle
- Made from Assemblage grapes.
Rather curious, this smells of banana or pear…. but it tastes dry. Alain warned us that wine from Alsace can range from very dry to very sweet so we should always check the label! I’m not a great white wine drinker and this wasn’t one for me!
This bottle had a screw top which led the group into the discussion outlined above re the merits of cork over screw tops.
It comes in a German bottle, known as ‘the flute’ because of its shape. This shaped bottle was invented shortly after the Bordeaux bottle specifically to store Riesling but nowadays also Gewurztraminer and wines from Alsace and Mosel. The bottle is less robust than the Bordeaux bottle – it didn’t have to brave the choppy Channel – and its slenderness means that more bottles could be fitted into the cramped holds of the river barges ploughing up and down the Rhine.
4. Fourth wine was a Beaujolais
- Saint-amour, Clos du Chapitre 2015
- 14 euro per bottle
- Gamay grapes
What’s to be said about Gamay grapes? In the 14th century Philip the Bold decreed that all the “very bad and unlawful” gamay in the area should be uprooted because it made wine “of such a nature that it is very much harmful to human creatures”. Since then, most Burgundy has been made from pinot noir grapes.
This particular wine is a bit stronger than most Beaujolais because it comes from further north. It’s high on bitterness, low on tannins and alcohol.
A red wine that’s good for enthusiastic white wine drinkers (not me, I’m with Philip the Bold)… a little fruity.
5. Fifth wine was a Côtes du Rhône.
- Chateau St Cosme 2015
- 12 euro per bottle
- 90% Syrah and 10% Grenach grapes
Alain pointed out that at 14.5% it’s a powerful wine, and the higher the alcohol content of the wine the colder it needs to be kept whilst in storage or the alcohol evaporates.
“This wine is too young to drink,” he tells us, it’s only 18 months old – it should be over five years old, the tannins in red wine need to age.”
6. Our final wine was a Bordeaux Haut-Médoc
- Château Belgrave, Diane de Belgrave 2011
- 16 euro per bottle
- A typical Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes
It comes from the left bank which has more gravel (which is actually more like pebbles than gravel) – Cabernet Sauvignon needs sun, but the gravel warms up during the day, and then remains warm at night. resulting in dark, black fruit, and a wine with a rich, velvety texture… This is a wine for food.
Why blend grapes?
- Different types of grape leads to complexity
- It’s also an insurance – if one grape doesn’t do too well, another may at least survive
Bordeaux, Alain comments, is the largest wine region in the world with 6,000 producers – not just red wines, but also sauternes, including the prized Chateau Yquem which can now sell at 500 euro a bottle.
“I can’t think of many drinks that have picked me up, but more than a few have put me down, primarily reds, and most notably those from Bordeaux. The finest assault I suffered was in France when attacked in a seaside restaurant by an ’82 Margaux (with back-up) – it was a waiter who “picked me up” and a taxi driver who delivered me.”Bruce Robinson, actor, director, screenwriter and novelist, writing in The Financial Times
Other posts you may find interesting
For more on Bordeaux follow this link.
For more posts on wine follow this link.
Music to listen to while you sip
Camélia Jordana – Ce qui nous lie est là, from the soundtrack of the film, Back to Burgundy