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05 Jan 2024 | Randy Kemner


I’ve been drinking and studying wine for over 50 years, and in all that time I am still of the conviction that to fully appreciate the fine wines of the world, one must learn all one can about French wine.

France Is Wine 101. 

Think about it, the vast majority of the great varieties we all know have their origins and/or their greatest expressions in France’s legendary wine regions of Bordeaux (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot), Burgundy (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay), Beaujolais (Gamay), Alsace (Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer), Loire Valley (Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc), Rhone Valley (Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre), and the greatest sparkling wines of all time:  Champagne.


These wines are the templates that winemakers around the world continually reference, whether constructing “Bordeaux-style” or “Rhone-style” blends, or trying to emulate the great Syrahs of Hermitage, the brilliance of the Chenin Blancs from Vouvray and Montlouis, the thrilling wines of Alsace, the majesty of Burgundy’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and of course, the monumental bubblies of Champagne. 

French wine is all of wine’s North Star.  Even Barolo, northern Italy’s greatest wine, owes much of its modern popularity to the revolutionary vintners of the 1980s, whose unabashed adoration of red Burgundy fueled transformations in techniques and cooperage that opened their wines to a new international audience.

My personal wine journey began with French wine classics Beaujolais, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Vouvray, Champagne, Tavel and Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  That’s what restaurants served in those days, along with a smattering of California varietals like Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and a little-known white wine about to go viral:  Chardonnay.

I spent the next 21 years dabbling in wines from Germany, Italy, Spain and my native California, but if I wanted a wine that wasn’t merely a table wine, but had an extra cachet, it always seemed to be a bottle from one of France’s classic wine regions.  In the latter part of that period, I co-owned a boutique wine distribution business initially representing California wines, then in 1991, midway through my affiliation, became the Southern California distributor for Kermit Lynch Imports, a hugely influential French wine purveyor.  This acquisition had me going back to my wine roots, then doing deep dives into lesser-known wine regions like Cahors, Languedoc-Roussillon, Provence, Corsica, Chablis, Alsace and especially the Loire Valley, whose vast variety of wines opened up whole new worlds of pleasure and fascination within me.

It was back to school all over again, as I got even more grounded in the fundamentals of fine wine, learning that some white wines aged more reliably than red wines, and most of all, that regions within regions, like Burgundy’s Chablis, Puligny-Montrachet and Pouilly-Fuissé all made brilliant, but very different white wines from the same grape variety.  I also learned that the continental climate of the Syrahs of Cote-Rotie and Saint-Joseph made Rhone wines that performed very differently than the Mediterranean-climate red wines of Gigondas and Chateauneuf-du-Pape.


Just about everyone who gets into Bordeaux has an inkling of the 1855 classification that set up a hierarchy of quality among its top chateaux.  But it takes a lot more work and study to begin to comprehend the complexities of village, Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards of Burgundy.  It was incredible to me that Cistercian monks in the 1200s were figuring out which hillside sites produced the finest wines, and their discoveries are largely true even today.  Each bottle teaches you more.


As a distributor of French imports, I could now visit these places to gain even more insights into the people, culture, foods, vineyard practices and winery techniques that provided greater context for these treasures.  After opening The Wine Country in 1995, I continued my appreciation for French wines with other importers, discovering great and great-tasting wines from France’s top producers and yet-to-be-discovered ones, the latter providing enough thrilling experiences at prices I could afford to drink each week (especially rose from Provence), and not just opening a trophy wine on my birthday and national holidays.

Kermit Lynch once wrote, “If you are looking for true bargains, look where no one else is looking.”  And that’s exactly what we’ve done in the 28+ years our store has been serving our community.  As the whole world has competed for classified growth Bordeaux and Grand Cru Burgundies, we can still find comparable bargains in Alsace, Rhone, Loire Valley, Languedoc, Beaujolais, and even on occasion, over-performing petit chateaux of Bordeaux and undiscovered family estates in Burgundy.  Not to mention, there are countless nooks and crannies all over France I've loved exploring, like Cahors (the source of Malbec), Madiran (the home of Tannat), the idiosyncratic wines of the Jura (and its glorious cheese, Comte), the alpine whites of the Savoie, the charming day-sippers of the Cotes de Gascogne, the rare whites of Provence and the Rhone, the earthy reds of the Loire...and on and on.

In short, we can afford to stay in love with French wines on a continuing basis, and that’s good news for those new to French wine and for those of us who have stayed away from them for a while. 

Even better, since many of these wines have a bit less alcohol than many New World wines, we can drink them more often. 

And perhaps best of all, most French wines were created for the table, and the table is the most satisfying place to enjoy them.

Unless you have a bottle of Champagne from one of our growers.  Then just open the little sucker whenever you feel like it.  The thrills will follow.

So where does one start?

If you want an overview, start with some good examples of wines from the major wine regions.  I suggest putting together this affordable sampler:

Beaujolais--Piron-Revillon Lantignie "Fructus Agape"  $19.99

Cotes du Rhone--La Cabotte Rouge  $13.99

Saint-Joseph--Verzier Chante-Perdrix "Empreinte"  $29.99

Vouvray--Champalou "Les Fondraux"  $26.99

Sancerre--Sylvain Bailly "Terroirs"  $27.99

Burgundy, Red--Domaine Chofflet Givry Heritage  $31.99

Burgundy, White--Herve Azo Petit Chablis  $22.99

Bordeaux, Red--Le Petit Chevalier Pessac-Leognan  $32.99

Bordeaux, White--Chateau Sainte-Marie Entre-Deux-Mers  $15.99

Alsace--Roland Schmitt Gewurztraminer  $21.99

Cotes de Provence Rose--Mas de Cadenet Sainte Victoire  $23.99

Grower Champagne--Bernard Gaucher  $36.99

And for bonus treats, try these sweet wines for dessert:

Domaine de Durban Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise Half Bottle  15.99

Roumieu-Lacoste Sauternes Half Bottle  $24.99

Domaine La Tour Vieille Banyuls "Rimage" Half Bottle  $23.99

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