A trip through France’s wine regions introduces the complexities of centuries-old stories.
Winemaking in France’s Bordeaux and Loire Valley is a serious tradition. It’s rare to find a winery owner or winemaker who is not toiling away on family property. In many cases the château dates back a century or more.
I spent a rain-soaked week traveling through these two storied regions last spring, checking out everything from an insect hotel (part of a biodynamic philosophy to attract insects to a desired place) at certified-organic pioneer Château Guiraud, in Sauternes, to bicycling through caves at Bouvet Ladubay, a Crémant producer in Saumur.
What I found is that all of these wineries are battling the same dilemma: How to turn Americans on to French wines? It’s hard to tone down the intense passion poured into these wines that, to the novice, is often mistaken for pretension. Thousands of miles away from the vineyards, it’s the job of sommeliers and wine directors to bridge that gap.
In addition to the struggle of trying to translate that passion, there are an overwhelming number of appellations, and a seasoned wine drinker must know the grape varietals produced in each in order to decipher a label.
Want to bicker with a French winemaker? Ask him what he thinks about printing grape names on the labels. Most still argue that the winery name is enough, a definite departure from New World wineries where not only are grape varietals named, but their percentages within the blend are listed, too.
The Loire Valley, for instance, has 69 appellations and is France’s longest stretch on a map. Four grape varietals are planted for commercial use: Cabernet Franc, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and Melon de Bourgogne.
Only by doing a tasting of wines from the same winery but different vineyards, made from the same grape, over the same year, can one spot the nuances in each.
At Domaine des Baumard in Rochefort-sur-Loire, I sipped through an impressive portfolio of around 15 wines with owner/winemaker Florent Baumard. I quickly learned that the hand of the winemaker is what sets each wine apart, not always the vineyard block.
Juliette Monmousseau is a member of the Bouvet Ladubay winery’s fourth generation.
Restaurants can put a face to French wineries by including details on the family’s estate on a wine list alongside tasting notes, or by featuring the winery in a blog, an email blast, or through in-store collateral. Any of these marketing tactics can lead to sales of the wine and make it more approachable.
At the Butcher Block Restaurant in Plattsburgh, New York, detailed tasting notes printed on the wine list help draw the customer to a particular French wine. Wines at The One Bull in Bury St. Edmunds, England, are classified not by varietal but by palate. For instance, a Chenin Blanc from Ovni Jeremie Mourat, which stems from the Loire Valley, is lumped under “aromatic & herbaceous.” (And, yes, the grape is named.) And a “spicy, intense, concentrated” Cabernet-Merlot blend from Bordeaux, Château Haut-Grelot, is also featured. However, the ultimate twist is under “pudding & port,” a 2010 Ancienne Cure from Monbazillac made from Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes.
Juliette Monmousseau, a member of the Bouvet Ladubay winery’s fourth generation, is active in the winery’s day-to-day operations, and a steady presence at wine events around the world. She’s intent on sharing the winery’s story, both past and present, with importers, wine professionals, and consumers.
“There has been that tradition where ‘the boys’ take over, but thank God it’s changing,” she says. Labeling is still done by hand and she’s made great strides in coaxing more tourists to the region, including the bicycle cave tours that the winery recently launched.
“It’s very easy to cycle through the Loire Valley. Last year we had 2,500 cyclists come through (for a rally), and I thought that we should do this all the time,” she says. An art gallery and theater are also on the property.
France’s continued turn toward putting a green spin on wine production is another compelling story for customers. Take Nicolas Joly who is a former investment banker who worked in New York City and London before returning to the family estate. While his daughter Virginie now handles much of the affairs at Vignobles de la Coulée de Serrant in Savennières, an estate dating back to 1130 when it was planted by Cistercian monks, he’s still rooted in viticulture and will drop whatever he is doing to chat about natural wines. This is a loose term that, depending on who you talk to, can mean organic, sustainable, or biodynamic. For Joly, it’s all about biodynamic farming. Sitting in his late mother’s stately home on the property, Joly chats about the importance of farming without chemicals and leaving nature to do her work on the vines, resulting in clean and stunning wines.
Château du Cléray in the Loire Valley exports to the U.S.
At Château Haut Selve, in Graves, a section of Bordeaux, the aim is to bring a fresh, modern experience to the tasting room. Quirky-but-polished art pieces adorn the space, including tree stumps turned into art and two warrior bronze statues at the entrance. Although the winery thrived during the 19th century, it was abandoned before being rescued by a winemaking family in 1996. The Lesgourgues family has experience making wine in Saint-Émilion (Château Cadillac) and Armagnac (Château de Laubade). “With Bordeaux, there is so much tradition, so many years before us,” says Denis Lesgourgues, whose family owns the winery.
In addition to sharing stories such as this, another way to bring customers to French wines is to suggest a food pairing. Suddenly that seemingly strange wine, when matched with a familiar food, becomes comfortable and the customer is more likely to try it. “I just got back from the U.S. and the first thing they ask is, What do you have with this?” says Jean-Yves Langlais, export manager at Château du Cléray in Vallet (Loire Valley).
While food pairings may be the gateway to French wines, putting a face to the brand is key. Wendy Paillé is a South African native who operates Domaine Pithon-Paillé with her husband on his family’s Loire Valley estate (moving his family’s winery into the next generation). That the two worked at a Virginia winery helps them have a pulse on what Americans want out of French wines, or how to better translate those wines to a domestic audience.
>Nowhere was French passion more evident to me during the trip than at a late-afternoon visit to Château Doisy-Daëne in Barsac, part of southern Bordeaux and in a region known for its sweet wines. Fourth-generation family member Fabrice Dubourdieu—wearing a suit-coat—stopped mid-sentence in front of his vineyard, where rose bushes stand at the end of each row, to run to his car for a bundle of twine. (Rose bushes serve as a first responder to any mildew disease in the vineyard, before it reaches the valuable grapes.) A vine was drooping in the wind. He wanted to save it. Continuing his story about the family’s winery, he tied that vine up with twine. An hour later, when I sipped the 2013 Château Doisy-Daëne, a wine in production since the 1940s, I tasted that love. Turns out it’s not just me who recognizes the excellence: The wine is uncorked at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., says Dubourdieu.