There are few things more pleasing in life than the sound of a Champagne cork popping. Pourquoi? Parce que it means that something good is about to happen. What follows the popping sound is inevitably something delicious, lively, romantic, or sinful. All of the above? You lucky thing.
Champagne has a supremely glamorous past. Beginning in the year 898, all of the French kings were crowned in the Champagne region, and the beverage of the same name flowed freely at the coronation banquets. To this day, no French party is complete without Champagne.
The winters in the region get very cold, and a long time ago, the cold temperatures caused wine fermentation to stop, and then it underwent a second fermentation as the weather got warmer. The result was often exploding bottles or bubbles in the wine, which the winemakers in the region (most notably a monk named Pierre Pérignon) considered to be a fault. In the eighteenth century, the version with bubbles became a hit in the royal court, and by the nineteenth century, winemakers had more or less figured out the bubble-making-and-maintaining process, and the modern Champagne industry was on track.
Today Champagne is made via the traditional methode Champenoise from a combination of chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier grapes (though not necessarily all in one) and can only be called Champagne if it comes from the Champagne region of France. Blanc de blancs is made entirely from white grapes (hence the name), and it is a no-brainer for pleasing pretty much all palates. It’s crisp and fresh and a bit salty because of the region’s chalky soil. Blanc de noirs is made from red grapes, and rosé from a blend of red and white grapes. If a Champagne is labeled “nonvintage,” that means that it is a blend of different vintages, while “vintage” indicates that it is made from the grapes of only one year’s harvest. If a label says “brut,” that means it can have up to twelve grams of sugar per liter, while “extra brut” can have up to six grams and “brut nature” up to three grams. The addition of sugar (and sometimes flavors) to Champagne is called the dosage.
Just please don’t serve prosecco and call it Champagne. Yes, they are both bubbly, but that’s where the similarities end. If you prefer a drier style of wine, go with Champagne or a French sparkling wine; only choose prosecco if you enjoy wine that’s light with in-your-face candied-fruit flavors and a pronounced aftertaste. Champagne smells and tastes more like toast and almonds, is a great match with a variety of foods, and has a much more elegant finish.
If possible, opt for grower Champagne instead of the big-name brands, and you will notice a difference. Many of the big boys (i.e., all of the “good” branded ones you see everywhere with bold labels) buy their grapes, thus emphasizing marketing over grape-growing practices. They’re also meant to please the masses, so they will generally be sweeter and won’t have the same finesse that grower Champagnes have. If you’re looking for a more affordable alternative to Champagne—and understandably so, because it does not come cheap—sparkling wines from Bourgogne, Loire, and Jura (called crémant) provide scrumptiously satisfying bubbles at a fraction of the price. These sparkling wines are becoming quite popular and more widely available, so check your local wine shop or favorite online retailer.
When in France, order a glass of Champagne by saying “une coupe” and save verre, the word for “glass,” for ordering a glass of wine: “Est-ce que je peux avoir un verre de vin rouge?”
Any good wine professional will tell you that simply enjoying wine is the best way to learn about it. Drink often, pay attention to what you’re drinking, and try different wines as much as possible. Learning about wine is one of the few things in life that combines study with pleasure. It’s a mind-altering substance that’s not only legal but also totally socially appropriate. Who knew geography and agriculture could be so entertaining?
Wine is instant gratification in a glass, offering a laundry list of immediate positive benefits. It acts as a social lubricant, a natural stress reliever, and a powerful aphrodisiac. Having just one glass can change the entire course of your evening.
There is usually a very big difference between a couple sitting down to dinner together with no wine and a couple sitting down to dinner together with a bottle of wine. Phones are set aside a bit more, eye contact is made, and laughter is abundant. Or sometimes tears are abundant, but in those cases, it can be a good thing. When wine is present, generally things that need to be discussed are discussed.
Just think of the small talk and reserved politeness at the beginning of a party versus the witty jokes and unabashed flirting that occur only a couple of hours later. Or how you feel after leaving a stressful day at work—your shoulders one big, knotted, tense mess—versus how you feel just one hour later after enjoying a glass. Part of the beauty of meeting a friend for a drink is, well, the drink. Wine lets our guard down for us, giving us the confidence to let loose and feel good. Perhaps best of all, it offers us the clarity to stop multitasking. We can just be present in the moment.
And that’s just the mediocre stuff.
A glass of really good wine forces you not only to stop multitasking but also to focus on what you are enjoying. What is the exact shade? The precise aroma? And what does it actually taste like? Suddenly wine is not just a color. It’s not “I’ll have the white” or “I only drink red.”
As you swirl it around in your glass, you’ll notice that it’s yellow like pale straw or golden like the not completely molten bits of a crème brûlée. It runs thick and opaque like the ink of a fountain pen or muddled and brown like the color of a rusty nail. It smells like prickly pear or a ripened banana, like freshly ground black pepper or a newly purchased leather belt. And though it’s bursting with flavor, you find it difficult to identify exactly what you taste when it first hits your tongue, even when you roll it around in your mouth in an attempt to capture every drop, and even still when it washes down your throat, perfectly cleansing your palate for another bite of food.
Good wine doesn’t need to be fancy; it can be whatever suits you and makes you happy, as long as you don’t drink the same varietal, producer, or style over and over. Mix it up. Cheat on your favorites, and I guarantee you’ll find new ones.
Everyone’s wine journey is different, as are everyone’s palate and budget, but if you get into wine, chances are that you’ll end up discovering that there’s something magical about the French ones. They’re alive; their character comes more from the soil and the grapes than from the people making them (except when they’ve been Robert Parker–ed; all bets are off when the vignerons are into le marketing and homogeneity among vintages to please the masses).
In general, New World wine (e.g., Californian, Chilean) is more of a man-made product, while Old World wine (e.g., French, Italian) is more of an agricultural product. It’s nature versus nurture. Of course, there are many exceptions on both sides, but it's easy to pick interesting wines that offer good value from the French section of the wine list.
In the New World, we’re quite good at marketing and efficiency, and though these are great business skills, they do not really make for the best grape-growing and winemaking processes. In the Old World, vineyards were observed for centuries and patiently mapped out. Some areas of land were identified as making beautiful grapes (and therefore great wine), while others were identified as being more relevant for middle-of-the-road wine. These subdivisions became known as terroirs. Both geographical and a bit romantic, this concept is the single most important part about wine. Technically, terroir is what makes one vineyard different from another, but it also encompasses the soul of a vineyard. Terroir mostly comes from the soil, but the local climate is also extremely important. And, of course, the approach of the people growing the grapes and making the wine is a major factor in the outcome. Every wine is defined by these key elements.
It’s best to seek out small producers; that way you really experience the terroir, whereas with the big-name wine brands, you’re mostly just paying for marketing. Do skip your local grocery store and find a small wine shop instead. Once you find a shop that you trust, you can learn a lot about wine and figure out what you like and don’t like. Larger grocery stores and wine emporiums often carry the big-name brands of wine, and the value and quality just isn’t there. If you live in the United States, the Natural Wine Company in Brooklyn ships via FedEx Ground and offers a good selection of wines from around the world, many of which are sustainable, biodynamic, and organic.
Perhaps the best thing about French wine is that you really don’t need to know that much. You don’t need to memorize grape varietals or brand names or who the latest trendy winemaker is. Pick a price point, pick a region, and dive in. If you like that bottle, Google “wine map of France” and start exploring other wines in that region. The names of the towns are the names of the wines, making the whole process simple and quite enjoyable (traveling of the palate, if you will). Unlike California wines, each wine that you pick from a particular area of France will be a distinct representation of that place.
French wine can be approachable and affordable if you look for smaller producers and less well-known grape varieties and wine regions. As compared to the New World, there are still many wine regions in Europe that remain relatively untouched by le marketing. Ideally, a winery will make wine and then price it accordingly, instead of figuring out what price the market will bear and then making wine to fit what the general public’s palates and wallets dictate. Great values can be had when you venture into unfamiliar territory in your local wine shop.
One place to find great value is in a bottle of rosé, which is summer in a glass. It is a mood wine, though certainly not a serious mood, because it’s meant to be enjoyed only in warm weather. Provence is the main wine region that it is associated with, although there are others, including some great options from Long Island. This is the one instance in which you don't have to think too much about it and instead grab whatever bottle is convenient. Unless you work in the wine industry or you’re a rosé aficionado, you’re probably not going to notice the difference. If you are truly tasting it, you’re probably not drinking it in the right setting. It’s all about fun. It should be enjoyed on the beach, or poolside, on a sun-soaked terrace while relaxing with family, or at a party catching up with friends. What does it pair well with? White jeans and bikinis, obviously.
A white Burgundy is not something you can compare to a rosé because that’s like comparing apples to oranges. And white Burgundy is certainly not something you can discuss alongside the chardonnays cranked out by New World conglomerates because that’s like comparing apples to an apple-flavored snack pack. White Burgundy, or Bourgogne blanc, is chardonnay (while red Burgundy is pinot noir). Burgundy’s Côte d’Or is comprised of the Côte de Nuits and the Côte de Beaune, the latter of which is home of the world’s most lust-worthy white wines.
This region boasts many varying layers of earth that date back millions and millions of years, like a millefeuille of soil and clay that’s a tasty treat for the water-starved vines. The growers in the area respect the super soil that they’re standing on and use it to coax the best possible grapes out of the land. Irrigation is an absolute no-no in really great wine regions such as Bourgogne because dry soil forces the vines to dig deeper in search of moisture and absorb all of that goodness. The kid who graduates college without a dime in his pocket and with mounds of student loans to pay is going to hit the ground running looking for work, while his friend with the trust fund is more likely to cruise around and party for a while.
Some white-wine stunners from the region include Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet, and Montrachet. But these are by no means budget wines. The good news is that chardonnay from Burgundy in general is really quite good at all price points. For more affordable versions, stay away from the Côte de Beaune and look toward the Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnais. You can Google “map of Burgundy,” learn some villages in these areas, and start experimenting.
Chablis is technically part of the Burgundy region, but the style is completely different. It’s closer in style to a Sancerre, even though it’s still chardonnay. It’s the northernmost region of Burgundy, and as such, the wine is much more crisp and acidic (cooler climates equal more acidic wines, while as you go south, warmer climates equal ripe, stronger, more fruit-forward wines). Chablis can be a great example of a wine that offers freshness and minerality but without the sometimes supertart, over-the-top acidity that so many white wines today have. A young Chablis will still pack an acid punch that pairs well with shellfish and citrusy dishes, but older ones boast a roundness that is more in line with classic aged white Burgundies.
If you are squeezing lemon juice all over something, such as a light fish dish, Sancerre will be a no-fail match. Made from sauvignon blanc, white Sancerre is fairly straightforward and doesn’t have as much variance as Burgundies do. There is obviously a difference between the top-of-the-line crus and table-wine versions but not as much as one would expect from a French wine region. If you reach for a Sancerre, you pretty much know what you’re getting, so it can be a reliable friend for certain dishes.
Other than Sancerre, France offers many other high-acid white-wine options, such as wines made from chenin blanc in the Loire. If you’re looking for something that’s fresh and light but interesting, the Loire is an excellent region to explore. It offers a ton of hidden gems at affordable price points. Meanwhile, if you’re looking for something that’s rounder and slightly funky, white wine from Jura can be just the thing. The cooler climate and relatively under-the-radar status make for some delicious offerings. White wines from the Loire and Jura are pretty dependable matches with spicy food and Asian food.
Another excellent pairing with Asian food or spicy food is a riesling from Alsace. The classic advice with wine and food pairings is to pair opposites or similarities, nothing in between, so pair food that’s spicy or acidic with a spicy or acidic wine to match it, or pair it with a sweeter wine to tame it. This is similar to relationships. Don’t go with something (or someone) boring just because. Find an equal match or tame the bad boy you want.
Speaking of bad boys, Bordeaux has gained quite the reputation these days because of its splashy auction prices and issues with counterfeiting. The region’s first-growth classification of 1855 provides clear markers of status, which is a key factor of its overwhelming popularity in Asia (and anywhere else in the world where people are into that sort of thing). The first-growth, or premier cru, ranking is simple to follow because there are only five in total: Château Haut-Brion, Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Latour, Château Margaux, and Mouton Rothschild.
Bordeaux is an outlier among Old World wines in the sense that it has become almost more of a brand than a place. And each of these five first-growth wines are very powerful brands on their own, often acquired just for the labels and bought and displayed by collectors from around the world in order to convey wealth and status. Bordeaux is excellent at marketing, but its difference dates back to that decision in 1855. Whereas other French wines tend to be classified and referred to in terms of terroir, the premier cru classification was determined by a château’s reputation and the price of its wine.
There are many collectors who buy these branded wines clearly just for sport, for the sake of buying and showing but not necessarily truly enjoying. You can easily identify them because they drink the same wines over and over, and when discussing Bordeaux wine, they refer to the names on the bottles (e.g., Château Lynch-Bages or Pétrus) versus the regions (e.g., Pauillac or Pomerol). So the classic wines of Bordeaux have become commodities, which is a shame but an inevitable one given the brand recognition and limited quantities.
Beyond the first-growth wines, Bordeaux has a long history with many different regions and classifications, so it is difficult to sum up, but for simplicity’s sake, we can divide it into the left bank and the right bank. Cabernet sauvignon dominates the left bank, while merlot and cabernet franc play supporting roles. The main left-bank red wines are Pauillac, Margaux, Saint-Estèphe, and Saint-Julien. Pessac-Léognan is often considered to be a left-bank red because it’s a similar style and is adjacent to this region. This is a lot to keep in mind when wine shopping, but you can remember them as Paul, Margot, Stephanie, Julien, and Leo. The right bank is dominated by merlot, with a bit of cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon blended in. Key right-bank Bordeaux wines are Saint-Émilion and Pomerol.
Burgundy is far more nuanced and yet simultaneously more minimalist than Bordeaux. One is brain; the other is brawn. Burgundy offers the ideal combination of balance and intrigue in a way that no other wine can. If it’s cold outdoors and you're serving a rich, slow-cooked meat dish indoors, Bordeaux is ideal.
The red wines of Bourgogne (the French name for Burgundy) are all pinot noir. As such, if the grape-growing process does not go smoothly one year, it is difficult for winemakers to correct the flaws because they’re not blending with other varietals. Red Burgundy is for purists who really want to taste the variations from vineyard to vineyard, year to year. Those who are obsessed with terroir are almost always obsessed with Bourgogne rouge. You’re not hit over the head with one smell or one flavor. Its power lies in its subtlety and its complexity. The main easy-to-find red Burgundy wines are Vosne-Romanée, Gevrey-Chambertin, Nuits-Saint-Georges, Chambolle-Musigny, Pommard, Aloxe-Corton, and Volnay.
If you haven’t had much experience with red French wine, red Burgundy is not the ideal place to start (as opposed to white Burgundy, which is pleasing from the first sip). Anticipating and experiencing the delights and disappointments of single-varietal red wines is a thrilling—and sometimes expensive—process of trial and error, so it’s not necessarily the best starting place.
If you are used to New World wines, a good place to begin is the southern Rhone. Châteauneuf-du-Pape can serve as a gateway into French reds. It is an easy transition from a big, juicy, spicy zinfandel from California into a more toned-down and yet still-heady Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It is kind of the zinfandel of the French wine world, except wine has been grown in this region for a very long time. The people, the soil, and the vines know what they’re doing, so it’s kind of an unfair comparison. Châteauneuf-du-Pape rouge is made from a blend of grape varietals, including but not at all limited to grenache noir, mourvèdre, syrah, and cinsault. The blending of so many varietals allows the winemakers to turn out more consistent people-pleasing wines year after year, which is one reason that they make a great gateway.
Red wine from the northern Rhone, meanwhile, is made mostly from syrah. Côte-Rôtie, Cornas, and Hermitage are all excellent red Rhones that are easy to drink yet still weighty. They are the next logical step after Châteauneuf-du-Pape because they fall somewhat in between that and Bordeaux. They’re still fruit forward and powerful but with a lot more finesse. They pair perfectly with meat dishes that have some sort of fruit or sweet component, such as a tagine or a duck dish.
Another thing to look into when tasting and experimenting with different wines is biodynamics. Based on principles created by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s, biodynamics is an approach to wine that takes into account the entire vineyard and all of its flora and fauna. It involves harvesting in line with solar and lunar cycles. These wines certainly express their terroir, and that is a beautiful thing.
These wines often appear on wine lists and in wine shops around organic, natural, and sustainable wines. “Organic” means the wine was made using organically grown grapes, while natural wine is supposed to be made with minimal intervention and without additives (though sulfites are allowed in some cases). While biodynamics looks at the vineyard as a whole, sustainable winegrowers look at the world as a whole, incorporating practices that are feasible and positive for the environment and humanity in the long term.
There is also an implication that fewer sulfites are used in these types of wines, but that’s not always true. Really, the best way to find what suits you is via personal experimentation.
If you’re new to wine and would like to learn more, here is a Wine Tasting 101 lesson in one word: “drink.” Unless you’re studying to become a sommelier, the only thing you need to do in the beginning is start tasting. "Intro to wine” classes usually walk through the same exact steps, drawn out in a way that does not befit the beginner. The instructor will often start with a narrative about color, telling you to hold the glass up in front of a white sheet of paper and observe the shade. But you really don’t need to think about color when you’re beginning your wine journey. If you don’t have a reference point yet on taste, the color won’t mean much. As you gain experience, you will begin to pay attention to color naturally, and not because an instructor told you to, but because it will be a great indication as to whether it’s the kind of wine you’re in the mood for.
You also don’t need to be taught how to swirl wine because it’s just awkward in the beginning, and that too will come naturally with time and observation. By the same token, yes, smelling before drinking is very important to a wine lover because it provides clues as to what’s in the glass and is an enjoyable thing to do before sips and in between sips. But beginners do not really need to be taught this because it will become second nature with practice. Smelling what we’re sipping, and enjoying the process, is an instinctual thing once the base level of taste is in place. If you’re new to wine, or new to Old World wine, you can create your own introduction to the subject just by opening a bottle and enjoying it.