Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Cheap French Wine: Oxymoron or Just Moronic?

French wine is expensive. (Right about here, my editor is thinking, "Christ, here he goes again, whining about how much this column sets him back every week.")

The 2005 Chateau Latour is currently selling for $900-1300 a bottle. That's about $40 an ounce or $240 for a nice six ounce glass. Ouch! You gotta think at those prices, maybe we should be dabbing it behind our ears, instead of drinking it.

And guess what? You can't drink it. It hasn't even been released yet. Those prices are for "futures". You buy it now, and you pay for it now, but you won't actually get your hands on it until they release the wine next spring. And of course, you'd be a fool to drink it before 2020.

So yeah, French wine is expensive...or at least some French wine is expensive. You might be surprised to learn that there is actually such a thing as cheap French wine. Cheap like $5-6 a bottle cheap.

But is it drinkable? That, as I hope you've learned by reading this sorry excuse for a wine column, is the $4.99 question. And as always, I'm hot on the trail of the cheap French wine bargain. You didn't actually think that I could resist?

Probably the best region of France from which to score a decent wine in the "value priced" range is the Cote du Rhone, but that's not what I'm going to talk about in this column. Why? Because what people REALLY want is Bordeaux. There are very few wines in the world that command the prices, respect or reputation of Bordeaux. And it seems vaguely logical that if the best wines of Bordeaux are $1000 a bottle, then the $5 a bottle stuff must be pretty good too.

In order to demonstrate that logic like that only serves to prove that you are a complete and irredeemable idiot, I bravely purchased several cheap Bordeaux from Trader Joe's for my tasting pleasure.

Chateau Coucy 2001 Montagne Saint Emilion
One of the crappy things about Bordeaux are the wannabe wine regions near the top-notch wine regions that have similar names. It's just like if Lodi were called "Not quite in, but a just a tiny bit east of NAPA VALLEY" (but in indecipherable French instead of English). "Montagne Saint Emilion" is to Saint Emilion what Lodi is to Napa Valley. And unless you know your French wine regions really well, it would be easy to think that you're scoring a wine from a primo region.

This wine was medium bodied with bright red fruit aromas. On the tongue it was acidic and tart, but lacking any identifiable fruit, and possessing really aggressive tannins on the finish. Kind of a hollow, nothing wine. 2.0 stars. Not worth $10.99 in anybody's book.

Chateau Mayne Guyon 2003 Premiere Cote du Blaye
This wine was a step up. Light aroma with hints of dusty attics and strawberries. Not particularly Bordeaux, but not unpleasant. On the palate, moderate red fruits that developed in body, character and complexity as the wine breathed. Again, this wine had pretty strong tannins. Definitely more complex and enjoyable than the first wine, but honestly, no great shakes. 2.5 stars. Not too bad for $6.99.

Chateau Briot 2004
Another light wine with simple aromas, negligible fruit, and big, dry tannins. Really, no fruit flavors to speak of in this wine, making it really hollow. Like the others, this wasn't a "bad" wine; it just wasn't much of anything. 2.25 stars. I've had worse for $4.99, but I ain't bragging about it.

Chateau Franc-Maillet 2000 Pomeral
Okay, enough of the cheap crap. I had to taste at least one real Bordeaux. This wasn't a First Growth, but not swill either, with rich, dark aromas of spice, mocha, coffee and blackberry bramble. Yum! Smelled like a cabernet-based wine with all that dark fruit. Incredibly smoky and complex on the tongue, with hints of tobacco, cedar and spice. Nice. Firm, but not overpowering tannins on the finish. Finally something decent and worth drinking! 3.75 stars. $29.99 at www.winelibrary.com.

Sadly, I'm finally learning the truth here, and it's not that "you get what you pay for", because you're lucky if you pay $30 and get a decent bottle of wine. The real truth is that there's no free - or cheap - lunch. An expensive wine might suck, but a cheap wine virtually always sucks.

So let's be honest here, the major selling point for cheap French wine is that none of your friends and none of the waiters in Chico can tell the difference. A bottle of French wine with a bunch of fancy script, the word "Chateau" in bold letters, and an image of some old French mansion on the label is enough to make everyone you know go "ooh-la-la", even if it's "Chateau Toilette". Show up to a party with anything French and you'll be an instant wine snob. Guaranteed.

Sometimes looking like you know your stuff is more important than actually knowing your stuff. I'm living proof of that.

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