Wines
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11
MIN READ
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Jan 24, 2021

Approach to French Wines for Beginners

Julien Mainguy

French and based in Vancouver since 2014, Julien Mainguy is the co-founder of Best of France. Passionate about the cultural difference between Canada and Europe, he is leading numerous projects to create awareness, help people grow, and bring communities together.

Disclaimer: The information contained in this article does not promote alcohol. Alcohol consumption can lead to alcohol addiction or over-drinking problems. The legal drinking age varies from provinces. Currently, 18 is the legal drinking age for Alberta, Manitoba, and Québec, while 19 is the legal drinking age for the remaining provinces and territories.


Wine is a popular type of alcoholic beverage made from any fruit but typically made from fermented juices (and skins) of wine grapes. Unlike regular grapes from the grocery store, wine grapes are smaller, sweeter, have thicker skins, and contain seeds. Wine grapes take an entire season to ripen; consequently, wine is only produced once a year, during the harvest season. Harvest season takes place for two months to account for the different growth rates of the grapes.

The harvest season for the northern hemisphere occurs from August through September, while the southern hemisphere occurs from February through April. An exception is "ice wine, " which is harvested from December through February, with Canada being the world's largest producer, primarily Ontario, with some British Columbia production. When looking at a wine label, you may see the term "vintage," this refers to the year the grapes were picked and turned into wine.


Difference between Red, White, Rosé, and Sparkling

Once harvested, grapes can produce a variety of wines, red and white being the two most popular, as well as rosé, sparkling, and dessert wines. The main difference between reds and whites is due to the skins.

 

Friends clinking glasses of red wine.
Friends clinking glasses of red wine.

Red wines

Grapes fermented with their skins contain higher levels of tannins, which are naturally occurring substances that drive the red colour of the wine and produce a slightly bitter or "dry" taste. It is often suggested you avoid chilling your red wine as the cold temperature can make the perception of tannins even more bitter and mask other flavours. Ideal serving temperatures for reds range between 12 and 18 degrees Celsius, higher for more full-bodied varieties. "Body" refers to the four fundamental aspects of wine; alcohol, sugar, tannin, and acid. In general, the darker the wine, the higher the tannin content, creating a bolder taste.

White wines

With white wine, the grapes are fermented without the skins, creating a white or pink colour. White wines will typically have a more crisp, fruity or citrus taste. You can chill white wine since it lacks significant tannins and ideally should be served at 4 degrees. However, extreme cold can change the taste as well.

Rosé wines

Rosé is in contact with the skins for a relatively short period, typically only a few hours compared to the weeks needed for red wine. Rosé typically has a fruity or citrus flavour, though the specific grape used can still significantly affect the taste. Ideal serving temperatures for white and rosé wines are between 7 and 15 degrees Celsius.

Sparkling wines

Sparkling wine occurs when a wine has been significantly carbonated. Carbonation can be a natural part of the fermentation process, or carbon dioxide can be added after the flat wine has been created. Both methods produce a bubbly wine typically described in a dry to sweet taste scale, with an ideal serving temperature between 4 and 10 degrees Celsius.

Grape Varieties and Blends

Map of French wines regions, highlighting areas like Champagne, Bourgogne, Beaujolais, Bordeaux, etc.
Map of French wines regions from winefolly.com


There are currently over 10,000 varieties of grapes that are used to make wine. Many grapes are international, being grown in a variety of countries. Some of the most common varieties of red wine grapes include (from light-bodied and fruity to full-bodied and dry) Pinot Noir (Burgundy if grown in that region), Merlot, Zinfandel (Primitivo), Syrah (Shiraz) and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Merlot is often blended with higher tannin wines like Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon to produce a softer, fruitier flavour. Malbec also blends very well with varietals like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Common varieties of white wine grapes include (from light and sweet to dry and rich) Riesling, Pinot Gris/Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay. Chardonnay is used to produce one of the most exceptional dry white wines in the world, White Burgundies, and one of Champagne's main grapes. Riesling wines are commonly thought of as sweet, however many are not, mainly German Rieslings. White blends are much less common than with reds; however, some stunning examples include a Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc blend and White Bordeaux, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, and Muscadelle.

Canada's ice wines exhibit aromas and flavours of ripe tropical fruits such as lychee, papaya, and pineapple. They are sweet with a firm balanced backbone of acidity, produced primarily from Riesling and Vidal grapes. Ice Wines are often enjoyed with desserts or on their own for dessert.

How to Drink 

Drinking and evaluating wine can allow individuals to better experience and appreciate the different aspects of the wine. Before tasting and evaluating your glass of wine, you want to take notice of your surroundings. Being in a loud or crowded room may make it hard to focus on your wine's subtleties and details. Any other strong odors such as; food, perfume, smoke, and even pets can affect your ability to evaluate the wine's aroma. You will have more success in evaluating your wine if you step away and try to find a neutral environment.

To open your wine, you will need a knife and a corkscrew, which can often be purchased in a single device. The knife is used to remove the foil covering. The corkscrew includes the worm, a metal spiral you twist into the cork, and leverage to uncork the wine. It is ideal for uncorking your bottle 30 minutes before you drink, to allow the wine to release more of its aroma and soften the tannins. After opening a wine bottle, you should drink lighter wines within three days and darker wines within ten days. There are a wide variety of wine glasses available for purchase.

Generally, you just want a wine glass with a vertical shape that is more narrow towards the rim and has a stem. This shape allows for the aromas to be channeled up when you swirl and sniff your wine. For red wines, your glass should have a larger bowl to let the oxygen come into contact with the wine allowing it to release its aroma. White wine glasses are more U shaped to keep the wine cooler and because white wine does not need oxygen to release its aromas. Sparkling wine should be poured into a fluted glass with a long narrow bowl.

Chambertin wine bottle with two poured glasses into the setting sun in beautiful light captured in Burgundy's point-of-view perspective. Chambertin is the most important Grand cCru vineyard in Gevrey-Chambertin, one of Burgundy's northernmost wine villages.
Chambertin wine bottle with two poured glasses into the setting sun in beautiful light captured in Burgundy's point-of-view perspective. Chambertin is the most important Grand cCru vineyard in Gevrey-Chambertin, one of Burgundy's northernmost wine villages.

Sight 

After finding a neutral environment, the first step is to evaluate the look of the wine. The glass should be about a third full. Looking straight down and tilting the wine can allow you to see the full-colour range. It's recommended to place your wine on a clear or white surface, so the colour is not altered. As you gain more knowledge about wine, you may be able to better identify particular grapes based on the wine's colour. Typically the lighter colour wines have lower alcohol content, and darker wines have higher alcohol content.

Swirling the wine can allow you to see the legs, which are droplets that form on the inside of the glass. Generally, wine legs indicate a wine with higher alcohol content and a sweeter taste. When you swirl your wine, make sure to hold it at the stem, this prevents the heat from your hands from warming the wine.

Smell

The smell can be assessed by swirling your wine on a flat surface, hovering over the glass, taking in a couple of sniffs, and then moving away to process the smell. You can break down the scent of wine into three main categories. Primary aromas are caused by natural factors such as the type of grape and climate it was grown in. Typically, primary aromas will be described as fresh fruit, flowers, or herbs. The secondary aroma is a result of human intervention such as oak aging or fermentation.

This category of aroma is typically described as yeast, cheese, and almond. Finally, tertiary is the result of aging in a bottle or an oak barrel. The fragrances generally are defined as autumn leaves, cured leather, and cedar. If you have trouble identifying the various aromas, do not worry. Everyone has different levels of olfactory capabilities; you may simply need to develop your senses more. The David Aroma wheel can be helpful for beginners to break down the aroma of wine further.

Taste

After assessing sight and smell, you can finally taste the wine. Take a small sip and swirl it in your mouth until it coats your tongue. Next, open your mouth slightly, breathing in some air, then slosh the wine in your mouth, as if you were chewing the wine. It can also warm up the wine and help to "open up" the flavour. Your tongue can detect the salty, sour, sweet, and bitter tastes of the wine. Because grapes have some acidity, they will all taste sour to a degree. Sweetness is typically found with white wines because the grapes typically retain their sugar that adds to the taste. Salty is more of a rare taste, with very few reds or whites exhibiting it.

Texture can also be assessed when you taste the wine. Riper wine typically has a high alcohol content, which gives the wine a richer texture than water. Tannins can also result in a tongue drying texture, often described as sand-paper. If you are at a wine tasting, you may want to have a glass of water between different wines to cleanse your palate.

The wine finish is the taste that is left on your palate after you've swallowed. The average wine has a finish of 5-10 seconds; better quality wines are about 20-30 seconds, and the top-rated wines can last up to a full minute. Having small bites of food such as cheese or nuts, can help highlight the wine's flavor and prevent you from feeling dizzy.


With which Kind of Food? (Wine Pairing)

Pairing food with wines requires consideration of the food components and the characteristics of the wines. While pairing can get very complicated, there are some basic rules that beginners can quickly implement. With any wine, it should be more acidic and sweeter than the food. Red wines should be paired with red meats like steak, while white wines should be paired with lighter meats such as fish. Spicy meals can negatively affect the enjoyment of the wine, but mildly spicy foods can provide an excellent pairing. Choosing low to moderate alcohol wines that have been chilled can lessen the burn from spicy foods.

These were just some general rules for wine pairing; many websites can provide more specific pairings.

Gourmet meal and white wine.
Gourmet meal and white wine.


Buying Wine in Canada


Wine bottles in wooden stand on display at a winery.
Wine bottles in wooden stand on display at a winery.


Under the Constitution of Canada, the distribution and sale of alcohol are the responsibility of each province and territory. Agencies for each province and territory have been created as a result. Ontario has the LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario), Montreal has SAQ (Société des alcools du Québec), and British Columbia has BCL (British Columbia Liquor), which are all government-run liquor stores. Throughout Canada, wine can also be purchased at restaurants, hotels, and other licensed establishments. Recently, more grocery stores have also been allowed to sell wine.

However, these venues can only sell alcohol from 11 a.m till 2 a.m, Monday to Saturday, and noon till 11 p.m on Sunday. Within larger cities, domestic wines may also be purchased from local wine stores. When purchasing alcohol, you will need government-issued identification that displays your name, date of birth, and clear photos. Driver's license, passports, and citizenship cards can be used.

Picking a bottle of wine can often be a daunting task, especially when starting. Asking an employee for assistance can be a helpful first step. Wine store employees typically undergo training and develop an overall knowledge of wine selection. While browsing a store, it may be beneficial to look at labels and tags attached to a bottle; it will typically give the wine's rating and any awards it has won. Finally, the internet can be a great source of information with many articles and ranked lists about top wines. Many liquor stores display their inventory online to check if a specific wine is in stock before you go.

Remember that when choosing a wine, more expensive does not necessarily mean better. It is often recommended that when starting, you should purchase wine that is in the 15 to 25 dollar range. Once you have tried a variety of wine, you may begin to notice certain countries, regions, and grapes that you prefer. It can help you when making future selections; if you enjoyed wine from a particular region, there is a good chance you will enjoy a different wine from the same area. Finally, when all else fails, do not be afraid to try a wildcard wine. Choosing a wine that you may not recognize or even be able to pronounce can be a great way to find a hidden treasure, especially if you see it on a recommended list.