In Great Spirits: The ultimate French wine and cheese guide
Wine educator Sharona Tsubota provides a perfect base to navigating the sophisticated French wine scene and more than 350 French cheeses.
“How does one govern a country with 246 varieties of cheese?!” once asked former French President Charles de Gaulle. It’s true that all of us lucky enough to visit or live in France 'suffer' from a wealth of choices when it comes to cheese, and wine bien sûr! When I first moved to France a few years ago, I lived close to a market which offered no less than three full aisles of cheese, and an even greater number of aisles of wine. De Gaulle’s number was an understatement, and today there are well over 350 different French cheeses. Where to begin?
For newcomers to France, here are my suggestions of wines and cheeses to start you on your journey of discovering the extensive range of French wines and cheeses. Bon voyage!
Selecting a French wine
Most French wines are labelled by appellation (where the grapes are grown and the wine is made), and not by varietal (type of grape(s) used). This can be very confusing for someone who is used to choosing their wine by their favourite varietal, such as Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. How to distinguish a Pommard from a Pomerol? (Pommard is a region in Bourgogne, famous for their Pinot Noirs, and Pomerol is a region in Bordeaux, famous for red Bordeaux blends). Often, but not always, the back label will list the varietals used in making the wine. But with three or more aisles to wander, you could spend years turning bottles and give up in frustration!
To help get you started I offer you a short list below of wines to try first, to get a feeling for the different wines coming from various regions in France without feeling overwhelmed. The majority of these wines can be consumed right off the shelf and don’t require ageing, giving you the chance to see what you like right now.
A guide to choosing French red wines
This is a light to medium-bodied wine, made from Cabernet Franc grapes in the Loire Valley (western France). It is very easy to drink, inexpensive (often EUR 5–8 per bottle), and complements a wide variety of dinners, from roast chicken to vegetarian dishes.
One of the best-known towns in Bourgogne (Burgundy), the Pinot Noirs produced in this area are worth the extra cost (typically EUR 15–40 per bottle). These dry, medium-bodied wines with pronounced minerality balancing the red fruit flavours generally benefit from a few years’ ageing, so look for slightly older vintages if you want to try them now. They are delicious with lamb, broiled salmon or lasagne, and also shine when paired with many cheeses (see below).
One of the many sub-regions of Bordeaux, the wines are blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and occasionally Petit Verdot and Malbec. Often these wines are a bit softer and more approachable at a younger age than their cousins in Saint-Emilion or Médoc. Look for wines that are at least five years old (EUR 20–60 per bottle), and enjoy them with venison or dry-aged beef. Be sure to open the bottle at least 30 minutes before drinking, to allow oxygen to work its magic and soften the wine.
How to choose French white wines
Made from Sauvignon Blanc, these wines are very aromatic and fruity, but completely dry. They range from EUR 9–20 per bottle, and go great with seafood. From the Loire Valley, you may also come across some red Sancerres, made from Pinot Noir.
Chardonnay wines made in Bourgogne (Burgundy), with lots of minerality and citrus flavours. They normally start at EUR 9 per bottle and can reach sky-high prices. Don’t confuse them with Petit Chablis, also made from Chardonnay but much cheaper. Due to their nice acidity, I like to pair them with pasta in creamy sauces, although raw oysters is a more classic pairing.
No list of French wines would be complete without the king of bubbles. Champagnes have experienced a wave of change in market demand, from sweeter to drier styles.
'Grower' champagnes, made by over 4,000 small producers throughout the Champagne region of northern France, take advantage of the wine lover’s quest for something new.
The vast majority of champagnes are made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, or a blend of these. If nothing is dry enough for you, try a Brut Nature champagne, with little to no sweetness to balance the natural acidity.
Although you may occasionally find champagnes for EUR 10 per bottle, the ones worth the money are usually between EUR 20–60 per bottle. Don’t save them for special occasions; make any day special by pairing with a warm cheese-and-leek-puff-pastry appetiser, or a dinner featuring fish or seafood. Blanc de Noirs champagnes, made from Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier, can stand up to heartier fare such as poultry or pork loin.
On the eastern border of France, nestling up to Germany and Switzerland, this region is famous for its white wines. Too many to list, varietals include Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris. I suggest you begin your exploration with Riesling, which can range from bone dry to very sweet. Fortunately, Alsatian wines invariably list the varietal on the label, and often have descriptions or charts on the back label, leading you toward your preferred style (sucré, doux, or vendanges tardives indicate a sweet wine). With lots of citrus notes, Rieslings go beautifully with rich, creamy sauces over pasta, poultry or fish, and the off-dry, slightly sweet wines perfectly match a wide variety of cheeses.
Types of French rosés
Côtes de Provence
These easy-drinking wines from the South of France are delicious as an ice-cold aperitif on a summer’s eve. A blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre, they are usually light peach or pink in colour, very dry, and show a balance of tart acidity and perfumed fruitiness. There are a few sweeter rosés out there, so if that’s what you’re looking for, or looking to avoid, check the back label (doux is sweet, sec is dry). Just EUR 4–8 per bottle, try them with little nibbles such as savoury biscuits and sliced dried sausages.
Rosé wines made from Grenache, Cinsault, and sometimes Syrah and/or Mourvèdre, Tavel rosés are easy to spot due to their intense pink colour. Very dry, they typically have strong red fruit flavours and a distinct spiciness, especially if allowed to age a few years. Pair them with a slice of quiche – Lorraine or mushroom – and a green salad.
Most people expect 'pink champagne' to be sweet and cloying, and indeed, there are some out there that fit that description. However, the majority of rosé champagnes range from a hint of sweetness to mouth-watering tartness, and are great fun to sample. Usually made from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier or both, with aromas of berries and flowers, these wines are delicious on their own or paired with fresh fruit-based desserts.
A guide to French cheeses
Had I but all the world's cheeses, and time! One could easily try one new French cheese every day for a year, and still not sample them all. The choice can be overwhelming, whether at your local fromagerie (cheese shop) or corner market. Although you can often find a selection of younger artisanal cheeses in your local market, the best cheeses will be sold in a specialty cheese shop or from a cheese stand at your local farmer’s market. If your French is up to the task, develop a relationship with the cheesemonger and they will steer you to the perfectly ripe cheeses. Don’t be surprised if they ask you exactly when you plan to serve the cheese, as they can determine the ripeness down to the hour.
Unlike wine, few cheese labels prominently display their region of origin, so it is up to you to figure it out. I suggest you try a variety of textures, from hard to gooey, and from all milk choices (cow, goat, sheep, or a combination). Be sure to let them come to room temperature before serving, or you’ll lose out on many of their aromas and flavours.
Here are a few French cheeses to get you started.
This hard cow’s milk cheese is made in eastern France. It gets nuttier in flavour and more complex as it ages, so look for one aged 12–18 months to really see what this cheese is about. It goes well with many different wines, especially Pinot Noirs from Beaune.
Soft little rounds made from goat's cheese, these get gooey when ripe, with a savoury sweetness rivalling a great Brie. They come from Aquitaine, where you will also find Bordeaux. Spread on toast points or just lick them off your fingers, and wash them down with a champagne made from Pinot Noir.
This blue cow’s milk cheese is made in a large, distinctive log shape, and has a very mild sweetness which sets it apart from other blue cheeses. This cheese comes from the mountainous region of Auvergne. Enjoy with a slightly sweet Alsatian Riesling.
If you think you can handle an explosion of flavours in your mouth, you may be ready for a washed-rind cheese such as an Époisses. This cow’s milk cheese from Bourgogne can be off-putting with its strong aromas of the liqueur or brine with which it is washed. The inside is rich and creamy, and one can choose to eat the orange-red rind or not (I do). It’s fantastic with its local match – a glass of Bourgogne Pinot Noir.
A wonderful cheese for those who don’t like strong flavours, Chaource is a cow’s milk cheese which is slightly firm yet soft and a bit crumbly inside, with a thin, white rind which can be eaten. Produced in Champagne, it goes very well with the sparkling wines of the region.
Possibly the most famous cheese from the Alsace region, this cow’s milk cheese is commonly washed with Riesling or brine. It is fairly mild when very fresh, but its smell and taste will increase in strength over time, eventually stinking up the whole house if not eaten. Delicious with sliced apple or pear, it’s also great in omelettes. Try it with any Alsatian wine, white or red.
A firm sheep’s milk cheese from the Basque region of south-western France (Aquitaine), the best of these have won international cheese competitions. The texture is smooth and firm, rewarding on the tongue. Experiment with a chilled Chablis, or see if you prefer it with a Beaune red.
Sainte-Maure de Touraine
What’s that grey log on the cheese board? This goat’s milk cheese from the Loire has a thin blue-grey rind (perfectly edible) and a straw through its centre, used to keep it together and to ventilate the centre, so don’t be surprised when you cut into it and find the straw still there. Enjoy on a sandwich with chicken breast and smooth Dijon mustard, paired with a lighter red wine such as a Saumur-Champigny.
This sheep’s milk cheese usually comes from Corse, the French island off the coast of Provence. It is covered with herbs including rosemary, which influences the taste of the rich, slightly sour cheese. Don’t hesitate to eat the rind, which may be a mottled blue-white-grey colour. It is best savoured with a Côtes de Provence rosé, or a lighter red wine from Corse.
Sharona Tsubota / In Great Spirits / Expatica
Sharona Tsubota is a wine educator and export consultant currently living in Champagne. She shares her French wine and food adventures on her blog 'In Great Spirits'. She also helps expats and visitors discover hidden gems in various French wine regions through small, personalised tours and special wine (and cheese) tasting events. Originally from California, she spent 10 years in Tokyo and has lived in France for over two years. She can be reached through her website www.ingreatspirits.com or Facebook page.
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