Rod on wine: Revolutionizing France’s wine

Jaffelin; Willm; Louis Bernard; Chateau Timberlay.

July 14, which falls on Saturday, is probably better known as Bastille Day (France’s national day) than for being my birthday. The date, of course, commemorates the 1789 seizure of the Bastille, a royal prison in Paris, by an armed force from the city. It’s conventionally (though mistakenly, I think) thought to be the beginning of the French Revolution.

The revolution itself was important for wine in France. Viticulture expanded steadily during the revolution, and the revolutionaries encouraged innovation and quality in viticulture and wine-making, thus contributing to the emergence of French wines as iconic in the 1800s.

The seizure and sale of church lands during the revolution meant that many great vineyards (especially in Burgundy) passed from the control of monasteries, which probably hadn’t made such great wine as many people suppose. Perhaps more important, the revolutionary government sharply reduced taxes on wine, and prepared the way for France to become the great wine-consuming nation it was, until the 1960s.

These days, the status of French wine is controversial. There’s still a residual, implied belief that France produces the best wine in the world. The obsession of wine critics (especially from the U.K.) with Bordeaux and Burgundy is unequalled. And even though wine producers outside France constantly proclaim the virtues of their own “terroir,” they often liken it to one in France. How many times have I been told this Canadian region lies on the same latitude as Bordeaux (as do Mongolia and Minnesota) and that Canadian region has limestone under the soil, just like Burgundy (as if that means much)?

When I was growing up in New Zealand, adoration and emulation of Britain and its institutions was often referred to as a “cultural cringe,” indicative of an immature national culture. Persistent attempts in Canada and elsewhere to emulate French wine suggest a similar immaturity and lack of confidence that the local product can stand on its own two feet.

That’s not a criticism of French wine, of course. But like every other wine-producing country or region, France produces wines in a full spectrum of quality. They range from the superb to the drab ­— the latter often discovered in supermarkets by tourists for a couple of Euros a bottle, then praised as “great wine for $5.” (Most wine is great when you’re having fun.)

There’s also a broad spectrum of styles and grape varieties (despite the restrictive terms of French wine law), such that I could happily drink nothing but French wine, if I had to. The four I chose for today are just a sample, and represent four of France’s main wine regions: Alsace, Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhône Valley. There are plenty more to choose from, so why not open one on July 14?

Willm Réserve Gewürztraminer 2010

This lovely gewürztraminer from Alsace delivers pungent and quite rich fruit that’s complemented by good acidity. It’s off-dry, but crisp and fresh, and goes very well with spicy dishes, such as curries and Thai cuisine. 13-per-cent alcohol; $15.95 (269852)

Jaffelin Bourgogne Aligoté 2010

This is a very solid and versatile white from Burgundy. Look for consistent and quite concentrated flavours right through the palate, with bright acidity for balance. It’s excellent with poultry and white fish. 12-per-cent alcohol; $15.95 (53868)

Louis Bernard Côtes du Rhône Villages 2010

A blend of grenache and syrah, this goes well with a wide range of food, from poultry to pork to red meats. It’s a well-balanced, medium-bodied red that combines nicely layered flavours, fresh acidity and easy-going tannins. 13.5-per-cent alcohol; $13.95 (391458)

Château Timberlay Bordeaux Supérieur 2009

This attractive blend of merlot and cabernet sauvignon shows solid and quite complex fruit from start to finish. It’s well balanced, with a slightly tangy texture, and goes well with grilled or roasted poultry and red meats. 13.5-per-cent alcohol; $15.95, but $14.95 to July 22 (30072)

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