French Favorites: Sample wines from the Loire Valley, Alsace and Chablis

Are we supposed to still hate all things French? Not I that ever did as I surreptitiously scarfed down croissants, duck confit and, of course, French wines. My gluttonous side easily bested any white-bread American-ness in me while Chirac pissed off most who salute the red, white and blue. I just can’t help myself. I love French wines, especially the whites from Loire Valley, Alsace and Chablis.

Reasonably priced for the quality, Loire [l' WAHR] Valley offers delicious, everyday whites and rosés. Lying southwest of Paris, the serene countryside is chock full of awe-inspiring castles, and rows of sauvignon blanc and chenin blanc vineyards. The sauvignon blanc-based wines from Pouilly Fumé [p'WEE FOO may] in the central Loire taste light, dry and somewhat earthy. Robert Mondavi liked the wines so much that he borrowed the “Fumé” name to coin his California sauvignon blancs “FuméBlanc.”

But if you remember anything from this column, remember that Sancerre [sahn SEHR] rocks. This region’s sauvignon blancs produce crisp, flinty, green-grassy gems, a sublime — albeit often expensive — summer quencher. One good Sancerre experience and you’ll jones for it. Sancerre producers to look for are Pascal Jolivet and Henri Bourgeois.

Vouvray, another large region in Loire Valley, grows chenin blanc, which is easily the most famous wine from there. These wines normally feature slight sweetness and a variety of flavors ranging from green apple to honeyed melon, great for people who shun acidic, bone-dry juice.

Of all the French wine regions, Alsace is the easiest to understand. Unlike other regions, it labels its bottles by varietal name, making the selection — and pronunciation — less problematic. Alsace’s aromatic grapes, Riesling and gewürztraminer [geh-VERTS-trah-mee-ner], originally hail from Germany because Alsace formed part of its pre-World War I land holdings. Because of this history, people frequently confuse Germany’s often-syrupy Rieslings with France’s dry offerings — a damn shame, I might add. The French version is delicious, perfumey and soft. Its gewürztraminers are fresh, spicy and faintly sweet. To aid in your selection, find reliable shippers — companies who buy grapes from local growers, produce the wine, then market under their own name (Alsacian growers rarely market and export their own wine). Good ones: Trimbach, Dopff Au Moulin and Hugel & Fils.

All white Burgundies stem from the same grape: chardonnay. The Chablis district in northern Burgundy is perhaps the best known, since California wineries like Carlo Rossi used to slap “Chablis” all over their nasty jug wines in the ’70s and ’80s. Needless to say, wines coming from the “true” Chablis region in France are a bit different. Unlike California chardonnays, Chablis isn’t fruity, oaky or in your face. The wines are more subtle, less sweet, taste more like minerals and slate, and are crisper. But they are always dry, somewhat full-bodied and unfortunately pretty expensive. Buy them anyway — you won’t regret it. Reliable shippers: Louis Latour, Joseph Drouhin and J. Moreau & Fils.

This summer, expand your wine offerings, since France gives us a different style of wines than we’re used to drinking.

Reviewed Wines

Faiveley 2004 Chablis Citrusy tangerine, wet slate and a dash of dirt define this refreshing French chardonnay. Balanced acids and a crisp aftertaste make this perfect for just drinking. Sw = 1. $24. 3.5 stars

Thomas et Fils 2004 Sancerre La Crete Although it struggles to provide some light citrus fun, this wine dies on the tongue before it can even get started. Flat and lifeless. Sw = 1. $25. 2 stars

Sweetness (Sw) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. Star rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.

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