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“A great French wine is one that shows the alchemy between a winemaker and their terroir, and that offers an insight into the land and grapes,” says winemaker Gérard Bertrand. He should know; the former rugby player has 16 estates in the south of France on which he practices biodynamic growing methods and produces some excellent varietals. While there are many renowned regions throughout the world, France is practically synonymous with fine wine. Bertrand has much to say about the wine from his country, and the enjoyment of wine in general. For him, the technical details are as important as the emotional nuances when enjoying a glass. “You’ll recognize a great French wine from the emotion and experience you have while sipping it,” he says. “I always say that a winemaker knows they’ve succeeded when their bottle is empty at the end of a lunch or dinner with friends.”
Respect for the land on which the vines grow and the traditions learned from those who came before are also important to Bertrand. “It takes patience and a lot of hard work to produce a great wine,” he says. “Vines that have persisted for the past century may have been cared for by a few generations of winemakers. This is why it is so important to respect the land, so the soil is fertile for generations of winemakers to come… I often think about something my father told me as a child: wine is the result of 1,001 details. The process requires savoir-faire, or know-how, but also faire-savoir, or sharing knowledge.”
This philosophy carries over to the biodynamic practices he uses in his vineyards—treating the soil as a “self-contained living organism,” as he puts it. He describes a sense of spirituality that defines the relationship between the land and those cultivating it, and believes it’s important to be aware of the impact you have on the environment. “Conventional winemaking can disrupt the natural ecosystem in the vines through the use of chemically derived fertilizers and petroleum-based pesticides,” he says. “With biodynamics, wine and the environment are connected. There’s less human intervention; we let the earth speak and each bottle show the secrets of the terroir where the grapes were grown.”
Here are some of the best French wines to drink now, including a few special picks from Bertrand as well as others from various regions throughout France.
Clos du Temple 2018
“Clos du Temple rosé is a gastronomic rosé that’s designed to age like a white,” says Bertrand. “Crafted from a blend of five grape varieties (grenache, cinsault, syrah, viognier and mourvèdre) grown on vines as old as 80 years, it is intended to age as gracefully as an elegant red wine. The nose here is complex, with apricot and peach, some rose flowers.”
To buy: $175, wine.com
Château l’Hospitalet Grand Vin La Clape 2018
“The 2018, both for white and red, was an exceptional vintage,” says Bertrand. “The white is a blend of Bourboulenc and grenache blanc, vermentino and viognier. Bourboulenc is indigenous to the area and happy in a dry climate, so it’s a natural fit for this blend. The limestone soil adds a nice minerality and salinity, and there’s notes of roasted hazelnuts. It’s crispy and there’s a long finish.”
To buy: $45, wine.com
Château de Villemajou Grand Vin Rouge 2016
“This is the estate that helped me understand the emotional attachment a winemaker can have with a vineyard,” says Bertrand. “I spent my childhood and adolescence here, helping in the cellars during harvest… Our first vintage was in 1973, and it’s become a symbol of quality in the wine world since. This wine for me is yin and yang; it’s balanced and can easily be consumed now. There’s black fruit and spice, but also a bit of a wild character. It’s full-bodied and structured, with a long finish.”
To buy: $40, gerard-bertrand.com
Lassègue Saint-Émilion Grand Cru 2016
Château Lassègue’s 2016 vintage is a red blend from the Saint-Émilion appellation in France. "It’s a blend of majority merlot with some cabernet franc and a small amount of cabernet sauvignon, with bright floral notes on the nose followed by black and red fruits, a bit of acid and spice, and some dark chocolate on the palate." Drink this one now, or cellar it for a few years before enjoying.
To buy: $60, wine.com
2017 Saint-Estéphe Château Haut-Beauséjour
Château Haut Beausejour was created by Jean-Claude Rouzand, one of the owners of champagne house Louis Roeder, who combined two Cru Bourgeois vineyards in the Saint-Estèphe appellation of France. The 2017 vintage is a blend of merlot and cabernet sauvignon, with notes of strawberry, currant, and vanilla that coat the palate.
To buy: $40, vivino.com
Légende Pauillac 2015
Légende Pauillac is a blend of 70% cabernet sauvignon and 30% merlot from Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) in Bordeaux. The 2015 vintage was partially aged in oak barrels, and is full of chocolate and vanilla notes on the palate that mingle with hints of berry, black pepper, and some smooth tannins on the finish.
To buy: $50, vivino.com
Château Paradis Casseuil, Entre-deux-Mers 2017
This is another wine from Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite), this time from the Entre-deux-Mers vineyard. The 2017 vintage of Château Paradis Casseuil is predominantly merlot. The nose reveals toasted nuts and a bit of spice, followed by stone fruit, subtle tannins, and blackberries on the palate.
To buy: $28, wine.com
2017 Saint Gayan Côtes du Rhône
Domaine St. Gayan is a small estate, but the 2017 vintage of this Côtes du Rhône has flavors that are big and bold. That doesn’t mean the palate is heavy-handed; on the contrary, this rich red wine is lively and bright with notes of apricot, vanilla, oak, and a bit of citrus on the finish.
To buy: yapp.co.uk
Billecart-Salmon Brut Nature Champagne
A French wine list has to include some champagne, so this new release from Billecart-Salmon fits the bill nicely. No sugar is added to the dosage of this blend of 40% meunier, 30% pinot noir and 30% chardonnay. According to the tasting notes, look for a creamy mouthfeel, notes of citrus, white fruit, and lime, and a subtle hint of minerality throughout.
To buy: $60, drizly.com
Château de Pez Saint-Estèphe 2016
Château de Pez was founded in the 1400s, making it one of the oldest domaines in Saint-Estèphe. The 2016 vintage is a blend of mostly merlot and cabernet sauvignon, with a bit of petit verdot and cabernet franc as well. The wine is unfiltered, and has strong notes of ripe currants and berries, with hints of tobacco and a subtle minerality running throughout.
To buy: $55, fpwm.com