Somm Secrets to Drinking French Wine

Posted by | Posted in Wine Events | Posted on 06-05-2014

Domaine La Bastide Corbières Blanc. (Credit: Aleksandra Sasha Arutyunova.)

Three sommeliers from Michelin-Star restaurants may not seem like the most likely trio to offer practical advice about drinking affordable French wine in New York City.

However, Bernie Sun, the beverage director at Jean-Georges Management; John Ragan, the wine director at Union Square Hospitality Group; and Pascaline Lepeltier, the beverage director at Rouge Tomate, recently joined Ray Isle of Food & Wine to do just that during a lively discussion at New York’s French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF).

The conversation was honest. Heard in the room, “Natural wines are overplayed. It’s an acquired taste and for me, I just never acquired that taste.” And quite informal. “When I plan a pairing, I put everything in my mouth – food and wine – and I just mush it around… I realize that’s not normal…”

Throughout the fun back-and-forth, we arrived at several useful tips to keep in mind when seeking out French wines:

Drink Corbières. And other “optional wines.”

If you look at the wine list and find a listing that’s a little unexpected — something that’s not from Bordeaux or Burgundy — take a closer look. “It should make you think: the somm doesn’t have to have this wine on the list,” says John Ragan, “The somm wants to have it on the list for a reason.”

These “optional wines” are good cues that you may get a good value or something interesting. For example, we tasted a Domaine La Bastide Corbières Blanc 2011 (SRP: $15.50). It’s a wine from a lesser-known region in the Languedoc-Roussillon and grown in an area that’s dominated by red wines (almost 95%). It was fresh and balanced with notes of sweet apple and lime blossom and really nice acidity.

For more on embracing the unknown at restaurants, check out David’s recent post on the topic.

Don’t be afraid of the cheapest wines.

These somms are tasting a lot of wine to select what will appear on their list; Bernie had tasted 75 wines earlier in the day. If a sommelier is tasting through, say 500 wines per month, many of which are in the $15 range, even the cheapest wine has been through a competitive, selective process to make the cut.

“People never take the cheap wine!” says Pascaline, “But the lowest-priced wines on my list are some of my best values.”

John agrees, “At lower price points, usually it’s not a money play, it’s a passion play. Something we really love.”

So try the “cheap” wine. It’s not a huge risk and you may find a new lifelong friend.

Hit the satellite regions.

Seek out regions that are not the expected regions and look for grapes that are not the expected grapes. For example, we tasted the Domaine Henri Milan “Clos Milan” 2006 (SRP: $45), a Grenache blend from Provence – outside of the expected region of the Rhone/Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

“The Grenache of Châteauneuf-du-Pape is getting darker and darker and oakier and oakier,” says John. “You almost have to go outside of the Rhone to get the true character of Grenache.” The Clos Milan was gamey, spicy, and dusty with dark red fruits.

Pascaline reiterated, “Look for the satellite regions. For example, around Bordeaux, they are making some really nice wines — explore around the heart and see what producers are doing.”


Bernard Sun, Pascaline Lepeltier, John Ragan, & Ray Isle © Aleksandra Sasha Arutyunova 2014

Bernard Sun, Pascaline Lepeltier, John Ragan, & Ray Isle. (Credit: Aleksandra Sasha Arutyunova.)

Loire and Alsace. Loire and Alsace.

When asked what region they are particularly excited about for great French wine, the Loire Valley and Alsace were the panel favorites.

“The Loire is the big secret. They are making wines of tremendous diversity, beautiful wines and at great prices. I love Chenin. And Red Sancerre is another big secret.” We tasted one Chenin, Richard Leroy “Les Noels de Montbeenault” 2011 from Anjou (SRP: $43). The texture of the wine was incredible – rich, but still dry, lots of brightness and depth, a little nutty, and striking acidity. Delicious.

Alsace was Bernie’s top recommendation. “The white wines from Alsace, and beyond just Riesling, are exciting to me. They are good values, include a wide variety, and are really great to pair with food.”

Seek out Burgundy in the middle tier.

If you’re looking for a value in Burgundy, look to the middle at the 1er Cru level. We tasted a 2005 Maison Louis Jadot Beaune 1er Crue “Bressandes” at the tasting. At only $45, it was a good value for the region and had all the hallmark characteristics you’d find in a more expensive Burgundy.

Ray Isle added, “Look for the domaine brands in the Louis Jadot portfolio. All really solid.”

Comments (2)

  1. and then they mark them up the most percentage they are still un affordable and the lower end clients just order a by the glass wine.. time for a paradigm change in the wine programs of America

  2. Jason, I wasn’t aware that the restaurant business was non for profit. BTG markups are generally the largest markups. Spirits and beer are much more egregious. Markups? How about chicken, salmon and soup?

    Some restaurants have very costly wine programs (multiple sommeliers, large inventories, etc) and these restaurants usually have the largest markups on wine. That said they also have trained professionals whom have curated the wine lists and can point out values with a some help from inquisitive guests.

    It’s always nice to drink wines marked up 100% or even less but that is certainly not the norm. It is also nice to be exposed to countless new wines via a well out together wine program.