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By The Glass


Wednesday, October 17, 2001

Food-friendly French wines
are priced for good value

If you believe French wines are too expensive, you'd be right 2 to 3 percent of the time. Yes, great chateaux from Bordeaux such as Lafite Rothschild and Margaux, and the great domaines from Burgundy such as Romanee Conti and Leflaive are truly expensive wines, and one wonders sometimes whether they are worth the $200-plus prices that they fetch. But these highly revered wines make up only a fraction of the wine produced in these areas of France. If you look pass the sensationalist hype, you'll find that the bulk of France's wine production -- 97 to 98 percent -- is not overpriced.

In light of the high prices of California wines, you'd be missing out on some good deals if you ignore French wines. Admittedly you will get a different style of wine in general. French wines tend to be better-suited to food than most California fruit monsters, due to much saner alcohol levels, better balance and more subtle flavors.

High alcohol levels -- California reds typically are in the 13.5-14.5 percent level while French are 1 to 2 percent less -- affect some drinkers after just one glass, especially smaller people.

High alcohol and bold flavors make for good sipping wines, but tend to dull flavors of food paired with it. Most good French wines won't bash you over the head and announce their presence, but they will seduce you over time and keep you coming back for more.

And most French wines are not expensive. It is no coincidence that the French drink wine with almost every meal.

Expect even more great deals from Bordeaux when the 1999 vintage hits the market, but here are two wines that merit consideration now:

1998 Chateau Vieux Fortin ($28.50): A blend of 60 percent Merlot and 40 percent Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine benefits from strict selection of grapes and juice. It has great depth of blackberry fruit and is very compact, intense with great structure. Yet, this wine remains in balance.

1998 La Fleur de Jauge ($30): A blend of 75 percent Merlot and 25 percent Cabernet Franc from 40- to 70-year-old vines. It's a lighter, younger drinking style which combines new oak, 1-year-old and 2-year-old oak in equal proportions. This results in a wine with lighter oak that is more accessible. It offers very sweet and ripe blackberry and cassis fruit with a little smoky, meaty quality for complexity.

You might say $30 is not a value, but a similar quality red from Napa would cost at least $30, probably more. Both wines will do well with lamb, beef or veal.

If you are looking for a good Pinot Noir, try this one from one of the great producers of Burgundy:

1997 Leroy Bourgogne Rouge($25.99): This is one of the most basic appellations in Burgundy, but if it comes from Leroy, you know it is a superior product. Once again, cherry and berry fruit are present, but not over the top. This wine offers a sensuous mouthfeel and multiple layers of complexity. Soft, round tannins complete this wine. Braised meats, cheeses and mushrooms would complement it well.

Jay Kam is presidemt of Vintage Wine Cellar. This column is a weekly lesson in wine pairing written by a rotating panel of wine professionals.

This column is a weekly lesson in wine
pairing written by a rotating panel of wine professionals.
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