Nathan Derri is the sommelier at the newly opened 1855 Bar à Vins in the Back Bay, so he has a very strong handle on French wines. If you don’t, don’t sweat it, he said.
“I can see how French wine can be intimidating, but it’s not,” Derri said. “You just need to pop that cork, sit down, have a glass of wine, taste the wine, and either you like it or you don’t.”
That said, if you feel like you need a little help ordering a bottle of French wine, Derri offered the following tips.
Get to know French wine labels
1855 Bar à Vins has more than 350 bottles of French wine on the menu — that’s a lot of vins! But once you understand French wine labels, it becomes easier to find the type of wine you enjoy, Derri said.
Bottles of French wine are labeled by regions that range from Alsace to Burgundy to Champagne.
“When you order French wine, you don’t order a grape; you order an appellation or area of production,” Derri said. “The area of production usually [indicates] the grape varietal. … If you order a red Burgundy, you know it’s pinot noir. If you order a white Burgundy, you know it’s chardonnay.”
You can always turn to a restaurant sommelier or wine shop expert if you have any questions about which grape varietals are grown in which area, he said.
Play it safe with certain regions
If you’re still overwhelmed, Derri recommended asking for a wine from Bordeaux, Burgundy, or the Loire Valley.
“Those are good starter wines because they are really famous for what they are making,” he said.
Red Bordeaux is mostly a blend of merlot and cabernet sauvignon known for its notes of tobacco and leather, Derri said.
“If you drink cabernet from the US, the first thing that’s going to come to your nose and your palette would be the fruit character, so it’s going to be really big in fruits,” Derri said. “Bordeaux wine would be a little different. It is not fruit-driven.”
If you order a red Burgundy, which is pinot noir, expect it to be less fruity than its American equivalent. Derri explained that the red Burgundy has more acidity than a New World pinot noir and has notes of mushrooms, truffles, and forest.
He suggested ordering a white Burgundy if you like drinking chardonnay, keeping in mind that the chardonnay changes dramatically from the northern to the southern part of Burgundy. For example, Chablis, the northernmost wine district of the Burgundy region, produces mineral-driven wines with an “oyster shell component,” whereas Macon, in the south of Burgundy, produces a “bigger, creamier, butterier, oakier” wine more similar to an American chardonnay, Derri said.
If you enjoy sauvignon blanc, Sancerre — a wine region in France’s Loire Valley — is a good choice, Derri said. Both the French and New World sauvignon blanc wines are citrus-driven, Derri said. However, a Sancerre white will have more minerals and apple and pear notes, rather than tropical fruit notes such as kiwi, mango, and passion fruit, he said.
“People usually love Sancerre,” Derri said. “If you order a Sancerre white, you know already that Sancerre white is going to be 100-percent sauvignon blanc.”
Ask about vintage
“Vintage is extremely important,” Derri said. “The vintage makes the wine what it is.”
The vintage is the year of the grape harvest, he explained, and some years are better than others.
“Let’s say spring was not sunny at all and super rainy,” he said. “[Then] the wine would be kind of diluted. The water in the grape would be higher than normal, and the sugar would be lower than normal.”
A restaurant’s sommelier or a wine shop expert can recommend a good vintage, Derri said. For example, he said that when it comes to Bordeaux, great vintages are 2005, 2009, 2010, and 2011.