05 October 2010

Wine 101 with Ô Chateau

Whenever I'm travelling or back home in the States and tell people that I live in Paris, they get excited. Oooh la la! I get tales of childhood family vacations to France, recollections of high school French (bonjour, je m'appelle Sophie, je suis américaine et j'aime les frites) and more than a few questions about whether I spend my time sitting in cafes, eating baguettes and cheese and drinking wine all day long.

Don't I wish!

I invariably respond that no, life in Paris is not nearly as glamorous as it may seem from afar. I live a regular life, cram myself into the Metro every day, work, go to the supermarket (sadly way more often than greenmarkets), cook, clean and all the rest of it. I must admit, however, that living in France has afforded me the chance to discover and drink some incredible wines over the last four years, often for just a couple of euros! No picnic or dinner party is complete with a couple of bottles (or more!), and I've been steadily amassing a list of "good wines" on my iPhone that helps me whenever I need to do some wine shopping.

Despite this, I've had the naggling feeling lately that for someone who lives in France, I should know a lot more about wine than I actually do. During the course of my time here, I've learned only three things: 1) I like wine. Beaucoup! 2) my favorite wines are usually crisp, zippy whites, particularly Sancerres and other Sauvignon Blancs and 3) though it may be sacrilege, I generally prefer New World wines (South African, Australian, Chilean) to good old French wine. But beyond this, my wine knowledge is limited to what I learned before moving to France, watching "Sideways" (a jewel of a film!) and during winery visits in Sonoma, California and the South African towns of Paarl, Franschhoek and Stellenbosch, outside of Cape Town.

So no...I couldn't really tell you very much about the subject of wine. Most of my leisure travel while living here has been to other parts of Europe, so I've actually never visited the wine regions of France, places like Bordeaux, the Loire Valley, Alsace or Burgundy (though we did attempt a weekend trip to the latter, a transport strike foiled those plans). My husband and I plan to rectify this and visit as many of the wine regions as possible sometime soon, but in the meanwhile, we figured that we could start right here in Paris with a proper wine tasting class.

Enter O Chateau...

Run by sommelier Olivier Magny, O Chateau specializes in wine tasting classes and other wine experiences (e.g. champagne cruises, day trips), all conducted fully in English. Though the classes generally seem to be aimed at visiting tourists, Anglophone Parisians have recently been starting to take note of O Chateau, particularly after some great press in The New York Times, Time Magazine and in a number of guidebooks. I'd been hearing about O Chateau for a while, so I signed us up for a class called 'Le Tour de France of Wine'. For 50 euros per person, the class promised a two-hour introduction to the different French wine regions, a generous tasting of six different wines including a Champagne, and information on how to properly taste wine, read a French wine label and understand the French terroir and AOC concepts.

We arrived at the cave used by O Chateau, which is a gorgeous wine cellar located in the basement of a handsome apartment building near the Louvre in the 1er arrondissement. The cellar was apparently built in the 17th century and used by King Louis XV as a storage place for the wines of the French court. We were greeted by our adorable sommelier Emilie, a young French woman who explained that she has loved wine all of her life, pursuing her passion in the States, Australia and several other places. There were about 20 people in our class, all American and Canadian tourists. We were the only "locals". Seated around such that we were all facing each other, the little sheet of paper in front of each chair laid out the selection of wines that we would be tasting that day, by region, name, and type of grape(s), as well as vintage (year) and price. Our tasting consisted of:

1. Champagne (Champagne) - Montmarthe - Chardonnay/Pinot Noir
2. Loire (Sancerre) - Domaine de la Garenne - Sauvignon Blanc
3. Burgundy (Cote Chalonnaise) - Domaine Venot - Chardonnay
4. South West (Fronton) - Château Coutinel - Négrette (!!!)/Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah
5. Bordeaux (Haut Medoc) - Château Lanessan - Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot
6. Rhone (Cotes du Rhone Village) - Domaine du Grand Veneur - Syrah/Grenache/Cinsault

In a completely down-to-earth and accesible way peppered with good doses of humor that would make any wine snob blush, Emilie gave us a wealth of information about each of the regions featured during our tasting. Champagnes, she explained, are typically made with a combination of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes. In Bourgogne (Burgundy), the white wines are usually Chardonnay, the red wines usually Pinot Noir. My favorite Sauvignon Blanc grapes feature heavily in white wines from the Loire Valley, such as Sancerres and Pouilly-Fumés, as well as in some Bordeaux whites. 

As we sipped each wine, Emilie also explained the basics of wine tasting. First of all, there is the look (la robe). In observing your glass of wine, you should study the clarity, brightness, color and viscosity. Viscosity (density) was a particularly new concept for me, as I had no idea that swirling your wine in your glass causes the "legs" or "tears" to separate, revealing the alcohol or sugar concentration of the wine. Secondly, there is the smell (le bouquet). The "first nose" lets you take in a quick impression of the wine's smell, whether it is nice, open, whatever. Then you swirl your glass and stick your nose in deeper (à la "Sideways") for the "second nose", which allows you to take in the deeper aromas of the wine (passion fruit? peach? vanilla?). Lastly, the best part, the taste (la bouche)! After sipping and forming your first impressions ("the attack"), you taste for balance, body and aftertaste.    

The class also covered the basics of how wine is made, including the often overlooked fact that most wines contain a blend of a few different grape varietals. Emilie also explained the French system of appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC), which is basically a certification that is granted to different localities for wines, cheeses, butters and other agricultural products. It is based on the French concept of terroir, which holds that agricultural sites in the same geographical area share similar soil, weather conditions and farming techniques, contributing to the unique qualities of the crop. Champagne, for example, is an AOC and thus can only be called as such if it is grown, harvested and bottled in the Champagne region. The AOC system is a means of quality control, as AOC products must be produced in a consistent and traditional manner with ingredients from the respective region. All of this is strictly controlled by the government's Institut national de l'origine et de qualité (INAO). To date, there are 300-400 wines in France with an AOC distinction!

Armed with all this newfound knowledge (and a handy 'cheat sheet' which was handed out at the end of the class) and a little tipsy from all the wine, we stumbled out of the cave, having thoroughly enjoyed our Ô Chateau experience. I would highly recommend their classes and tastings (some of which include cheeses or lunch or dinner, yum yum!) to any English-speaking visitor or resident of Paris. You will learn about wine, have fun and become a better wine drinker.. Who could ask for anything more? A votre santé, mes amis!


  1. How funny, I also keep a "Wine Notes" list on my iphone! I haven't tried any of these, we have so many great local wines here in California, but I love trying new things. Thanks for the informative post!

  2. We went to O Chateau in December and had a wonderful lunchtime tasting with cheese and charcuterie! It's such a fabulous place. Thanks for the memories!

  3. Tiffany, ha! I don't know what I'd do without my iPhone lists, for everything :-) Lucky you to be in California. There's not much non-French wine selection in France, as you can imagine.

    Eatlivetravelwrite...I see that you wrote a beautiful post on your O Chateau experience as well. Am checking it out right now!

  4. It can be really helpful if you're accompanied by wine geek or wine aficionado if you don't know the great deal about wine yourself.