Imagine a world where common television commercials featured wine, Chianti came proudly in straw baskets, and Liebfraumilch (mother’s milk)—a sweet, simple, inexpensive German wine—was in vogue. Prior to the infamous 1976 Paris tasting, in which a panel of reputable tasters awarded first place to a California red and white wine, most of Americans were not convinced there was much quality in domestic wine. Most were drinking sweet mouth-puckering concoctions that came by the gallon and whether these fermented juices paired well with dinner was of little consequence. But then, there was your dad.
He’d been to France. He’d taken a wine class in college and had friends whose parents referred to their wines merely by vintage—the “55s,” “59s,” and “61s.” This man, the patriarch and protector of a carefully curated family wine stash, would bring to the dinner table bottles of red wine sporting labels riddled with foreign words.
Master of Wine Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan has said of French wines, “You drink them because they are the gold standard and the benchmark on which all other quality wines are based.”
Master of Wine Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan, co-author of Pairing With The Masters, has said of French wines, “You drink them because they are the gold standard and the benchmark on which all other quality wines are based.” But prior to the existence of recommendation publications like Wine Spectator or the Wine Advocate, the only real reference of quality French wines came from the Classification System of 1855. Father knew this. He tried to explain to friends on the golf course that the 1855 system ranked châteaux on a scale from first to fifth growths (or crus). He went on to detail how this order originally corresponded to price, but eventually came to indicate quality, making it easy for Father to select the best wines.
For today’s wine enthusiasts, the difficulty of drinking French wines is two-fold: The top-tier stuff (those first-growth titans) is far too expensive, and navigating the myriad—and often contradictory—recommendations from magazine, apps, and bloggers can be exhausting. What to do? Simplify. Harken back to the wine days of yore by printing out a copy of the 1885 Classification and focusing on the third-, fourth- and fifth-growth wines, which begin at $20 and then begin to climb. From there, venture into the wild unknown French section in your local retail shop. Like Father, you won’t need to ask for help—you know what you’re doing. But just in case you get roped into small talk with an eager staffer, study this list of Father’s favorites.
Next page: Five classic French wines to know…
1. Château Haut-Brion
This winery is considered a “Premier Cru Classé” (translated generally in English as “first growth”) whose vineyards are planted in Graves, an area home to some of the oldest vineyards in Bordeaux. This is a coveted classified wine primarily of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, and Father loved it because the label boasts a clean, white-and-gold representation of the winery (so he could visualize where the wine was made), and gold color on a label meant top-notch. Father also heard rumors that Haut-Brion planted vines an entire century before other classified first growths. It tasted best after sitting in a cool dark place for 15–20 years. You had no idea your father could be that patient, but the pay-off was sublime: cedar, smoke, cherry, chocolate, and dreams of installing an in-ground pool in the backyard. Yes, all that in a bottle of this fine wine.
2. 1966 Château Léoville-Barton (and other vintages)
This winery is a Deuxiémes Crus (second growth) with vineyards in the Saint-Julien Appellation, which is situated on the left bank of the Garrone River in Bordeaux. Father knew that French red was what the game was all about. And even though California was making strides after 1976, why would he fork over his hard-earned money for a domestic wine when a 1966 second-growth Bordeaux was retailing for $5–$10 a bottle? Father went ahead and bought five cases of this wine. He drank some out the gate for reference, drank one case in 1976, another in 1986, then opened a bottle in 1996 and declared it “over the hill,” selling the rest at auction. His initial investment some 30 years earlier paid for that family trip to the south of France.
3. Château Cheval Blanc
The winery’s 1947 vintage produced one of the most celebrated wines of the 20th century. Its vineyards are rooted in the Saint-Émilion appellation on the right bank of the Gironde River. Two factors led to Father’s decision to drink this wine: 1) The primary varietal in this wine is Cabernet Franc, which is odd because Saint-Émilion is known for producing coveted Merlots, and anything that goes against the grain is diamonds in Father’s book. 2) Father loves a good horse race and knew he could impress friends by bringing a wine to the track that translates as “White Horse.” It always gave him the upper hand, and made Mother proud.
4. Pol Roger Winston Churchill Champagne
The grapes that make this Cuveé—50% Pinot Noir, 50% Chardonnay—are some of the finest that grow in the town of Épernay in Champagne, a region in the northeast of France. Father took pride in educating guests about the difference between sparkling wine and champagne. “Very simply,” he’d say, “If it’s not from Champagne, it is not Champagne.” Father also devised to initiate political conversations by quoting Churchill himself, who said of Champagne, “In victory, deserve it; in defeat, need it.”
5. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti
Referred to simply as D.R.C., this wine is the “Screaming Eagle” of Father’s generation. A sought-after cult wine, the devil is in the details when it comes to the history of D.R.C. But Father wasn’t good with details, and certain doctor and lawyer friends wouldn’t take him seriously if he wasn’t buying D.R.C. So, year after year, when that end-of-the-year bonus came, this was the family scoreboard: D.R.C.: 1. In-ground pool: 0. There’s something magical about owning a bottle of wine that is desired by an entire world of connoisseurs—and besides, Father was right, you can’t drink pool water.
Jonathan Cristaldi (a.k.a., Jonny Cigar) is a wine evangelist, marketing guru, and social media consultant. In 2009, Cristaldi launched The Noble Rot, a traveling wine saloon. His events have been featured in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and Time Out New York has named him a “Wine Prophet.” Follow him on Twitter: @NobleRotNYC.