French Wines Are Fighting Back

Swirl a richly colored top-notch glass of Hermitage in your glass, give it a sniff, and then close your eyes. You might just be transported to the sloped wine terraces built directly into the rocky Rhône Valley. Then have a sip, and let your tongue search for the rich minerals that imbue this Syrah cepage. If there is one thing that has long driven men and women to wine madness—and what else can you call it when they pay thousands of dollars for a bottle that they will store in their cellar for years?—it is largely about being transported to another time and place, and a specific place at that.

Global wine tastes may be shifting toward big, bold and fruity, but the high end of the wine market is still dominated by the regions of France, where nuance and complexity are inextricably bound up in a region's traditional grapes, the unique qualities of the soil and the local weather—what the French call terroir. The 2005 harvest, mostly sold in 2006, was the first in five years in which France's share of the international wine market grew, mostly at the high end. Now French vintners are trying to leverage this success into the bigger market for cheaper wines. David Skalli, partner of the wine and spirits consulting firm Skalli & Rein, gave NEWSWEEK's Eric Pape the lay of the land. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Why does France still reign when it comes to the very best wines?
David Skalli:
To make a fantastic wine, you need a wonderful terroir. This is acknowledged everywhere, even in the New World. Of the top 100 wines in the world, 99 are related to a terroir. [The other one is Australia's Penfolds Grange, which is on such a large swath of land that they can make delicious wines from different swaths.] We have listed all of the world's key terroirs and-while this is the kind of thing that starts arguments-France has about 50 of them.

For people not familiar with the concept of terroir, how would you describe it?
The finest terroirs are like classical music. Pauillac would be Mozart, light and brilliant. The sunny Rhône Valley with its Syrah grapes is like Wagner. The wine, like his music, isn't super complex, but it is easy to listen to.

How does France use the success of its high-end wines to win back international market share?
We cannot produce wine cheaply enough to compete on the low-end with New-World wines, but the market shows that 50 French wines are on the top 100 list. That won't change overnight. So French wine is becoming like its fashion industry: Christian Dior makes fine evening robes and jeans, and they use one to promote the other for different types of clients.

What exactly makes a wine the very best, to a sophisticated drinker?
It isn't about simple, basic fruity flavors, about a Cabernet Sauvignon offering up red fruit, raspberries and plums, or a Chardonnay giving hints of citrus or golden apple; those sorts of fruits that you get from basic wine varietals. Great wines go far beyond that. It is when the vine can reach deep into land to capture the tastes of minerals. That makes for complexity. In a Lafite, you might find between 12 and 17 fantastic flavors, from truffles to, I don't know, nutty forest aromas. This is all hard to generalize about because great winemakers will tell you that their wine is unique, and that is the point. They'll say, my fine Hermitage with Syrah grapes has a fantastic green pepper blend that will fit wonderfully with a specific spicy mushroom dish. All this is directly related to terroir. It is the basis for great wines.

What are some of France's best wines and terroirs?
In Bordeaux there are the right-bank Pomerols, for one, and on the left bank, there are the wines of Pauillac, Château Lafite-Rothschild, Château Latour. There is also Château Margaux, St-Julien, Saint-Estèphe, and others. You can debate all of this forever, but everyone pretty much agrees on Latour, Lafite and Margaux. The fact is: you can hardly produce better red wine than Château Margaux because there is no better place to grow Cabernet Sauvignon. It is the same for Pinot Noir at Domaine de la Romaine-Conti in Burgundy. They have nearly perfect fruit, climate and terroir. They sell straight out of the winery at more than $2,000 per bottle. In Burgundy, one of the best red and white terroirs is small, Corton-Charlemagne.

And what are the best regions?
Obviously this is subjective, but France has three truly fantastic regions: the Rhône Valley's Hermitage, and parts of Burgundy and Bordeaux. The Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle is the most famous Rhône Valley wine and the most expensive bottle of Rhône wine at auctions worldwide.