The Power of French Wine and Cheese

Oooh-la-la! If you’re headed to the French Caribbean, read this primer first

The French Caribbean islands of St. Martin, Guadeloupe, and Martinique all have beautiful beaches, crystal clear waters, great anchorages, vibrant flowers, lush fields, picturesque scenery -- and oodles of different wines. While the cruising here is stunning, tasting and purchasing some great French wine and cheese is definitely an added bonus.

The Wine Guide

The excellent quality, inexpensive prices, and unlimited choice of French wines make a cruiser reconsider what is more important to store on the boat--spare parts, or spare cases of wine.

I’m a wine lover, and I was excited at the prospect of savoring a glass or two of exceptional French wine each night without breaking our cruising budget. My first trip to a local grocery store, however, left me baffled and bewildered. There were two long aisles chock full of French wines; I’d had no idea there were so many. I don’t speak French, so I had no idea what I was reading on the labels. I left the grocery store empty-handed and disappointed, and vowed I’d bring Paul, my French-speaking boyfriend and cruising partner, the next time I went wine shopping. But alas, when we returned to the store the next day, Paul couldn’t help much. Although he could read the labels, we found out there weren’t just simply cabernets or chardonnays, but different types of red and white, different varieties of wines, and too many choices, which just puzzled me more. This bump in the road wasn’t going to stop me from having a glass of French wine that night, so I picked out one white and one red. I decided each time I went to the grocery store I’d buy a different bottle decide which types I preferred. I’d would write them down and stock up on them before we left each island.

Since those days of dazed and confused wine shopping, I’ve had the opportunity to learn a little bit more about French wines. This is a guide intended to help wine lovers who want to make room in their already overstuffed bilges for a couple of cases of good French wine.

Wine Regions of France

France is the second largest wine producer in the world, second only to Italy, and is well respected as a leader of fine quality wines. The country has 11 wine-growing regions. Whether lone or in masterful blends, wine grapes unearth their proper expression in these distinct soils. The region of France the wine originates from almost always is written on the label. Here’s a rundown:

Alsace - This particular region produces dry, white, and fruity wines. These wines are ideal to sip with a wide variety of foods.

Beaujolais - Beaujolais is best served slightly chilled and are known as the "red that drinks like a white."

Bordeaux - Well-known in the wine industry, this region has earned a reputation as the epitome of the winemaker’s art. It typically produces Merlots, Cabernets, and Sauvignon Blancs.

Bourgogne - For centuries Bourgogne, or Burgundy, has produced marvelous whites from the Chardonnay grape and exceptional reds from the Pinot Noir grape.

Champagne - lf it’s not from France, it’s not Champagne. Individual winemakers of this region create and maintain Champagne of notable consistency from year to year with their blends of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier grapes.

Corsica - Although not an actual region, this island produces a number of different varieties and blends.

Languedoc-Roussillon - This region represents the world’s most extensive wine growing area. It produces a number of different wines.

Loire Valley - The Loire Valley extends the entire length of France’s longest river, for which it is named. Most of the wines produced here are fruity, crisp whites with fine levels of acidity.

Provence - Provence is home to strong and aromatic red, white, and rose wines.

Rhone Valley - The Rhone is known for spicy reds grown in vineyards dating back to pre-Roman times.

The Southwest - Located next to Bordeaux, this region is an enormous wine-producing region.

Wine Categories

The wines in France are divided into table wines (Vins de Table), country wines (Vins de Pays) and Appellation Controlled wines (AOC). I noticed various wines in the French Islands that had the wine category written on the labels. In the United States almost all French wines are Appellation Controlled wines.

Table Wine (Vin de Table) - This is the everyday drinking wine of the French. It is actually a blend of grapes from various wine-producing regions.

Country Wine (Vin de Pays) - Country wine is more sophisticated than table wine. Country wines are produced from the grapes of one region only, and are governed by certain regulations that control production and accreditation.

Appellation Controlled Wines (AOC) - Considered to be the highest quality wine, AOC wine is required to be governed by strict regulations and is controlled in every aspect of winemaking. Most AOC wines are named for the place where they are grown, which may be a region like Bordeaux or Provence, a district within a region, or even a single chateau. The more restrictive the winemaking, the more prestigious the wine.

Grapes and their Characteristics

France has an extensive selection of grape varieties produced in the many regions by a multitude of winemakers. Some wines blend the grapes together to form combinations that whet the wine drinker’s appetite, and other wines are produced with only one grape variety. Whether a special blend or the pure, one-grape wine, French winemakers have something for everybody.

Red Grapes

Cabernet Franc - Cabernet Franc is merged with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and conveys aromas of fruit and fruitwood.

Cabernet Sauvignon - This grape makes wines of intense color with deep black currant and blackberry aromas.

Carignan - Producing powerful wines which are blended with other varieties (Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah, and Mourvedre), this grape is planted throughout France’s Mediterranean south.

Cinsault - Cinsault grapes are handled in many appellation wines from regions like Cotes du Rhone and Provence. This grape is periodically blended with Carignan, Mourvedre, Syrah, and Grenache to produce slightly fragrant, supple red wines.

Gamay - This variety of grape makes fresh, soft, fruity reds.

Grenache - Grenache is the second-most widely planted grape variety in the world. It creates wines with supple, intense flavors, and ages very well. Rose wines are sometimes made with this grape variety.

Merlot- Wines prepared with merlot grapes can be drunk young, or can age for many years. Fruit and spice are some of the grape’s characteristics. It’s also blended well with Cabernet Sauvignon.

Pinot Noir - Pinot Noir often gives aromas of summer fruit. With age it becomes earthier and often spicier.

Syrah - This red grape yields powerful, deeply colored, rich wines. It is sometimes known as Shiraz. Aromas like leather, black fruits and smoke are indicative characteristics of this grape.

White Grapes

Chardonnay - The Chardonnay grape can be described as full-bodied, and can be kept for many years. Aged in oak, Chardonnay wines give aromas of vanilla, cloves or nuts.

Ugni Blanc - Used to make brandy, Ugni Blanc comes from the Cognac region.

Viognier - This grape makes dry, rich, and highly perfumed wines. This grape has become quite popular in the United States.

Chenin Blanc- This grape produces both dry and sweet wines, and ages well.

Muscadelle - Muscadelle is almost always used in blends with Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.

Pinot Blanc - A well-rounded, versatile wine from the Alsace region, these wines are typically soft and delicate.

Pinot Gris - Also from the Alsace region, Pinot Gris grapes make low-acid, rich wines. A Pinot Gris wine is typically aromatic, powerful, and sometimes sweet.

Sauvignon Blanc - The name Sauvignon comes from the French word for "wild." Some characteristics for this grape are crisp and aromatic.

Semillon Blanc - This grape is often blended with Sauvignon Blanc to produce dry white wines. In the region of Bordeaux, Semillon Blanc is used to produce great sweet wines.

It’s impossible to cover every type of wine created and produced in France. However, I hope this short guide to French wines will help the confused cruiser who lands in a sea of French wines and has no idea which wine to pick. Instead of the trial and error method used by yours truly, use this guide so you don’t get stuck with a case of French wine that your palate can’t stand. There’s no excuse for whining over which French wine to select anymore!

Helpful Websites for Wine Drinkers

www.french-wine-web.com
www.winevin.com
www.wineloverspage.com
www.winefederation.com
www.wines.com
www.winesandvines.com
www.intowine.com
www.bordeaux.com

The Cheese

Cheese could stand alone in its own food group. One cannot deny, as the TV commercial puts it, the power of cheese. I love cheese so much I could eat it at every meal and not grow tired of it. And when you’re cruising the islands of the French Caribbean, there’s nothing better to accompany the wonderful wine than delicious French cheese.

In France there are over 500 cheeses. A Frenchman once said, "Cheese is milk’s leap toward immortality." It’s more than a food; for the French, it’s a passion. Unlike most North Americans, they enjoy cheese as a separate course, after the main course and before dessert. Its place in the meal indicates its importance in the diet and culture.

Thousands of years ago, man discovered that milk could solidify, hence developing cheese. The self-sustaining monks of long ago created Munster cheese -- the word Munster comes from "monasterium" or "monastery." Kings became passionate about cheese, and promoted its development. The French word for cheese, fromage, has been used for centuries, replacing the Latin word formage, which means "made in mold." Now, cheese is a massive commodity for countries around the world.

While cruising the French islands, I took pleasure in the tastes and textures of French cheeses. I enjoyed and savored them all. Not surprisingly, I became a lover of French cheese in addition to French wine. You could call me a cheese monger, which in France is a professional cheese taster. Not a bad job.

The Seven Families of French Cheese

All 22 regions of France produce cheese. It’s a wonder there are only seven families of French cheese. They are:

Chevre - Chevre is made from goat’s milk. These cheeses taste smooth and tangy. Couturier, Chevretine, and Soignon are some examples.

Soft-Ripened - Best known for Camembert and Brie, this family of cheeses has a distinct, snow-white rind. Lafayette, Joan of Arc, and Claudel are some additional cheeses of this type.

Semi-Hard - These cheeses are mild and sometimes have a nutty flavor. They have a firm, supple, texture under their crusts.

Hard - Made in the mountainous regions of France, Hard cheeses are typically large, with golden exteriors and pale yellow interiors. Some examples are President, Emmental, and Madrigal.

Fresh Cheese - Neither cooked nor cured, Fresh cheeses come seasoned, spiced, or laced with fruit.

Blue-Veined - Also produced in France’s mountainous regions, Blue-Veined cheeses are often aged in caves. The most popular of these cheeses is Roquefort.

Processed Cheese - Processed cheeses are a blend of various cheeses. They are normally mild, and come in numerous flavors and textures.

The Rules of French Cheese

The one and only rule to follow is: There are no rules. However, these suggestions might help you store, preserve, and serve your French cheeses.

Serving Temperature - Remove cheese from the fridge about an hour before serving. The French believe cheese should be served at room temperature because it allows the full flavors
of the cheese to be expressed. The longer you leave your cheese out, the stronger the taste. This "ripening" could overpower the flavor of the wine chosen, so be careful!

Variety - When serving a cheese tray, I like to vary the types of cheeses. Three makes a nice variety. Although one cheesemonger I spoke with disagreed with this -- saying it’s hard to match many cheeses with one wine -- I always serve what I have onboard. My guests have never complained.

Storing - Try to store cheese in its original container or wrapping. The packaging you bought it in is designed to best preserve the cheese. Also, try to store each cheese separately. When stored together, cheeses can take on the flavor of whichever cheese is strongest.

Rind - The rind on the cheese is perfectly safe to eat. Some popular cheeses with rind include Brie and Camembert.

Pairing the Wine and Cheese

Again, the bottom line is there really is no rule when deciding which cheese to serve with which wine. However, French cheese and wine seem to blend best together when they come from the same region. The acids in the wine enhance the cheese flavor while the fat in the cheese helps cut the tannins and acidity in the wine. Cheese and wine also have similar attributes: They age, ferment, and come in a variety of textures, flavors, and aromas. Here are some recommendations.

Cooked Cheeses - For cooked cheese, choose white wines or full-bodied red wines.

Blue Cheeses - To complement this strong cheese, a light red wine would be appropriate. Some cheese experts say this is one of the hardest cheeses to match with a wine.

Cream Cheeses - Choose white, rose, or a soft fruity red.

Goat’s Milk Cheeses - Choose a light, dry, fruity wine.

The variety of cheese in the French Caribbean islands is enormous. Try them all if you have the time. The following recipe is simple and a delicious complement to any red meat or poultry. The ingredients are readily available in the French islands. Bon apetit !

Rich Roquefort Sauce

2 tablespoons butter
4 steaks
1 shallot or onion
4 ounces white wine
20 ounces sour cream
3 to 4 ounces Roquefort cheese
Salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat the oven to 250 F. Melt butter over medium heat in a 10 to 12-inch skillet. When butter begins to foam, add steaks and cook to desired doneness. Remove steaks from skillet, cover with foil, and place in the oven to keep warm.

In the same skillet, without rinsing, saute the shallots in the cooking juices left from the steaks over medium heat for five minutes. Add the wine, increase heat, and simmer until the liquid has been reduced by half. Turn the temperature down to medium-low and add the sour cream and Roquefort. Whisk to make a thick sauce. Remove steaks from oven, plate them, and drizzle sauce over the top. Garnish with whatever is at hand!

A Footnote: Pairing American Wines and Cheeses

Sharp American - Light-bodied wines like reisling or rose.

Mild Cheddar - Light and fruity wines. Most whites go well with this cheese.

Medium Cheddar - Fruity wines like reisling or a light red like a pinot noir.

Sharp Cheddar - Full-bodied red wines like a cabernet or merlot.

Colby - Champagne, roses, and chardonnay go well.

Muenster - Light, fruity reds such as beaujolais, or a white like sauvignon blanc go well with this cheese.

Swiss - Fruity whites and light reds.