When selecting wine at your local wine shop (or Trader Joe’s if you haven’t quite made that jump yet,) it’s tempting to skip the French section and run straight to the easy to read, user friendly United Sates of Amurica wine. That’s because the French labeling system can be almost as intimidating as the French people. For starters, French winemakers list the region/appellation and not the grape varietals on the wine bottle, which means you need to be at least somewhat familiar with the map of France. And if recognizing the regions/appellations isn’t confusing enough for you, you also have to know which grape varietals are authorized to grow in that region. That’s a lot of things to know, especially in another language. But like most things tasty and/or classy AF, (read: french bread, french kisses, french manicure,) French wine is no exception. So we gotta learn this stuff. Let me start with a few examples.
If you pick up a bottle with “Chablis” printed on the label, you should identify the grape varietal used to make that wine as Chardonnay, because that is the only varietal permitted by the AOC (aka Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, aka the French wine dictators) to grow in that region. Likewise with white Sancerre and Sauvignon Blanc and Beaujolais with the Gamay grape varietal. Okay, if I’m losing you, don’t worry, we’ll come back to this in another blogpost. Today, my dear friends, we will be focusing instead on a simple yet controversial French label instead. May I introduce to you, ladies and gents, “VDF,” aka “Vin de France.”
Vin De France
“Vin de France,” previously listed as “Vin de Table,” is the least specific, least controlled designation that can appear on a bottle of French wine. It means one thing and one thing only: this wine was made in France. Like we discussed before, if a winemaker wants to list the region where the wine was produced, he or she must follow the strict rules of the AOC board regarding how the wine is made and what grapes can be used in that region. But if you’re a winemaker and you wanna bypass the AOC hall monitor and do whatever ya darn well please, you can list your wine as “Vin de France.” You wanna throw some Syrah grapes into your Cab Sauv and Merlot blend harvested in Bordeaux? Rock n roll! You can’t mention Bordeaux on your label (which the AOC dictates can contain only the grapes of Cab Sauvignon and/or Merlot with optional additions from Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc) but you can produce a unique wine that no one else has ventured to try.
A Word of Caution
So there’s a sort of freedom that is represented in the “Vin de France” label, especially for creative vintners (winemakers) looking to produce unique wines that push the envelope. But with that freedom, of course, comes great responsibility. Without government regulation, vintners looking to cut corners and bottle cheaply made, mass produced wine, can also thrive under the VDF label. So remember, not all “Vin de France” wines are created equally. And as a wine buyer looking to pioneer the wine frontier, it’s important to take the time to research your wines and understand the process behind the bottle. Yeah it’s a little work, but ya gotta work hard to play hard baby!
The Wine of the Week: Vins Contés Poivre et Gel
Coming from Touraine in the the Loire Valley of France, the 2017 Vin Contés Poivre et Gel, produced by Olivier Lemasson, is a particularly great example of a well-made and totally organic VDF wine. If your French only goes so far as “oui, merci, croissant, baguette,” let me quickly explain the name. “Poivre et Gel” is a play on words on the phrase “poivre et sel,” which means “salt and pepper” in French. It also happened to be the name of his previous vintages of this particular blend. In 2017, a devastating frost (aka “gel” en Français) destroyed many of the winemakers’ crops in the Loire Valley. And voilà, as a nod to this disaster, the Poivre et Gel vintage was born.
About the Winemaker
Pop quiz, if you’re checking out a VDF wine, what should you do before purchasing and popping open that bottle? It’s research time girls and boys. Don’t worry, I already did that biz for you. So let’s talk about Olivier Lemasson, aka the man behind the bottle.
Olivier began his journey into winemaking as a sommelier, found the gospel of natural wines and snagged a job picking grapes in Beaujolais for natural winemaker, Marcel LaPierre. After a year of training, he moved to Touraine in the Loire Valley, bought a few hectares of land and never looked back. And that’s that, okay let’s drink now.
JK JK, a few more things. Olivier did not exactly choose to sell his wines as VDF. In 2006, he presented his wine to the AOC and was denied the label because his wines were too “atypical of the region.” After two more attempts and subsequent rejections, unwilling to change his hyper natural vinification techniques, he did what all artists do when told they can’t do something. He gave the AOC the ol’ one finger salute, and decided to sell his wines under the VDF label instead. Sure enough, he succeeded. And I believe that is what Jack Black meant in School of Rock when he told his students to “stick it to the man!”
Alright, I think we’ve earned the right to pour ourselves a glass. Don’t be afraid, but this wine smells like red and black berries and with a slight manure tinge. The fruit aroma comes from the grape blend, which is mostly Grolleau (80%) with a bit of Pineau d’Aunis (10%) and Gamay (10%). Yeah dude, I told you this wine was weird. But don’t be bummed if you don’t recognize these grapes, the first one is definitely unusual. Let’s get into it.
Grolleau (or Grolleau Noir) is grown almost exclusively in the Loire Valley. You know why you’ve never heard of it? ‘Cause no one likes it, that’s why. It’s the bullied, underdog of the Loire, permitted by the AOC only when used as a rosé. Here’s the problem with the grape: it’s not that tasty. The skin of the Grolleau is deeply pigmented but very thin, so that the grape itself lacks an intensity of flavor and concentration, giving it a reputation of unsuitability for red wines. It’s high in acid and low in tannins, which works great for rosé, but not so much for red. Or does it? Let’s find out. Here’s the thing guys, it doesn’t matter if other people like it. It only matters if YOU like it. You’re the one spending your hard earned money on this stuff. So time to taste.
Whoa ammiright? This wine is interesting. The color is a deep sort of ruby, purplish color, but it doesn’t taste like it looks, if that makes sense. It tastes bright, and I can tell by the pool of saliva on the sides of my mouth that there’s a good amount of acid in here. The fruit aromas I get lose their intensity on my tongue as I swirl it in my mouth, giving way to that funky, barnyardy sort of thing I smelled earlier. The blackberry, sour cherry flavors are still there, but that savory, earthy secondary taste coats my palate. I love this stuff. It’s WEIRD. It’s definitely not boring. It’s VDF baby. Rock n’ roll!