Lessons of French wines are invigorating

A great foursome of French wines from the Alsace and Provence regions.
A great foursome of French wines from the Alsace and Provence regions.

Four weeks ago I went back to school in Boston.
I haven’t been in a classroom since the mid-1980s when I attended a weeklong program at the University of Missouri’s National Institute of Investigative Reporting.
So there was a bit of trepidation about buying books, studying, attending night school, watching online class components, taking two review quizzes a week and aiming to pass a 100-question exam — with a score of 75 — to successfully complete the course.
I’ve been rising at 5 a.m. every morning to study for 90 minutes for the French Wine Scholar program offered by the French Wine Society. Then I shower, eat breakfast and head to The Sun.

The Trimbach Pinot Gris: crisp, clean and flavorful from a quality producer.
The Trimbach Pinot Gris: crisp, clean and flavorful from a quality producer.

My fears of failing have gone away. This new adventure has revived old brain cells and added effervescence to the spirit of daily learning. All of us should feel so good about making new discoveries.
Classes at the French Cultural Center, located on Marlborough Street, are held every other Monday night for four hours. The instructor, Jo-Ann Ross, is a whirlwind of energy with an encyclopedic mind on even the most minute details of Alsace, Champagne, Bourgogne, Provence and all 14 wine regions of France.
Most of the 26 people taking the class, which leads to a French Wine Scholar certificate, are in the liquor or food trade as sales people, sommeliers, wine store and restaurant managers and chefs. Others, like myself, are interested in unlocking the mysteries of French wines. There are about an equal number of men and women in the class.

Willm Gentil Reserve is a blend of four noble varietals: Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer and Muscat.
Willm Gentil Reserve is a blend of four noble varietals: Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer and Muscat.

I must admit that I used to be intimidated by French wine labels. No more. Now I’m just confused. That’s the beauty of this class; we’re exploring how the French, dating back to ancient Roman times, came to rule the world of precious grapes, while infusing their culture, experience and personality into the process. Region by region, the classification of red, white and sparkling wines is different, with each appellation, village, vineyard and plot of land holding fiercely to certain restrictions that define the product produced. This pride is so fierce that only now in the 21st century are French wine producers putting the varietal grape on the bottle as a bow to global marketing. Many traditionalists still abhor the practice, however; they believe French wine should be labeled not by varietal but by producer, grower and terroir — the very soil where it springs forth.
Yes, it can be mystifying to consumers. But it’s also exhilarating to wine students. Some parts of France have been ravaged by war since the Romans invaded, followed by Germanic tribes, the Huns, Vandals, the 100 Years War (England), Napoleonic Wars, World War I and II. Despite the social and political upheaval, the vineyards — and its stout people — have endured. The wine process has been perfected, sometimes tediously so, and higher standards of excellence have resulted. It’s no wonder that French Grand Cru wines command the highest prices.

Les Grainmenous Cremant de Limoux Brut is a classy and elegant sparkling wine.
Les Graimenous Cremant de Limoux Brut is a classy and elegant sparkling wine.

The best part about class is that we get to taste six wines each night with food pairings.
Here are a few that have inspired me to sing Viva La France!
• Willm Gentil Reserve, Alsace 2013 ($13) — A varied blend of at least 50 percent Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer and Muscat, this white wine is incredibly balanced and flavorful. I was expecting sweetness but was pleasantly surprised at the dry, citrusy freshness of lemon, apple and pear. A great aperitif for summer sipping.
• Les Graimenous Cremant de Limoux Brut, Languedoc-Roussillion, ($21) — Cremant is a sparkling white wine made similar to the Champagne style but under slightly less restrictive limits. The quality, however, is no different. In fact, this blend of white (Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Mauzac) and red grapes (Pinot Noir, Syrah) stands up well to more expensive Champagnes. Nice texture, with palate-cleansing tastes and elegant finish. The bottle has a distinctive green tint and silver foil.
• Trimbach Pinot Gris, Alsace ($24) — Here’s a white wine that could age for several years and get even better. The family estate dates back to the 17th century and quality remains high. Fruit flavors and aromas mingle perfectly, supported with crisp acidity. It’s dry and settles on the tongue gracefully. I liked it a lot with spaghetti and clams in a white wine sauce.
• La Gordonne Billette Cote de Provence Rose ($16) — The bottle shape jumps out at you, like Mrs. Butterworth maple syrup, but the comparison ends there. The Wine Goddess broiled pink salmon sprinkled with kiwi slices and I served this chilled, refreshing dry cuvee of Cinsault, Grenache Noir, Syrah and Mouvedre. It exhibited a nice, clean taste of mild strawberry and citrus influences. It made me think of sitting on the deck on a quiet, sunny afternoon in mid-summer.
Send comments to jcampanini@lowellsun.com.

The dry Billette, with strawberry flavors, was an expressive accompaniment to the broiled salmon topped with kiwi slices.
The dry Billette, with strawberry flavors, was an expressive accompaniment to the broiled salmon topped with kiwi slices.

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