12 Must-Try Classic French Wines

L'Espalier's Lauren Daddona reminds us of the staying power of these great French classics.

Classic French Wines
Photo: © Geoff Kruth

In an era when our country's wine pros all seem to be clambering for the next new thing, it's refreshing to know that France's classics have an unwavering champion: L'Espalier's Lauren Daddona. The Boston restaurant has been serving up refined, French-inspired dishes since 1978, so she has the benefit of working with a deep cellar that spans decades and a list of over 600 selections that she's tailored to the food. It's no secret that they lean French.

"There are definitely bottles here that allow even a seasoned wine geek to find new discoveries," she says, "but there are so many classics that I love."

Her mixed case reads like an All-Star list of the country's long-revered wines and winemakers. There's a reason they're considered masters. Dadonna tells us why:

1. NV Petitjean-Pienne Blanc de Blancs Brut Grand Cru

"I'm not one of those grower-producer-only adamant people; any good Champagne is good by me! But in this particular case, they happen to be pretty small. The wine has the intense minerality of Chardonnay from Cramant but a little more richness on the palate than you might associate with the Blanc de Blancs style. It's under $50 retail, which for Grand Cru and this level of quality is a steal. Sometimes you find something new, and it becomes your favorite for a couple of months, but then you get charmed by something else and move on. That's not the case with this Champagne. It's just perennially on my mind."

2. 2011 Pierre Gaillard Saint-Joseph Blanc

"When people think of white Rhône, they often think of Condrieu and the real headiness of Viognier. Those wines are great but not everyone's cup of tea. This one is 100 percent Roussanne, which is a grape that has been a little forgotten but should be right at the forefront of the conversation. When done well, it gives you that great weight and richness, but it's not a richness that derives from new oak. It's more from the grape itself: a broad texture with a lot of definition and a little bit of bitterness that works so well with food. Think richer, meatier fish preparations, like swordfish with an herb beurre blanc to bring out its herbaceous side… It also has enough of a viscous texture that goes well with game bird."

3. 2011 Michel Lafarge 'Raisins Dorés' Aligoté

"Michel Lafarge is one of those producers who has such a strong reputation in Burgundy. He's in his 90s now, but his mind is sharp as a tack. If you ask him about literally any vintage since he's been alive, he's like, 'Oh, I remember we harvested on October 8 that year…' It's amazing. So there's this legendary mystique, and his reds are absolutely stunning, but they also have the price tag to match. The Aligoté is great because not only is it something that he's crafted, but it shows what the grape can do when given the right kind of attention. It has such great texture—this really fun kind of lemon curd quality that part of me wants to liken to Chablis, but the minerality is totally different. Still very Burgundian, but just a different expression of that place."

4. 2011 L'Abeille de Fieuzal Pessac-Léognan Blanc

"A lot of people don't know what to expect from white Bordeaux, and frankly that's fair, because the styles are so diverse. There's entry-level Entre-Deux-Mers, which is superclean and simple all the way up to some First Growth property making a big, expensive, sophisticated white, and all the stuff in the middle. This is the second label from Château Fieuzal, and it sees a fair amount of new oak, but at two thirds Sémillon, it also has the density to be able to handle it well. Then, there's the hit of Sauvignon Blanc that gives it that brightness and citrus character, and the minerality of Graves. It's hard to strike the right balance between all of those things, and this wine does that perfectly. It's just delicious."

5. 2007 Foreau Vouvray Demi-Sec

"Foreau stands out for me as someone who pushes the boundaries of what Chenin Blanc can be to the point that you want to keep smelling it to try to figure it out. Here, you have a Demi-Sec that has so much nerve and pronounced minerality that it almost comes across as sharp on the nose. But then on the palate, there's this integrated, honeyed quality. I almost think nobody would recognize it as sweetness, because the acid's there, and there's so much other stuff going on that it's like a lesson in balance. It works with everything from foie gras to simply done scallops. It's also the kind of wine I want for a cheese plate because you're going to have a whole variety there, and it will work with everything: goat because of the acidity all the way through funkier cheeses because of the sweetness."

6. 2013 Domaine de la Bastide Blanche Bandol Rosé

"Bastide Blanche doesn't get as much play as stuff like Pibarnon or Pradeaux. It's a little bit less expensive, and it's a great entry into the style of Bandol rosé. That is to say, you're in Provence, but you get more complexity in terms of dried herbs, a sea-spray kind of minerality, and more weight than your standard quaffable Côtes de Provence example. It's also a bottle that proves that rosé doesn't need to be drunk on immediate release—that it can stand having some bottle age. That specifically to me is very Bandol: still refreshing, but with a richer texture. A little more serious, perhaps."

7. 2007 Lafleur-Gazin Pomerol

"So this is fun. The critics would tell you that 2007 was… not an off vintage, per se, but not a great vintage. And I like somewhat cooler vintages like this because the wines show a little more delicately and evolve to a more graceful place earlier than those from the ripe, acclaimed vintages. This one's mellow and drinkable now; it's still showing freshness but at the same time has that pencil lead and tar and all that good earth that comes through with some bottle age. It also doesn't need a big steak; it's more versatile than that. Sometimes our approach to Bordeaux is misguided in that we think we need certain vintages. But no, there's so much quality in that region and it should be more about exploring the whole range."

8. 2011 Guiberteau 'Les Motelles' Saumur Rouge

"We were sort of there before with the Pomerol, but now we're really in Cab Franc land. This bottle comes off of a small parcel of old vines, and it flaunts that herbaceous, wild side, while also having the old-vine intensity of fruit to balance it. I love the full-on character of Cab Franc, but I also see how it can be challenging for some people who are put off by greenness, so this one is easy for everyone to love. Not as funky and rustic as some Chinons, and every time I taste it, I'm reminded of how good it is."

9. 2014 Daniel Bouland 'Corcelette' Vieilles Vignes Morgon

"Tasting Bouland was one of my first ah-ha moments with Cru Beaujolais. I want good Beaujolais to leap out of the glass aromatically, but then on the palate have some structure and lines to it. Sometimes you get either one or the other, but this one has both. That wildly floral nose and scrubby herbs, and a dark, granitic quality that comes through. It's one that you want to keep smelling and contemplating, but it's also so drinkable that if you want something satisfying that won't make you think too much, it's good for that too. The bottle will disappear pretty quickly either way."

10. 2010 J.F. Mugnier Chambolle-Musigny

"OK, there are a couple of splurges in here… But to really have a grasp on the classics, you have to try great Burgundy. This is two-fold. We get excited to pop a cork on anything made by Mugnier, and Chambolle is a village that I love for the pretty red floral quality and seductive sort of aromatics you get in wines from there. So the combination of his winemaking with Chambolle fruit is amazing. If you want to go all-in and do a Premier Cru, that's great, but even at the village level, you're getting such great quality. His wines are all about filigree. They show so many subtle layers."

11. 2008 Château Rayas Châteauneuf-du-Pape

"There's such a range of styles in Châteauneuf, and it's also one of those areas where vintage can matter a lot in terms of what you're going to find in the glass. I like '08 because it's right between two warmer vintages for the southern Rhône: '07 and '09—those vintages are all about ripe fruit. But I want more of the garrigues. I want to smell a little bit of meat-smoke and pepper, and those things that in the bigger, fruitier years are more in the background. Rayas is special, too, because it's all Grenache, all from sandy soils. So it retains elegance and freshness, which are two qualities we don't necessarily associate with Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I always look to this particular property for that."

12. Château de Laubade Floc de Gascogne

"We recently made our cocktail list smaller and put more apéritifs on. I love the category—it's so intrinsically French—and I love that people are starting to pay more attention to it here in the U.S. Think of all the new producers crafting different styles of vermouth, drinking more Fino Sherry—it's great! This is from an esteemed Armagnac producer, and in the region, you'd have either Pineau de Charentes or Floc de Gascogne. Floc to me is a little fresher, a bit lighter in terms of alcohol. Think meadow flowers… this wild herb and brambly thing. Just a touch of sweetness without being cloying. It has so many applications."

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