A Cheater's Guide to Good, Cheap French Wine
Olivier Magny is the eyebrow-raising owner of Paris's Ô Chateau Wine Bar and School. Here, he explains why Americans are the future of wine (the French are too busy drinking beer and feeling depressed) and reveals his favorite value bottles and regions.
Q. You were only 23 when you opened Ô Chateau 10 years ago. Are a lot of young people in France fascinated by wine?
A. The level of interest in wine in France is pretty much collapsing, but we are seeing a resurgence among people in their late twenties and early thirties. It's funny, because they're kind of mimicking what they see on American TV shows! Sex and the City, Friends, White Collar. They all want to act like New Yorkers.
Q. Back up: Are you saying that Americans know wine better than the French?
A. In my experience, they do. Americans study wine more. And, contrary to what people think, French DNA doesn't come with the genes for wine knowledge.
Q. This is definitely wrecking my idea of French culture.
A. Look, the French eat more pizza per capita than practically any other country. Paris is Diet Coke, kebab shops and hamburgers. The surest way to recognize a tourist in Paris is to look for the person at a café with a glass of wine. That's a tourist. The Parisian will be drinking Coke or beer. We're also one of the biggest consumers of antidepressants.
Q. If all these gloomy, hamburger-eating French people aren't drinking their own wine anymore, I suppose Americans should step up. What are your favorite regions for wine values in France?
A. First, the Loire. It's like the El Dorado of incredible wines at amazing prices. Places like Montlouis, Vouvray, Muscadet—you find fantastic wines for $12 or so from producers like François Chidaine,Jo Landron and Domaine des Huards. France: We have high taxes but cheap wines. There you go.
Q. Where else in France should people look for great values?
A. The Languedoc. It's one of the few places in the country where land is approachable in terms of price, which means that new winemakers—ambitious young guys—can buy a vineyard without an insane financial stretch. There are really good things happening here—in Corbières, Minervois, Coteaux du Languedoc, Roussillon—from producers like Léon Barral, Domaine de Bila-Haut and Olivier Pithon.
Q. What's the biggest mistake US wine lovers make in France?
A. Falling for what I call the "house wine myth." It's this idea that you come to France and order the house wine and it's amazing, the best thing you've ever had. OK: We don't even have a phrase for "house wine" in French. If you go to Paris and ask for the house wine, you're 200 percent busted as an American, and they're going to serve you some random bottle they bought for one euro.
Q. Do you have other tips for American wine travelers in France?
A. If you want to go to the fancier places—grand cru classé châteausin Bordeaux like Pavie, Pontet-Canet and Cos d'Estournel—then book a fair bit in advance, say, three months. Also, watch out for weekends because a lot of wineries will be closed. Finally, be confident! Wine people here love Americans.
Q. Any exciting new projects in the works at Ô Chateau?
A. We've leased a 6,000-square-foot cellar right by the Louvre. The Louvre was once a royal residence, so the sommelier would bring the wine right from this cellar to the king. It's been abandoned for years, but we want to bring wine back to the place. Clients will be able to blend wines, bottle them and create their own labels.
Q. What aspect of wine do you think people spend too much time worrying about?
A. Pairings! The whole subject is completely overblown. I mean, Google a pairing for turkey: You'll find so many wines that have nothing to do with one another. All you really need to do is pay attention to the power. When you have a delicate cuisine, for instance, go for a delicate wine.
Q. I have to ask: If you could open a bottle for anyone in the worldat Ô Chateau, who would it be?
A. Easy: Chris Rock, my idol. I have no idea if he drinks wine, though, so I'd just pour him a wine I love—Château de Fonsalette, from the Rhône.