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Our Vinous Debt to France

France, once once the world's leading wine-producing nation, lost claim to that title when Italy increased its annual production to 2 billion gallons some years ago.

It's not the oldest wine-producing nation, for wine was made around the eastern Mediterranean basin millenia before Caesar divided Gaul into three parts.

Indeed, the French can't even claim undisputed bragging rights as producers of the world's best wines. Vinous competitors around the world, from Italy to California to Australia, would have something to say about that.

None of which takes away from this: Without the contributions France has made, wine as we know it today wouldn't be wine.

Back in the 12th Century, when the English held Bordeaux, they learned to love the local wine, a beverage they called "claret."

Ever since that time, around the civilized world, the standard for fine wine - the dry, acidic type that marries well with food - has been based on the French model.

So simple respect for wine history demands that I begin the second part of my brief refresher course in wine tasting - a country-by-country review of wines from around the world - with a look at France.

France, which remains second-largest wine producer in the world, produces tiny quantities of some of the greatest and most expensive wines. It also produces huge quantities of vin ordinaire (everyday drinking wine) that's rarely exported.

In the middle there's a good selection of decent, fairly priced table wine that gives a good idea of the debt wine lovers owe to France.

If you've ever ordered a pitcher of red wine in a Parisian bistro, you've likely tasted Cotes-du-Rhone. It's an intensely fruity, sharply acidic red wine that goes well with red meat, but it's no mellow sipper. If your tastes run to sweetish White Zinfandel, this one might take some getting used to, but it's a great example of the kind of sound, interesting table wines that come from France. From Alsace to the Loire, from Provence to Languedoc, and of course in the fabled wine regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy, you'll find thousands more.

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