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I know many people who have no qualms about living on the edge or who quite happily go off the reservation when it suits them. Yet hand these folks a thick, leather-bound wine menu, and they’ll more than likely wade into the shallow end. It’s no secret that your average American wine drinker is intimidated — no, petrified — by French wine. There are many confounding things about French wine, not least of which is remembering which grapes are grown in what region. Having reached puberty in California, I grew used to looking at a label and identifying the particular grape varietal, for instance Chardonnay or Cabernet, selecting a winery and region like Napa Valley, Sonoma, or Columbia Valley, and ordering with aplomb. But when I was ready to sample French wines, I had to grapple with the language and the differences between regions, districts, villages, and producers. Beyond that, there were the appellation contr�ll�e laws, and the good vintage and not so good vintage years to memorize. So what’s the trick to this? Are there shortcuts? It helps to have a thick skin. Otherwise you’re going to worry that the clerk behind the counter is snickering to his buddies that you confused Pouilly-Fuiss� with M�con-Fuiss�, when they’re really just checking out your ankles. If you’re going to make the leap you have to start somewhere — in my case it was Burgundy. But, if I had to do it over again, I would start with Bordeaux. While there are about 40 wine districts in Bordeaux, five have developed larger-than-life reputations: Medoc, Saint-Emilion, Pomerol, Graves, and Sauternes. There are five grapes that figure here: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. The winemaker gets to decide which wines to blend together and how much of each is just right. If there is one Bordeaux wine that could be said to be unfailingly popular among those of my generation who grew up loving California reds, it would be the wines from Pomerol on the Right Bank. You can look at a map to see for yourself where the Right and Left Bank are, but trust me for now. Pomerol is the classic Merlot region, and there is something to be said about its history, how the vines thrive in the clay soil, and that Merlot is the French word for blackbird. But what you really need to know is that the ideal Pomerol tastes of plums and violets and is elegant and supple. Generally speaking, it is a medium-bodied red wine lower in acids than Cabernet Sauvignon and that possesses silky tannins. Some wines from Pomerol may also have a chocolate or tobacco character. If you spot a bottle of 1996 Pomerol on the shelf that you want to buy, hold it for a while, says my local wine store owner. That vintage was just all right, and most of the Pomerols produced that year were medium-bodied. The weather was disastrous in 1997, so the quality of that year’s vintage is pretty hit or miss. The 1998 vintage produced outstanding wines, and that will be reflected in the prices. Elisabeth Frater is the co-author of a wine-inspired online novel, “A Red With Legs,” at www.darkwoman.com. If you have comments or suggestions for future tastings, contact [email protected]

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