French Wine Explained
By Warren Gregory
The wines of France are baffling to some. I hear this in my work as a wine salesman all the time. Retail shop owners and restaurant managers hesitate when it comes to French wine. They don’t want to offer bottles that have hard-to-pronounce words or require an explanation to the customer, and they don’t want to appear snooty.
There certainly are differences between French wine and wine made in the United States. French wine is part of a tradition that links local wines to local foods. French wine, like all European wine is intended to be consumed with food. Because of this, French wine flavor profiles have a range that goes beyond fruit and warm oaky richness to include brisk acidity, more fruit tannin and that sense of place, terroir, as the French would say, that lends an earthy, mineral-ish slightly bitter tang. Then there is the fact that we are most comfortable with labels that list the grape type, and many French wines omit the grape type on their labels. But, for the French, grape type is not as important, the place of origin is the key.
All the grapes that are best known to us, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Merlot etc. are all standard grapes in France. These grape types are the ones that have made their way with most success to wine regions all over the world. They’re known as international varietals for that reason. Wherever these grapes are made into wine outside France, the French model is often the goal of perfection.
So, why not drink French wine?
If the system of appellations (wine growing locations) and place names seem complex it may be because we don’t make the connection between grape type and place. In France each wine region is closely associated with particular grape types and once that is made clear it’s easier to understand French wine.
What’s an appellation? This is a French word that refers to a particular agricultural production zone within a geographical region. There are appellations for cheese, chickens and meat products as well as wine in France. They decided as a nation in the 1930’s that food and beverage products taste the way they do partly because of the place where the product is made. Since the French came up with this idea every other wine producing country has adopted a similar system. In America we have AVAs, American Viticultural Areas. In France they have AOCs, Appellation d’Origin Controlee. AOC means a wine from a particular place is made in a particular way using specified grape types, and it’s controlled and guaranteed by a government council. In France certain grapes are used by law in each region while other grapes are excluded. This makes it pretty easy to identify the grape type of a particular wine if you know where in France it comes from. The vast majority of France’s fine wine comes from one of five regions.
Burgundy is a region made up of several appellations in northeastern France. Some large production domestic wines still use the word “Burgundy” even though there is no similarity between what they make and real French Burgundy. You may see the word Bourgogne (either Blanc or Rouge) on a label and that simply means a wine from Burgundy. There are also village wines that have the name of specific villages on their label, and Premier and Grand Cru wines that come from particular vineyards within the neighborhood of a notable village.
Do you like Chardonnay or Pinot Noir? Well, all the white wines of Burgundy are made entirely from Chardonnay and all the red wines of Burgundy are made entirely from Pinot Noir. It’s that simple! The individual properties in Burgundy are called Domaines and they are often family owned. You can drink basic Bourgogne, Village level Burgundy and/or Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines that come from specific historical vineyards. The basics of grape type hold up though out Burgundy; white wine is Chardonnay and red wine is Pinot Noir
Bordeaux is a port city on the southwestern Atlantic coast of France that has been a center of wine trade since Roman times. All Bordeaux red wine is made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in combination. The white wines of Bordeaux are based upon Sauvignon Blanc, often in combination with grapes called Semillon and/or Muscadelle. A French person would never make a white wine from Chardonnay in Bordeaux because it wouldn’t be a legal Bordeaux wine.
To the west, closer to the Atlantic in the Medoc appellations of Bordeaux Cabernet dominates the blends and to the east, in the right bank appellations of St Emilion and Pomerol, Merlot dominates. The choice of which grape to plant where was decided hundreds of years ago based upon the prevailing weather conditions and soil types. Individual properties are called Chateau, which means house, and many of them are today owned by large corporations that own more than one Chateau. There are quality levels in Bordeaux just as there are in Burgundy. There is basic Bordeaux AC (appellation controlee) and Bordeaux Superieur AC and then there are the classifications of the best Chateaux into categories like Cru Classe, First Cru Classe, Second Cru classe and Grand Cru classe. All these classifications can be red or white wine. It seems complicated and you can get to know them in time but remember the red wines are always Cabernet and Merlot based while the white wines are all Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon based.
The Rhone Valley is in southern France and was founded by Greek and Roman colonists more than two thousand years ago. They were big into wine and they established the predominant grapes early on. The entire region produces far more red wine than white. It’s hot here so the dark grapes are better suited. In the northern Rhone Syrah is in charge. The red wines from the appellations of Cote Rotie, Hermitage, Cornas and Crozes Hermitage are mostly 100% Syrah. A little bit of white wine is made from Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne in combination. Those white grapes may not be as familiar as others but California wine makers do use them.
The southern Rhone is dominated by Grenache though it is most often blended with Syrah as well as Mourvedre and Cincault and a hand full of others. There are appellations in the south like Chateauneuf du Pape, Gigondas and Vaqueras. These are all Grenache based red wines. The majority of the Cote du Rhone wines also come from the southern Rhone and they are more affordable for every day. The word “cote” simply means the surrounding area. Remember that the red wines of the northern Rhone are 100% Syrah and the red wines of the southern Rhone are Grenache or blends dominated by Grenache.
Alsace is a region that hugs the German border in northeastern France. It is sheltered by the Voges Mountains to the west and the Rhine River to the east so the growing season here is one of the longest and most consistent in France though it is northerly and generally cool. All the best wines of Alsace are white. Riesling is most prominent but Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer are also widely used. Alsace is also the only major French region that actually does put the grape type on the label. So relax and enjoy.
The Loire Valley runs across northern France. The Loire river flows from the south central part of France all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s the longest river in France and along the last half of its course is the largest wine producing area. The grape scheme is not quite as simple but its still set in tradition and predictable. More white wine is produced than red because, once again this is pretty far north and fairly cool.
To the east, from the appellations of Sancerre, Pouilly, Quincy and Reuilly come very good Sauvignon Blanc wines. Those first two are the most important to remember for quality. Touraine white wine, from a village further west is also made from Sauvignon Blanc. In the middle part of the region Chenin Blanc takes over. Vouvrey is a village name that, when it appears on labels means Chenin Blanc. It can be dry or very sweet depending upon the style. “Sec” means dry, “Demi-sec” means partly sweet and “Doux” means very sweet. To the west, where the Loire empties into the Atlantic ocean the white grape that dominates is called Muscadet. This wine is very dry, clean and somewhat mineral like in flavor. It is a fantastic wine to have with seafood, raw oysters and such.
Two black grapes are made into red wine in the Loire Valley and they mostly come from the central part of the region. Red wine from the Loire is far more rare but Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir are used to make some very good red wines. A red Sancerre is made from Pinot Noir. The appellations of Chinon, Bourgueil and Saumur-Champigny are noted for their Cabernet Franc wines. Anjou and Anjou-Villages wines are also made from Cabernet Franc.
All that’s really left of France* is the Champagne region where sparkling wine is made. The grapes used here are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the same grapes that are used in Burgundy which is a next door neighbor to Champagne. The producers of Champagne are very protective of their name and they don’t want anyone outside that region calling their sparkling wine Champagne, even if they use the same grape types and make the wine in exactly the same way. A Champagne can be a “Blanc de Blanc”, which means it is made entirely with Chardonnay or a “Blanc de Noir”, which means it’s made with Pinot Noir grapes. It can be “Brut” which means dry, or it can be “doux” which means it will taste sweeter. Most Champagne is blended from numerous fermented wines, often from more than one year’s harvest or “vintage”. A vintage Champagne, made entirely from one year’s grapes is more rare and more expensive.
It helps us non-Europeans to know that the wines of Europe are made from the same grapes that we’ve come to recognize from our domestic wine purchases. This is especially true of French wines. There are differences. That’s really what makes wine so much fun. And there are a lot of different place names to deal with, but the adventure of discovering new great wines and tasting their interaction with the foods we already like is what wine appreciation is all about.
If you like Cabernet or Merlot try a red Bordeaux. If you like Riesling, try an Alsatian Riesling. If you like Shiraz, try a Syrah from the northern Rhone. Have fun!
note* The French, and a lot of local wine lovers would point out that I’ve excluded several additional regions. If you start with these five and Champagne, and grow fond of these then it will be natural for you to learn more about places like the Languedoc, the Costieres d’Nimes, Jurancon and some of the others. Don’t be afraid to try new things and don’t dismiss what you’ve tasted once or twice too quickly. Life’s too short.
Warren Gregory can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Have a wine related question or live in or near the Twin Cities in Minnesota? Plan a wine event. Warren is a certified sommelier and writes professionally and leads classes in wine tasting and knowledge. Visit http://www.warrengonwine.typepad.com for more fun information on wine and Warren’s adventures in wine and food.