The exploration of wine can be a lifelong quest that is more than a normal hobby or a passing fancy. It’s an undertaking that can become a passion, launch new remembrances with friends and family, transfigure your dining experiences, and awaken you to a whole host of new locales to visit and study.
Yet, wine can also be exasperating and extremely intimidating: the high amount of bottles available from around the world, the perplexing labels and insider lingo, the pretension you sometimes encounter at restaurants or from wine geeks. It can be a daunting world if you are on the outside looking in. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
In this (and an ensuing) article I will give you a road map so that you can navigate the world of French wine. This is for people interested in French wine, who want to learn more about it, who want to understand which varietals are produced in the various regions, and who want to experience how the varying landscapes in France produce these wondrous wines.
A quick disclaimer: I am discussing the major wine producing areas of France. These are the bottles that you are likely to find in your local wine shop or on a restaurant menu. There are many more areas in France, but these are the areas that will give you a fundamental knowledge of French wine and we will cover all the bases.
Here is a quick run down of which areas produce what kind of wine:
- Champagne – sparkling Wine
- Loire Valley – mostly whites
- Alsace – mostly whites
- Bordeaux – red and white
- Burgundy – red and white
- Rhone Valley – mostly red
- Languedoc – Roussillon, red and white
An important word that will emerge from our story of French wine is Terroir (tehr-waar). Terroir is a French concept (that has spread worldwide) of place reflected in the glass. It is a belief in the specificity of place, which has come to include not only the soil of a region, but also the climate, the weather, the aspect of the vineyard, and anything else that can possibly differentiate one piece of land from another.
Why is Terroir important? Wine is an articulation of the land, a sense of time and place. At its core, this is terroir. What makes every wine unique is its terroir. Indeed there can be a myriad of differences between two vineyards in close proximity to one another. Terroir is in every bottle of French wine and is the mover and shaker of its vast varieties.
French winemaking is regulated by strict government laws, that are set up by the Appellation d’Origine Controlee (A.O.C.). This system was established a long time ago and designates certain regions or appellations throughout the country. The various appellations are under rigorous control as to what type of grapes and the quantity of those grapes that can be grown in these regions. This leads to what can be expected in a bottle. This is a huge distinction from how things are in the U.S. where you can get a Cabernet Sauvignon from Paso Robles, or Napa, or Sonoma, or Washington State, or even Arizona, Texas, Ohio, or Virginia.
The French name their wines from the region where the grapes were grown rather than the grapes that make up the bottle.
This might be a little confusing at first, especially if most of the wine you purchase is from U.S. producers, but as time goes by this distinction will become routine. This system is commonplace in most of Europe and any wine education entails some geography study.
But a brief detour. Let’s dissect a French wine label so you will be able to assess the wine specifics of bottles from different regions.
FRENCH WINE LABELS
The vintage is pretty easy to understand. It indicates the year the grapes were harvested, so every year is a vintage year. A vintage chart reflects the weather conditions for the various years. Depending on the weather, a vintage chart can fluctuate widely. Better weather results in a better rating for the vintage. As you would expect, banner years are more costly than bottles from less than ideal years.
The appellation is an important component on the label because it tells you what grapes were used in producing the wine. As we’ve stated, because France (and many other European countries) categorize their wines by appellation rather than simply saying Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon, it necessitates a bit of geography knowledge by the wine buyer.
For example, a Bordeaux wine from St. Emilion is going to be a Merlot-based red blend, compared to a Margaux that’s going to be a Cabernet Saivignon based. The more you experiment and study these different appellations within France the more you’ll know about the wine inside the bottle. Rest easy, I’m about to give you all the different appellations that you will need.
Diagram Courtesy Of Enosense
The classification of wine means different things in different parts of France. In Burgundy, for instance, you will have Grand Cru wines (which means they are from the “highest” quality single vineyard), and Premier Cru wines (meaning a “high” quality single vineyard), and also Village wines (which may come from multiple vineyards).
In Bordeaux, you have the classification of 1855 that separates vineyards into “growths” from 1 to 5. The “First Growth” wines are some of the most coveted in the world.
The Producer (or often in France the Chateau or Maison) is another important consideration. As you delve deeper into French wines you will start to recognize winemakers who make superior wines or at least in the style of wines you like. Plus many big producers will make wines from different appellations. So when you’re investigating labels, you might encounter something like this:
2018 Joseph Drouhin Beaujolais Villages
Producer: Joseph Drouhin
Classification: Village level
And then you might see:
2016 Joseph Drouhin Beaune Clos de Mouches Premier Cru Rouge
Producer: Joseph Drouhin
Vineyard: Clos des Mouches
Classification: Premier Cru
Our first stop on our journey through France will be Bordeaux, home to many world class wines, where many of the celebrated grape varietals originated from.
Bordeaux is known for producing some of the most esteemed wines in the world and with good reason. Bordeaux is a port city in southwest France. As I said earlier, French wines will be labeled by city or by appellation and then by distinct areas within that appellation that tell you a little more about the wine and what to expect. Bordeaux is a prime case in point of this method and a great starting point for our discussion.
Bordeaux is divided into two main regions; left bank, meaning west of the Garonne River, and right bank, which is east of the river. While the two regions both produce world world class wines, regulations specify which grapes can grow in what quantity in each area. Thus you will get more Cabernet Sauvignon wines on the left bank side and more Merlot-based wines on the right bank side.
Unlike Burgundy, where the winemaker must use 100 percent Pinot Noir to make most red wines, the wines in Bordeaux are almost always made from a blend of grapes. There are 14 different grape varietals in Bordeaux and the major grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.
To be able to know what you’re getting inside a bottle of Bordeaux you have to direct your attention to all the clues on the label.
The first question is how to tell if a wine is from the left bank or the right bank. And it’s not always evident since the label isn’t going to point that out precisely. This is where you need some geography research. When you visit your local wine shop or see a French Bordeaux on a menu, you need to look for the year, the Chateau, and the appellation within Bordeaux.
You will then be able to ascertain where the wine is from what varietals it is likely made from so that you can have a good idea of what to expect. The left bank of Bordeaux is fabled since all the designated “First Growths” come from this area. Here are some of the top areas from the left bank to acquaint yourself with:
- St. Julien
- St Estephe
- Pauillac (pronounced Pay-yak)
- Medoc (pronounced May-dock)
Bordeaux wine is a perfect merging of gravelly soil, ideal weather, and multigenerational wine making. Bordeaux grape vines are often older and they have had a long time to absorb the gravel and limestone-rich earth.
The climate in Bordeaux is ideal for wine growing, tempered by it’s close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. Influenced by these conditions, Bordeaux wines can have an “old worldness” to them, a little more of a rustic drink.
It’s what makes French Merlot taste so good and why it tastes so different than anywhere else. It’s the aesthetics and facility of the blend utilizing all these great components that allows the Bordeaux wine region to produce wine unlike any other.
Suggestion: Try different bottles from each of these areas. Try to find the same vintage so you can make a better comparison. If you are looking for a well-priced bottle, look for wines from the Medoc area, specifically Haut-Medoc which are excellent and will (in many cases) cost less than $20. Bottles from Pauillac, St. Julien Margaux, and St. Estephe regions can get more expensive
Another left bank area to pay attention to is Graves, which is known for its red blends dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, and white wines blended from Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.
Pessac-Leognan is a popular region within Graves that produces both red and white wines and this is where (arguably) the most famous wine Chateau, Haut Brion, is located. Given what we’ve learned about climate and geography, buying wines from nearby makes sense. Passaic-Legnan are very enjoyable wines and you will not go wrong if you try Domaine de Chevalier, Château Haut Lafitte, or Château Haut Bailly.
In the southern part of Graves is another world famous region called Sauternes, which is known for its white dessert wine. All French Sauternes are sweet, meaning that not all the grape sugar has turned into alcohol during fermentation. There is no such thing as a dry French Sauternes.
I have been mentioning the word chateau. So just what is a chateau? When most people think of a chateau they picture a grandiose home filled with Persian rugs and valuable antiques and surrounded by rolling hills of vineyards. Well, I’m sorry to shatter your dreams, but most chateaus are not like that at all (though there are some). Yes, some chateaus are mansions on large estates, but some are split level homes with a two-car garage. However, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t producing amazing wines there!
Though I said that the left bank regions include all of the major first growth Bordeaux, don’t dismiss the right bank. These winemakers create some of the most haute, hard to find, and expensive wines in the world.
While the classification of 1855 designates the top “growth” wines from the left bank, the right bank has its own classification system that was made in 1955.
Two important right bank names to know are Château Petrus and Château Cheval Blanc.
These wines, along with other big stars like Chateau Pavie and Chateau Ausone, can command anywhere from a few thousand dollars for a bottle to upwards of $30,000 a bottle depending on the vintage.
Some key right bank Bordeaux areas are:
- St. Emilion
While the prices for some of the top right bank Bordeaux can be whopping, there are many accessible wines from this area that are overlooked. If you know your way around it can be a buyers market.
There are many Grand Cru St. Emilion bottles priced around $30 that drink like they cost twice as much. Château Laroque and Chateau Fombrauge are two sleepers.
Pomerol wines are scrumptious. Check out Château Tour Maillet, Château Nenin, and Château de Sales. Fronsaic, Bourg, and Balye have some quality wines for about $20 a bottle.
White wines of Bordeaux
Bourdeau is dominated by reds (to the tune of 90%) yet there are some outstanding and tasty whites. As previously mentioned, the Sauternes area and the famous Chateau d’ Yquem produce world-class whites.
White Bordeaux is predominantly made from Semmillon and Sauvignon Blanc. Everyday drinking whites range from $10 to $20 and they are well made and very drinkable.
Some Vintage Talk
Vintages are important in understanding French wine. You can Google “French Wine vintage report” and find all the latest rankings from all the top reviewers. This is one area they frequently agree on and it is worthwhile to spend a little research time. Why are vintages important? Two different vintages from the same producer could in fact be two different wines.
All the components of terroir come into play. Weather plays a big part in the mix. Was there frost? Did hail come before the grapes were picked? There are many factors. However, to enjoy French wine you do not need to obsess over vintages. Remember, some vintages are meant to be drunk sooner, the better vintages later. A young wine can be enjoyable. It comes down to personal preferences. Try some new and try some aged, and see what you like best.
It’s important to always keep in mind that when a vintage is gone, it is indeed gone and can never come back or be duplicated. If you find something you love, you might consider stepping up and buying a few bottles before it’s too late.
Sample different vintages, remember what you like best, and keep in mind most French wines will continue to evolve as they age.
LOIRE VALLEY (MOSTLY WHITES)
The Loire Valley is located in the middle part of the Loire River in central France and it is home to several of France’s major winegrowing areas including Muscadet, Sancerre, Pouilly Fume, Chinon, and Vouvray. The primary grapes used are Melon de Bourgogne, Chenin Blanc, and Sauvignon Blanc.
Rather than select by grape variety you should choose a Loire Valley wine by style. Here are the main styles:
- Pouilly Fume – a dry wine that has the most body and concentration of all the Loire Valley wines, it is made with 100 percent Sauvignon Blanc.
- Muscadet – a light dry white wine, made from 100 percent Melon grape.
- Sancerre – striking a balance between Poultry Fume and Muscadet, it is made with 100 percent Sauvignon Blanc.
- Vouvray – the “chameleon”, it can be dry, semi-sweet, or sweet and it is made from 100 percent Chenin Blanc.
Chinon is an area in the Loire Valley known for its use of the Cabernet Franc grape. Chinon wines are big, robust reds and are excellent when you want something different.
All of the wines of the Loire Valley are reasonably priced. The whites are considered the summer wines of the Parisians and may be found on the wine lists of most restaurants in Paris.
Alsace is an historic area tucked away in eastern France on the border near Germany and Switzerland. Alsatian wines fall into three classifications: Alsace Grand Cru, Alsace AOC, and Cremant d’ Alsace. The Alsace Grand Cru is made from one of four grapes: Riesling, Muscat, Pinot Gris, or Gewurztraminer. Regular Alsace also includes Pinot Blanc and may be composed of a blend of these grapes.
I often find that people are confused about the differences between wines from Alsace and those from Germany. Why do you suppose this is? First of all, Alsace and Germany grow the same grape varietals. However, after the winemaker from Alsace harvests his grapes, he makes the wine much differently from his German counterpart. The winemaker from Alsace ferments every bit of the sugar in the grape while in Germany the winemaker adds a small amount of the naturally unfermented grape juice back into the wine which creates the German style. Of all Alsace wines, 99 percent are totally dry. Another difference between them is the alcohol content. Wine from Alsace has 11 to 12 percent alcohol, while Germany has a mere 8 to 9 percent.
Alsatian wines are excellent values with many in the $10 to $20 range. If you’re looking for a tasty and cost efficient alternative to Champagne, a Cremant d’ Alsace can be a home run.
Alsace is the only Appellation in France to produce wines labeled by varietal instead of region. (So just as I have you thinking about geography, I throw you a curve.)
We all know that Champagne is a sparkling bubbly that everyone drinks on New Year’s Eve. However, it is much more than that. Champagne is a region in France, the northernmost wine making region to be exact, and it’s an hour and a half northeast of Paris.
For the average wine consumer, anything with bubbles is considered Champagne, which is as far from the truth as you can get. “True” Champagne originates only from the Champagne region. Wines from Champagne are typically made from the following grapes:
- Pinot Noir
- Pinot Meunier
They carry designations such as Prestige Cuvee (the best from the winemaker), Blanc de Noirs (made from red grapes, but still white, no skins), Blanc de Blanc (made from Chardonnay), and Rosé (some Pinot Noir used). You’ll see these designations on the label and they provide a guide to what’s inside.
The dosage determines whether the wine will be the driest style, brut, a sweet demi-sec, or any style in between. The following is a guide:
- Brut – driest
- Extra dry – less dry
- Sec – more sweet
- Demi-sec – sweetest
What is vintage and non-vintage Champagne?
Non-vintage champagne must be kept in the bottle for at least one year (in practice, most fine winemakers age non-vintage Champagne for three years and vintage for five years). Vintage Champagne cannot be sold until three years after the harvest. Over 75 percent of the Champagne produced is non-vintage. This means it is a blend of several years of harvests. Vintage Champagne must contain 100 percent of that vintage year’s harvest.
Is every year a vintage year?
No. “Vintage” in Champagne is different from other regions, because each producer makes its own determination on whether or not to declare a vintage year. Shippers don’t always agree on the quality of the wines produced in any given vintage. Each shipper usually declares a vintage three years out of each decade.
In America we usually drink our reds too warm and our whites too cold. Champagne is one of those wines we chill too much. Ideal drinking temperature for Champagne is about 45 degrees Fahrenheit, which is much warmer than it will be straight out of the fridge. Either pull the bottle out 15 minutes before drinking, or chill it by putting it in a bucket of half ice and water. Only by getting the wine to the right temperature will you taste the full flavor than can be inhibited when too cold.