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French Wine 101: Basic Decoding

October 16, 2007

French wine is confusing. The labeling can easily dissuade the curious, the regions and estates difficult to pronounce (to non-French speakers), the hype-factor crazy and the pricing boggling. I hope to spend a few moments on the most basic info and a generalized overview the wines, with a few hints on navigating them. If you have any feedback, let me know – I have just learned much of this via multiple sources and experiences, and will always be learning – so please share!

Main Regions:

Bordeaux: Always a blend. Most will be called “Chateau something” on the label. The right bank of the Gironde is Merlot dominant, left bank and Cabernet dominant. Reds tend to be full-bodied, tannic, age-necessary wines. Whites, while rare, tend to be sweet dessert wines (Sauternes). Each chateau was classified in 1855 based on reputation, and these classifications must appear on the label as “Cru” or approximately growth. The most prized, including the 1er Cru (Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Latour, etc), offer complexity, long age-potential and a strong expression of the vineyard geography and character (a.k.a. terroir). The reds pair well with sturdy meats (beef, lamb, veal) or Roquefort, Brie and Camembert cheeses. Prepare to spend here and it pays seek recommendations before trying. Minimum recommended price $20US, maximum is up to you.

Red: Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, supported by Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Cot (Malbec) and Carmenere
White: Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle
Burgundy: Burgundy is more straightforward initially, but much more difficult to understand the deeper you go. Pinot Noir is the king grape here for red, Chardonnay for white. Those 2 grapes (never in blends) are truly the focus of the region and the reason for all the hubbub. Other than that, the Gamay grape is used in Beaujolais, and (rarely) Aligote for whites. Burgundy is divided into subregions, which appear on the label along with the producer and vineyard (if applicable). The vineyards are rated similarly to Bordeaux – via Crus. Basically, the more information on the label, the better quality the wine. For example. a wine simple labeled as Bourgogne, Domaine Anne Gros may contain grapes sourced from several Anne Gros vineyards, while one labeled Chambertin Clos de Beze, Leroy containing only grapes from Leroy’s individual parcel of Clos de Beze in Chambertin. It takes time to learn the regions, sub-regions, and vineyards and what kind of wine they produce – so ask your knowledgeable vendor before dropping $30+ on a basic bottle. Overall the Pinots are perfect food wines, and tend to be medium bodied, earthy and full of character. The Chardonnays are stylistically broad, from restrained and minerally Chablis, to complex, rich and hyper-expensive Montrachet. Most of these wines are built to last. The Gamay wines are fun, light-hearted and fresh.

Red: Pinot Noir, Gamay (Beaujolais)
White: Chardonnay, Aligote

Rhone: The Rhone valley produces big, spicy red wines in several varieties and their aromatic white counterparts. In the Northern Rhone, Syrah is the king red grape, while Roussanne, Marsanne, and Vigioner are blended in whites. The sub-regions of Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Cote-Rotie, Cornas, and St. Joseph are all famous for their Syrah. Southern Rhone has a generally warmer climate, allowing Grenache to thrive, where it is blended with Mourvedre, Cinsaut, Carignan, and some Syrah in regions like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas and Vacqueyras. Cotes-du-Rhone is a broader-spanning term for wines from various subregions – in both the north and south. Cotes du Rhones from quality producers tend to be great values with complexity and power (via Syrah and Grenache) reminiscent of their more focused brethren (C-d-P, Hermitage). The whites are not as famous, but provide some fascinating and aromatic Viogner in Condrieu and Grillet, and Marsanne/Roussane blends in the primarily red sub-regions. All food friendly – especially grilled meats and rich stews.

Red: Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Cinsaut, Carignan, etc (up to 13 variatals in C-d-P)
White: Viogner, Marsanne, Rousanne

Loire: The wines of the Loire valley tend to be fresh, lighter-styled, classically-French white and red wines. The whites from the regions of Puilly-Fume, Sancerre, Vouvray, and Savennières show the diversity of Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc in expressions ranging from dry and zesty, to deep and sweet. Also – the Muscadet grapes makes a dry wine here that pairs sensationally with seafood. The red wines tend to be primarily Cabernet Franc in Chinon, Bourgueil, and Saumur, although some Pinot Noir, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvigon, and Gamay is also grown. The reds tend to be restrained, old-world, medium-bodied, and very food friendly. Overall, these wines are superb with a broad range of lighter fare, great values, but never over-the-top (They would never be confused with a high-ABV, ripe, fruit-forward style wine).

Red: Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvigon, Gamay
White: Chenin Blanc, Muscadet, Sauvignon Blanc

Languedoc-Roussillon: Situated below the Southern Rhone, Languedoc-Roussillon produces a massive amount of wine, using many varietals – much in an everyday-table-wine style. This area is one of the oldest and largest wine-making areas in the world – attractive to both New-World and Old-World producers looking for an opportunity to create exciting blends and single-varietal wines. The big-spicy red Rhone varietals are the primary grapes, along with some Cabernet and Merlot. Many wines are mixed in blends, but the warmer climate and fewer restrictions offer fresh diversity vs their Rhone and Bordeaux cousins. Overall quality is rising, and specific regions like Minervois, Vin de Pays d’Oc, and Corbieres have made a name for themselves in the past decade for their deep purple, earthy, full-bodied blends – raising the bar. Solid values can be found here under $15US, but there are also many basic table wines masquerading in the $15-20US category. Look for reviews and seek advice before spending more that $15US.

Red: Grenache, Mourvedre, Cinsaut, Carignan

Alsace: Aromatic white wines are Alsace’s claim to fame, mostly based on the Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris grapes. The styles range from bone-dry to sweet, and pair deftly with a broad range of foods, including tricky curries and spicy Asian dishes. They tend to be fragrant, floral, and spicy – and most are bottled as single varieties. Again, the diversity of styles and sweetness levels make the labels tricky. Most producers have a “house-style” that plots the majority of their wines at one spot on the sweet-to-dry continuum. Another basic trick (not always accurate) is the see the alcohol level – the lower ABVs tend to be sweeter, the higher, drier. The best way is to try for yourself, or ask a trusted shop. Always elegant, most often complex and interesting, these wine can be expensive, but tend to be of high quality and smart values.

White: Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Sylvaner

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 16, 2007 2:33 pm

    Thanks for the info, bud.

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