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A Very incomplete Guide to French Wine
Understanding French Wine Labels "Enough to make you dangerous!"
Over the last two years, I have published quick guides to understanding the wines of Italy, Spain, Australia and even the United States here in the newsletter, all while scrupulously avoiding the quagmire of regions, appellations and classifications that is France. My time finally ran out this month when I agreed to teach a course in wine appreciation for Zionsville Community Education Center and discovered I had plenty of material for hand outs on everywhere but France. It's not that I don't like French wine, I do. France is undeniably the most important wine producing country in the world, although not by nearly as wide a margin as a few years ago. It's that the sheer size and complexity of the classification systems defined by French wine law simply defy simplification. In any case, I have to have something to pass out next week when I try to explain how to read a French wine label, so here goes.
When people think of wine, it's hard not to think of France. France is the point of origin for most of the world's most famous grape varieties. Cabernet and Merlot hail from Bordeaux, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Burgundy and Syrah and Grenache from the Rhone Valley to mention but a few. Wine is made almost everywhere in France and is named and classified in the most confusing manner possible based upon petrified traditions and the most arcane and complex regulations imaginable. All of this perpetuates the mystique that allows true wine snobs to be secure in their snobbery. Learning the varieties and characteristics of France's 450 wine appellations is a lifetime undertaking and I have always felt that those who master it deserve to be snobbish. Serious Francophiles should move on now because, with that in mind, I will undertake to explain the basics of French wine in four pages or less....
To understand French wine, you must first understand that most French wine is named after places that are rigidly defined and registered by law. And, that this system is the result of the concept "gout de terroir" or "taste of place" that separates each region by virtue of their individual climate, soil and elevation, as well as the grape varietals that are suited to it. The system is hierarchical and the wine laws officially grant some wines higher rank then others based upon their place of origin.
The four major classifications of French wine are:
Appellation Controlee, or AOC is the highest class. On the label, the place of origin of the wine appears between the two words, as in Appellation Bordeaux Controlee. The places of origin generally go from very broad, an entire region like Bordeaux, to sub regions like St-Emilion within Bordeaux, or St-Emilion Grand Cru - a group of 200 Chateaus within St. Emilion. As the size of the appelation decreases, usually the prestige and price of the wine increases.
An AOC can be:
A region - i.e.. Bordeaux
A district within a region - i.e.. Cotes du Rhone
A sub district - i.e. Cotes du Rhone Villages
A village or commune - i.e. Cotes du Rhone Rasteau
A specific vineyard - i.e. Montrachet
Vins Delimites de Qualite Superieure, or VDQS wines. These words mean demarcated wine of superior quality and will appear below the name of the wine on the label. This is a class of wines you rarely see in the United States.
Vins de Pays, or VDP wines, are defined as country wines . This phrase will be used on the label followed by the region of the wines origin, like Vin du Pays Du Gard. Thanks to France's rigid class system some of the best wine bargains in the world carry the VDP designation.
Vins de Table, or VDT is simply table wine that carries no place name, varietal name or vintage. In the U.S. I guess we would call this generic wine. In France this stuff is a lot cheaper than the water and usually a lot less tasty.
The major French wine regions are:
Located in the northeastern corner of France, just across the Rhine river from Germany. Alsace wines have much more in common with Germany than France. However while the many of the same grapes are used, most Alsace wines are dry while German wines tend to be sweet.
Permitted grapes are Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Sylvaner, Pinot Noir and Muscat
Bordeaux is located on France's southern Atlantic coast and is divided into two zones called the Left Bank and the Right Bank. These zones are defined by the coming together of the Garonne and Dordogne rivers to form the Gironde Estuary that flows into the Atlantic. Bordeaux is generally acknowledged as the greatest wine region in the world based upon the reputation of its legendary red wines for longevity and improvement in the cellar. There are about 8,000 Chateaus and 13,000 wine producers in Bordeaux. The important red wine areas, classifications and communes are:
St. Emilion (sant em eel yon) St Emilion Grand Cru - a group of about 200 classified Chateaus
St. Emilion Grand Cru Classe - a group of about 60 classified Chateaus
St. Emilion Premier Grand Cru Classe - a group of about 13 classified Chateaus
Pomerol (pom eh roll)
Graves / Pessac-Leognan (grahv) (pay sac lay nyahn)
Haute-Medoc (oh meh doc)
St. Estephe (sant eh steff)
Pauillac (poy yac)
St. Julien (san jho lee ehn)
Margaux (mar go)
Medoc (meh doc) where the famous classification of 1855 took place
The Classification of 1855: Imagine a wine quality classification system based upon a group of wine merchants in 1855 who were asked to classify the Medoc wine chateaus into a hierarchy of quality groups for the Paris Exposition. They divided 61 Chateaus into:
5 - First Growths Including Lafite Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, Haut-Brion & Mouton Rothschild
14 - Second Growths
14 - Third Growths
10 - Fourth Growths
18 - Fifth Growths
As a result, the products of winemakers who have been dead for over 100 years still control, by law, the pricing and prestige of the wineries in the region today. A typical French self fulfilling prophecy....
The only Bordeaux region not famous forred wine, Sauternes produces sweet white wines made from Botrysized (nobel rot) Sauvignon Blanc and Semillion grapes.
Permitted red grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec.
Permitted white grapes are Sauvignon Blanc and Semillion
France's second great wine region is Burgundy, a cooler growing area in eastern France know for its great Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs as well as Gamays that are made in the southern districts of Maconnais and Beaujolais. Where Bordeaux is know for its great Chateaus and expansive vineyards, Burgundy is a region of tiny family holdings and small wineries where a single 100 acre Grand Cru vineyard might have 50 owners. Burgundy is divided into five basic districts and hundreds of Villages, and vineyard sites referred to as Premier Cru or Grand Cru. The five districts and a few of the important Villages and vineyards, beginning in the North, are:
Chablis - the largest Chardonnay producing region in the world
Premier Crus - 40 designated vineyards
Grand Crus - 7 designated vineyards
Cote d'Or - the "Golden Slope" is the heart of Burgundy where all of the most famous (and expensive) red and white Burgundies are produced exclusively from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The region is divided into two parts, north and south, with the north producing primarily reds and the south producing plenty of both, but most famous for their whites.
Cotes de Nuits - comprised of 9 villages with multiple Premier and Grand Cru vineyard sites: Marsannay, Fixin, Gevrey-Chambertin, Morey-St.Denis, Chambolle-Musigny, Vougeot, Flagey-Romanee and Nuits-St.George
Cotes de Beaune - comprised of 17 villages with multiple Premier and Grand Cru vineyard sites: Ladoix, Pernand-Vergelesses, Aloxe-Corton, Savigny-les-Beaunes, Chorey-les-Beaune, Pommard, Volnay, Monthelie, Auxey-Duresses, Meursault, Blagny, Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrache, St.Aubin, St.Romain, Saneney and Maranges
Cote Chalonnaise - is a group of 4 villages just to the south of the Cote d'Or also producing red and white Burgundies that are generally regarded as of lesser quality than those of its neighbor to the north - more French self-fulfilling prophecy in action. Look for value Burgundies from Mercury, Rully, Givry and Montagny.
Maconnais - is most famous for their Chardonnays but also produces reds from Gamay and Pinot Noir. Macon wines are generally more affordable than the wines of the Cote d'Or with the whites of Pouilly Fuisse generally considered to be the best. Macon, Macon Villages, St.Veran, Pouilly Vinzelles, Pouilly Loche and Pouilly Fuisse.
Beaujolais - is the southernmost region of Burgundy and the home of the Gamay grape. The region is famous for, or to blame for Beaujolais Nouveau, depending upon your point of view. The serious wines of the region come from a group of 39 villages called Beaujolais Villages and 10 hillside sites producing Cru Beaujolais called Brouilly, Cote de Brouilly, Regnie, Morgon, Chiroubles, Flurie, Moulin a Vent, Chenas, Julienas and St. Amour.
Permitted red grapes are Pinot Noir and Gamay
Permitted white grapes are Chardonnay and Aligote
All Champagne is sparkling wine. But not all sparkling wine is Champagne. True Champagne can only come from the Champagne region of France. Located in the northeastern corner of France its cool climate produces highly acidic Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The three primary growing areas are:
Montagne de Reimes for Pinot Noir
Cotes des Blancs for Chardonay
Vallee de la Marne for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier
The primary styles of wine are:
Non-Vintage - Typically a blend of all three grapes for up to 3 harvests are used to blend a unique and consistant product that is the hallmark of each Champagne house. Non- vintage Champagne must be aged 15 months by law.
Vintage - Champagne houses will declare a vintage when the harvest is good enough to create a wine without blending from previous years. Only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are usually used in Vintage Champagne blends that are generally aged 2 years longer than non-vintage.
Prestige Bottlings - Vintage Champagnes made using only the very best lots of wine from the choicest vineyards (why pay less).
Rose - Champagne made by leaving the skins on the Pinot Noir during fermentation long enough to color the wine pink.
Blanc de Blancs - Champagnes made only from Chardonnay grapes and tend to be lighter and more delicate.
Sweetness classifications for Champagne are:
Extra Brut - completely dry
Brut - dry
Extra Dry - medium dry
Sec - lightly sweet
Demi Sec - sweet
Doux - very sweet
Permitted grapes are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier
The Loire (l'wahr) Valley follow the Loire river across northwest France all the way to the Atlantic. The generally cool climate makes the Loire home to a variety of mostly lighter-bodied white wines, none of them Chardonnay. The region is divided roughly into 5 areas:
Pays Nantais - at the mouth of the river is best known for their Muscadet, a light, dry rather low alcohol, white wine that is very well suited to shellfish.
Vouvray - an area that produces white wines made entirely from Chennin Blanc that can be vinted anywhere from sweet to very dry.
Anjou - is also know for their Chennin Blanc, especially 2 sweet, botrysized wines from Quarts de Chaumes and Bonnezuax.
Touraine - wines from Chennin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and most notably Cabernet Franc from AOC's of Chinon and Bourgeil.
Central Vineyards - is primarily know for its Sauvignon Blanc especially those from Pouilly Fume and Sancerre.
Permitted red grapes are Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc
Permitted white grapes are Muscadet, Sauvignon Blanc, Chennin Blanc and Chardonnay
I like to tell people that the Rhone Valley is where the Italians taught the French how to make wine. Actually the Romans had cultivated the Rhone and were making wine almost 200 years before Christ. The Rhone is one of France's warmest growing regions and is best known for its rich blended red wines. The Rhone is divided into 2 regions, north and south, with the south providing the production, almost 90%, and the north the most famous wines.
Northern Rhone Valley - is most famous for it's Syrah based wines from the AOC's of Hermitage and Cote-Rotie as well as white Viognier from Condrieu. Lesser lights also producing Syrah based reds and Marsanne and Roussanne based whites are Chateau Grillet, St.Joseph, Crozes Hermitage and Cornas.
Southern Rhone Valley - produces primarily red wines blended from Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre. The most famous southern appellation is Chateauneuf de Pape, named for the 14th century papal court in Avignon. The largest is Cotes du Rhone comprising over 100,000 acres. Followed by Cotes du Rhone Villages comprising over 50 communes and the single village wines like Gigondas and Vacqueyras. You can look to the southern Rhone for some of the best values in France on AOC level wines.
Primary red grapes are Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Cinsault
Primary white grapes are Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne and Clairette
We have covered what most people consider France's 6 most important wine growing areas. These areas comprise less than 50% of the regions producing wine in France. As with all things French, there is a strict hierarchy and no wine from an unimportant region could ever pretend to aspire to the status of a Chateau that was a member of a classified Bordeaux Growth. Certainly when you can fetch over $100 a bottle by virtue of your name and location it makes it easier to maintain quality. But the truth is, many great undervalued wines are made in France in the lesser known regions like:
Languedoc-Roussillon - Frances largest wine region, in the warmest part of southern France, produces many very good Vin du Pay as well as fine wines from virtually unknown AOC's like Minervois, Costieres de Nimes and Corbieres. They also produce an ocean of "Plonk" (a British term I leave you to decipher) that fills the grocery stores shelves of Great Britain and France.
Provence - home to many VDP simple rose and Rhone style blends that can sell for $5 to $8 and taste like $15 to $20. Also home to lesser known AOC's that produce quality wines like Bandol, Cotes de Provence and Les Baux de Provence.
The South-West - is filled with remote vineyards planed with obscure grapes and AOC's rarely seen on an American wine shelf. A few notables are Madiran, Galliac, Cahors, Bergerac and Monbazillac.
Personal Thoughts on France
Parting notes of pure opinion: Putting this guide together has only served to confirm my opinions regarding the entire French concept of "Terroir" and some of the other absurdities created by France's rigid hierarchical classification system.
1.) Too often the concept of "Terroir" is used to imply that the best possible conditions for a particular grape variety is where someone happened to first plant it 2,000 years ago. Face it... Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot perform better in Northern California than they ever have in Bordeaux! The Brits (who invented wine snobbery, not the French) just got used to drinking lean wine from less than ripe grapes!
2.) Ever wonder why the French actually send people to jail for "wine crimes?" Imagine this, you own a small portion of one of the Grand Cru Vineyards of the Cotes de Beaune and your acclaimed White Burgundy commands well over $100 per bottle. Unfortunately your entire production is less than 600 cases, enough to make a good living but hardly enough to afford that new Mercedes you want. And then there is your cousin, who owns 100 hectors in one of unclassified areas of the region and produces a lot of pretty good VDP Chardonnay that struggles to command $8 a bottle in the grocery store, without a hope of ever commanding more. Oh... the temptation to use his juice to extend your production just enough for that Mercedes....or, maybe one for you and one for him!
I'll take the "free market" system any day... In California Silver Oak can command $65+ a bottle and sell everything they make because they have spent over 25 years building a reputation for the single minded pursuit of excellence in producing Cabernet Sauvignon. At the same time the winemaker down the road may struggle to command $20 a bottle, even though he feels that his wine is every bit as good. But, at least he knows that he has the chance to become the next cult wine, so he keeps trying. How hard would he try if the government declared Silver Oak's vineyards a Grand Cru and his a simple Napa AOC.
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