These days, everyone in my family is fascinated by France—so much so that I’m taking my mom to Normandy later this year so she can see where the beginning of the end of World War II took place. So it seems only fitting that we had a My Wine Tribe tasting of French wines on June 6, the anniversary of D-Day.
In preparation for the tasting, I needed to get a handle on the wines of France. Given that I don’t speak French nor do I know a lot about the rich history of French winemaking, it hasn’t been easy. But for my edification and yours, here’s a primer on French wines.
Three Facts about French Wine
Fact No. 2: While wine is produced nearly everywhere in France, the top five wine producing regions based on acres of vines are Languedoc- Roussillon, Bordeaux, Rhone, Loire Valley and Burgundy.
Fact No. 3: French wine labels identify where the grapes were grown by listing both region and appellation, or AOC. AOCs are similar to our system of American Viticulture Areas, or AVAs, and a region can be home to many. In Bordeaux, for example, there are 57 AOCs.
Now, here’s the kicker: most French wines do not list grape varietals on the label. It seems the patrimony of each French man and woman includes knowledge of the main wine grapes in each region of their lovely country. Since you know that the red wine grape of the Rhone region is Syrah, for example, a label can tell you more by listing the wine’s AOC than it can by telling you it’s a Syrah—which of course you already know because you are French.
I must admit I had no idea about any of this.
C’est La Vie, Baby
If you are American like me, you may be asking yourself why the French are so paticular with their tricky labeling system. But according to David Butler, the owner of Le Caviste, a French wine bar in Seattle, “this labeling scheme speaks directly to the very ethos of French winemaking”.
“The French are not trying to capture the essence of a grape,” David explained to me. “Rather, they are capturing the essence of a place. The aim of the French is that wine should taste like where it comes from, not what it’s made of. A Pinot Noir from Sancerre shouldn’t taste like a Pinot Noir from Savigny-les-Beaune . . . everything about those two places is uniquely and profoundly different.”
Just in Time, a Cheat Sheet
Did I mention that there are 450 AOCs in France? I don’t think I’ll be able to memorize them. So to help myself—and you—I’ve prepared this handy list of the major regions in France, including key grapes and AOCs in each.
|Region||Typical Grapes Used||What’s Notable About This Region?|
|Languedoc-Roussillon||Red: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourvedre, Grenache|
White: Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay
|This the single largest grape producing region in the world and with its heft comes huge variety and a spectrum of quality.|
|Bordeaux||Red: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot||With a stable climate, hundreds of years of winemaking experience and zillions of awards for its wines, this is the most storied and prestigious wine producing region in the world. Bordeaux wines are typically red blends consisting of the five grapes listed to the left.|
White: Marsanne, Rousanne and Viognier
|Known for reds, the Rhone Valley is in the southeast of France. The major AOC is the Cotes de Rhone. Wines from the north part of the region are either Syrah only or Syrah- based blends. The southern Rhone wines are all Grenache-based blends, the most famous being Châteauneuf-du-Pape.|
|Loire Valley||Red: Cabernet Franc|
White: Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc
|Primarily a white wine region in Central and Western France. The best known AOC is the Sancerre. Also famous for being France’s second largest producer of sparkling wines, after Champagne.|
|Burgundy||Red: Pinot Noir and Gamay|
|Red and white wines are of equal importance here. Due to a couple of bad weather years, the price of Burgundy wines is on the rise—this isn’t the place to look for value wines. Regardless, this is a region that inspires as much, if not more, passion as Bordeaux.|
Phew, that is a lot to learn. I don’t know about you, but my best learning comes through experience. Clearly an excursion to France is needed. In the meantime, it is time to start drinking my way through the regions.
What? It’s just for research . . .