France, whether we initially say we love or hate French wine, needs your attention.
There is no beating around the bush here. France is The Grandfather of wine, where the wine world takes its influence and it deserves our respect.
Believe me in that if you learn about French wine-its grapes, its flavours, its wine regions and general ethos, then you will gain a superb foundation. You will attain a greater understanding of wine in general, the wine world itself and the overall hierarchy of wine.
This can only be of benefit and could help you discover and fall in love with French wines- first tip in the case of French wines is to avoid the cheap ones as they leave a lot to be desired and will put you off forever!
Like the poem, when she was good she was very, very good, but when she was bad she was horrid! Only too true here!
France itself really is the embodiment of the Old World of wine. For centuries, France has produced some of the most famous and best wines in the world.
Most of the International grape varieties e.g. Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah etc., all originate from France. This is where it all began.
The culture, mystery and romance of France are centred around wine and we can only dream of retiring to a chateau with our own wine cellar, a chair and some cheese…..
France literally oozes wine from its pores. It lives and breathes the history and tradition of winemaking (and drinking!) and is well deserved in its ranking as producing the top wines in the world.
From the spectacular, long-lived Premier crus of Bordeaux; the luscious apricot, honey sweet wines of Sauternes; the golden, flowery white wines of Burgundy; to the elegant sparklers of Champagne!
Where do I start to tell you about this fascinating world….or country should I say! There is so much to tell you that I have broken down France into its main regions with further, more in depth knowledge relating to each (see below for each region to find out much more).
Vintages vary year on year in France. This is because the climate can vary so much. Rains damaging crops, not enough sun to ripen the grapes etc. This ‘non-guarantee’ of a perfect wine every year makes the years when it does happen, all the more special and unique. And this is reflected in the price tag!
This is why people talk a lot about vintage variation in French wines, with some years being good and some being poor. Don’t worry trying to remember them to begin with, as there are charts you can refer to easily.
These top ends wines are mainly blends of different grape varieties. This is due to the varying climate so the winemakers can hedge their bets somewhat, by blending the varieties to take advantage of eachother’s beneficial characteristics. To produce a very good wine even if it’s a mediocre year. It’s only excellent wine in the good years!
In the case of Champagne, the blending is carried out with %%%non-vintage%%% Champagne for the same purpose- but they produce a blend of different years’ base wines instead (same grapes but different years). This produces the atypical flavour and a consistent style of the Champagne house.
Only in exceptional years a vintage Champagne is released made from the grapes only harvested in that year. These wines are much more complex and much more expensive.
People can find French wine confusing; I certainly found it intimidating to say the least. The reason is, because with French wines there are no brands and no grape varieties given on the label. This is the Old World way. So how do you choose one and where do you start?
The wines are named after regions, districts, villages, and vineyards (Chateaux or Domaines). It is worth noting that Chateaux are parcels of land, vineyards; they don’t actually have to have a chateau built on the land. But most grand ones do!
The more specific i.e. the smaller the area, named on the label, then usually the better the wine is. Not guaranteed but a general rule of thumb. This is a good tip to remember, for example, a bottle that says red Bordeaux will be of less quality than a bottle stating Chateau Bloggs, Medoc, Bordeaux.
This is because the grapes sourced for the latter can only come from this specific vineyard. To name a vineyard on the label they have to adhere to particular stringent rules and regulations affecting quality.
The Old World way rules here, but once you break it down into areas, districts and villages you can then discover particular preferred vineyards in time by trial and error. There is no need to learn them.
Each vineyard, chateau or domain is like a brand really. But its best and easier to learn the grape varieties and style of wine in each area (all different). Then the districts first and the rest will just come later. It’s fun to discover them, I promise!
The ranking of wines in France, from 2010, are AC (Appellation d’Origine Controlee)→Vin de Pays (country wine)→Vin de Table(table wine).
Generally, not always, AC wines are the best, top rated wines due to the adherence to strict rules and regulations. For example, amount produced, strictly controlled area from which it originates, % grape varieties used in a blend etc. You don’t need to learn these rules and regulations, just know they exist and that they influence the hierarchy of the wines and thus their quality and price.
The final point that needs to be touched upon before you delve into the regions, is the magical concept of terroir (French word with no literal translation, pronounced ‘ter-waar’).
Terroir is the divider between the Old and New World theories (along with traditional techniques), and being a bit of a romantic myself, I must say I tend to agree with the French attitude towards their grape growing!
The French believe that ‘terroir’ is the certain je ne sais quoi that makes a wine so special, that it has a sense of place. This is why they name their wines by place, not brand. They believe that every possible factor, not just climate, such as the type of soil, sub-soil, altitude, aspect of the vineyards, slope, direction which the vine faces etc, all have an effect on the wines final style.
It does make sense that there must be something to explain why the exact same wine, made from the same grapes in the same way from a neighbouring vineyard can be so totally different. Just a few paces in distance can differentiate between a Premier Cru vineyard to a table wine! Well, that is slightly extreme but it illustrates my point.
For example, in Burgundy, even the top Gran Crus next door to each other can differ from one another, one’s sales outstripping the others all due to a little extra limestone in the soil. That is true terroir at work!
If you think about us, as people, we are like wine. We all have a sense of place, an influence of where we came from- accents, behaviour, and attitude.
These characteristics came from where we were brought up, along with other factors that have influenced our life such as family, friends, and experiences. They have moulded us into what we are today. It is just the same with vines!
So, I don’t think it hurts to believe in the magic of terroir- life would be boring if we didn’t believe!
Discover each French wine region in more depth by visiting each section.