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A CRASH COURSE IN FRENCH WINES

Posted on: May 5th, 2014 by Clare No Comments

France is  super power when it comes to wine production: over 300 AOC’s (regions or places), at least 200 varieties, an endless array of styles and a unique quality control system which governs the whole industry. The country is incredibly varied in climate from north to south and east to west, along with dramatic changes in soil, aspect and altitude.

When buying French wine the first thing you’ll notice is that the labelling is different. Australian producers generally label their wine by the grape variety – which makes it easy to find what you’re looking for. French producers (and most of Europe too) often label their wines by the region – with often no mention of the grape variety. So the first step is understanding the main wine styles each region produces and the grape varieties they use.

There is an excellent reason for these regulations – they give consumers confidence in the quality of the product, as the processes have been regulated. It also means that wines of low quality cannot be overpriced – and the expensive wines are  of acknowledged quality.

The details below focus on wines which are widely available in Australia.

WHITE WINES

Where to start then? Start with Alsace. The custom here is unique in that the grape varieties appear on the labels. Handy! Try a pinot gris, gewürztraminer or a riesling on the dry-ish side of things. Next up head to Sancerre for a re-education of all things sauvignon blanc, and then to Chablis for a re-education in chardonnay. If you’d like to explore minerality head to Muscadet – where the wines are tight, focused, high in acid and distinctly mineral, and while you’re there try the local Vouvray – made from chenin blanc and available in wither ‘sec’ (dry) or ‘demi-sec’ (off dry).

For fuller bodied, more serious wines start by exploring white Burgundy – made from chardonnay. The main villages are Meursault, St. Aubin, Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet and Macon. Each with their own identity however as new generations become involved, the village typicity is less predictable than it has been; so making assumptions about a village style is tricky.  Oak use is common especially in the cru status wines, as is lees stirring; often these icon wines are cellared for decades before reaching their peak.

REGION GRAPE VARIETY – WHITES
STYLE
Alsace Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewtz. Lean & dry through to luscious & sweet
Champagne Chardonnay (+ Pinot Noir) Fine& tense through to nutty/developed
Sancerre Sauvignon Blanc Taught, savoury, high acid, restrained
Pouilly-Fume Sauvignon Blanc Similar to Sancerre, yet often fuller
Vouvray Chenin Blanc Waxy, flavoursome – from dry to sweet
Muscadet Melon De Bourgogne Stony, mineral, acidic, sometimes yeasty
Chablis Chardonnay Focused, light, lean, acidic, mineral
White Burgundy Chardonnay Varies yet often fuller (+oak) than Chablis
Rhone Blanc Viognier, Rousanne, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc Neutral through to age-worthy & rich
Languedoc Grenache Blanc, Picpoul Simple, delicious, juicy, value $$
Bordeaux Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc Simple, aromatic, clean, summery

RED WINES

Pinot noir, the noble red grape of Burgundy responds to subtle variations in terroir (place) more than most other varieties. For this reason, Burgundy – over centuries of wine making, tasting and evaluating – is divided meticulously into AOC, 1er Cru and Grand Cru vineyards (as opposed to the producer system used in Bordeaux), which are closely monitored by the government throughout the vinification process in order to maintain quality and reputation. Buying guide: AOC Bourgogne Rouge = $35 + ; 1er Cru = $70 + Grand Cru = $250 +

With almost 80,000 hectares of vines (compare to Australia’s total of 160,000!), the Rhone Valley  produces mainly red wines, and a smattering of whites. In total the north accounts for only 5% of volume, but makes up for it in price – these wines are often very expensive and scarce – at least $100 per bottle in Australia. Mostly based around the syrah/shiraz grape, these are deeply coloured, dense, long lived wines with black fruit characters. The southern Rhone has fewer appellations, and tends to produce lots of wine under the Cotes Du Rhone and Cotes Du Rhone Village labels, which are easier to get hold of and generally retail for under $40. These wines are usually a blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre. the grenache component lends low tannin, high alcohol and lots of juicy red fruit & spice flavours. Shiraz and mourvedre lend colour and tannin.

The wines of Bordeaux are almost always blended – the reds being classically a base blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot – which are very complimentary; the total is indeed greater than the sum of its parts. The left bank regions are cabernet sauvignon dominant and the right bank is more suited to merlot production. Here the merlot acts to soften the more tannic and potentially astringent cabernet sauvignon and to even out the palate weight. Bordeaux uses a producer rating system of First to Fifth Growth (a total of only 54 producers) which are collectively considered iconic.  Outside of this system most wines which make it to Australia are labelled at Cru Bourgeois or Bordeaux Superior these retail anywhere from $20 – $60 and can represent excellent value.

Responsible for a a third of France’s wine production is the enormous region of Languedoc Roussillon – spanning the south west of France from the Spanish border across to Provence. Officially separate regions but generally considered as one, the dominant grape varieties are  carignan, grenache, syrah, mourvedre, cinsault, cabernet sauvignon & merlot. The main AOC’s are: Coteaux du Languedoc AC, Minervois AC, Corbieres AC, Fitou & Cotes du Roussillon AC.

High volumes of low quality wine are produced here however there is a significant movement towards quality – especially the exported wines. The warm climate produces juicy, dense, extremely likeable wines – which are often competitively priced.

REGION

GRAPE VARIETY – REDS
STYLE
Champagne Chard, Pinot Noir & P Meunier Fine& tense through to nutty/developed
Chinon (Loire) Cabernet Franc Mid weight, herbal, black fruit, expressive
Red Burgundy Pinot Noir Aromatic, complex, beguiling, silky, fine
Hermitage /Croze Shiraz dominant Elegant, dense, red fruit, fine spice, tannic
St. Joseph Shiraz dominant Robust, long lived, spicy, oaked, tannic
Cote Rotie Shiraz with small % viognier Charming, feminine, spice & dark fruit
Cornas

Shiraz

Inky, concentrated, oak, dark fruit, tannic
Southern Rhone Shiraz, Grenache, Mourvedre Mid weight, value $$, juicy, flavoursome
Chateauneuf du Pape Grenache, Shiraz Lifted, expressive, fine yet concentrated
Languedoc Grenache Simple, delicious, juicy, value $$
Bordeaux Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot Masculine, tannic, robust, oak, dense

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