On The Grapevine
By Bro Mike , Wine Correspondent
Following up from the previous article on the French wine labels and classification system the initial step in learning about French wines is to learn what grape varieties are allowed to be grown and bottled in the various classified French wine regions. There are seven primary wine-producing regions in France. Alsace, Bordeaux, Bourgogne (Burgundy), Champagne, Loire, Provence and the Cotes du Rhone (Rhone Valley) comprise the dominant French wine regions. These regions, are known for particular grape varietals as dictated by the district's indigenous terroir (soil, climate and topography). The map below covers the French wine regions.
The Major Wine Growing Regions
Bordeaux– This famous region is in the south west of France along the Gironde river estuary and the Garonne and Dordogne rivers. With over 12,000 winegrowers and over 50 diverse growing appellations, it is no wonder that Bordeaux is the red wine capital of France. Over 80% of the wine produced in Bordeaux is red, primarily from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot grapes (the legendary Bordeaux blend). The two prevailing red wine-producing subregions of Bordeaux are aptly referred to as "Left Bank" and "Right Bank." The Left Bank has soils with higher gravel content that favor Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. French wines from the Left Bank usually require more time to mature and will age for years. While the Right Bank lends itself to soil with more clay, preferring the Merlot grapes, with their early-ripening characteristics. The Right Bank wines are typically better suited for beginning Bordeaux wine drinkers, as they have lower tannin content, more fruit-forward flavor and are more inviting initially. Bordeaux wines can fit a myriad of budgets with prices per bottle ranging from $6 to $500+, with $20-$40 buying a very nice wine, suitable for dinner parties to gift-giving. The famous distinctive area appellations include the Medoc, Graves, St Emillion and local appelations such as Pauillic and Saint-Estephe. It should also be noted that the Bordeaux region is also famed for Sauternes (made from sauvignon blanc, semillion and muscadelle grapes), a delightfully sweet white wine that has earned a reputation for being among the world's finest for dessert wines.
Bourgogne (Burgundy)- The French wine-growing region of Burgundy is legendary for its legacy of both red Burgundy (Pinot Noir) and white Burgundy wines (Chardonnay). Burgundy lies on the eastern side of France and covers just over 100 miles. The dominating grape varietals grown in this region are Pinot Noir (making Red Burgundy wines), Chardonnay (making White Burgundy wines) and Gamay (making Beaujolais). Burgundy's moderate climate with warm summers and cold winters allow the high-maintenance Pinot Noir grape to grow particularly well, however Red Burgundy wines are often on the pricier side. White Burgundy is a Chardonnay Lover's delight, with flavors of peaches and honey, crisp acidity and complex flavors that pair particularly well with seafood. Chablis are a unique forms of Chardonnay as they are not aged in oak, but instead winemakers ferment them in stainless steel, making a lighter-bodied white wine. As for Beaujolais - this is certainly a fun, affordable and very approachable red wine. Perfect for those beginning their red wine adventures, with lots of fruit-flavor, low tannins and general palate appeal. You can pick up a reasonble Beaujolais for $10 to $20. These are terrific warm weather wines.
Cotes du Rhone (the Rhone Valley) - The Rhone Valley lies in southeastern France, providing distinct growing conditions to produce some of France's best bargain red wines.
Grenache, Syrah (shiraz) and Viognier are the primary grape varietals grown in this region. The laid-back Grenache grapes flourish in the sizzling southern Rhone, producing red wines that are good deals, with good flavor and plenty of food pairing options. The northern Rhone specializes in Syrah grapes, manifesting themselves into the two most popular red wines the Hermitage and the Cote Rotie.
Alsace- Unlike the rest of France, Alsace names its wines by grape varietal instead of just place names of origin. White wines comprise the vast majority of Alsace wines. Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Riesling are the most noteworthy of the Alsace varietals. The Alsace Gewurztraminer has remarkable flavors, unlike any New World wines, low acidity, high alcohol content all wrapped in a zesty blend of aromatic spice. The Alsace Pinot Blanc is reasonably priced and is a light-bodied white wine. The Pinot Gris has a fuller-body and reveals a rich flavor profile. The traditional Alsace Riesling is a dry, white wine with characteristic mineral nuances.
The Loire Valley - Known for its white wines mainly Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Muscadet, the Loire Valley rests on the northwest side of France. The wines from the Loire Valley come in a vast array of styles, from dry to sweet and from white to sparkling - wines from the Loire are typically lighter-bodied due to the cooler climate. Styles to keep an eye out for include Pouilly-Fume (made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes), Sancerre (also made from Sauvignon Blanc), Muscadet (made from the Muscadet grape), and Vouvray (from the Chenin Blanc grape).
Champagne - The Champagne region, centered on the towns of Reims (Rheims) and Epernay, is the most northern of France's major vineyards. The grape varieties used in Champagne are the red varirties Pinot Noit and Pinot Meunier (the white juce is used) and Chardonnay. Unlike most of the best French wines, champagnes are blended in order to produce either non vintage champagnes (blended from different years) or vintage champagne, blended from wines of the same harvest. Consequently, since the quality of the champagne ultimately depends on a balance between the quality of the grapes and the skill of the blenders, Champagnes are also ranked and promoted by producer, not by any more finely delimited area appellation. Possibly the most highly rated of blends is Krug; other well appreciated brands include Mumm, Bollinger and Heidsieck, not to mention the very well known brands of Moët & Chandon and Taittinger. The distinct taste and purity of real champagne is certainly due to the chalky soil and the continental growing conditions that abound in the Champagne region. Although many people imagine that Champagnes are all white, this is not quite true as Rosé champagnes also exist.
France has an amazingly broad spectrum of terroir, wine/grape varieties and quality and has had a huge impact on grape varietals grown and styles made in Australia, albeit with our own unique characteristics