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Consumption of French wines has been on the decline for the past twenty years. This is due to an increase in the selection of quality wines from other countries, unchanged marketing from the French winemakers and a general attitude against the French. However, let’s pretend the French still rule the wine world and (as my three year old says) “let’s really pretend” we like them. The only thing hindering us now from drinking French wines is a little insight. This edition of The BAR is an extremely brief introduction to the wines of France.
France is the largest Western European nation with an area slightly less than twice the size of Colorado. It has generally cool winters and mild summers with a terrain that alternates between flat and rolling hills. The wine industry in France dates back centuries with its rise in stature resting upon its ideal grape-growing conditions and its relationship with England and their love of French wine. Although France has seen a decrease in its vineyards and wine production, it continues to be the number one producer in the world with about 5.9 million liters per year.
It’s the Law
French wines are legally controlled by the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (IANO), which oversees the labeling hierarchy, and the Service de Repression des Fraudes, which is responsible for making sure the wine laws are followed. They are now under the European Community’s authority. French wines are regulated under a structure called Appellation d’Origine Controllee or AC or AOC. This system dictates what varieties can be grown where, the types of soil said varieties can be grown in, what viticultural practices can be employed, production levels, which methods can be used to make the wine as well as bottling and labeling requirements. There is a set standard for the entire country along with specifics that vary from region to region. “AOC” or “AC” will be present on the label if the wine meets these criteria. If the wine meets the specific regional measures, then the region name will appear after the AOC/AC (AOC Bordeaux). In the US, Vin de Pays or Vins de Table might be seen on the labels. This indicates that these wines have met a less stringent set of production standards, but nonetheless have followed some guidelines. One point to note, by having one of these distinctions on the label does not assure quality, only that the producer followed specified guidelines. However, it is assumed that by following these regulations the wine will result in better quality.
Terroir and The Label
France places more importance on where the grape was grown than the actual grape. That is, they feel the finished product is a result of the geographic factors of the place – rainfall, soil type, hours of sunlight and wind. This concept is called terroir. Each region has its own distinct terroir along with its own production style (that suits the varieties). As such, French wine is labeled by the place it is made, rather than the grape varieties. As a consumer, you need to remember which varieties are grown where in France to know what you are getting in the bottle. For example, in Beaujolais, Gamay grapes are grown and made into light, fruity reds. Thus, when looking at a Georges DuBoeuf label, it won’t say “Gamay” but simply “Beaujolais”. There is a slow movement to change this and place variety names on the bottles as French producers are realizing this isn’t a very consumer-friendly system.
The Most Famous of All
Bordeaux is probably the most famous wine region in the world as it has both a long history as well as traditionally some really great wines. As stated earlier, one of the reasons why French wines became popular was due to established relationships with England. Long story, short, years ago, there was a British King who married a Bordelaise girl and brought back local wine to make her happy. His rich friends loved the stuff, had more shipped over and the demand for Bordeaux wines was created. Although there are differences in the vintages from year to year, the quality of Bordeaux wines remains constant. This region is situated in an area between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gironde River. This shield helps to maintain stable temperatures and a consistent environment. Red wines comprise approximately 85% of Bordeaux’s wine production. Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec are the region’s approved red varieties and Sauvignon Blanc and Semillion are the whites. If you hear the terms, “Bordeaux blend”, “Claret” or “Meritage” - think Bordeaux red grape variety blend.
Bordeaux labels are broken down in the following manner. Bordeaux is the region. There are then six districts or sub-regions (Medoc, Graves, Pomerol, St. Emilion, Entre Deux Mers, and Cotes de Bourg). Within these are communes or villages. For example, in Medoc you will find St-Estephe, St-Julien and Pauillac. Within the villages are individual estates or chateaux. The more specific the label, the better quality as the individual producer’s reputation is at stake, rather than a group of winemakers with no particular name.
Each district has its own style of wine related to the emphasis of which grapes are grown. Medoc is full of Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Emilion and Pomerol are Merlot areas, Graves and Entre-Deux Mers are white wine places and Cotes de Bourg is a combination of the reds.
Due to the high quantity of tannins in the Cabs, Bordeaux wines, on average will age for 5-15 years. The red wines tend to be full bodied and powerful while the whites are either fruity-fresh or dry and rich.
The Other Great Region
Bordeaux and Burgundy both produce wines of immense quality and distinction and they are both wine regions in France. Outside of that, they are few similarities. While the reds of Bordeaux are big and bold, the reds of Burgundy are soft and supple and the Bordeaux whites are fresh and crisp and in Burgundy there are rich and full. The main red grape of Burgundy is Pinot Noir and the predominant white is Chardonnay.
Most of the wine from Burgundy is made from a collective pool of grapes and resources. There are two main collectives through which the wine is bottled. The first is a co-operative, where the vineyards are subdivided into smaller parcels that are held by different owners. The wine is sold under a common name and explains why you will see several wines labeled with the same vineyard name. The quality of these wines may differ from producer to producer. The second system of this collective wine making takes place through a negoicant. This is a firm that buys grape must from several local growers and then blends these to sell under their house label. There are also individual estates, like the Chateaux in Bordeaux, but are called Domaines in Burgundy.
Burgundy is divided into seven districts. There is Chablis where Chardonnay reigns and the Pinot Noir areas of Cote de Nuits, Cote de Beaune and Cote Chalonnaise. Macon is filled with both reds and whites and the well-known Pouilly-Fuisse (Chardonnay). Beaujolais sits in Burgundy and is Gamay grape country. Here you’ll find young, fresh wines that can use a little chilling beforehand.
The Littlest Region
Alsace is a little region close to the German border. Although both Germany and Alsace grow similar varieties, the styles are quite different. Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Blanc are the main varieties with the Alsatian versions being drier, fuller and slightly more alcoholic than their German counterparts. Unlike other French regions, Alsace wines will carry variety names on their labels. One of my all time favorites is an Alsatian Pinot Blanc.
The Rhone Valley
The Rhone Valley is a prime producer of full bodied, rich, robust reds. The red grapes include Syrah, Grenache and Cinsault. There whites that are grown include Viogner, Marsanne and Rousanne. One of the well-known wines from this region is Chateauneuf-du-Pape. It is made from a combination of 13 red and white varieties. However, it is the Grenache and Syrah that stand out. There is both a young, light style and an aged, richer version. Look for the aged-style.
The Loire Valley
Pouilly-Fume is a crisp yet rich Sauvignon Blanc made in Pouilly-sur-Loire in the Loire Valley.
Break out the Bubbly
Champagne itself is a designated wine region in the northern part of France. Sparkling wine is made from the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes that grow here. Due to, what is essentially naming rights; the only sparkling wine in the world that can be called Champagne must be produced in this region. (There are international law suits pending regarding this issue.) A champagne company is called a House and the wine produced in a given year is a cuvee. There are a few production methods to making the wine bubble with everything from a complete hands-on process to simply injecting carbon dioxide into the vats. The expense to these wines derives from the production methods used; the more personal the winemaking, the more expensive the wine. These particular wines will be labeled “methode champenoise”
or “traditionnelle” which is the only way the wine can be made in this region.
Chambord is a black raspberry liqueur with honey flavoring. It can be mixed with milk or soda and served on the rocks or make a chilled raspberry martini.
The Beverage Alcohol Report (The BAR) is published on a monthly basis compliments of Liana Bennett. It main purpose is to further the knowledge, appreciation and general enjoyment of all alcoholic beverages. Your comments, questions and tasting stories can be sent to email@example.com . Please feel free to share this e-newsletter with your friends or forward their email address to Liana to be added to the list. Thank you and of course, I hope you have enjoyed The BAR and have learned something new!
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