Taking the mystique out of French wines
French wines have been the worlds benchmark of quality wines. Why is it that so many have never tried a French wine? Partly its due to the French wine label, which until recently did not allow the name of the grape variety to be listed on the label. Only the region from which the grape was grown could be listed, regions with which many of us are not familiar. Another stumbling block for most when selecting a wine is the demarcation. With Burgundy on the label, Californians relate to Carlo Rossi and jug wine, while in France, red burgundy is produced from pinot noir, and white burgundy is made from 100 percent chardonnay. Chablis is another misleading name for most: it is not a white table wine from Almaden winery, but it is an area in northern Burgundy which produces only white wines made from 100 percent chardonnay grapes. Knowing a little about the major wine growing regions, the major grapes grown in that region, and the type of wines produced in that region will help you a great deal in selecting a bottle or glass of French wine in the future.
Alsace, located in northern France, produces mostly white wines that are dry and should be enjoyed between one to five years from the bottling date. The major grapes in this region are Reisling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc and Tokay-Pinot gris. You can also find light reds from this region, made from the Pinot Noir grape, but white wines rule from this region. Alsace is the only region to legally be able to list the grape variety on their labels.Bordeaux is one of the worlds best known wine-growing regions. There are 57 wine-growing areas within the Bordeaux region: Medoc, Pomerol, Graves/Pessac-Leognan, and Saint Emilion are the top four red wine production areas; and Graves and Sauternes are the two top white wine producing areas.The three major grapes grown here are merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc, and most wines are made from blending of these grapes and the lesser planted Petite Verdot and Malbec grapes. White wines from this region are predominately made from Sauvignon blanc and Semillon, and can be dry or sweet.Burgundy produces quality red and white wines, made from pinot noir or chardonnay grapes respectively. There are more than 100 appellations in the Burgundy region producing red and white wines. World famous white burgundies, are made in Chablis, Cote de Beaume, and Maconnais and all are made from 100 percent Chardonnay. Each area though, produces a different style white burgundy. In Chablis, the grapes tend to be more acidic and most are fermented and aged in stainless steel. The less acidic grapes from Maconnais are also steel-fermented and aged, while Cote de Beaunne burgundies are mostly fermented and aged in wood. Red burgundies from the regions of Cote dOr, Cote de Nuits, Cote de Beaune and Cote Chalonnaise are made from Pinot Noir grapes. The Beaujolais region produces wine made from 100 percent Gamay grapes. The region and the area within that region will give you an idea of the quality of the wine. A village designation on the label indicates good quality, premier grand cru vineyards is a step above, and grand cru designates the highest quality from the Beaujolais region.The Champagne region produces only sparkling wines made from pinot noir and chardonnay grapes. Only wines produced in this region may legally be called Champagne. The Rhone Valley wine makers produce mostly reds from Syrah and Grenache grapes; Cinsault and Mourvedre are also grown there. The region is divided into northern and southern growing areas. Well-known wines from the northern region producers include Crozes-Hermitage; Hermitage; and Cote Rotie; primarily made from Syrah grapes. Cotes du Rhone wines can be produced from grapes grown in both the southern and northern portion of the valley. The most famous red, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, can be a blend of as many as 13 different grapes, but the best examples are made mostly from Grenache and Syrah grapes, and the sought-after rose called Tavel are both produced in the southern Rhone Valley. The Loire Valley runs along the Loire River. The two major grapes produced there are Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc, producing mostly dry style wines. The four major types of wines produced there are: Sancerre (100 percent Sauvignon Blanc); Vouvray (100 percent Chenin Blanc, can be dry, semi-sweet, or sweet); Pouilly-Fume (100 percent Sauvignon Blanc, a full-bodied dry wine); and Muscadet (made from the Melon grape, a light, dry wine). Like most white wines, the white wines produced in the Loire are meant to be enjoyed young .The major red grape grown here is Cabernet Franc, which is used to produce the best red Loire wines, then Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Gamay and Pinot Meunier are grown and mostly used for blending and producing sparkling wines made in the central region of the Loire.The Languedoc-Roussillon region, located in southern France along the Mediterranean Sea, produces both red and white wines made from Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay grapes. Wines from this region can be labeled by the name of the grape used or by the area in which it was produced, or just by the producers name just to add a little more confusion to understanding French wines. This area has produced the majority of everyday, reasonably priced wines. In the rating system of wine-quality in France the lowest level being vin de table most wines produced here have been of this classification. Which isnt always bad: these are the jug wines you sip at the local bistro. The major grapes grown here are Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache Mouvedre and Merlot. The area also produces French sparkling wines known as Cremant De Limoux.French wines and the understanding of the styles is complex. Having a thumbnail idea of the types of wines produced in the different regions should help you select some tasty treats. With the glut of French wines on the market today, and reduced prices because of the over-abundance, and an idea of the type of grape used to produce that wine, we may all be able to sample some great wines that we may have been unsure of before. Happy sampling.Janice Jones is a Truckee resident and wine consultant. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.