Last month we covered Italian wines. It was the logical place for us to start. I mean, Casual Winers did start in Italy. Check out Sofi’s Tamborini Story where she covers that. In the same one, she writes about her college semester in Bologna and her wine drinking there. Read my About Us bio for my story on how Italy got us started on this adventure.
So this month, we thought, “Let’s do something different.” We know plenty about Italians, Spain, and California wines. Why not take on our blindspot.
For no reason in particular, we haven’t had much French wine, so here’s our chance to catch up.
France’s wine producing history is unmatched. Until the last 20 to 30 years, they dominated the wine producing scene. They are the world’s top wine exporter and we here in the States are their number one customers. Of course they export their expensive wines here, but the vast majority are very affordable. There’s no reason to shy away from them.
If you’re used to California and US wine labels, French wine labels are a complete mystery. Their wine labels say nothing about the grapes that went into making the wine. It’s just the way they do things over there.
So, you have to understand where a French wine is grown to understand what grapes went into it. French wines, unlike US wines, are governed by an AOC. These are their winemaking standards which winemakers are required to follow. This is common throughout Europe. When trying to figure out what to expect from a wine, this is a big help to us. The AOC specifies what grapes winemakers will use in each region.
Let’s take a quick look at Burgundy where some of France’s best wines are produced. Burgundy is located on the eastern side of France, not quite on the German border. The AOC standards for the region require that Burgundy reds be 100% Pinot Noir. Period.
Wine grown in the southern end of Burgundy, the area called Beaujolais, must use 100% Gamay. Wines from Beaujolais will say Beaujolais on the label. Mystery solved for those.
White wines from Burgundy will be Chardonnay.
It’s very clear, right?
Bordeaux is another famous region. It sits in southwest France on the Atlantic just north of the border with Spain. Bordeaux is very different from Burgundy. You should expect a Bordeaux to be a blend. Reds will use Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc grapes. Whites will be Sauvignon Blanc or Semillon.
If you look at Bordeaux on the map shown here, the river is the key. You can tell what type of grape is grown in the region based on where the region sites relative to the river. Regions to the left or west, produce Cab blends. Regions to the right produce Merlot blends.
So if you’re looking for a Cab blend, look for wines from Medoc or Grave, for example. If you’re looking for a Merlot blend, look for wines from the St-Emilion or Pomerol side.
One more region I’ll mention (there are so many but I’m going to squeeze this one in) is the Rhone Valley. This one’s located on the south eastern side of France not quite on the Mediterranean. Because it’s farther south, it produces grapes that are grown in a climate that is more sunny and hot. What does that mean? It means the grapes are sweeter with a higher sugar content. That doesn’t mean sweeter wines. It means more sugar for fermenting meaning higher alcohol content. These wines are bolder with more body than wines from Burgundy which is farther north. Think of these as good wines to go with a hearty meal like steak.
The Rhone Valley produces two major grape varieties: Grenache and Syrah. The best wines from the regions have high percentages of these two.
40 years back, Burgundy and Bordeaux wines were recognized as superior to Rhone Valley wines. Today all three are equal, but Rhone Valley wines are likely to get you good quality wines at a lower price than the other two regions.
There’s a lot more to cover here, but there’s a start.
Let me know if you have French favorites to recommend. I’m eager to try and learn, then drink a whole lot more. ;D