Bonjour à mes collègues amateurs de vin! (And thank you, Google Translate.) It is time for Did You Wine Know France Country Series Part Deux! As a reminder, this is part of a 3-part series covering some basic Wine Know of France.
- Part I: French Wine Quality/Classification System
- Part II: Key Wine Regions of France
- Part III: French WInes with Food (still to come)
DYWK Country Series: France, Part II – Key Wine Regions of France
As you may have noticed, while strolling around your local wine shop, French wines do not have labels splattered with the name of the grape used to make the wine. They are known by the region from which they come. It comes down to “terroir”.
Terroir: Terroir is a French term and we don’t really have an English word for direct translation. It is is the grape growing environment that is influenced by climate, sunlight (and orientation to the sun), soil, slope of the earth, elevation, rainfall, wind, fog, temperature, etc. It is the sum of everything that influences the growing of grapes. Wines from a particular terroir have flavors in the wine that are associated with that particular location (as in plot of land). Every vineyard in France is said to have its own terroir. Technically, one (with a very well trained palate) should be able to taste a wine and recognize where it is from because it should taste like it came from that region.
Terroir is embedded in the culture of French wine. We might say it defines the French wine culture. The classification system is based on this concept – a vineyard must show that there are flavors that are typical of the land on which the grapes grow (from that terroir) in order to be classified in the wine system.
Wino Take-Away: Terroir is très important to building your French Wine Know. Wines from a particular region have characteristics that are typical of that region.
Regions: There are 14 official wine regions of France (a designated wine region must be part of the AoC/AOP classification system, as discussed in Part I.) There is SO MUCH to know about French wines – I mean, they have books that cover just one region or even one vineyard with lots and lots of history and meaning. My trusty source for much of my Wine Know (The Wine Bible) dedicates 200 of its 900 pages to France and its regions. But here on W2WK, I intend only to whet your appetite on the topic and will spend about 800 more words on the topic.
The below image shows where France’s 14 wine regions are located. In today’s post, I’m going to highlight the types of grapes grown in just four of these regions. Because of the strict regulations in the French wine classification system, only certain grapes are allowed to be grown in certain regions. For example, winemakers in Bordeaux aren’t allowed to plant just any old grape, make wine, and call it a Bordeaux. They must use the grapes permitted by the system. Since we American Winos primarily choose our wines based on the grape varietal (merlot, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, etc), we get a little squeamish around wines without this info on the label. I tend to wander into the French wine section at the store and look around wondering if “Chateaux blah blah blah” is going to be light or heavy or bold or fruity…. I never know! But hopefully this breakdown of some of the French wine regions will give us a start and knowing what to go for in the wine shop.
Bordeaux: This region produces more wine than nearly any other region in the world. Over 700 million bottles of wine are produced in Bordeaux every year. And 80% of that is red wine. Five grapes are primarily used to make Bordeaux wines – and they are almost always blended together. “Bordeaux wines are about elegance and intensity of flavor; they are rarely massive or powerful.” (The Wine Bible)
- Cabernet Sauvignon
- Cabernet Franc
- Sauvignon Blanc
- Other “supporting” grapes used minimally to blend wines include Malbec, Petit Verdot, Muscadelle, and Ugni Blanc.
Historical Fun Fact about Bordeaux: Because this region is on the waterways of France, in the 13th/14th centuries, Bordeaux wines were being shipped off to places like England. And as the English (among other countries) became accustomed to the joys of Bordeaux, its success and familiarity grew faster than most other French wines.
Wino Take-Away: Bordeauxs are primarily a blend of the major and minor grapes grown in the region, which brings about a gentle complexity.
The Loire Valley: The Loire is the most diverse wine region in France as it grows many different grapes. As you can see in the map, it is a long strip of land from west to east. The region has a cool climate and experiences temperatures at some of the lowest points at which grapes can ripen. “The signature characteristic of all Loire wines is their zesty acidity.” (The Wine Bible) For The Loire Valley, different types of grapes are primarily used in different parts – so I’ll highlight the grapes not by red vs white, but by the regions within the region.
- Western Loire – primarily produces dry white wine
- Muscadet (white)
- Central Loire – produces sweet-medium sweet wines, sparkling wines, dry red and white, and rosés
- Chenin Blanc (white)
- Sauvignon Blanc (white)
- Cabernet France (red)
- Eastern Loire – primarily produces dry white wines, some red
- Sauvignon Blanc (white)
- Pinot Noir (red)
- Gamay (red)
The interesting historical influence of The Loire Valley is that it used to be the vacay spot of Kings and their courts in the mid-20 century. They’d ride on down from Paris when it got too hot and went to hang out in The Loire. And what does one do on vacation?? Eat and drink too much, of course. So Loire Valley wines were developed to accompany food from that region. For example, the Western Loire Valley – which is on the ocean – produces wines that you will likely enjoy most when consumed with a seafood dish.
Wino Take-Away: Loire Valley wines are widely varied with many grape varietals, and may be most enjoyed when paired with food.
Burgundy: Karen McNeil – author of The Wine Bible- describes wine in such an eloquent way that I’m going to have to just quote her on her Burgundy description. “The great red Burgundies are indisputably sensual. For centuries they have been described in the most erotic of ways, and sipping them has been compared, among other things, to falling in love.” Does that not make you want to go out to the wine shop and grab a bottle RIGHT NOW or what?! (In fact, I think I might…)
Drinking a good Burgundy may conjure ethereal feelings, so one might think there is a complex blending methodology used to bring about great balance. (No wait – we already learned that happens in Bordeaux.) Burgundy has only TWO major grapes.
- Red: Pinot Noir
- White: Chardonnay
- Note: Gamay is also used for wines from Beaujolais, which is technically part of Burgundy
Drinking a red Burgundy is not quite like opening a bottle of Pinot Noir, however. The flavors of red Burgundies are greatly influenced by their terroir and each vineyard is unique in its terroir. Another interesting historical piece to this is that the average grower has only 3.2 acres. This primarily ties back to the days of Napolean who set in place land fracturation laws requiring that all children in one family receive an equally divided piece of their father’s land. So the land broke up into smaller and smaller chunks. (Luckily, this did not stop anyone from continuing to grow grapes.)
Wino Take-Away: While Burgundian reds are all primarily made from Pinot Noir grapes, they vary greatly in flavor and complexity from vineyard to vineyard. But a good red Burgundy may have you floating on cloud nine upon tasting.
The Rhone: The Rhone region is divided between Northern and Southern Rhone, and these areas are very different. Most of Rhone produces red wines, but whites and roses are also made there. Northern Rhone primarily uses Syrah as its major grape and Southern Rhone reds are usually blends of a number of grapes. “The wines’ howling spiciness has no parallel. Rhones are the wine equivalent of a primal scream.” (The Wine Bible)
- Red: Sarah
- White: Viognier, Marsanne, Rousanne
- Red: Grenache Noir (is the major grape)
- Whites: Granache Blanc, Marsanne, Rousanne
Because these wines are so big and bold, a good red Northern Rhone wine will age very well – upwards of 50 years! (Who on earth can save a bottle for that long!?) Something to keep in mind when you have things to celebrate 50 years down the road… I guess my 85th birthday is probably worth celebrating… hmmm. Something to think about.
Wino Take-Away: Red Rhone wines are big and spicy.
There are TEN MORE wine regions of France. As you can see, it takes a lot of Wine Know to get a feel for each region’s characteristics (or terroir) as represented in wine. For me, I feel like I have a slightly stronger understanding of at least these four regions now, and won’t have to pretend (as much) that I know what I’m doing in the French wine aisle. Next up in the Country Series is going to be more about pairing food to these wines.