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Wine Part 2 - A Tour of France's Principal Wine Regions
Wine regions discussed below shown as red circles
The Bordeaux region is located in the southwestern part of France. It is known for its great châteaux (singular form: château), or estates, and legendary producers who have been making fine wines for centuries. Château Lafite-Rothschild, Château Margaux and Château Latour might be familiar names. Although cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet franc are the three grape varietals that are typically blended in Bordeaux, quite different proportions of these grapes are used in the various sub-regions of the area to create wines that are far from uniform in style and taste. For example, in the Pomerol region, wines tend to be made predominantly from merlot grapes, while the blend in the Médoc wines is dominated by cabernet sauvignon. Although best known for its red wines, there is plenty of white wine produced in Bordeaux, mostly in the Graves and Sauternes areas.
There are three quality levels of Bordeaux wines. As you progress from Regional to Proprietary to Château wines, there tend to be greater geographic restrictions as to the origin of the grapes as well as an increase in price. Regional wines just have the name of the sub-region appellation on their labels (e.g. Pomerol or Médoc). Proprietary wines are given an extra name in addition to their geographical appellation (e.g. Mouton-Cadet). Château wines are distinguished by the names of châteaux on their labels.
On the labels of many Château wines from the Médoc, there is an indication of the wine's "classification" (they were classified in 1855). The top classification is Grand Cru Classé, followed by Grand Cru Exceptionnel and Cru Bourgeois. The Grand Cru Classé wines were further broken down into five crus or "growths". There were only five châteaux designated Premier Cru or "First Growth". These are now, naturally, some of the most famous ones (e.g. Château Latour, Château Lafite-Rothschild, Château Haut-Brion, etc.). A century later, the wines of St. Emilion were also classified. When you see the term Grand Cru Classé on a Bordeaux label, this indicates a wine of the highest quality. Actually, wines from the other two classifications are no slouches either!
It's interesting to note that, although the original classification occurred 150 years ago, some things have changed since then. In general, the "great" wines of 150 years ago are still "great". Nevertheless, this is not a definite guarantee of the best quality wine. Rather it indicates that the wine has the potential to be of the best quality! You can be the judge!
Below is a list of the appellations of Bordeaux along with some of the names of the more well-known châteaux.
* Capitalized for syllabic emphasis.
Bordeaux Labels - Example
1. Appellation: Pauillac
Sauternes are probably the most well-known French sweet dessert wines. They come from a specific part of the Bordeaux region and adhere to a slightly different classification system then their red cousins. Sauternes are made from sauvignon blanc and sémillon grapes. Their production is quite labor-intensive, thus the high prices that particularly the best ones command. In order to develop their sweetness, grapes are left on the vine longer and develop a kind of mold referred to as "noble rot". By the way, don't be fooled into thinking that these wines are exclusively dessert wines. Some classic non-dessert combinations with sauternes are Roquefort cheese or foie gras. Included in the next chart are some names of famous sauternes.
Burgundy and Bordeaux are frequently compared and contrasted as the two most important wine regions in France. In fact, they are quite different. For one thing, the sheer amount of land used for wine production in Burgundy is a fraction of that in Bordeaux. Less land means less wine produced, thus the relatively high prices that we pay for good Burgundy (the high prices of good Bordeaux are attributable to various other factors). Another major difference is that in Burgundy there is much more of a uniformity of grape varietal. As mentioned before, red Burgundy is made entirely from pinot noir and white Burgundy entirely from chardonnay grapes.
Wine aficionados sometimes characterize themselves as either "Bordeaux" or "Burgundy people". This distinction is usually made with reference to red wines. While there are plenty of people who truly enjoy both, it's interesting to note the phenomenon of those who are primarily drawn to one or the other. Much has been written regarding the differences in the inherent qualities of Burgundy and Bordeaux. Often Burgundies are described as softer, lacier, or more feminine. What do you think? (Hint: you might be confused when you taste a Gevrey-Chambertin!)
As with Bordeaux, there are a number of Burgundies that have important pedigrees and sell for quite a lot of money. Do the names Clos Vougeot, Corton-Charlemagne, or Montrachet ring any bells? The heart of the region is called the Côte d'Or and is divided into the Côtes de Beaune and the Côtes de Nuits.
The sub-regions of Burgundy that are outside of the Côte d'Or are more spread out than in Bordeaux and include Beaujolais, Mâcon and Chablis. Just about all the wine made in Beaujolais is red, while Mâcon produces predominantly whites along with a few reds. All of the wines from Chablis are made from chardonnay. If you want a white Burgundy but are on a budget, think about choosing a Mâcon or a Chablis. They tend to be considerably less expensive than whites from the Côte d'Or and frequently just as pleasing. Beaujolais is the only sub-region in Burgundy in which red wine is made from a grape other than pinot noir, in this case gamay. You might notice each autumn when the Beaujolais nouveau, or "new" Beaujolais, is released. This wine is inexpensive and made to be drunk young.
As in Bordeaux, there are different quality levels of Burgundy frequently reflected on their labels -- generic Burgundies, village wines, premier crus and grand crus, the latter being the most valuable. (Note that in Burgundy, although the terms grand cru and premier cru are used to indicate quality, the system for assigning these names is different from that in Bordeaux – see next paragraph.) Again, like Bordeaux, the appellation, or place name, figures prominently on Burgundy labels. Also, the name of the producer is important. Some producers whose wines are easily found in the US are Louis Jadot and Joseph Drouhin.
Generic wines might simply have the appellation Bourgogne (Burgundy) on their labels. The grapes used to make these wines could come from anywhere in the region. Village wines retain the name of the village from which they come (e.g. Pommard) and the grapes can be from any vineyard in that area. All of the grapes used to make grand cru and premier cru wines come from specific vineyards whose names appear on their labels. These vineyards are not owned by one sole proprietor. Rather a number of independent producers own portions of the same vineyard, all making wine with the same name (e.g. Clos Vougeot). Since some of these vineyards are the most legendary in the wine world, the ability to produce wine from grapes grown there gives the producer quite a bit of cachet. Actually, owning such valuable real estate is a prize unto itself!
* Note that neither "t" in Montrachet is pronounced.
** What we're calling the third syllable of Chassagne and the fourth of Charlemagne are not really a proper syllables and should be pronounced very lightly.
*the most well-known producer of Beaujolais.
Here are some names of some of the most famous vineyards in Burgundy.
Burgundy Labels - Example
When considering French wines, don't ignore the Rhône Valley! Some of the greatest wines produced in the country are from this region. These wines, particularly the red ones, are characteristically full and robust. Unlike Burgundy, Rhône reds are made from a blend of anywhere between 2 and 13 different grape varietals. The most recognizable of these are syrah, grenache and mourvedre. The Rhône region is divided into North and South with some of the more pricey, famous Rhônes coming from the north -- wines like Hermitage and Côte Rôtie. Farther south are Châteauneuf-du-Pape and the wines of the small towns on the western slope of the Dentelle mountains – including Gigondas and Vacqueyras.
The white wines of this region also tend to be full-bodied and sometimes feature mineral-like flavors. Notable among these are a white Hermitage, the unique Condrieu, and the lovely, sweet Muscat de Beaumes de Venise that is frequently drunk as an aperitif. There is also one appellation in the Southern Rhône that is known for its rosé wines – Tavel.
Rhône wine labels always include the appellation and the producer. Sometimes there is more information -- perhaps the name of a special cuvée, or bottling. The Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines almost always have an additional name like Les Cailloux, Domaine du Vieux Télégraph or Clos du Mont-Olivet. In the case of Condrieu, curiously, the name of the grape, viognier, usually appears on the label. There are a number of "star" producers in this region among who are M. Chapoutier, Paul Jaboulet, Chateau de Beaucastel, and Jean-Louis Chave.
Rhône Labels - Example
1. Vintage: 1997
Alsace is a lovely region to explore, full of beautiful towns, unique cuisine and interesting history. In addition, it's known for its (extremely reasonably priced!) delicious white wines. Alsace shares much with its neighbor across the Rhine, Germany. Riesling is the prime varietal grown in Alsace as well as the part of Germany that borders France. The two regions also use the same thin, long necked bottles for their wines. Alsace's history reflects the cultural influences of both France and Germany, having been part of both countries at various times. For all of the common elements shared by these two areas, however, the style of vinification, or wine making, in Alsace differs from that of Germany. In tasting both Alsatian and German rieslings, for example, you will note that the German wines all exhibit various degrees of sweetness while the French ones are comparatively dry. Other varietals grown in Alsace include pinot blanc, pinot gris and the distinctive spicy, floral tasting gewürtztraminer. Not surprisingly, these wines are perfect matches for Alsatian cuisine -- dishes like choucroute garni (braised sourkraut with meats) and matelote du Rhin (a fish stew).
Notes on the pronunciation of Alsatian names: The names of towns in Alsace reflect the area's French/German heritage. Many of them are outright German names. Thus, in many cases, the rules of French pronunciation don't quite apply. That said, some French people pronounce them as if they were French words. The transliterations below, while they don't strictly adhere to our system and include a few sounds not accounted for in the Guide to Transliterations, should be relatively straightforward. Note that the "ch" sound in "Trimbach" is pronounced as in the German exclamation, "Ach!" The transliterations on the following chart should be used as a point of departure. When in doubt, we'd advise you to ask Alsatians themselves how they pronounce the names of their villages. They'll certainly be glad to tell you!
Alsatian Towns and Dishes
* The "ai" sound rhymes with "eye"
** Hard "g" as in "guess"
*** Last syllable rhymes with "cat"
Alsatian Wine Labels
Alsace is the only region in France where the name of the grape, the varietal name, appears on the label. In most cases, what's in the bottle is the juice from only that kind of grape, as opposed to a blend. The appellation name, throughout Alsace, is just that: Alsace.
Alsatian Grape Varietals
* German pronunciations – the second syllable of riesling rhymes with "sing".
* See note above on pronunciation of Alsatian names
** The first alternative would be the more French pronunciation, the second more German.
*** Vowel sound in first syllable rhymes with "him"
Alsace Labels - Example
1. Name of region: Alsace
The Loire Valley is one of the most highly touristed parts of France. With its famous châteaux, lovely scenery and excellent restaurants and vineyards, it's a natural destination. Like Alsace, the Loire is mostly known for its white wines, although there are some excellent reds from the region as well. Also, like Alsatian wines, you get a lot of "bang for your buck" per bottle in the Loire. When you're looking at a wine list in a restaurant, it's always good to consider these wines. They are generally less expensive and just as pleasing as many of their pricier cousins from Bordeaux and Burgundy.
Since the wines from different Loire Valley appellations vary so much from one end of the valley to the other, in order to have an idea what the wine will taste like, the most important information is... the appellation! Sancerre tends to be a light, dry, somewhat acidic wine that goes well with lighter fish dishes. Likewise with muscadet, although it's usually softer and little more fruity. Vouvray is made in three different styles increasing in sweetness. It's only possible to make the sweetest ones from "exceptional" vintages. Therefore, you must have an idea about the vintage in order to know how sweet the bottle will be. (You might also be able to tell from the price -- the sweetest ones tend to be the most expensive.) Vouvray is also made into a sparkling wine. Chinon and Bourgeuil are red wines made from cabernet franc, a grape that's frequently used in small amounts in Bordeaux blends.
Loire Valley Labels
In the Loire Valley, as in most French wine regions, smaller appellations are named after towns closeby (with the exception of muscadet, which is named after the grape – go figure!). Like Bordeaux and Burgundy, the grape varietal names (chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc, cabernet franc) are not included on the label. Sometimes the only information on the label besides the producer will simply be the name of the appellation. Other times it will carry an additional name, as in Domaine de Saint-Romble or, one of our favorites, Les Monts Damnés ("The Accursed Mountains"!).
Loire Appellations and Two Representative Wines
* Not to be confused with pouilly-fuissé (poo-ee fwee-say), which comes from the Mâcon area of Burgundy and is made from chardonnay grapes.
** You might hear "'pwee" pronounced.
*** The second syllable is a diphthong. It consists of two vowel sounds, "uh" and "ee" that are elided with a slight emphasis on the "uh".
Loire Valley Labels - Example
1. Wine name: Domaine de Saint-Romble
Champagne, as we all know, is the name of the most famous French sparkling wine. It is also the name of the region that produces that wine. Only wine produced in this region may be called Champagne. Sparkling wines that come from anywhere else in the world must be called something different. If you look at bottles of sparkling wine from the Loire Valley or Italy or California, you'll notice that they don't say "Champagne" on their labels. Rather, they might just say "sparkling wine" or "méthode champenoise", meaning that they are made employing the same method used in champagne production. Just 90 miles northeast of Paris, the two largest towns in the Champagne region are Reims and Épernay. The vineyards, however, are in the surrounding hills.
Champagne is made in a number of different styles as well as levels of sweetness (sugar is added to some). Pink, or rosé, champagnes tend to be made from pinot noir grapes, leaving the skins in for a while during the production process. Blanc de blancs is made entirely from chardonnay and blanc de noirs entirely from red grapes -- pinot noir and/or pinot meunier (however with the skin left out of the mixture so that the result has no trace of pink color). As far as sweetness, from driest to sweetest, they are Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry (Extra Sec), Sec, Demi-Sec and Doux, the last two being what we would consider "sweet". The most popular style seems to be the driest -- Brut.
Whereas in Burgundy or the Rhône Valley or Alsace, where the appellation or varietal name is as significant as the name of the producer, in Champagne, wines are mainly referred to by their producers' names. Among these are Dom Pérignon, Krug, Taittinger, Bollinger, Moët et Chandon and Veuve Clciquot. Much champagne is "non-vintage", that is to say that the final product comes from grapes picked in multiple years. If there is no year listed on the bottle, it is non-vintage. If there is a year listed, then what's inside is entirely the product of one outstanding vintage. What constitutes an outstanding vintage is left to the discretion of the producer.
* First alternative is German pronunciation (it's a German name), second is more French.
** Reminder: these syllables rhyme with "cat".
*** German name, French pronunciation rules don't quite apply. The second word basically sounds like "hide seek" although in France you might very well hear it pronounced "ayd-seek"!
Champagne Labels - Example
1. Outstanding Vintage: 1990 Grand Année
Well, we've come to the end of our wine tour of France. We hope that this introduction to French wine has been helpful. For more in-depth study, we refer you to the many detailed books published on the subject by authors such as Jancis Robinson, Alexis Lechine, Hugh Johnson and Robert Parker.
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