How To Be A French Wine Expert In Just One Lesson
France is widely regarded as the greatest wine-producing nation in the world – and the most varied.
The wines of Champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace, the Loire and Rhône valleys remain the ones that winemakers around the world are keen to emulate.
“France supplies the benchmarks by which almost all wines are judged,” says wine educator and writer Jancis Robinson.
“This perfectly temperate and varied climate and landscape can supply wines of virtually every style. Its finest red Bordeaux sets a standard for the world’s cabernet sauvignons, while the millions and millions of chardonnay vines planted around the globe owe their existence to white Burgundy.”
While the labelling of French wines can be confusing – the French tend to use regions and villages rather than grape varieties on their labels – Australians are increasingly enjoying not only French bubbles, but also French table wines.
The sparkling wines of Champagne are unrivalled, while Bordeaux produces complex, long-lived reds, savoury whites and the great sweet wines of Sauternes.
In Burgundy, the whites can be minerally, while the best reds tend towards elegance. The wines from the Rhône are more generally a bit more macho – probably the closest in style to Australian reds.
Beaujolais, south of Burgundy, makes wines using the lighter gamay grape that can be chilled on a warm Australian afternoon, and then there are the easy quaffing wines from the warmer south-west of the country, which may be labelled Languedoc.
The “yellow wines” from the mountainous Jura region were the precursors of today’s popular “natural” or oxidative wines, while France even makes its own answer to port (Banyuls).
The French wine classics
A little outpost of Burgundy, the pretty village of Chablis is just two hours south-east of Paris, with Burgundy proper beginning a further hour south.
The best wines are made from 100 per cent chardonnay or pinot noir. The greatest wines of the region from producers like Domaine de la Romanee-Conti won’t come cheap, but even if you’re sticking to a budget there are plenty of other rewarding wines to try.
Chablis produces dry, intense chardonnays known for their minerality. The Cote d’Or strip, on the other hand, produces the world’s finest pinots and some intriguingly complex chardonnays from villages including Meursault, Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet.
Pinot noir lovers are spoilt for choice with producers in communes including Pommard, Volnay, Nuits St George and Chambolle-Musigny all outstanding.
In Champagne, usually even cooler and wetter than Burgundy, chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes are used to produce sparkling wines of rare intensity, such as the classics like Pol Roger and Bollinger, or smaller producers like Jacquart.
The French red wines
Bordeaux and its surrounds are home to the most sought-after red wines in the world. The wines from the left bank villages are made primarily from cabernet sauvignon, while those on the right bank (St Emilion/Pomerol) tend to be made mainly from merlot and are generally softer and smoother.
The area south-west of the city are home to the semillon and sauvignon blanc blends of Pessac-Leognan and the world-class sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac.
Bordeaux is a region where the wines are typically designed for cellaring – and sometimes extremely expensive – but for wines that offer value-for-money, the Canon-Fronsac, Fronsac and Cotes de Castillon appellations are worth investigating.
The French wine variety
The great wine-producing villages of Sancerre and Pouilly are just 90 minutes from Paris in the picturesque Loire Valley that stretches all the way west to Nantes, home of the bone-dry Muscadet style.
The range of wines here is immense including dry, flinty sauvignon blanc designed for early consumption like Pouilly Fume and Sancerre, both dry and sweet chenin blanc (Saumur, Vouvray); intense but lighter reds made from cabernet franc (Borgueil and Chinon) and fine rosés (Anjou).
Alsace is a north-easterly region of France perched on the border with Germany that produces aromatic white wines, including riesling, gewürztraminer, pinot gris and pinot blanc. Hugel is a label to look out for, while wines labelled Vendage Tardive (Late Harvest) tend to be on the sweeter side.
The Rhône Valley, in southern France near Lyon, has divided into the Northern Rhône and the Southern Rhône – both of which produce wines the closest to Australia in style; reds that are medium-bodied and often spicy.
The northern region produces red wines from the shiraz grape, sometimes blended with white wine grapes, and white wines from viognier grapes. Famous names include Cote Rotie, Crozes-Hermitage and Cornas.
The southern region produces a variety of both red and white wines. The reds usually feature grenache and shiraz or are blends of several grapes such as in Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
The nearby region of Provence offers great value and some cracking dry rosés.
French wine phrases to know
Cave: Cellar or winery
Château: French for castle, but also a wine-producing property
Grand cru: One of the very finest vineyards
Négociant: Wholesale wine merchant or blender
Vigneron: Wine grape grower/maker
(Lead image: Domaines Mas, Languedoc / supplied)
Published 25 February, 2020