One thing foreigners often complain about French wines is that they do not put the name of the grape varieties on the label which New World producers do.
Consumers used to choosing American, Australian or Chilean wines generally do so by grape variety with many having developed likes and dislikes of particular ones.
There is a certain amount of logic in choosing wines by grape but it is not an ideal method either and can makes choosing French wine (or most European wines) difficult.
French wines are also made from grape varieties (known as cépages) but because of the way the wine industry developed, it is the name of the region where the grapes are grown that takes pride of place on the label.
Over the centuries that French winegrowers have honed their craft they have chosen, or developed, grape varieties that produce the best results in their particular area.
In the past many vignerons may not have even known the names of the varieties they were planting or growing, they just went with what gave the best results.
Choosing the best vineyard plots was far more important than choosing the best plants.
Grape vines are propagated by taking cuttings of shoots and replanting them; this is referred to as cloning because the new vine is an exact copy of the old one.
Planting a grape seed will not replicate the characteristics of the parent vine.
The earliest vignerons simply took shoots from wild vines and replanted them where they wanted them to grow.
The journey of domesticating grape vines
Beginning in the Neolithic era in the Middle-east, generations of vignerons domesticated the Euro-Asian grape vine, Vitis vinifera, by selecting cuttings from the most productive vines producing the tastiest grapes.
Babylonians, Canaanites, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans eventually brought viticulture to France and classical texts refer to specific ancient vine varieties.
Europe’s cultivated vineyards were abandoned after the fall of the Roman Empire.
Those vines interbred with local wild vines over many centuries to create the large number of grape varieties that are now considered indigenous to many European regions.
In the early 20th century, French Ampelographers classified over 5,000 known varieties.
However many of these were synonyms for the same grape; there are actually around 1,300 varieties cultivated worldwide.
French and global grape varieties
In France alone there are about 200. Some of these are the historic indigenous varieties, some are mutations and some are deliberate crossings created by cross-pollinating.
For example, Pinot gris is a mutation of Pinot noir and Cabernet sauvignon is a cross created from Cabernet franc and Sauvignon blanc.
Crossings of Vitis vinifera with native American vines have delivered very limited success in terms of wine flavours, even though they make the plants more resistant to fungal diseases.
At present genetically modified vines are not allowed in the EU.
As viticulture and wine production spread to the New World, producers wanted to replicate the flavour of the greatest wines in the world, most of which were French at the time.
Hence cuttings from the vineyards of Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Loire and the Rhone were planted.
This explains why today the most planted and best known grape varieties in the world are Cabernet sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot noir, Sauvignon blanc, Grenache and Syrah.
There are other European grape varieties that compete in terms of vines planted but that is because they are varieties local to very large regions.
For example, Airen and Tempranillo in Spain, Trebbiano and Sangiovese in Italy and Carignan in France.
Grape varieties are by nature suited to certain climates.
Grenache won’t ripen in cool regions and Pinot noir makes dull, alcoholic wines in hot ones.
Grenache is able to grow where the rainfall is insufficient for Sauvignon blanc.
Old traditions and new world varieties
In France and most of Europe the varieties that are permitted to be planted in each region is often controlled.
Some of those rules go back to the middle-ages but most were formalised in the 1930s with the creation of the Appellation d’Origine Controllée (AOC) laws.
The principles being to preserve and protect the styles of wines being made as well as to focus vignerons on the most successful varieties for their particular region.
However in the New World the choice of variety normally depends on the style of wine the grower desires to make.
In most cases that has been limited to making wines from a single grape, referred to as a varietal wine.
Even though many of Europe’s greatest wines are blended from several varieties, such as Bordeaux, Côte-Rôtie, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Rioja, varietal wines are viewed as superior to blends by most Americans, Australians, Chileans and New Zealanders.
The New World cult of varietal wines has spread into the markets of those countries which bought them, such as the UK, Netherlands and Scandinavia.
A combination of approachable, consistent style and ease of learning has made varietals more popular than traditional French wines, which require a large knowledge of AOCs and an understanding of food and wine matching.
It is quite common to find a British, American or Dutch consumer who drinks a Merlot with every red meat and a Chardonnay with every fish dish, often caring little about the region or even country where the grapes were grown.
That is in complete contrast to a French consumer who chooses a Muscadet to drink with seafood, a Sancerre rouge for their Caesar Salad and a Gigondas for their roast lamb, perhaps not knowing what varieties make up any of them.
Sticking to a handful of well-known grape varieties may be a simple method for not making a mistake in a restaurant or when taking a bottle to a dinner party but it massively limits the range of wines one can experience.
I would also argue that it is a false sense of security.
Very few people can actually identify the grape variety in a wine simply by taste and many do not realise that Saint-Emilion is their Merlot or Puilly-Fuissé is their Chardonnay.
The consistency of style is not really the grape variety being used. It is more likely the winemaking choices made by the producers who label their wines by variety.