In the past I have written about grape varieties and how history had shaped the evolution and popularity of French cépages to the point where almost all the wines of the New World are made from varieties originating in famous French wine regions.
It’s hard to find a wine made in Australia, California or Chile that is not made from a French grape.
Why are French grape varieties so universally popular among wine producers?
Why haven’t Spanish Airen or Italian Trebbiano been the grapes used to make South American white wines, even though the wineries are run by people of Spanish and Italian heritage?
Why is Cabernet Sauvignon the grape of choice for Napa Valley red wines and not Sangiovese, even though most of the wineries were founded by Italian immigrants? Even when they did plant an Italian variety, Primitivo, they changed its name to Zinfandel.
The answer lies in the fame achieved by French producers in Burgundy, Bordeaux and Sancerre, making wines from Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon blanc.
Ambitious New World grape-growers and wine producers wanted to emulate the success (and prices) of those iconic French wines, not the ‘country’ wines of their own ancestors.
Visitors to France from those New World countries and also from countries where New World wines are popular, such as the UK, Ireland and Holland, find it frustrating that they can’t find a Chardonnay or Merlot in Auchan, Intermarché or even a specialist wine shop.
Often they will be disappointed if they do choose a varietally-labelled wine in France because they tend to be at the bottom end of the quality scale.
Here is a quick guide to understanding French wine through its regional grape varieties.
Alsace is the only region in France which puts the names of the variety on the label, making it much easier to know what we are drinking.
Its main grapes are Riesling, Pinot blanc and Gewürtzraminer. However, Edelzwicker isn’t a grape variety. It means the wine is a blend.
Sauvignon blanc, the flagship grape of New Zealand with its grassy, gooseberry aromas and refreshing acidity, is found mainly in the wines of the Loire Valley.
Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé are the most well-known but other AOPs include Menetou-Salon, Reuilly and Quincy as well as nearly all wines from Touraine.
It’s also found in white Bordeaux, where it is usually blended with the slightly richer, lemon-scented Semillion grape.
The Loire is also home to Chenin blanc, a very versatile and therefore confusing grape that is used to make dry, sweet and medium-sweet still and sparkling wines.
The main black grape of the Loire, found in Chinon, Saumur and Bourgeuil, is Cabernet Franc.
An ancestor of Cabernet Sauvignon, it makes lighter, fruitier red wines that, at their best, develop hints of lead pencils and pot-pourri.
Chardonnay is the signature grape of white Burgundy, making wines from the very expensive Montrachet and Meursault down to the basic Bourgogne blanc and covering a multitude of AOPs defined by their terroir.
In the cooler vineyards of Chablis, it makes crisp, mineral wines with citrus-fruit flavours.
On the Côte d’Or it can make beautifully balanced wines, often fermented in oak barrels, with complex aromas and flavours ranging from citrus to stone-fruits depending on the location and the vintage.
Mâcon, just south of Burgundy, used to be a source of cheaper but less classy Chardonnay although I have noticed an improvement in quality over the last few years.
Mâcon contains a number of AOPs bearing its name as well as other villages such as Viré-Clessé and Saint-Véran.
White Beaujolais is also made from Chardonnay.
Burgundy is home to the Pinot noir grape and almost all the red wines of the region are made from it.
The exceptions are Bourgogne Pass-Tout-Grain and the Coteaux Bourgignons, which are made from Gamay – the black grape of Beaujolais.
Pinot noir is probably the wine connoisseur’s favourite grape.
At its best it can produce wines which manage to combine beautiful savoury aromas with a light body yet excellent depth of flavour that age well. However, it only produces great wines in a few places in the world.
I’ve tasted nice Pinot noir wines from Limoux and Sancerre but they play second fiddle to Burgundy.
Further south down the Rhône Valley, the black grape of choice in Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage and Saint-Joseph is Syrah, known as Shiraz in Australia.
It makes dark, structured wines with chocolate, blackberry and sometimes meaty flavours.
South of Montélimar, Syrah is augmented and then replaced by the softer, more easy-going Grenache, the main grape of the Côtes du Rhône.
However, the most respected wines of the Southern Rhône, such as Gigondas, Cairanne and Vacqueyras, tend to be more dominant in Syrah and Mourvèdre than Grenache.
This blend of the three main southern French varieties has been copied in Australia and California where it is referred to as ‘GSM’ or ‘The Rhône blend’. They produce rich, spicy wines well suited to Mediterranean cuisine.
The white wines of the Rhône are mainly based on Viognier, Rousanne and Marsanne, which haven’t had the same worldwide success.
Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the main black grapes of Bordeaux and make all its famous AOPs like Médoc, Saint-Emilion and Pauillac.
Some chateaux may also add Malbec, Petit Verdot and Carménère to their blends but these are never bottled as varietal (single grape variety) wines.
The Bordeaux grapes all have aspects of blackcurrants, often combined with toasted characters from barrel-ageing. Cabernet in particular is known for its ability to make wines that improve well with age.
I personally don’t think there is much point drinking good Bordeaux wines under six years old because the tannins tend to be too noticeable and the secondary flavours of cigar-box, menthol and perfumed wood have not yet emerged.
Merlot is a softer variety and its presence in the blend generally makes the wines more approachable when young. It is more prevalent on the right bank of the Gironde around Saint-Emilion and Pomerol.
France is home to many other grape varieties, sometimes restricted to tiny AOPs or used as a ‘blending grape’ to supplement the more famous ones.
The huge Languedoc-Roussillon wine region produces wines from the major ‘Rhône’ varieties but adds newcomers such as Merlot, foreigners like Vermetino and Carignan and its own indigenous varieties to the mix of wines, which can range from excellent to the barely-drinkable, even though overall quality has improved radically since the 1980s.
One of the fascinating things about travelling France’s wine regions is discovering hidden gems, made from forgotten grape varieties or intriguing blends.