This time of year sees the Foires aux Vins, a time when supermarkets across France stock a much bigger range of wines than usual, including some genuine bargains and some rarer wines from top producers and obscure regions.
For many British people, used to New World wines labelled by grape variety, the countless regional labels used for French wine can be hugely overwhelming. So here are some simple rules to make sense of them.
France can be broken down into a few distinct regions. Each region has its favourite grape varieties and distinct styles.
Burgundy is the home of Chardonnay and Pinot noir. The famous AOCs command huge prices but can produce ethereally beautiful wines. However, a lot of lower priced Burgundy is thin and acidic and vintages can vary a lot. So you need to know your stuff. Beaujolais is just south of Burgundy and makes light, crisp red wines from the Gamay grape.
The Loire makes refreshing whites from Chenin blanc (Vouvray, Anjou) and Sauvignon blanc (Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé) as well as the more neutral-tasting Muscadet. The reds (Chinon, Bourgueil and Saumur) are mainly made from Cabernet franc and are light, fruity and yet complex.
Alsace generally labels its wines by grape variety. The whites are refreshing, spicy and aromatic. The reds are generally pretty thin.
Bordeaux makes red wines from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, as well as a bit of Malbec. Bottles from famous estates cost the price of an iPhone. But there are decent wines to be found among the “Petits Chateaux”. However it is a big region producing a lot of mediocre wine with fancy-looking chateaux on the labels, so buyer beware. The French wine guidebooks – Guide Hachette, Bettane & Desseauve and Revue du Vin de France – are more reliable in their recommendations of this region than any other.
Languedoc-Roussillon produces the most wine in France and quality varies massively between producers. The reds are usually made from Carignan, Syrah and Grenache and are warm, rich and spicy. The whites vary even more with aromatic Viognier, crisp Picpoul and spicy Grenache blanc. It also makes varietal wines from grapes associated with other regions, a bit like the New World. It probably has the best correlation between price and quality of any region.
The Rhône makes structured, long-living reds from Syrah in the north (Saint Joseph, Hermitage) and smooth, rich Grenache in the south (Côtes du Rhône, Gigondas, Châteauneuf). The south is pretty consistent and here even the cooperatives make decent wines. White wines are made from Roussanne and Marsanne and tend to be low in acidity.
Provence is most famous for rosé but also has big, fruity reds from Cabernet and Syrah and from Mourvèdre in Bandol.
The South-West is pretty diverse, covering regions like Gaillac, Cahors, Fronton, Madiran and Jurançon. Reds tend to be quite structured and tannic and the whites are refreshing and crisp. There are many obscure grape varieties grown here.
The key to understanding French wine labels is to know in which of these regions the smaller AOCs fall, therefore giving us a big clue about the style of the wine. However, quality will vary by producer and between greater and lesser AOCs.
Here are a couple of tips for choosing better wines. Competition medals are a big part of marketing in France and generally mean the wine won’t be rubbish. However, many smaller producers do not enter competitions because they cost money. Neck labels from an independent reviewer (Guide Hachette, Gilbert & Gaillard) also provide some assurance of decency.However, supermarkets often put their own neck-labels on the bottles.
On the top of the capsule is another clue. “R” stands for Récoltant and means the wine was estate-grown, produced and bottled.
However, co-ops can also use this but the label will usually say something like “Mise en bouteille par les Vignerons de ….”. Négociant wines, made from blending from multiple sources, have an “N” on the capsule.
. If you have questions on this or other subjects covered in the wine column, feel free to email Jonathan at firstname.lastname@example.org
A year in the vineyard with Jonathan Hesford of Domaine Treloar