By Certified Sommelier Jimmy Quaile
If you’ve ever gone into a wine store and felt intimidated by the French aisle or opened a wine menu and immediately turned to the familiar Cabernets or Red Blends section, you’re not alone. It’s even understandable. Most people can’t pronounce what is on the French wine label, let alone know what’s in the bottle. Well I’m here to tell you, you don’t know what you’re missing. A little basic knowledge will go a long way in opening up an entire world of wine and styles that are delicious, interesting, and unique to France.
For starters, the French are not trying to capture the essence of a grape they are trying to capture the essence of a place. That sense of place is what the French call “terrioir,” which can be loosely translated as the combination of grapes, soil, climate, vineyard placement, and even the human influence which go into making a wine. So wines are named for the place in which the grape is grown instead of the varietal itself. They have rules that not only mandate where grapes are grown but how many vines can be planted and how many bottles can be made from the grapes that grow there. These rules are known as the AOC Laws. AOC stands for Appellation d’Origine Controlee, or controlled designation of origin. Although initially sounding oppressive (and maybe a little crazy!) the laws preserve the geographical origin, guarantee quality, and indicate the style of the wine. It’s a system that has been copied in varying degrees throughout the world. Generally, the smaller and more specific the vineyard the better the wine. Rather than go down the rabbit hole of the 450 AOCs in France, lets focus on those which are most well known .
Bubbly is only “Champagne” if its produced in the Champagne region of France. Everything else is a sparkling wine. Most champagnes are made using a blend of grapes but they can also use a single varietal. Blanc de Blancs are made using just Chardonnay while Blanc de Noir uses only Pinot Noir. Champagnes are further classified by sweetness from least sugar to most sugar.
While there are red and white Bordeaux, most people associate Bordeaux with red wine. Wines from Bordeaux are blends and are named for the chateau where they are produced. (By the way, “Chateau” doesn’t always mean a sprawling stone mansion. More often than not it’s just a house.) The main two grapes are Cabernet and Merlot but winemakers may also add Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Cabernet Franc (Carménère is allowed but rarely used). Note: As of this writing in 2019 there are some recent changes to the allowable grapes being discussed. White Bordeaux uses Sauvignon Blanc sometimes with the addition of Sémillon. One of the key reasons why Bordeaux is so prized is due to its aging potential. Time allows the tannins in the wine to soften and the different components of the grapes to further blend together resulting in the complexity that wine lovers crave.
In contrast to Bordeaux, Burgundies are all single grape wines (i.e. no blends). Reds are 100% Pinot Noir while whites are 100% Chardonnay. Further, wines made in Burgundy receive their quality classifications, called appellations, based on the region, village, or vineyard rather than the Chateau as in Bordeaux. The four quality tiers are Grand Cru, Premier Cru, Village wines, and Regional wines.
Côtes du Rhône (Pronounced Cote deh Rone)
Without a doubt some of the best wine values in France come from the Rhone Valley. With 100,000 acres of vineyards owned by more than 10,000 growers it is the second largest appellation in the country (Bordeaux is first). More than just value, Cotes du Rhone wines, with a few exceptions, are meant to be enjoyed upon release. They can be red, white, or rosé wines and are generally dominated by Grenache and Syrah although a large number of varieties are allowed in the AOC. The iconic Châteauneuf Du Pape is a Rhône blend which may be made from 13 different grapes!
If there ever was an under-appreciated French wine its Beaujolais. Although technically in the Burgundy region the grape of Beaujolais is Gamay. Beaujolais is fresh and ripe with a minimum of tannin making it easy to drink and easy to pair with food. Curiously, Beaujolais and Champagne are the only two regions required by French law to be picked by hand. If the only Beaujolais you’ve ever tasted was Beaujolais Nouveau do yourself a favor and try a “Cru” Beaujolais. (Cru is French for growth). The wines from these 10 small villages can compete with many fine Burgundies at a fraction of the cost. Their names are: St-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-a-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié, Brouilly, and Côte de Brouilly.
I hope this general overview is enough to push you to do some very enjoyable homework yourself. Don’t let the language barrier intimidate you. I promise you the wine is worth the transatlantic trip.
Don’t know how to translate French wine labels? Here’s a guide to help:
Have more questions about French wine? Stop by the new wine tasting section at our Pennsauken store and talk to Certified Sommelier Jimmy Quaile. And once you found your perfect bottle, pick it up from our store or order for pickup or delivery. Au revoir!