The wines of Europe in general, and those of France in particular, can seem very confusing. This is especially true for people who may have grown up with more familiarly labelled New World wines. In essence the difference for this is that wines from the New World are usually labelled with their grape variety. If you discover that you like Australian Shiraz X, it’s not too much of a push to imagine you’ll like Australian Shiraz Y. The same is not, however, true for French Villages, wines from France will normally be labelled with their place of origin, and not a great deal else apart from who made it.
The reason for this is largely historical. Vineyards across Europe were as a general rule established by the Romans, who planted vines pretty much wherever they went – even as far north as Grimsby in Yorkshire. Many of these vineyard areas, including Grimsby, alas, do not survive because – presumably – the wine wasn’t up to much. The vineyard areas that do still exist are because the resulting wine was good at the time and continues to be so.
The Romans didn’t know a great deal about individual grape varieties. Understandably, they named the wines after where they were produced – the most obvious difference between them. Today’s wine drinker needs, therefore, to have a little grasp of geography in order to fight their way through. It’s worth the fight, however, as your existing knowledge of liking (or indeed disliking) a particular style can help you find its French counterpart to embrace or avoid in the restaurant, wine merchant or supermarket.
In general, wines from cool climates are more likely to be white, and crisp in acidity – it is more difficult to ripen the grapes. Wines from warmer places will be more likely red, higher in alcohol and softer in acidity as the more ripened grapes produce greater amounts of sugar (which becomes alcohol). Grapes develop colour in their skin for the same reason we do – a defence to the sun. This is less of a problem in Kent than in Corsica.
In the north of France, of course, is Champagne. This is the only sparkling wine allowed to call itself Champagne these days and is made from the black grapes Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and the white grape Chardonnay. A Champagne that is labelled ’Blanc de Blancs’ will be made wholly from Chardonnay – ‘white from white’. Most New World sparkling wines follow the Pinot/Chardonnay mixture.
Northern France’s other cool wine region is the Loire Valley which produces dry and sweet wines from Chenin Blanc (in, for example, Saumur and Vouvray), and some light, elegant reds (mainly from Cabernet Franc (as in Saumur and St Nicholas de Bourgeuil). Whilst Sauvignon Blanc is now almost as famous from New Zealand as it is from anywhere, the grape variety reaches its height in two Loire villages: Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé. Both display a particular minerality (the French call this ‘terroir’). In Sancerre the soil is flinty, and Pouilly-Fumé is chalky (in fact the ‘fumé’ part comes from the smoke-like chalk dust that billows in the wind).
East from here, but with a climate tempered by being so far inland, are the vineyard areas of Alsace. This picture-postcard region has been batted politically back and forth by Germany and France so much that it has its own identity, culture, and cuisine. The wines, similarly, are French but with a very German accent. From Riesling, Pinot Gris (Grigio) and Gewurztraminer the winemakers of Alsace craft wonderfully rich-yet-dry examples of wines found nowhere else.
Back west of here is the northernmost part of Burgundy. In the region of Chablis, the variety Chardonnay produces its crispest, leanest examples (still a cool climate). Usually without any oak flavour, these are the perfect Chardonnays for shellfish and unlike almost all New World examples (apart from those from Otago in New Zealand, or Washington State and British Columbia in North America).
Further south in Burgundy, Chardonnay becomes riper and more golden, and so does its wines. These are the famous White Burgundies which sport the very famous names such as Meursault, Corton-Charlemagne and lots of things ending ‘–Montrachet’. These Chardonnays will often have oak maturation as part of their make up. They can be the most expensive dry white wines on Earth.
Burgundy is also the home to Pinot Noir – which produces the most ethereal and wonderfully textured red wines of all. They are not always pale, but usually more red than purple. At the top end there is nothing finer, although cheap Pinot Noir can often be worth avoiding. Once again this variety is no great sun lover and the best wines are from cooler climes – New Zealand and Oregon are providing the best competition to Burgundy currently.
Just below Burgundy is Beaujolais, where the variety Gamay produces light, chillably fruity easy to drink wines. Forget ‘Nouveau’ and look for the name of a village such as Fleurie or Morgon.
South of Beaujolais, but on the same granite rocky soil is the famous Rhône Valley. Here the sun shines reliably and the vineyards are perfect for ripening Syrah (which is widely known in the New World as Shiraz). In the northern Rhône, wines such as Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie are the essence of inky violetty Syrah – perfect with roast or even barbecued meat.
A little further south, the Rhône begins to broaden as its estuary grows to form the marshes of Marseilles and the Carmargue. The sometimes arid higher land, the Côtes du Rhône, is perfect for growing a melange of grape varieties – up to thirteen different permitted in the most famous wine of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
South-east of here are the swathes of vineyards of Provence, justifiably famous for its Rosé, as often as not made from Grenache. Westof Marseilles begins the vast Languedoc-Roussillon area making robust sundrenched reds as well as white, rosé and some fortified wines such as Maury (sort of French Port). The varieties here: Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cinsault and Carignan are all noted understandably for their tolerance to heat and sun.
The vineyards of Bordeaux, on the south-west coast of the Bay of Biscay, are protected from the saline winds of the Atlantic by a huge pine forest. Here there are two different soil types. On the southern ‘Left’ bank of the river estuary the soil is gravel (so much so that one leading area is called ‘Graves’). Here the vines are mainly Cabernet Sauvignon which rejoices in gravel’s drainage properties. On the northern ‘Right’ riverbank, the water-retentive clay is more suited to the thirsty Merlot . Most Bordeaux wines are a blend. If from the Médoc (on the left) the wines are Cabernet with some Merlot, in villages such as Pauillac and Margaux. If on the other side the great wines from Pomerol and St Emilion are usually Merlot with some Cabernet included, often Cabernet Franc.
It would not be easy to sum up the wines of a single village in France in so few words, much less the whole country, but I hope this whirlwind Tour de France has given you a thirst to find more information to help you discover the wine of your dreams.
Rod Smith MW, from Vins Sans Frontières, is one of only a handful of Masters of Wine working in France and the only one to work with yachts. The MW qualification is the highest possible achievement in the world of wine and something only 301 people hold.
For more information, visit Vins Sans Frontières (or the VSF Group) at www.vsfgroup.com.