Introduction to French Wine cover

Introduction to French Wine

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This NoteStream is an introduction to aspects of French wine. For anyone who is becoming interested in wine, France is often an area they struggle to understand and get the most from. Ultimately we hope that when you choose a French wine you will choose with more confidence and be more satisfied with your choice.


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Introduction to French Wine

Aims of this NoteStream

This NoteStream is an introduction to aspects of French wine.

For anyone who is becoming interested in wine, France is often an area they struggle to understand and get the most from. These notes delve into:

-- How the history of French wine has led to current practices, for example why many bottles don't explicitly mention the grape varieties used.

-- The different types of wines produced, from classic reds to sweet dessert wines, to champagne and other types and methods of producing sparkling wines.

-- The main regions of wine production and their characteristics.

-- The classification system of the great wines of Bordeaux, and how some production is sold before they are even bottled (en primeur).

-- The importance of the vintage for certain wines.

Ultimately we hope that when you choose a French wine you will choose with more confidence and be more satisfied with your choice...

Why History Matters

Although not a fan of history at school, it is crucial in understanding French wine.

It may surprise some Francophobes, but the lack of information on wine labels concerning the grape varieties used is not a ploy by the French to confuse us "l'étrangers". It is a practice caused by the long history of wine production.

Wine has been made in France for centuries if not millennia. In that context, the era of easy communication and transport is a very recent development. If you were born in the Bordeaux region, you very likely spent your entire life there. If you drank wine, local wine was the only type available. There was no need to label what grape varieties were in the wine, because everyone would know that it was a blend of the locally grown grapes (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and perhaps Malbec and Petit Verdot). Even if you did label each bottle, for the majority of the history of French wine production, most consumers would be unlikely to be able to read anyway. Additionally if you owned a vineyard, you were unlikely to have much contact with other wine producing regions. Thus you didn't have much choice of which grape varieties to plant - you planted the varieties you could source locally.

Hence the practice of labeling the wine with your chateau (castle) name, and perhaps the region, became entrenched. Similarly the shape of bottle used in each region was often set by history.

When we talk through the major wine regions we will look into the grape varieties and other regulations......

Why does French wine have its reputation?

In short the reputation of French wine comes from the history, the quality, the price, and perhaps more recently the investment potential.

Other regions were producing wine before the French: it is believed to have originated in the country of Georgia, in the valleys beneath the South Caucasus, some 8,000 years ago. There are wines from other countries that can rival and beat French wines in blind tastings (c.f. the 1976 Judgement of Paris, where to the surprise of most the two top scoring wines were not French). There are wines from Italy, Australia and the US that rival the prices of the top French wines. In investment terms, the auctioning of wines is still heavily weighted towards French wines, particularly Bordeaux. The Liv-ex indices track the prices of fine wines, and are very heavily weighted towards Bordeaux and then Burgundy.

So it is a combination of all of these factors that gives French wine its pre-eminent reputation. These factors and snobbery. For here in the UK, and elsewhere, I have met many a person (often of a certain fuddy-duddyish type) who will say to me something along the lines of "Well it really has to be French wine, doesn't it". Further prodding then leads to the conclusion that this person knows very little about other wines, and quite often very little about French wine too.

Liv-ex price chart

Liv-ex price chart

Liv-ex is the global marketplace for professional buyers and sellers of fine wine.

What are the wines I should know about?

Well, I could write for hours here, but that is not the point of NoteStream.

In short the most acclaimed red wines come from:

Bordeaux - think of large historic Chateaux, super expensive '1st Growths' like Margaux or Latour. Classic, elegant wines that rivals across the world seek to mimic.

Burgundy - the more Northern of the key regions. Generally small vineyards of pinot noir grapes. Savoury wines, earthy notes. A real favourite for many of sophisticated palate.

Rhone - more southerly, so hotter. Producing juicy, sometimes hot and alcoholic wines. Some, especially the more refined North Rhone wines, are truly excellent, and are generally less expensive than the two regions above.

With white wines, the stand out region is Burgundy again. Made from the Chardonnay grape, white burgundy is the global benchmark for classic, restrained wines. There are highly prized sub classifications within the region - Puligny-Montrachet, Meursault, Chablis etc.

However there are other regions that make excellent whites. The Loire is known for its sauvignon blancs and chenin blancs, and in Bordeaux the sauvignon and semillion varieties are blended to great effect.

With sparkling wines, Champagne is renowned through out the world. In truth no other regions come close in terms of finesse, recognition, or price. However we will cover these in a subsequent note.

The most famous Dessert wines are from Sauternes. Unusually for France, the singular Chateau d'Yquem is widely regarded as being in a class of its own. The wines show amazing length and complexity of flavour, develop and improve over decades and can last for a century or more. The prices are correspondingly high.

Champagne - terminology

To be precise, the term champagne should only be used for a sparkling wine made using a certain method, and made in the region of Champagne.

Often people will call other sparkling wines 'champagne', but this is not correct (and in most countries it is not legal to label wines as such, with the United States a notable exception).

Champagne is made from any or all of three grapes varieties: chardonnay (a white grape) and pinot noir and pinot meunier (both black grapes).

This also leads to subsets of champagne - a blanc de blancs (effectively meaning white from white) is made only from white grapes, i.e. just chardonnay.

Blanc de noirs is made from black grapes only, either one of both of the pinot types. Note this is possible because the juice of black grapes is white. The colour in red wines comes from contact of the grapes juice with the skins, and this is avoided in the production of champagne.

Champagne label

Champagne label

This label indicates blanc de blancs champagne;

champagne that is made only from white grapes -- specifically, Chardonnay.

Champagne - production

Méthode Champenoise is the traditional method by which Champagne is produced.

Like regular wine there is a primary fermentation (yeasts turn the natural sugars into alcohol), after which the wine is bottled. Then a second alcoholic fermentation is induced in the bottle, by adding several grams of yeast and several grams of sugar. The bottles are left for a minimum of 1.5 years for non-vintage (3 years for vintage champagne) to completely develop all the flavour, usually sealed with a cap like that used on beer bottles. After this ageing, the remuage takes place: getting the lees (the dead yeast cells) to settle in the neck of the bottle, where they are frozen and removed. Further sugar may be added (the dosage) to adjust the sweetness of the finished wine. There is a larger range of levels of sweetness in champagne, from the bone-dry 'extra-brut' to the very sweet 'doux'. The bottle is then swiftly stopped with a cork, to maintain the carbon-dioxide in it which makes it a sparkling wine, and a cage is placed over the cork to hold it on under the pressure.

Rosé or pink champagne gets its colour from one of two ways: more commonly by adding a little red wine made from pinot noir, but it can also be done by allowing the juice to have a short contact with the skins after pressing.

Bordeaux - reds

Based around the city of Bordeaux, in the south-west of France, it is the most famous wine region of all.

As mentioned earlier, there are great sweet wines and white wines produced here. However it is the red wines of Bordeaux, nearly 90% of production by volume, that interest us here.

The grapes that can be used for red wines are: cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, malbec and petit verdot. The particular blend of these depends on the region, the specific appellation within the region, and finally the chateau itself. This comes down to their choice according to how the vintage had developed in any particular year. Different growing conditions will lead to different volumes of the grape varieties being available, but more importantly the winemaker will look to blend what he has available to create the best wines possible. As many producers won't list the blend of varieties on the bottle, it becomes clear how difficult it can be for the non-expert wine to know what is in the wine.

There are some simple rules of thumb that help. The region of Bordeaux is naturally split by the Gironde estuary, so giving Left Bank and RIght Bank areas. Furthermore the Garonne and Dordogne rivers feed into the estuary, and between the two is the Entre-Deux-Mers region. These regions are further split into 'Appellations' (the AOCs of French wine) - with such well-known names as Margaux, Pomerol, and Saint-Emilion. The Right bank appellations tend to be made predominantly with Merlot. The Left bank tends to be made with more Cabernet Sauvignon. A large reason behind this is the difference in soils in the two regions: the Left bank often has much gravel, which suits the growing of fine cabernet; the Right bank often has mostly limestone and clay, suiting the growing of fine merlot.

A Bordeaux wine label

A Bordeaux wine label

In Bordeaux, the picture of the chateau on the label must actually exist on the property where the grapes are grown.

Not a Bordeaux wine label

Not a Bordeaux wine label

This is a picture of the chateau depicted on the wine label in the previous Note.

Bordeaux reds - navigating the grape varieties

I would suggest that one shouldn't be too grape-type centric in drinking wines from Bordeaux.

For the Bordelais it is the skill in growing the grapes, using your 'terroir' (location, climate, soil and more) and skill in blending the different grape varieties that determine how good your wine will be. Moreover if you are approaching this from a New World wine perspective, you will likely find that even a half-decent Bordeaux wine will not taste like a similar composition of New World varietal wine, be that merlot or cabernet sauvignon. A wine from Saint Emilion (say 60% or more merlot) will taste much more like a wine from Margaux (75% cab. sauv.) than most Australian or American merlots. In essence the secret with French wine is to concentrate on where it is from rather than the grape varieties that it is made from. So, in the same way that you may like Australian Shiraz, and know the differences between those from the Maclaren Vale and Barossa Valley, think of Bordeaux reds in the same way and look for the differences between those from Saint Emilion and the Medoc.

Bordeaux vs. Burgundy,

Chateaux vs. Domaines, the determination of historic quirks...

One key difference between the two kings of the french wine regions comes down to historical (Napoleonic) laws concerning how one's estate was divided upon death.

In Bordeaux the estate or chateau was passed down to the eldest son. In Burgundy the vineyards were normally split between the children. This is important because the structure of the wine estates has led to significant differences in how the regions carry out their business. Bordeaux estates have largely been kept together in their original sizes, so the estates tend to be larger and less numerous.

Burgundian estates may have been similar in size many centuries ago, but now are highly fragmented. There were around 50 wine domaines in the early 1800's, but this had divided into over 3,000 wine domaines by 2000. There are some large domaines, but some small producers make just one or two hundred cases per year. This also means that some growers are sub-scale, and sell their grapes to négociants to make and bottle the wine, or work through co-operatives. Additionally the classification system in Burgundy is much more fragmented. The villages' vineyards are classified into different quality levels, and the specific vineyard is often specified on the label.

You can reasonably hope that by spending time learning about and tasting red Bordeaux you can become knowledgeable over a few years. The same cannot be said for Burgundy, because there are so many more wines being produced. It needs a lot more devotion to become a true expert on red Burgundy. Alternatively you should seek out a trusted wine merchant who specialises in Burgundy.