By Lorianne S. Riley
If you are really serious about learning French wines and unlocking their mystery, I highly recommend taking a trip to France. Taking tours and classes are key to learning the nuances of French wines. The next time I go back, I would love to work at a small family winery as a ranch hand. I am sure that would be invaluable to learning their complex wine making rituals, which are very different from the new world wines, such as the United States.
During my trip I designated a lot of time to the wine country in France. I was hungry for knowledge. French wines were something I always avoided because I was in fear of what I was buying. Is it good? Is it light or big? Is it tanic or smooth? I honestly could not tell because I didn’t know how to read the labels. I knew Varietals, not Regions and Classifications. I wanted to overcome this fear and for the most part I have. The truth is French wines are always evolving and it realistically would take a lifetime to fully understand them. So, here are some basic rules of thumb while picking a French wine to purchase.
Provence, Loire Valley and the Bordeaux Region wine labels classification rules are very different from the Burgundy Region. Burgundy wines can only be three varietals of grapes. They are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or Gamay. The labels are always set up the same. The Producers name is at the very top of the label. The top left side is the Region. The top right side is the vintage year; followed by the Domaine where the grapes were grown, then the Region where the grapes were grown, below that the seal that the grapes were grown to AOC (Appellation Control) standards, and then at the bottom left hand side the alcohol content, bottom middle the Country of Origin, and the right hand bottom side the volume of wine in the bottle.
Bordeaux as well as the other two regions, Provance and the Loire Valley, the lableing is more similar. Bordeaux wines can only be eight varietals of grapes. They are Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. The red wines are typically a blend and depending what appellation they come from one grape variety will be more prevalent (example: Saint Emilion the prevalent grape is merlot while Pauiliac the prevalent grape is Cabernet Sauvignon.) Loire Valley has amazing white wines made with Chenin Blanc grapes as well as Cabernet Franc, Gamay and Malbec’s for their reds. While Provence uses seven varietals being Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah, Mourvedre, Tibouren, Carignan, and the least common Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines Provence is the most well known for is Rose`. While looking at all of these Regions wine labels the first thing mentioned on the label is special quality classifications (If there is one), then the Chateau, Region, then below that the seal that the grapes where grown to AOC (Appellation Control) standards, then the year of the vintage, followed by the address, Country of Origin, alcohol level and the volume of wine bottled.
If a wine states on the label that the wine is up to AOC standards or Grand Crus Classe you know you have a winner, because that means the wine has meet every stringent test to qualify it as AOC. France has very strict regulations. If anything on the label is false the vintner is prosecuted to the fullest degree, normally meaning a lengthy jail sentence.
I hope that this helps you when purchasing French wines. It shirley opened my eyes and now I am not so scared. I want to thank Caro and Nicolas for being such great teachers and I hope this article meets up to your standards.
Links and Credits
The pocket Guide to French Wine Appreciation
© Copyright 2011 Caroline Feely