France’s wine country

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Image: Heidi Butzine

            I can’t wait.  Next month, I am headed to France to explore wine country in the heart of Chateauneuf and the south of France.  Of all the wine-growing countries, France is considered the leader of the pack and has established this reputation over many years. 


What is AOC?

           Wines all over the world strive to meet the standards set by French wines.  This began as early as the 18th century.  In an attempt to control the quality of French wines, and keep imitators from using famous French names, they created the Appellation d’Origine Controlee or AOC.  The AOC regulates all wines produced in France, grading them by quality as well as ensuring the labels give accurate information about the origin, content, and production of the wines.

            The AOC categorizes wine into four different groups, depending on quality.  The highest quality wines are labeled by their Appellation.  For example, a high quality wine form Burgundy (Bourgogne in French) would be called something like Appellation Bourgogne Controlee.  This information can include what area, village, and vineyard the wine comes from.

            The next level of quality below Appellation is called Vin Delimite de Qualite Superieure.  After that wine is classified as Vin de Pays, which literally means country wine.  The lowest category is called Vin de Table, meaning table wine.  While these are quality levels established by the AOC this doesn’t mean that you should avoid French table wines.  There are good wines within each of these categories.

Wine regions of France:

Bordeaux

            Bordeaux is probably the most famous of the French wine regions.  It is known for making very heavy and rich, full-bodied red wines.  Most Bordeaux wines are made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Merlot.

            Wineries – known as Chateaux in French – have been making wine for hundreds of years.  The wineries in Bordeaux are experienced and knowledgeable about all aspects of wine making.  More than one quarter of wines with the highest AOC ratings come from Bordeaux.  Some of the most famous wineries are in Bordeaux, such as Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Margaux, and Chateau Latour. 

            Along with the countrywide AOC ratings, Bordeaux has its own wine rating system.  This system was instituted in 1855 in order to classify wineries in more levels than the AOC rating.  The levels of the Bordeaux rating system are called Cru, which means “growth.”  The highest level is the premier grand cru.  Only five wineries have earned this distinction.  They are Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Latour, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Haut-Brion, and Chateau Mouton-Rothschild.  The other wineries are organized into Deuxieme, Troisieme, Quatrieme, and Cinquieme grand crus, which literally translate to second, third, fourth, and firth great growths.  There are even subcategories that further classify wines.

            This is not to say that if it isn’t cru, then it isn’t worth drinking.  There are many good wineries that produce good wine and are not ranked in this system.  Wines with a high ranking are going to cost much more than unranked wines.

Burgundy

            Burgundy is famous for both its red and white wines.  Burgundy red wines are quite different from Bordeaux reds.  They are typically made from the Pinot Noir grape and tend to be medium or full bodied wines with fruit flavors as well as woodsy flavors.  They are fairly low tannin, and have a velvety texture. 

            Burgundy white wines are made exclusively of Chardonnay.  They have honey flavors as well as nutty nuances.  Chardonnay from Burgundy is considered better than any other type of Chardonnay.

            In Burgundy, instead of being called Chateaux, wineries are called domaine.  This is one easy way to tell if a wine is from Burgundy.

Beaujolais

            Beaujolais is famous for the Beaujolais Nouveau, which is in the news every year as it gets raced to markets.  Beaujolais wines are made from the Gamay grape.  These red wines are low in tannins, light, and refreshing.  Beaujolais Nouveau appears in stores a mere six weeks after it is harvested off the vine in France.

            Beaujolais Nouveau appears in stores in November, just in time to be an excellent accompaniment for Thanksgiving dinner.  The light wine goes well with turkey, as well as pasta and red and white sauces.  Beaujolais Nouveau should be drunk within 6 months.  It is not a wine meant to age well.

            The Beaujolais region also produces the Crus Beaujolais, which tends to be of higher quality than Beaujolais Nouveau.  The Crus Beaujolais can be aged up to three years whereas Beaujolais Nouveau should be enjoyed within six months.

The Rhone Valley

            Wines from the Rhone valley are made from Grenache grapes.  These grapes produce a spicy, red wine with raspberry and herbal flavors that is high in alcohol content and low in acidity.  Rhone wines are usually blended to introduce more balance to the wine.  Often Syrah or Mourvedre are used for this.  Rhone wines are some of the most robust and long lived wines in the world.  They match very well with food.

            The Rhone River flows South through France, starting near the city Lyon.  This part of Rhone produces only about five percent of the wine from the Rhone Valley, so it is sometimes hard to find and rather expensive.  Wines from Northern Rhone are spicy, full bodied and dark red.  As the Rhone River flows south, it passes through a dusty plain, where the bulk of the Grenache grapes are grown.

            The Rhone valley is known mostly for its red wines, but it does produce a few whites.  They are incredibly rare and expensive, but also unmatched in terms of quality and flavor.  The best whites taste of peach, honey, nut, and honeysuckle. 

The Loire Valley

            Unlike the Rhone Valley, the Loire Valley is known for its light whites.  They tend to be fairly inexpensive, with high acidity, and intense fruit flavors.  The tradition in the Loire Valley is to ferment and store wine in metal containers, so the wines from this region normally lack any type of oaky or smoky flavors.

            The Loire is the longest river in France, and it passes through several different areas, and climate types, along its way.  At the head of the river, the cool mountain climate is perfect for growing Sauvignon Blanc grapes.  This tends to be made into a bright, steely wine with citrus and fruity flavors.

            In the middle Loire Valley, the main grape is Chenin Blanc.  The grape can be made into four different varieties of wine: sparkling, dry, off-dry, and sweet.  These wines tend to have high acidity, with the drier wines tasting lemony with strong mineral notes, while the sweeter wines are fruitier and more floral.

            At the mouth of the river, Melon de Bourgogne grapes are made into a wine called Muscadet.  This wine is a crisp white wine, dry and musky, with subtle fruity hints.  This wine goes very well with shellfish and white fish. 

Alsace

            Alsace is located in the most northeast corner of France.  France and Germany have argued and fought over the area for hundreds of years.  The wine styles in Alsace combine some elements found mostly in German wines with some French styles. 

            Unlike other French wines which are named for geographic location, Alsace wines are named for the grape variety.  They specialize in white wines, made from Riesling, Sylvaner, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot noir, and Muscat.  The first three of these are grapes traditional in German wines, and the final four are traditionally French grapes.

            Alsatian wines tend to be very food friendly, with a full body and high alcohol content. Pinot Gris wines from this area are called Tokay Pinot Gris, and the wine is full bodied, with hints of peach and banana.  Tokay tends to be a very intense wine, but ages well.  Late harvest Tokay makes a very good dessert wine.

            Most wines in Alsace are aged in non-oak barrels, so they do not have any oaky flavor.  This allows the fruity and spicy characteristics of the wines to be fully appreciated.

Champagne

            Champagne is one of the most famous wines in the world.  Only wine made in Champagne using the prescribed methods and grapes is allowed to bare the name Champagne on its bubbly.  It is a subtle difference that can mean a lot.

            Champagne is made using the “methode champenoise.”  Champagne must be aged for at least a year in the bottle to create its signature bubbles, but many producers allow it to age more than five years. 

            Champagne must be made from one (or a mixture) of three grapes.  These are Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay.  While Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier usually make red wines, for Champagne the skins are removed from the wine before fermentation, which leaves the Champagne light colored.  The traditional mix is one third of each of these three types of grapes, but other proportions are allowed.  Champagne that is made only out of Chardonnay is called blanc de blancs.  Champagnes or sparkling wines indicating blanc de noirs is made of dark or red grapes.

French Sweet Wines

            Most areas of France produce some type of sweet wine.  The most famous of these is Sauternes, and is made in Bordeaux.    Sauternes, made from Semillon grapes, is the standard sweet wines the world around are judged by.  Some Sauternes also contain Sauvignon Blanc, to increase the acidity.  The sweet flavor of Sauternes is caused by the fungus Botrytis Cinerea, which attacks late harvest grapes, causing the water in the grape to evaporate, and thereby increasing the intensity and sweetness of the grapes.  Good Sauternes are luscious, with flavors of apricot, pineapple, orange peel, vanilla, toffee, and honey.

            Sauternes is not the only sweet wine of note in France.  Many areas near Sauternes produce similar wines, such as Cadillac, Loupiac, Sainte-Croiz-du-Mont, and Cerons.  These wines, along with the sweet wines of the Loire Valley and Alsace, are more affordable, but just as high quality, as Sauternes.

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