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Wine Label Words: French Wines Part II (Deux)

March 11, 2011

In Part I we covered the basics of the French appellation system (AOC or AC wines), and we started to explore the major AOC regions and what grape varieties we find in each.

I should point out here that French wine laws weren’t developed just to confuse us, the consumer, but to behold the regions that produced the very best wines. The rules concerning what grape varieties were allowed in these regions were developed alongside the hundreds (sometimes thousands) of years of experience in growing grapes and making wine there.

So the idea behind a place name on the label, as opposed to the grape variety, is to highlight the special qualities that the region imbues on its wines. In simpler terms, the laws were inspired to help us think “Wow, what a great Burgundy!” as opposed to “Wow, what a great chardonnay!” We can get chardonnay from many wine regions around the world, but there is only one Burgundy.

French Wine Regions

Ok, this is the continuation of learning what grape varieties come with the French region name on the label. And remember that tasting the wine is still the best way to associate a place name with a grape variety. Taste is a powerful reminder!

Some of the great wines of the world come from Bordeaux. Despite the varied place names within the region, it’s actually quite easy to summarize the region.

First, the main red grape varieties are very familiar. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. There are some wines that are primarily one or the other, but mostly Bordeaux reds are a blend of mostly these two grapes. There is a river that cuts through the middle of the region, flowing from East to West (towards the Atlantic). To the left of the river, thankfully known as the Left Bank, the wines tend to be more Cabernet Sauvignon dominated. To the right, northern side of the river, Right Bank wines lean towards more Merlot.

Map of Bordeaux

There are no rules concerning the percentages of either variety used, accounting for the difference (besides location) for wines from one area or another. Also, winemakers are free to blend in some other varieties as well, though these tend to be in smaller amounts. Some wine may contain Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot (ver-dough), and to a lesser extent Malbec or Carménere, though these last two are really rare anymore.

Some typical Left Bank appellation names that you may encounter are Graves, Médoc, Haut-Medoc, Margaux, St-Julien, Pauillac, & St. Estéphe. The Right Bank places you’ll likely find on labels include St-Emilion, Pomerol, Canon-Fronsac & Fronsac. The smaller the place (see map) the more the wine will likely cost. It’s similar to the difference between a Napa wine or a Carneros wine (a smaller part within Napa).

White wines are made from Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and to a lesser extent a grape called Muscadelle. The wines made in the area between the two rivers, Entre-Deux-Mers, are all white wines from these grapes. Also from this region is one of the great dessert wines. Sauternes is found down near the bottom of the Bordeaux map, to the left side of the river. These lucious, sweet whites are made from the same white grapes, but the flavors are concentrated by a drying-out of the water in the grapes.

Here things are a little easier, except for the exceptions. The Rhone is split into two sections, North & South. In the northern Rhone, the red variety is Syrah. So whether it’s a Cote Rotie or an Hermitage, it’s the same grape. For whites it’s Viognier (vee-ohn-yay), Marsanne and Rousanne.

The southern Rhone is a little different, as we add a few other grapes to the mix like Grenache, Mourvedre, Carignan. The whites are generally the same as in the Northern Rhone, but also Grenache Blanc or Grenache Gris (though these are less frequent).

Map of the Rhone Valley

So here’s where a little more geography helps. If it’s a Northern Rhone red, it will be all Syrah. The usual suspects here are Hermitage, Cote Rotie, Saint Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage and Cornas. Some of these places allow some white Viognier to be blended with the Syrah, which helps extract more color and, some say, adds depth. Famously, all Viognier whites come from Condrieu in the North, too.

If it’s a Southern Rhone red, or a Cotes du Rhone, it is typically a blend of grapes usually dominated by Grenache and Syrah but also featuring some of the other varieties mentioned earlier. Place names here include Gigondas, Vacqueyras and a newer entry called Rasteau. The exceptional exception here is Chateauneuf du Pape, which allows up to 13 different varieties, though as you might assume from the rest of the region, Grenache dominates.

Now on to my favorite of French regions! Starting from the south, we first hit a region that is usually thought of as separate and has distinct soils, topography, and climate from the rest of Burgundy. But in fact Beaujolais is part of the Burgundy region, at least technically.

While there are some exceptions, the dominant white grape is Chardonnay and all of the reds are made from Gamay. The red Beaujolais are soft, light bodied and fruity wines, but the image of them as all like Beaujolais noveau would make you miss out on increasingly well-made and structured Cru Beaujolais. The town names you’re likely to see are Morgon, Brouilly (brew-yee), Julienas (jewel-a-nah), Fleurie (floor-ee) and and Chiroubles (sheer-ub-lah).

These names are important to know if you are sure you want a Beaujolais made from the gamay grape instead of a Burgundy made from pinot noir.

Just to the north of Beaujolais is the Maconnais, alternately the Macon. This area is considered the true southern end of Burgundy and is known mostly for its white wines from Chardonnay, though some red Pinot Noir can be found here as well. The commonly found names from here found on store shelves are the well-known Puilly-Fuisse and also St. Veran and Vire-Clesse. North of here is the Cote Chalonnaise, but these are less frequently found in typical stores here.

The heart of Burgundy is what lies ahead. The upper region in its entirety is called the Cote d’Or (coat-door), but that too is split into the upper Cote de Nuits (coat-deh-nwee) and the lower Cote d’Beaune (coat-deh-bone).

Here is where Burgundy shines the brightest. Primarily you’ll find red wines from Pinot Noir and white wines from Chardonnay. The many town names you’ll find along the way, starting in the northern Cote de Nuits are Gevrey-Chambertin, Morey-St-Denis, Vougeot and Vosne-Romanee.

There are others, but we’re already into some pricey turf here, so if you’re perusing the Burgundy shelves looking for something along these lines, you’re spending enough to have either learned what you’re looking for already or should only buy from a shop that can assist you in some capacity. Again, the idea here is to know that the wine is from the upper part of Burgundy.

I haven’t forgotten about the southern neighbor, the Cote de Beaune. Especially because some of the finest white wines (chardonnay) are from here. Town names include Beaune, Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, Santenay and Savigny-Les-Beaunes.

Finally, though not least, Chablis is separated geographically from the rest of Burgundy, but it is part of the appellation. Chablis is to the north and west, closer to Champagne than to the Cotes d’Or. The whites of Chablis are from Chardonnay.

While this was a lot of information to process, exploration of these regions little by little can lead to some of the happiest wine experiences one could hope for. Whether a bold red Bordeaux, a spicy Northern Rhone, a Loire Valley white or (in my book) just about anything from Burgundy, a little information pays back huge dividends in future wine enjoyment.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Dave from Pinot permalink
    March 12, 2011 12:58 am

    Good Stuff, Jeff!

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