I tried to search for a forum about this but I couldn't find one, even though I'm sure there is somewhere. Put simply, I am extremely confused about French Wines - I know they don't put the varietal on the label but that's about it. How do you know what you're buying? Can anyone give me any details or direct me to any good references about this topic?
Thanks so much!
French Wine = Confusion
- Reply by GregT, Feb 23, 2010.
French wines are made in France for the most part. Some of them are well made, some suck. They believe that each region makes unique wine. They call that terroir. So they don't talk about the variety so much. The reason is that the terroir shows through the fruit. So in the North Rhone, they grow syrah. That reflects their local terroir. They do not grow zinfandel, nebbiolo, pinot noir, or blaufrankisch there. Apparently the terroir is so delicate that it will not show in those varieties, but only in syrah. If you do not believe that, you are a heretic. They used to burn heretics. I have heard that some people suggest bringing back this practice.
In each area of France, they have selected certain grapes. Only those are allowed. If you plant something else, you are a heretic. Again, they used to burn heretics.
You are supposed to love Bordeaux the most. They only allow cabernet-related grapes there, like merlot, carmenere, malbec, cabernet franc, petit verdot, etc. You should like those wines because they have a lot to sell. Lately, Burgundy has become fashionable but it was previously a peasant region. They only grow pinot noir and chardonnay. You aren't supposed to really like those, but you should exclaim about how well they translate the "soil" into your glass. If you don't believe you taste that soil, you are a heretic. Well, you know what happens to heretics.
As you move around France, you find these rules cropping up Actually, some of the wines from France are simply outstanding. Truly. And if you don't believe that, you are a heretic and you know about them!!
Hope this helps.
- Reply by zufrieden, Feb 23, 2010.
Well, someone has the French turn of mind to a tee! That thing they call terroir does indeed have mysterious properties - almost supernatural, if growers are to be believed. But then, that is why unbelievers are burned. Those that can't come to the faith through gentle persuasion must be made to understand through the cleansing power of fire...
Anyway, Katie, Stephen Brook, the noted English wine expert on Bordeaux might be able to give you the inside scoop on the proximate ingredients found in each wine by property in his very complete "The Complete Bordeaux". A similar book by Clive Coates (The Wines of Burgundy) will give you a similar lowdown on the famous wines of the Burgundy.
As someone with a logical side, I have a lot of sympathy with heretics. But sometimes it is useful to start out a believer as this may set you on the path of appreciating French wine if not every mystery associated with creaky tradition or terroir....
- Reply by dirkwdeyoung, Feb 23, 2010.
Dear Katieellen, yes French wines at first are confusing just for the reason that you mentioned and a few more. The wines have distinct character depending on the region they are from. Each region has its own rules about which grapes are allowed and about what production quantities are allowed for different wines within the regions hierarchy of wines. And the wine production in France is a vast enterprise.
The Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée, AOC for short (roughly translated, "Names of controlled origin", defines the over 300 name designations. See the list on wiki here:
But these are also sub regions within the main regions, which are more familiar:
I think in the beginning the American producers decided for marketing, or other reasons to simplify their wines by naming them after a grape, thus:
But you can roughly equate these grapes to some main regions in France at least these two for example:
Bordeaux=Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot
for starters, so by producing wines with these two grapes, America was able to capture at least the two main dominant regions of France.
Now most French regions authorize many different varietals, so the producers have more tools to play with as far as producing interesting wines each year. So for example Chateauneuf du Pape authorizes the most different varietals of any AOC with actually 18, so these wines are frequently quite interesting blends and very accessible to newbies for French wine (I like to break people in on French wine with a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape!).
In spite of the challenge and guaranteed, nobody, NOBODY, knows everything there is to know about French wine, look at it instead as a never ending journey of discovery into a culture that is very committed to producing excellent wines at every price point and with the AOC system at a certain level of quality/price assurance.
So take the plunge and just pick a bottle from one of the regions that you can afford and then just keep at it. Notice that on snooth there are French wine groups for the main regions, so select them and just read a little about the main regions. There are good summaries about the regions wines on each of the wine reviews, so take a look at that.
In spite of the drastic price inflation on some of the top names in French wines, the ordinary wines are usually the product of solid craftsmanship and offer excellent price value relationship and good drinking experience, so don't be especially afraid to experiment, usually you will have a good result. And don't hesitate to ask your snooth friends about suggestions for pairing French wines with your favorite recipes, you will get a lot of feedback.
- Reply by Cathy Shore, Feb 24, 2010.
The notion of appellation IS extremely confusing to those new to French wine and although I applaud the notion of retaining some sense of identity for individual regions, it is also very inhibitive.
As previous posts have explained, each AOC applies to a different growing area. This can be a large area like AC Bordeaux or AC Anjou, it can be a few selected villages such as AC Beaujolais Villages, it can be a single village such as AC Minervois or it can be a single vineyard such as AC Couleé de Serrant. Whichever the case - the following things are controlled by the AC:
Grape variety planted and percentages allowed in the blend
Method of pruning in the vineyard
Harvesting practices (eg in AC Savennières the grapes MUST be hand picked)
Minimum alcoholic content
Winemaking practices (eg in AC Champagne the grapes MUST be whole bunch pressed)
A wine made according to the local appellation, grown in the area, made in the correct way and adhering to all the rules must also be 'typical' of it's AC (ie taste like it should do according to a panel of (mostly) men).
The French are very suspicious of putting the grape variety on the label as they think it indicates a very New World style of wine. This means wines taste of the 'grape variety' and not necessarily of where they come from. Of course it is ridiculous to suggest that only French wines can have a sense of place.
As from the 2009 vintage, some changes have been introduced as part of a European Directive so from now on you will see the term AOP on the bottle instead of AOC. The 'P' stands for protegée (protected), instead of controllée (controlled).
The new rules mean you will see the terms:
Vin de France (instead of the old Vin de Table - table wine) - these wines can be a blend from all over France, will be able to add the grape variety and put a vintage on the label (grape and vintage was forbidden before). This is aimed at making the wines more competitive with those from the New World but it remains to be seen if the producers are capable of working together to achieve this and probably applies mainly to the wines of the Languedoc.
Vin de Pays wines will now be called IGP (Indication Géographique Protegée). This is intended to help these wines be more competitive with the bigger AC areas such as Bordeaux.
In fact with France, you just sort of have to learn what is grown where little by little and as time goes buy your knowledge gets better.
Do you have a favourite grape variety? Let me know and I can give you some info about where it is grown in France (if it is) and point you towards some info.
I'm in the Loire valley where we have a massive range of grape varieties ranging from Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Gamay, Pineau d'Aunis for reds and Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Melon de Bourgogne for whites.
Hope this helps.
- Reply by GregT, Feb 24, 2010.
Katieellen - I hope you know I was writing tongue in cheek earlier. Well, except the part about the heretics.
But to simplify the good information that others have provided, basically you just need to remember that the French have rules and that the rules cover a number of things related to wine, including, in many cases, exactly what you can grow. For historical reasons, the French have a fondness for prescriptive rules in general, which is why their legal system is so different from the common law based Anglo-Saxon system. The idea of the "common man" casually deciding what to grow where, and casually succeeding or failing, as the case may be - that's not a welcome prospect. It disrupts order. So rules are created to regulate such things.
Some of the rules are old, some not so old, but they exist. One advantage they offer is that because they are codified, they can be learned. Because in many cases they prescribe the grapes that are allowed, you learn which grapes are allowed where and you have an idea of what you're drinking. Thus, for reds, the "Bordeaux grapes" are the cab-related grapes. These are what the industry in Napa is based on and they are what are used in the "Meritage" blends. You posted about a Sterling meritage - that's going to include the Bordeaux grapes. The whites are basically semillion and sauv blanc.
The "Rhone grapes" are those grown in the Rhone of course. Some of the most popular ones came from Spain originally, so if you think of those grapes - carinena, garnacha, monastrell, those are the big grapes of the Rhone and south France as well, with the addition of syrah. There are others, but these four are the "important" ones. In CA, the "Rhone Rangers" started to champion these grapes as alternatives to the cab family. The whites are not quite as popular in varietal bottlings, probably because Americans just don't know them as well as they do chardonnay, riesling, and sauvignon blanc.
And then there are bottle shapes. The Bordeaux bottle is the long thin one, the Rhone bottle is the one that's fat at the bottom. In the US and other parts of the world many winemakers distinguish their wines by using the correlated bottles, e.g., they put their cab into the long bottle and their syrah into the one with the fat bottom, but that's not always the case and it's certainly not mandated.
Burgundy is easy because it's only pinot noir and chardonnay. They also use the fat-bottom bottle. Champagne uses the same grapes. Because the juice of the grape is generally white with a few exceptions, by taking the juice w/out letting the skins soak, they can make "white" Champagne from the red pinot noir.
Then there are regions with less mind-share in the US market. Places like Beaujolais, which uses a gamay grape for reds and actually chardonnay for whites. Or the Loire, which is a cool and wet kind of place, growing whites like sauv blanc, a grape called melon, and known for reds made from cabernet franc and to a lesser extent gamay or pinot noir. There are in fact many more regions, some little-known in the US, but all with their own peculiarities. Places like Savoie, Bellet, Jurancon, Buzet and so on.
Since you are unlikely to find much wine from some of these regions, learn the major regions and the grapes associated and then branch out.
Overlaid on each region are heirarchies. Remember that a lot of the little regions used to be kingdoms or duchys. So in Burgundy, the duke organized things one way, whereas in Savoie, it may have been organized differently. And then Napoleon added his 2 cents and the more recent influence-peddlers added theirs, and you have a real mess.
Nonetheless, roughly speaking, the regions usually have some kind of class system whereby the "best" wines are given first place, the slightly lesser ones second, and so on. So if you have a hill with a little pine tree on it and the hill was designated as the top of the class, you can name your wine by your name, by your hillside, and by the general region. It might be the Katieellen Premier Level Pine Hill Napa wine.
Imagine Napa and the subregions. CA is the widest category. That can be narrowed down to Napa. That can be further narrowed down to Rutherford or Oakville or Stag's Leap or Howell Mountain, and those can be further narrowed to your specific vineyard. So you can get Neal Family Vineyards Howell Mountain Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. It means everything came from their vineyard and it's at least 1400 feet high.
In France they call that kind of designation an AOC or Appellation of Controlled Origin (English word order differs.) So take the Rhone for example. You can call your wine Côtes du Rhône, which just means it's from the hills of the Rhone that covers around 170 communes in the region. About half of them can call their wine Côtes du Rhône-Villages, although bewilderingly, they can't name the specific village. !
Those wines have requirements as to the "quality" of the vineyards and grapes and resulting wine. It's supposed to be more prestigious and therefore the wine can be more expensive.
About 19-20 of those can call their wine Côtes du Rhône-Villages and can actually name the village. This is so prestigious, you can only imagine how desperate everyone is to be able to name the village where their wine is from.
Finally, a few of them will display what is called a "cru" name, which is the name of the specific area like Chateauneuf du Pape or Gigondas. Those are of course, also Côtes du Rhône, but since it's considered a "lower" class, they don't want to be called that.
In some way or another, most French regions have such stratification.
Now you understand why Robert Parker became famous. Most Americans are just like you - confused about what is what. Wine was priced and sold under the simple assertion that a higher class = better wine = higher price. Somehow that didn't sit well with Americans. Your great great great great grandfather may have been a pirate who conquered a village and called himself a king. Does that mean that you today are royalty? So Parker sat down, tasted the wine blind, and announced that he liked wine B more than A and D more than either. At the time, ranking wines in this way was not appreciated because it meant that the class system was not a perfect, or even a good, indicator of quality.
Times have changed in the last 30 years and perhaps Parker doesn't taste in the same way any more, but now you can understand why he became who he is. The French of course, didn't give up their systems and likely never will. Whether they're of much use to you as a consumer, or even to the producers, is an open question.
- Reply by zufrieden, Feb 24, 2010.
I think that the comments on terroir in this thread and another were meant to grin at the French insistence that soil is paramount. No one really disagrees that soil is important, but some of us think that dirt is but one ingredient and not by logical force the most important. Terroir can be of central importance, but only after all other contributory factors are considered: namely, production style and effort, application of food science, lay of the land, climate and micro-climate and source of varietal (clone).
I'm convinced there is something significant to terror - more than the detractors think but much less than the obsessives think. Again, only experiments over time controlling for style and clone will determine how strong this variable is in the mix. I claim that some of this experimentation is now underway with Bordeaux and Burgundy houses growing similar style wines outside traditional regions (Oregon, Chile, Argentina, Canada, the USA).
- Reply by Quentin4, Feb 24, 2010.
I have read most comments for your question and I think you are now even more confuse than you were before! They are good comments though, but some have errors, so read it lightly (ie: chateauneuf only authorise 13 grape varietals, not 18 and France has not allowed regions to use new varietals... as Mr GregT tour of the french wines, I can only say : bravo! a very helpful comment indeed)
I will not pretend to sum up french wines in one post, but I can definitely give you a good advice on how to approach them.
Just like you will do with art, you will need to do some research, read about it and make yourself an opinion by going to exhibitions.
Well wines in France (or in most regions of the world for that matter) must be looked in the same way. Do some reading (stephen Brook is indeed the best person to help you understand the notion of Terroir, Clive Coates for Burgundy, Parker for Bordeaux and some of Rhone, Richard Juhlin for Champagne, etc...) then once you know a little more about grape varietals in each region, winemakers and styles, you can start to go to tasting, talk with experienced friends and buy some bottles to see for yourself.
The reason is not that french winemakers like you to do tons of research to appriciate their wines, but it is more a cultural thing. They have not yet understood what the consumer accross the globe is looking for on a wine label and they continue to ignore that fact. They assume that most of us will know that Sancerre is Sauvignon Blanc and Hermitage is Syrah! It has affected sales, yes, but as everything else in France, it will take time before a real change is made.
So before trying to understand Terroir (the secret is that it means something different for each one of us...) I think it is best that you discover step by step, or region by region, what you feel about each type of wine.
Believe me or not, but in France, a large number of wine drinkers don t really know much about wines, except maybe for the ones produced in their neighbourhoods! So unless they do some research, or visit other areas, they will be as confused as you are.
Because France has 7 majors wine regions that basicly sum up the entire world of wine, it is seen as a confusing and difficult country to understand, but AOC or regulations if you prefer, make it at least a little more structured, quality controlled and understandable. Burgundy might be one of the most difficult yes, but if you think about it, PInot Noir and Chardonnay represent 99% of the grape grown there (excluding Beaujolais) ! Should you decide one day to discover Italian wines, you will find yourself in front of over 1000 grape varietals and more different kind of wine that you can even think of!
One other thing, is that it is very unlikely that you find very good french wines at a low price in the US. Not to stereotype, but when you know the cost of labour and all the taxes that winemakers have to pay every months in France, I can say that producing good wine there is not cheap and will have a repercussion on the final price. However, it doesn't mean all mid range or high priced french wines are exceptionals, but they will most probably give you some level of pleasure.
I hope you will find some sense in what I have said here and I hope that you will have the courage to surpass the confusion and discover what France has to offer. (it is truly worth it!)
- Reply by GregT, Feb 24, 2010.
Quentin - it is a wonderful post and you may not believe it, but you can still find many exceptional bargains from France in the US. I sell wine from Spain and Italy and my wife is from the west coast so she loves California wine.
But when I actually buy something at the store, I very frequently buy French wine. One of my favorite wines to have in the house is from Cote du Ventoux. And I always have some Loire reds.
While I like to poke fun at the French, the fact is that while they produce some of the most overpriced wine in the world, at the same time they produce some of the best values in the world. I think that they harm themselves with some of their rules, but in spite of that, they are still producing some of the most enjoyable and wonderful wines in the world. You are correct. Taking the time to learn the regions is truly worth it.
- Reply by Quentin4, Feb 24, 2010.
I do believe you that bargains may be found nowadays in the US for french wines and of all times, it is most likely now the best to stock up your cellar.
As for the french harming themselves with rules, I can only say that without them France will probably not produce the level of wine it is today. Too many corners were cut in the past and they had to act on it. Regulations were the only viable option. It might slow down or even block innovation of blending perhaps, but it is probably best they leave this to other very capable countries such as the US, Australia, South Africa and more...
On the other hand, France is still (especially Bordeaux) very advance and innovative in the winery, with new technology appearing every year.
The main issue, today, is that young french winemakers are in the middle of a dileama. Traditions vs Worldwide Market needs. They will change rules eventually, but they need time in order to ensure what makes french wines, well..... french wine:
The notoriety of its quality and the uniqueness (through terroir or AOC) of its style and traditions.
- Reply by GregT, Feb 25, 2010.
I think one of the ways they're hurting themselves is the same way the Americans are hurting themselves - continually shooting for ultimate experience, which may disappoint. For example, in Chateauneuf du Pape, traditionally many of the wineries maybe were not so clean, maybe they blended grapes from various sites, maybe the winemaking wasn't precise. OK. Cleaning the wineries, that is good. But now you have some producers who are making a luxury wine. Perhaps it is a selection of their best grapes or perhaps it is a single plot. And of course, the American critics will rave about it and the price will be very high. Other producers don't do this. I believe that Senechaux, for example, has refused to make an exclusive bottling, preferring to blend their wines as they always have. Which approach expresses their terroir?
In America it is the same. I could make many bottles and sell them for $30, but instead, I decide to take the juice from the vineyard on my right side and I will call that a special bottling and will sell it for $120. And also the vineyard on my left. Now I have several small productions, each priced very high, rather than one large production, priced more reasonably.
This is happening all over - Spain, Italy, etc. But in the US, France is still the prestige wine, so as soon as an area becomes better known, the prices go up. Chateauneuf used to be the place for inexpensive, fun and fruity wines. I still think that is what garnacha does best. But today those wines are very expensive. The Languedoc however, makes many delicious wines that are very inexpensive. They don't do a good job of promoting themselves however. As a result, when Americans think of France, they think of the expensive well-known regions and don't know about the very good and very affordable wines that are made throughout the country.
- Reply by dirkwdeyoung, Feb 25, 2010.
Quentin, sorry, but I don't like to be blamed for confusing or writing errors when I have actually made a sincere attempt to explain or simplify:
I also knew Chateauneuf du Pape as thirteen, but this information from 2009 rules is what I now understand, if this is not correct, please let me know:
Châteauneuf-du-Pape is traditionally cited as allowing thirteen grape varieties to be used, but the 2009 version of the AOC rules in fact list eighteen varieties, since blanc (white), rose (pink) and noir (black) versions of some grapes are now explicitly listed as separate varieties. Also in the previous version of the appellation rules, Grenache and Picpoul were associated with different pruning regulations in their noir and blanc versions, bringing the number of varieties previously mentioned from thirteen to fifteen.
Red varieties allowed are Cinsaut, Counoise, Grenache Noir, Mourvèdre, Muscardin, Piquepoul Noir, Syrah, Terret Noir, and Vaccarèse (Brun Argenté). White and pink varieties are Bourboulenc, Clairette Blanche, Clairette Rose, Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris, Picardan, Piquepoul Blanc, Piquepoul Gris, and Roussanne. (The varieties not specifically mentioned before 2009 are Clairette Rose, Grenache Gris and Piquepoul Gris.)
- Reply by Quentin4, Feb 25, 2010.
My intent was not to blame anyone and I apologize if it was perceived as such. As for the CDP regulation, I have to admit that I was not aware of the new regulation and I apologize for my comment here again.
Hope not to confuse anymore people ;o)
I will definitely take a look at this matter.
- Reply by amour, Feb 26, 2010.
I simply could not get on SNOOTH to do this reply!
How I wish I had had the opportunity to pronounce !
But, guess what ...I was not missed !
You surely got great replies!
Will be back though !
- Reply by Cathy Shore, Feb 26, 2010.
Oh yes, we've had some fun. Just hope Katieellen is not more confused now than she was before!
- Reply by zufrieden, Feb 26, 2010.
Just do a little book-learning, Katie. French wine is actually not that difficult to understand thanks to the stringent Appellation laws. And there are good sources on all producers if you look for them on-line or in your local book store (or wine shop). I find that New World can be more difficult because basically, anything goes... not that this is bad for wine.
- Reply by schellbe, Feb 26, 2010.
That's funny. I started with French wines, and I find CA wines confusing.... what with the meaningless reserve designations, and the multiple bottlings from the same producer and same vintage. and french wines still seem to have better prices than CA.
- Reply by zufrieden, Feb 27, 2010.
CA wines are absurdly overpriced thanks to the overheated economy of the last 10 years. That's not the case today, however, and French wines are also facing much more competition - and that is a good thing...