I started to write this column as an overview of French wine regions and quickly realized that even an overview was too much information! Depending on which wine guru you read, there are 7 to 12 larger wine regions in France, in addition to the many other distinct, smaller regions. There are vineyards in every part of France except the five sections of France that border the north coast line. France was the largest producer of wine in the world in 2014, with Italy a close second. Bordeaux is the largest wine producing region in France with its 450 million bottles a year, of that total over 90 percent is red wine. Wine has been produced in France since the 6th century BC.
But French wine labels are so complicated! Many people gravitate toward American wines because the labels are easier to understand, less daunting. Generally, it takes only one glance at an American bottle and you know in what region the wine originated and what type of grape varietal it contains. However, a small amount of knowledge can help decipher the codes and unlock the key to the mystery inside the French wine bottle. Here are a couple of pieces of information that will help:
1. The shape of the bottle! How easy is this? A straight sided, slender bottle with tall sharp shoulders is from the Bordeaux region in the southwest of France. A slightly fatter bottle with gradually sloping shoulders is most likely from the Burgundy region in the central eastern section of the country, or the Rhône Valley in the southeastern section of France. Generally the Rhône wine bottles are slightly taller than the Burgundy wines and are often embossed with a seal or a coat of arms.
2. Why don’t French wine labels indicate the grape variety? Unlike most of their American counterparts, many French wines are a blend of varietals, so you almost never see the words “Cabernet Sauvignon” or “Merlot”, or “Pinot Noir” on the label. BUT, just a little information will tell you what varietal is in the bottle.
Bordeaux, in southwestern France, is divided by two rivers, the Dordogne and the Garonne, that join into the Gironde. These rivers divide the wine producing region into the “Left Bank” and “Right Bank.” The Left Bank is the famous wine region that has historically been better known because it had access to the port of Bordeaux, and the wines were exported. The great areas of Médoc, St. Estèphe, Pauillac, St-Julien, Margaux and Graves are contained in the Left Bank. These wines are all Cabernet Sauvignon, blended, generally, with some Merlot and Cabernet Franc and perhaps a tiny amount of several other varietals. The Right Bank is the glorious region containing St-Emilion, Pomerol, and the lesser known Fronsac, Côtes de Castillon, Bourg, and Blaye. These wines are all Merlot and are blended with lesser quantities of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Do not make the mistake of assuming that the wines of the Left Bank are superior to the wines of the Right Bank! Some of the most expensive wines in the world, such as Pétrus and Le Pin, come from the Right Bank and are primarily Merlot.
Burgundian wines, on the other hand, are almost exclusively made from four varietals and are rarely blended. Burgundy produces nearly twice as much white wine as red. These white wines are almost exclusively Chardonnay. They are exquisite white wines, but are often expensive. The incredible red wines of Burgundy are made from Pinot Noir, with the exception of a small percentage of wines made from the Gamay varietal, primarily produced in Beaujolais.
The Rhône Valley is divided between the Northern and Southern Rhône. The great wines of Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage, Condrieu and St-Joseph are all located in the Northern Rhône. These wines are almost exclusively Syrah, aka Shiraz. In the Southern Rhône, including the famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and Gigondas and Vacqueyras the wines are made primarily with Grenache blended with Mourvèdra, Syrah and myriad of lesser known varietals.
So the next time you shop for wine, think about branching out and trying a French wine that you now know just a bit more about! Enjoy!
Written by Pat Daniel. Permission to publish by Columbus & the Valley Magazine.