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Understanding French Wine: Part 1

Vineyard in Champagne

Question from Pippa: I want to get into French wine but I’m overwhelmed by the wine label and have no idea what it all means. Do you have any helpful tips to understanding French wine?

In a nut shell: I’m going to have to do this in two parts (one this week and one next week) because there is a lot to learn and I don’t want to bore you! Baby steps. I’ll look at Appellation d’Original Contrôlée today (you’re not meant to know what this means yet, I explain below) and everything else next week.

Understanding French wine is incredibly confusing for us aussies because we call it by the grape (e.g. Pinot Noir) and they call it by the region (e.g. Burgundy). So how do you know what you’re getting when there is no grape variety in sight? It’s a little complicated, there is no short answer and there are always exceptions but I’ve done my very best to simplify things for you. Take this little cheat sheet with you when you’re picking a French wine to ensure your next vin is très bien.

In a clam shell: What on earth is appellation something something contrôlée or AOC?

This is the most important piece of information you’ll need to know when selecting a French wine. The region that the wine comes from is generally sandwiched between the words appellation and contrôlée. For example Appellation Chablis Contrôlée means that the wine is from the region of Chablis, which is in Burgundy, France. It’s going to be 100% Chardonnay because that’s the grape you have to grow if you own a vineyard in Chablis.

So how do you know what grape goes with what region? There is no simple answer, grape varieties are rarely displayed on a bottle of French wine so unfortunately you have to memorise all the French appellations (there are more than 450 of them) to know exactly what grape is in the bottle. Sounds daunting? It is! Like learning a new language! But there are a few common regions you can memorise which will make your trip to the bottle shop a breeze. You don’t need to memorise all 450 of them (that’s what google is for).

But before I get stuck in, let me give you a little appellation run-down. A very long time ago a crazy system for naming French wine was introduced. It’s called Appellation d’Original Contrôlée or AOC (for short, Appellation Contrôlée or AC is used). It literally meanscontrolled designation of origin or put simply controlled area of wine making. And in every ‘controlled area of wine making’ there are very strict rules around what grapes can be grown, where they can be grown, how much can be grown and what pruning and harvesting techniques can be used.

There are several main wine making regions in France, which are known for producing wines from particular grape varieties and these regions make up most of the French wine we see here in Australia. You just need to memorise the following six regions (and the main towns within them and what grapes they do best) and you’re guaranteed a great bottle of French wine.

Bordeaux – Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (and a little Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon)

Bordeaux has over 60 appellations but the dominant red grape varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Bordeaux is divided into two sub-regions – the Left Bank and the Right Bank. The soil is a little different in each sub-region and therefore different grapes strive better in one sub-region than the other. Hence why the Left Bank is all about Cabernet Sauvignon and the Right Bank is all about Merlot.

Bordeaux itself is not an appellation. The towns within the Bordeaux region are what you should be looking for on the bottle, sandwiched between the words appellation and contrôlée.

If you’re after an amaze Cabernet Sauvignon for an affordable price stick to the following regions (or appellations) which will appear on the bottle – Moulis, Listrac, Haut-Médoc and Médoc. If you want to lash out, you can’t go wrong with wines from Margaux, Saint-Estèphe, Saint Julien and Pauillac.

If Merlot is your tipple they’ll be pricey from Pomerol and Saint-Émilion but much more affordable from Lalande-de-Pomerol, Fronsac, Canon Fronsac, Côtes de Castillon, Lussac-Saint-Émilion, Puisseguin Saint-Émilion and St-Georges-Saint-Émilion.

Bordeaux is also known for some killer whites made from Semillon or Sauvignon Blanc grapes, which will either be light and zesty or rich and creamy. They will typically come from the towns of Graves and Pessac-Léognan.

Then lastly you’ve got Sauternes. This town (or appellation) in Bordeaux produces super sweet wines made with noble rot (aka mould), which is used to evaporate the water and increase the sugar concentration.

Burgundy – Pinot Noir and Chardonnay

Burgundy (three hours northwest of Paris) is just as famous for its Red Burgundy (aka Pinot Noir) as it is for its White Burgundy (aka Chardonnay). Burgundy also produces Beaujolais, which is made from the Gamay grape (red).

The region is divided into five sub-regions (of course) being Chablis, Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune, Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnais. Now just to confuse the matter each of these sub-regions contain a handful of towns (or appellations). ARGH!!!

Chablis – all the wines are white and made from Chardonnay and they’ll be unoaked so lighter bodied and refreshing.

Côte de Nuits – most of the wines produced here are from the Pinot Noir grape and are super expensive! The most famous wines in this sub-region are from Grand Cru vineyards (which means that these particular vineyards have been official classified as the very best sites) and they’ll be pricey!

Côte de Beaune – this region is most famous for its rich Chardonnays.

Côte Chalonnaise – there are no Grand Cru vineyards here which means the wines are much more affordable (jack-pot). You’ll get great value Pinot Noir and Sparkling Crémant (that’s what the French call sparkling that’s not made in Champagne).

Mâconnais – this is where you get your cheap Chardonnays (again no Grand Cru vineyards here).

But remember these regions (being Chablis, Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune, Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnais) are just the sub-regions NOT the appellations. The actual towns within the sub-regions will be sandwiched between the words appellation and controlee on the bottle (geeeezzzzzzz, why so confusing)! Good luck! You’ll find a little more of the towns within Burgundy here.

I’m exhausted and we’re only two regions down with four to go (but the other four are pretty straight forward I promise).

The Rhône Valley – Grenache and Shiraz (and a little Viognier)

This region in southeastern France (30 min from Avignon and three hours from Nice) is hot! It produces some ripper wines from Grenache, Syrah (or Shiraz for us Aussies) and Viognier (white) grapes that are super affordable. It’s divided into two sub-regions being Southern Rhône and Northern Rhône. Southern Rhône is all about Grenache and Northern Rhône is all about Shiraz. For a little more on the towns within these regions click here.

The Loire Valley – Sauvignon Blanc

This lovely little wine and Château region is about 2.5 hours southwest of Paris. It’s famous for Sauvignon Blanc but also produces Melon de Bourgogne and Chenin Blanc grapes (these are more automatic than Sauv Blanc – think a big bouquet of flowers). You’ll get fab Sauvignon Blancs from Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé (look for these appellations on the bottle). If you’d like to try the Melon de Bourgogne grape it’ll be called Muscadet on the bottle. The Chenin Blanc grape is known as Vouvray.

Alsace – Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer

East of Paris, almost on the boarder of Germany is where Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Blanc grapes flourish. Traditionally, Alsace Rieslings are dry. Don’t you hate it when you open a bottle of Riesling expecting a dry white and it’s sweet? This is unlikely if it’s from Alsace (but not gaurenteed).

Champagne – Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier

Champagne needs no introduction! It’s located 1.5 hours northeast of Paris and has five sub-regions (Montagne de Reims, Côte des Blancs, Vallée de la Marne, Côte des Sézanne, The Aube) and lots of little towns within those sub-regions. The easy part is that all these sub-regions make Champagne! For a little more info on Champagne click here.

Well if you got to the end you deserve a glass of Champagne and so do I! Tune in next week for Part 2 (it’ll be much more straight forward I promise).

PS the image is from

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