French Wine Challenge

Irony of ironies: the French, who practically invented wine, who for centuries have been the world’s reference point for wine production, are looking over their shoulders at the competition. And they hardly have to turn their heads, because Australia is virtually abreast of France in quantity of wine imported by the U.S. Even in terms of the dollar value of wine exported to the U.S. — where France has always been Number One, despite the fact that Italy exported more quantity — France has had to cede its leadership position, to Italy.

After recovering from the shock of it all, however, French wine producers and the numerous comitées that regulate and promote French wine are ready to strike back. Wine merchants and wine drinkers in the U.S. can look forward to lower prices, higher quality and innovative marketing in French wines over the next couple of years. France offers an enormous variety of wines at every level of sophistication — and the French are not about to let anyone forget that.

One of the challenges in keeping French wines straight — for both consumers and the trade — has always been the fact that the French approach wine regionally. To know French wines, you have to know about Bordeaux (and the many quality levels of Bordeaux within Bordeaux), Burgundy, the Rhone, Alsace, the Loire, Champagne, Languedoc-Roussillon, Provence, and the Southwest. Imagine that you had to know all about special grape varieties and wine styles in Hunter Valley, Barossa, Clare Valley, Margaret River, Coonawarra, Rutherglen, McLaren Vale, and Padthaway before you could knowledgeably stock and sell Australian wines! Varietal naming has simplified the wines of the New World and made them accessible. (On the downside, it has commoditized the wines from the most popular varieties.)

France almost certainly will begin emphasizing the grape varieties of its wines as a means of making its wines more user-friendly. But the regional organization will always exist.

Discussions of French wine regions always seem to begin with Bordeaux — because Bordeaux is the single largest AOC wine region in France, perhaps, or because certain Bordeaux wines are the world’s most elite and prestigious wines. Bordeaux produces about 10% of France’s wine each year; the dual Languedoc-Roussillon region in the south produces about 38%, but most of it carries vin de pays, or country wine status, while all Bordeaux wine holds the higher rank of appellation controllée (AOC). And Bordeaux wines are so valued by collectors that without them, wine auctions probably would not exist.

About 75% of Bordeaux wines are red, and merlot is the region’s dominant grape — but the wines are blends mainly of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, and in many wines, the cabernets dominate the blend. The elite, long-lived wines of the classified-growth chateaux are so famous internationally that the Bordelais have to work hard to remind the world that their region also makes excellent mid-range estate-bottled wines that sell for $15 to $30, as well as very good commercial wines, blended from grapes grown throughout the region, that sell for as little as $6.

Of all the wine producers in France, the Bordelais were probably the first to recognize that the ripe, fruity style of New World reds could affect the popularity of their own, more austere wines. In response, they worked to obtain riper grapes that would make softer, richer wines. Critics can argue whether the elite wines today have lost their classic style as a result. But the less expensive wines have only benefitted by becoming fuller and more substantial, especially in great vintages such as 2000. Never have inexpensive red Bordeaux been better buys.

The taste of red Bordeaux is still understated and subtle compared to most New World cabernets and merlots — less overtly fruity, less sweet and more structured. They are, relatively speaking, gentle wines whose charms reveal themselves slowly over the course of a meal rather than on the first sip.

White Bordeaux wines — mainly sauvignon blanc, often in combination with semillon — are the stylistic counterparts of the reds. The elite wines are particularly subtle until they have several years of bottle age. The inexpensive blancs are generally unoaked, fresh and crisp, with herbaceous sauvignon blanc flavors that are vineyard.PCD04 not particularly intense.

From the Bordeaux region, scenes of vineyards in St. Emilion (above)

Like Bordeaux, the Rhone Valley also has its elite and inexpensive reds. The elite wines, from the Northern Rhone district, all derive from syrah (with some white viognier permitted in Cote Rotie) and carry the names of fairly small AOC zones: Cornas, Hermitage, Cote Rotie, Crozes-Hermitage and St. Joseph, in increasing order of size. They are powerful, robust reds that develop surprising complexity and grace when they are fully mature — at about 15 years of age for Cornas, Hermitage and Cote Rotie, and about 5 years for the other two wines, depending on the producer. You generally won’t find the exuberant fruitiness of many Australian shirazes in these wines, but instead a compact combination of earthy, fruity, spicy, meaty and vegetal aromas and flavors.

The Rhone’s inexpensive wines (starting at about $10 a bottle) come from the southern part of the region. Grenache is the main variety, and most wines are blends containing syrah and often cinsault and mourvedre. The main wines are Cotes-du-Rhone and its superior version, Cotes-du-Rhone-Villages, which together account for about 28 million cases of wine per year — twice as much as Beaujolais. In recent years, these wines have become fruitier and fleshier, thanks to more syrah in their blends, and, for some wines, winemaking techniques such as carbonic maceration, for which Beaujolais is famous. An energetic marketing campaign for Cotes-du-Rhone has raised the wine’s profile among wine drinkers and positioned the wine as France’s basic red. Certainly, it is one of the fruitiest, most flavorful French reds — depending, of course, on the producer — and in that sense it is well suited to the taste of U.S. consumers.

The Rhone Valley makes white wines, too, including such excellent types as Condrieu (from viognier) and Hermitage Blanc (from marsanne and roussane). But they play second fiddle to the region’s reds.

Of all of France’s wine regions, only Burgundy is renowned for both white and red wines. White Burgundy, entirely chardonnay, can be so exquisite that it spawned the whole worldwide chardonnay movement. The top white Burgundies are single-vineyard wines, from sites that rank as either grand cru or premier cru under AOC law, and cost from $40 to $100-plus a bottle. These great vineyards are in the Cote-de-Beaune and Chablis districts; mid-range white Burgundies ($35 to $55) include “village-level” wines — wines whose grapes come from the vineyards of specific villages in these districts, but are not single-vineyard wines. Quality levels in Burgundy are so stratified that there’s even what might be considered lower-mid-range white wines: wines from lesser villages and districts, such as those in the Cote Chalonnais and Macon districts, costing $10 to about $30. Generic Bourgogne Blanc brings up the rear, at approximately the same prices; although these wines hold the lowest pedigree in Burgundy, they’re not really inexpensive wines, because Burgundy’s own pedigree is so elevated.

With the exception of most Macon wines and many Chablis wines, white Burgundies are barrel-fermented, and carry the signature toasty, smoky aromas and flavors of oak. But their flavor intensity is lower than most New World chardonnays, and they tend to have earthy, mineral or apple flavors in place of the New World’s tropical fruit.

Red Burgundies have a territorial hierarchy that’s similar to that of the white wines. Chablis and Macon are out of the picture, however — Chablis, because it makes no red wine, and Macon, because it makes only small amounts of red and exports very little of it. The Cote d’Or — made up of the Cote-de-Beaune area and the Cote-de-Nuits to its north — is the magical production zone for Burgundy’s elite reds. pickinggrapes.RY014

Vineyard workers unloading and readying grapes in Vendanges.

Red Burgundies are pinot noirs — but they’re so much more than that. The intricacies of flavor that they express, the nuances of difference between the wines of one vineyard or village to the next, bear the imprint of the region at least as much as the grape. Red Burgundies are generally full-bodied and high in alcohol, but some of them are redolent with fruity, berry-cherry flavor, while others speak of woods, underbrush and black fruits, and yet others are so concentrated that they seem not to say much at all when they’re young. Quality is quite variable, and the producer is therefore as important as the wine’s pedigree.

Although Beaujolais is technically part of Burgundy, the two red wines are completely different. Beaujolais comes from the gamay grape, grown either on sandy-clay soils to make the lighter, simpler (and exceedingly delicious) Beaujolais wines, or on granite-rich soils to make the more concentrated Beaujolais-Villages and cru wines. (Beaujolais Nouveau, the young wine released each November, can be simple Beaujolais or Beaujolais-Villages.) Despite their fame, the wines of Beaujolais are excellent values. Beaujolais-Villages wines cost only about $9 to $12, and offer more quality for that price than most inexpensive, fruity Cabernets or Merlots. Cru Beaujolais — the wines of the 10 best vineyard sites — cost only about $13 to $18, although wines from individual estates, as opposed to wines blended by negociants, can cost about $20.

The fact that the gamay grape does not do well outside of Beaujolais is probably a key reason why Beaujolais is inexpensive and under-appreciated. The same is true for many of the grape varieties and the wines of the Loire Valley. Chenin blanc and muscadet (aka Melon) haven’t exactly caught on as New World varietal wines, for example, and therefore the classic French wines from these grapes are unsung. Muscadet is a terrific white for seafood, and its average quality is better than ever — and yet it sells for about $7 to $12. The Loire Valley’s chenin blanc-based wines — Vouvray is the most famous name — also sell for less than they deserve to, considering that they offer one of the world’s few opportunities to experience the fascinating chenin blanc grape.

The red Loire wines from cabernet franc — Chinon, Bourgeuil and St. Nicolas de Bourgeuil — have the advantage of a better-known grape variety, but the disadvantage of their small production and difficult names. To consumers who are accustomed to the fruitiness of California’s few cab francs, these wines ($12 to $23) are dry-textured and relatively austere, despite their concentrated plum, dark berry and spicy flavors. But their average quality is very good, and they work beautifully with many foods.

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Wine aging in a cave cellar (above) in Burgundy, and a cluster of pinot noir grapes from a vineyard, also in Burgundy.

Alsace wines are France’s most buyer-friendly, in the sense that the majority of their labels carry the names of grape varieties. With the exception of pinot gris, however, these varieties — mainly riesling, gewurztraminer, and pinot blanc — are not the grape names that today’s white wine drinkers are seeking. Nor are the wines made in today’s popular oak-laden white wine style. They fall into the category of “aromatic whites,” a range of white wines from interesting grape varieties, that are fermented and aged in stainless steel so that their fruit character can shine through. Fortunately, savvy sommeliers have embraced this style of white wine and many of them offer these wines by the glass in their restaurants. In time, consumers are bound to recognize how well these wines go with food, and how interesting and individual they are compared to oaky whites. And the prices — $10 to $15 for pinot blancs and about $12 to $24 and up for many of the other wines — are low enough to encourage further trial. Alsace even has its elite end, its grand cru and reserve wines, for more sophisticated buyers.

Probably the only major French wine region that doesn’t have an elite end, in terms of prices at least, is Languedoc-Roussillon in the south. Although the south of France has a winemaking history that dates back 26 centuries, many of the vineyards were developed only in this generation, mainly for the production of varietal wines carrying the country-wine appellation, vin de pays d’Oc. These wines sell for as little as $6 to $7 a bottle in the U.S. Although they are inexpensive and varietally-labelled, they still taste French: their fruitiness is a notch lower in intensity than New World varietals, and they are fully dry. Their potential is huge, considering that Languedoc-Roussillon produces more wine than the entire U.S.

Importers who seek red wines that offer terrific value but are more classic than these varietal wines also shop in the south of France. Wines such as Corbieres, Minervois, Fitou, St. Chinian and Faugeres — all AOCs — are gutsy, characterful reds whose retail prices can begin at around $10 to $12. They’re the kind of wines that you’d want to drink with a hearty stew on a cold winter night, but they’re fresher and less rustic than they once were. Timeless as it is, even Provence (which borders Languedoc to the east) has changed with the years. For example, Les Baux-de-Provence is a new AOC that boasts some truly talented producers and great wines. Its production is mainly rich, full-bodied reds that derive principally from grenache, mourvedre and syrah.

In all their regional diversity, France’s wines encompass every single one of today’s major grape varieties for New World wines, with the exception of sangiovese (which, in any case, is really a fringe variety outside of Italy). As France faces the world challenge of varietal wines — perhaps with the creation of a new official varietal category called Cépages de France — her rich wine heritage will serve her well. Despite the current trend in favor of New World wines, France’s pre-eminence in the wine world is not really in question.

…Recommended French Wines

Mary Ewing-Mulligan MW and Ed McCarthy are the authors of French Wine For Dummies, published by Hungry Minds — a division of John Wiley & Sons, 2001.


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