Wine Regions

  • Sud-Ouest

    The wine region which extends south from the Bordeaux region unto the Pyrenees along the Franco-Spanish border is divided in 2 distinct sub-regions: Bergerac/Marmandais and the ‘rest’. The former can be regarded as a continuation of St-Emilion and Graves of Bordeaux as the style and grapes are practically the same. The ‘rest’ is a patchwork of small isolated wine areas that are different like chalk and cheese from one and other. One thing ties them together: the wines are distinct and strong in character and are sought by connoisseurs as they are definitely not wines for the common taste.

    Bergerac: The vineyards surround the city of Bergerac. Red, white and sweet wines are produced in Bordeaux styles with the same grapes grown – Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc. There are 10 appellations but most productions come under AOC Côtes-de-Bergerac (red, rosé and white) and AOC Monbazillac (sweet).

    Marmandais and Duras: Similar to Bergerac these 2 small areas are extensions of the Bordeaux wine region. The wine style and the grape varieties used are similar. White and sweet whites are produced. Reds are increasing in volume. The wines like those from Bergerac are of reasonable quality but because they are Bordeaux in style therefore they are often over-shadowed by the wines from Bordeaux.

    Cahors: The vineyards east of the town of the same name traditionally produce a dark-red wine - powerful, severe and tannic especially when young. But now with newer ways of wine making the wines have been made mellower for drinking earlier. The grape uniquely present is the local variety of Malbec often blended with about 20% of Merlot.

    Gaillac: After the small town of the same name, Gaillac wines are known for its dry and sweet whites than for its red. The white grape used is the Mauzac (not planted elsewhere) usually blended with Muscadelle or Sauvignon Blanc. The most interesting Gaillac white wine is the ‘Perle’ (Pearl) which contains a slight amount of bubbles to keep the taste fresh and light.

    Fronton: The vineyards are situated just north of the city of Toulouse. AOC Côtes-du-Frontonnais are red and rosé only. The wines are fresh, full of aroma (violet) and are uniquely made from the grape variety Negrette (only grown here).

    Madiran: The Madiran and Juroncon areas are on the foothills of the Pyrenees close to the Spanish border. The main grape in Madiran wines is the Tannat. Its name gives away its nature – Tannat grapes are tannic (blended with Cabernet Sauvignon to soften it). Only red wines are made and they are powerful and sharp but can be kept for a good many years.

    Juronçon: The vineyards are to the east of the city of Pau. The main wine is the gloriously sweet late-harvest wine (often as late as November/December to allow the grapes to accentuate their sugar content). There is also a dry Juroncon white wine. Both are made from the grape varieties of Gros Manseng and Petit Manseng.

  • Jura

    This is a small region stretching north-south close to the border with Switzerland and Germany. Production is small and the wines are consumed mostly locally. If there is not a wonderfully unique white wine (vin jaune or yellow wine) in existence Jura would probably not be as well-known. There are 12 appellations in Jura. The key ones are:

    Côtes-du-Jura and AOC Arbois: The majority of production of both red and white is similar in style to its western Burgundy neighbour, made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Some reds are made from 2 indigenous grapes, Trousseau and Poulsard.

    Chateau-Chalon: This appellation produces only Vin Jaune (yellow wine). Yellow wine does not conform to any norm of wine making in France. The wine is made entirely of a local white grape called Savagnin and is vinified like other white wines. But the fermentation process is deliberately kept slow and long to eliminate all sugar content to render it extra dry. Then the wine is transferred into oak barrels and stored in cool dry cellars for 6 years and 3 months before it is bottled in a strange stubby wide-shouldered bottle of 63cl.(instead of the normal bottle of 75cl.) The resulting wine is very dry, deep yellow in colour and has a rich mellow subtle flavour. The total production area is 45 hectares (smaller than a medium-sized Chateau in Bordeaux) therefore the wine is hard to come by and expensive but well worth the effort.

    L’Etoile: This appellation is larger than Chateau-Chalon and produces some yellow wine along with a special aromatic dry white wine blended from Chardonnay, Savagnin and Poulsard. Another special Jura wine is produced here -‘vin de paille’ - straw wine. This wine is sweet but the grapes are not late-harvested or noble-rotted. They are simply left to dry for about 3 months spread on straw mats to concentrate the sugar content in a cool cellar before the wine making process begins.

  • Provence

    Spread-out along the south-east Mediterranean coast of France from Arles to Nice is the 8th producing region in terms of volume. This is an area where vine and olive trees are planted for thousands of years. This is the sunniest part of France with almost 3000 hours of sunlight per year. The summer is hot and dry with rain comes in thundering spurts in winter. What’s more, Provence is known for its frequent violent winds blowing up to 100 km/h. The landscape though is rugged and varied with a wide variety of soil providing refuges of pockets of mini-climates for vine-growing.

    The grape varieties are traditionally Mediterranean - Cinsault, Carignon and Mourvedre, dependable but en-exciting. In the recent past the Noble Grapes of the north – Syrah, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc. are allowed to grow in order to arrive at a better blend for the local wine. Nowadays Provence wines are multi-grape-blended. As one could tell from the above –mentioned grapes the wines are almost all red or rosé. Less than 5% of the production is white wine which is made mainly from Vermentino and Clairette grapes.

    Provence wines are generally of constant high quality because of its dependable hot sunny climate, however they are rarely exceptional. The reds are full-bodied spicy in taste but never overly tannic. The rosé is fruity, light and fresh (gaining in popularity as the summer wine of choice). As the wines are consumed along the fashionable and touristic French Riviera the prices tend to be high.

    There are 9 appellations assigned: Côtes-de Provence, Coteaux-Varois, Coteaux-de-Pierrevert, Coteaux-d’Aix, Les Baux-de-Provence, Bandol, Palette, Cassis and Bellet. The latter 4 are tiny appellations but command higher prices than the rest. Essentially all wines of Provence regardless of appellation are similar in style and taste because they are based on the same grape varieties under more or less the same climatic conditions.

  • Champagne

    Although the wine producing region of Champagne is only the 6th largest it is probably the most valued. Vine growing land can easily fetch for more than one million Euros a hectare and almost none is on the market. It is because only the sparkling wines produced here can legally be called ‘Champagne’. And Champagne wines can fetch 2-3 times the prices of still wines.

    The region sits on the northern edge of the limit for grape growing. The chalky soil and chilly climate are suitable to give the grapes the extra acidity for making sparkling wines. There are only 3 grape varieties here: the white Chardonnay, the red Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir. Most labels of ‘Champagne’ are made from a blend of these red and white grapes. The exception is Champagne made in one sub-region (Côte des Blancs) where only Chardonnay is grown and the wines are specified as ‘Blanc de Blancs’. Pink Champagne is also made in small quantity usually sold at a much inflated prices. So are the so-called ‘Cuvee’ – the luxurious brand extensions.

    The word ‘Brut’ on the label means the wine is very dry. Curiously ‘Sec’ (which means dry) on the label is a slightly sweet champagne. If you care for a really sweet Champagne look for the word ‘Demi-Sec’(half-dry).

    As a result of the cold climate year-on-year harvest is uncertain therefore most Champagnes are non-vintage – not made from a single year of harvest but from a blend of wines from several years to arrive at a consistent quality. Vintage Champagnes are only available when an exceptionally good year appears (rarely). A Vintage Champagne can age for longer time and is normally much more expensive. There are 17 Grands Crus and 34 Premiers Crus villages.
    Normal wine bottles hold 75cl of wine. Champagne bottles have 80cl and are made with thicker glass to withhold 500 units of atmospheric pressure.

    French wines are never ‘brands’ (Chateau Margaux or Chateau Latour would be horrified if we referred them as brands). However Champagnes are the closest to branding. The most ancient and prestigious Champagnes families have been bought out over time by French multinational conglomerates such as Louis-Vuitton-Moët-Hennessy (LVMH). The family names remain on the labels but the families are long gone. Nowadays a good portion of Champagne production is controlled by these multinationals promoting the wines world-wide.

    Luckily there are still hundreds of small independent producers around whose Champagnes are as good if not better, sold at more reasonable prices but are rarely exported. The trick is to find them and here is one clue: look for a tiny abbreviation of ‘RM’ on the label. It means that the Champagne in question is produced by the same farmer/wine-maker growing the grapes and making the Champagne.

    There are 7 sub-regions under Champagne but only 3 are significant: Montagne de Reims: A ridge of low hills to the south of the ancient city of Reims forms the one of the best producing sub-region. Because of its soil and exposition more red grapes of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are planted then Chardonnay. As a result the Champagnes here are made with a majority of red grapes which gives a distinct full-bodied taste.
    Vallee de la Marne: This is the area on both sides of valley along the river Marne stretching west from the town of Epernay to Chateau Thierry. Here the main grape is the red Pinot Meunier instead of Pinot Noir mixed with about one third of Chardonnay. The Champagne style is similar to that of the Montagne de Reims but the taste is mellower.
    Côte des Blancs: This distinct sub-region is a range of hill-side running south of Epernay but facing east. The grape grown is almost 100% Chardonnay giving the Champagne a light, fruitier taste deserving the name ‘Blanc de Blancs’ – white Champagne made from white grape.

  • Alsace

    An area of hill-side on the left of the river Rhine along the Franco-German border running from the city of Mulhouse to Strasbourg produces some superb white wines which are Germanic in style and French in substance (the German wine producing regions of the Black Forrest is just on the right side of the Rhine). While the grapes (as well as the tall bottle shape) are common with Germany the wine is always dry, never sweet except wines deliberately made from late harvest or from noble rot.

    The main grapes are Riesling (white grape), Gewurztraminer (pink grape), Sylvaner (white grape), Pinot Blanc (white grape) and Pinot Gris (gray grape). The wines made from them are all white. Another point which marks Alsace differently from the other wine regions of France is that the wines here are all specified by the grape variety on the label such as AOC Alsace Riesling.

    AOC Alsace

    The bulk of production is dry white Riesling and Gewurztraminer or Sylvander under the appellation of AOC Alsace. The wines are dry, light, flowery and fresh in taste. There is a proportion of wine made in the Champagne method called Cremant d’Alsace which is a high-quality good-valued sparkling wine.

    AOC Alsace Grand Cru

    There are 50 villages covering about 10% of Alsace production designated as Great Growth from 1975 on. The Grand Cru wines are mostly Riesling and Gewurztraminer. The same is true for the sweet wines made from late harvest (vandange tardive). In exceptional years some grapes are deliberately left on the vines to concentrate the sugar content in order to make the sweet wines that can challenge the best from Sauternes in Bordeaux.

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