French wines are still the standard around the world and, for the most part, the easiest country to decipher. They have very strict laws governing what grapes can be grown in what regions, so what goes into a bottle of Bordeaux or Burgundy won't be changing anytime soon. Following is a basic breakdown:
- ALSACE: Grapes grown Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Grigio & Riesling. This is the only region that puts the grape varietal on the bottle. In addition there is a quality designation of Grand Cru, which distinguishes wines from superior vineyard sites. These are full-bodied, aromatic and ripe wines that are usually worth their somewhat high price tag.
- BORDEAUX: For REDS, there are (5) grapes grown Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec & Petit Verdot with CS and Merlot dominating the blends. The wines released from the LEFT BANK (the Medoc, Haut Medoc, Saint Estephe, Saint Julien, Pauillac & Margaux) are mostly Cabernet Sauvignon. The ones from the RIGHT BANK (Saint Emilion & Pomerol) mainly Merlot. Only (2) WHITE grapes are grown Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. These are usually blended together and come from the regions of Entre-Deux-Mers, Graves and Pessac-Leognan. They are also used to make SAUTERNES, the best, longest-aging sweet wine in the world. CLICK HERE to learn more about specific labelling terms.
- CHAMPAGNE: Technically only wines that come from Champagne can be called by that moniker. All other bubbly is considered sparkling wine. Champagne comes in (2) main forms:
- Non-Vintage: A blend of several different years to achieve a specific, consistent house style. Once you find one you like you know it will always taste the same, since that's what each brand is trying to achieve with this blend.
- Vintage: Wine from a single year only declared in outstanding vintages, which makes them rare and expensive. These have distinct flavors that show-off their specific years.
There are varying levels of sweetness with Brut being the driest, followed by Extra Dry, Sec, Demi-Sec and Doux (the sweetest). Specialty styles include: Blanc de Blancs, Rosés and Cuveés i.e. Dom Perignon.
- BURGUNDY: As far as this region is concerned, the grape varietals are pretty simple: Pinot Noir and Gamay (Beaujolais) for REDS, Chardonnay for WHITES. That's it. The names you see on the bottle are the producer and the village where the grapes are grown. The main villages for Pinot are: Gevrey-Chambertin, Morey-St-Denis, Nuits-Saint-George, Chambolle-Musigny, Vosne-Romanee, Pommard and Volnay. For Chardonnay: Aloxe-Corton, Chablis, Puligny-Montrachet, Meursault, Macon and Pouilly-Fuissé. From here it gets decidedly more complicated. CLICK HERE to learn more about specific labeling terms and quality designations. There are generally few good bargains from this region. If you want to explore it be prepared to open your wallet.
- LOIRE VALLEY: This region is most famous for its' white wines, though it does make some lovely reds. There are (3) WHITES grown: Sauvignon Blanc (Sancerre & Pouilly-Fumé), Chenin Blanc (Vouvray, Touraine, Saumur and Coteaux du Layon) and Muscadet. The main RED is Cabernet Franc (Chinon, Saumur & Bourgeil), although there is some Merlot and Pinot Noir grown as well. There are no class designations in this region, however, Vouvrays come in various levels of sweetness from Sec (dry) to demi-sec to moelleux (sweet). It will generally be listed on the bottle. The white wines from this region, which is quite cool, are known for their bracing acidity and ability to age, so if you pick up a bottle be prepared to pucker.
- RHONE VALLEY: The Northern Rhone is all Syrah (Cornas, Cote Rotie, Crozes-Hermitage, St. Joseph) and Viognier (Condrieu), which are big wines for moderate to high prices. In the Southern Rhone, Chateauneuf-du-Pape is the more expensive blend, Cotes-du-Rhones the cheaper. The bulk of both features combinations of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, among other more obscure grapes. Also the region where some of the best rosés are made (Tavel). Southern whites are usually a blend of Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Marsanne. There is no official classification here. For the most part, the price of the wine will tell you everything you need to know about the quality.