Decoding French Wine – Part 1, The Whites

I had one of those conversations at the weekend that made me realise what a minefield wine can be. I have chosen to delve into the depths of this wonderful subject but most of the people who read this blog just enjoy wine for what it is and enjoy picking up the odd bit of wine trivia and knowledge along the way. The conversation was someone saying they don’t like Sauvignon Blanc… But love Sancerre. I’ve heard many time people saying they hate Chardonnay… But love Chablis. So I thought lets go back to basics and match some French labels to some wine grapes.

The New World do a brilliant job of demystifying wine by having the grape type as the key message on the label. You knows its an Aussie Chardonnay, because it says so on the label. You know it’s a Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc, because it says so on the label. Not so with French wine.

Below is a bluffers guide to the French white regions and the principle grapes – I have also included some wines that I think show off the grapes nicely to try. Get to know your Pouilly Fuisse from your Pouilly Fume!

Burgundy

Almost all white Burgundy is made from 100% Chardonnay. There are a few exceptions, but not many that you’ll find in your local supermarket. I didn’t think I liked Chardonnay, until I tried a bottle of 1er Cru Beaune, a lesser village for white Burgundy, but it was sublime.

The key village names that you’ll find on a bottle are Chablis (yes, it’s 100% Chardonnay!), Meursault, Puligny Montrachet and Chassagne Montrachet. You won’t get much change from £20 for the last 3, all situated in the Cote de Beaune, but there are some excellent bottles of Chablis available around the £10 mark. Chablis is the most northerly of the Burgundy villages. Also look out out or Bourgogne Blanc, which is a generic term or wines from “lesser” villages, or made from grapes from different villages which have been blended together.

For me however, the real value in white Burgundy ones from farther south, in the Macon region. The most famous appellation in this area is Pouilly Fuisse (which are actually two different villages), but look out for Saint Veran – a great intro to white Burgundy and affordable around the £10 mark.

Domaine Botti, Saint Veran 2009, Burgundy, France (Wine & the Vine £12.85)
Domaine Brocard, Chablis 1er Cru Mont de Milieu (Sainsburys £16.99)
Laurent Desvigness Chablis 2010 (Waitrose £13.99)
Louis Jadot Chateau des Jaques Bourgogne Chardonnay 2010 (Majestic £12.99)
Blason de Bourgogne Saint-Veran 2010 (Waitrose £10.99)

Loire Valley

You’ll find three key white grapes in the Loire. Melon de Bourgogne, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc. Muscadet (made from Melon de Bourgogne) offers lovely fresh and clean wines, a perfect accompaniment to seafood. If you’re buying Muscadet look for the words “sur lie” on the label, as it will offer a bit more complexity – email me if you want to know why!

South Africa is making some brilliant Chenin Blanc these days, but if you’re a fan of this beautifully aromatic grape, then give Vouvray a try. But the French don’t like to make things simple so if you want a dry wine look for “sec” on the label, if you like a bit of sweetness (off-dry) the word you’re looking for on the abel is “demi-sec”, and you like sweet then look for “moelleux”.

However the Loire is best know for its wines made with Sauvignon Blanc. The two most famous villages are Sancerre and Pouilly Fume, which face each other on opposite sides of the Loire river. These wines are more restrained than most of the Kiwi Sauvignon Blancs on the supermarket shelves (sorry for the big generalisation!) and come with a price tag to match. But please remember, having Sancerre and Pouilly Fume on the label is not a guarantee of quality, or a guarantee that the grapes came from that village. For value in the region look out for the villages of Touraine or Cheverny (this usually also has 15% Chardonnay in the blend).

Couronne et Lions Sancerre 2010 (Waitrose £13.99)
Taste The Difference Pouilly Fume 2011 (Sainsburys £11.99)
La Grille Touraine Sauvignon 2011 (£7.49, £5.99 when you buy 2)
Domaine de Salvard Cheverny 2011 (Wine and the vine £10.25)
Domaine du Vieux Vauvert Vouvray 2011 (Waitrose £8.79)
Domaine Tormaline Muscadet de Sevre-et-Maine Sur Lie 2011 (£7.99, £6.99 when you buy 2)

Alsace

At last! A French wine region that makes things easy! Alsace is a wonderful region, using very interesting and delicious grape varieties. The key grapes here are Riesling, Gewurtztraminer and Pinot Blanc… And it will say that on the label.

You will recognise the wines immediately at the shelf in their tall, thin, Germanic bottles and I hope you grow to love them like I have. These are wines of character and depth and really interesting. The Aussies are making some amazing Rieslings these days too, in the Clare and Eden Valleys, but this is a post about French wine so we’ll leave that for another day!

Trimbach Riesling 2010 (Tesco £11.00)
Dopff au Moulin Pinot Blanc 2011 (Wine and the Vine £11.25)
Paul Blanck Gewertztraminer 2011 (Waitrose £14.99

Northern Rhone

The Rhone is generally associated with red wine. The most famous white wine village in the Northern Rhone is Condrieu. The wines are made from 100% Viognier and very few bottles are produced, meaning a hefty price tag (very little under £30). Unless you’re really into your French whites, I’d stick to Viogniers from Australia or even Argentina.

The other appellations in the northern Rhone are Hermitage, Crozes Hermitage and St Joseph, again more famous for red wines. The white wines are usually a blend of Marsanne and Roussanne (every now and then you’ll find wines that are 100% of one or the other). Hermitage whites are often aged for 10 years or more and don’t come cheap, whereas whites from Crozes Hermitage and St Joseph are approachable in their youth. This isn’t my favourite region as I often find the whites lack a bit of acidity but there are some good wines available at decent prices.

I couldn’t find anything in the supermarkets under £30! So don’t bother!

Southern Rhone

Again, more associated with red wine, but there are some really good value wines to find in the region. The main grape in the area is Grenache Blanc, often blended with Marsanne and Roussanne. White Cotes du Rhone can make a nice change and often offer lots of body and roundness. White Chateuneuf du Pape is also made and although expensive, can be wonderfully expressive and complex.

Domaine de la Becassone Cotes du Rhone Blanc 2011 (Wine & the Vine £12.25)
Aves St Pierre Cotes du Rhone Blanc 2011 (Tesco £7.99)

Bordeaux

Yes, they make white wine too! Generally a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, Bordeaux whites, like the reds, are made to keep. Usually aged for some time in new oak, these wines are big and complex. I haven’t had much white Bordeaux so can’t really make any recommendations… I will be rectifying this in the new year!

Chateau Lestrille Capnartin Blanc 2010 (Wine & the Vine £12.95)
Chateau Tour Leognan Pessac-Leognan 2011 (Waitrose £14.99)

Languedoc-Roussillon

Right down south, the Languedoc-Roussillon is the best value wine region in France. It is also the biggest producing wine region in the World! Many if the wines are actually labelled with the grape variety and here you’ll also come across the term “Vin de Pays d’Oc”. The term actually means “county wine” and is used for regions that have not been classified as an “appellation contrôlée”. Don’t be put off by this, take advantage of it. The region is full of hidden gems, and many of them get you plenty of change from £10.

Le Bosq Blanc 2011 (Wine & the Vine £6.25)
Laurent Miguel Heritage Viognier 2009 (Tesco £9.99)

Next week… Decoding French reds!

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Posted on December 4, 2012, in General, Learning. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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