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The French maze 

Navigating the red regions

When it comes to French wine, even wine snobs sing the blues. The maze of appellations (name of a wine's geographic origin) and fancy labels are enough to discourage anyone from drinking the stuff.

But somehow in France, those issues don't faze ordinary people. They quaff wine without ever caring where the grapes were grown or the name of the winemaker. Here at home, we feel somehow unworthy if we don't memorize every region and the lineage of each grape. Come on. Let's chill and explore the French red countryside (French whites in two weeks).

For red wines, France basically has three wine regions: Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhone Valley. There are other wine regions, but they either produce small amounts of red or their wines aren't available in the U.S. If you're looking for quality French red, a good rule of thumb is to look for the most writing on the label, and the words "Grand Cru" or "Premier Cru."

Bordeaux is the world's largest fine wine making region in the world, and perhaps the most famous. It has five main red grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, with Petit Verdot and Malbec used as blending grapes. Nearly all wines from Bordeaux are blends of two or more grapes, to smooth out the wines and create a more palatable product.

Under these rules, Bordeaux is broken up into four red wine producing districts: St. Emilion, Pomerol, Graves and Mèdoc. If you see St. Emilion or Pomerol, you'll most likely be buying Merlot, a lighter red wine. Graves has both red and whites, with Cabernet Sauvignon being the main red grape of choice. Medoc has sub-appellations Saint-Julien, Paulliac, Margaux and Saint-Estëphe that are mostly bolder, more astringent Cabernet Sauvignons.

Burgundy or Bourgogne (BOR gun NYA) is much easier to determine the red grape variety -- it's all Pinot Noir. These wines are often heavier than California or Pacific Northwest Pinots, and can even be aged for decades. But they're normally softer than Bordeaux wines. When looking for a bottle of Burgundy, if you don't see "Bourgogne" on the label, follow the phrases "Côte de Nuits," "Côte de Beaune" or "Côte d'Or," -- wine producing areas within Burgundy. Beaujolais is a smaller region in southern Burgundy, and wine from this area is made from a grape called Gamay. Lighter, lip smacking grape flavor is what emerges from Beaujolais wines.

The Rhone Valley has fewer regulations than its brethren. There are also fewer appellations, making it more difficult to know what you're buying. The region grows 13 grapes, with Syrah and Grenache being the big daddies of most Rhone bottles. Syrah is for bigger, fuller wine fans; while Grenache-based wines will appeal more to the lighter, fruitier wine fans. However, the wine labeled "Côte du Rhône" could be either Syrah or Grenache, and is more than likely a blend of the two. You will need to experiment with brands to determine your favorite, and the lower prices will help you with bargain hunting.

To begin navigating the French maze, try a few of these gems:

Chateau Plagnac, Cru Bourgeois, Medoc 1996, $22. : Big, dry, tannic hit when first poured, but swish and swirl and it mellows out for good drinking. Pretty typical of Mèdoc Cabernet/Merlot blends.

Georges Duboeuf Morgon, 2000, Jean Descombes $15 1/2 : Beautiful, fruity Beaujolais with raspberry oozing out its every pore. This wine's even good all by itself.

Chateau Petit-Figeac, Saint Emilion Grand Cru, 1997. $18. 1/2 : Smooth, palatable tannins and well-balanced fruitiness define this Bordeaux red. Mostly Merlot and quite delicious.

Jaboulet "Parallele 45" Côtes du Rhône, 1998. $13. : Wow! This stuff's amazing, especially for the price. Made with mostly Syrah grapes, it's soft, and perfect for drinking anytime, with anyone.

Taylor Eason is a regionally based wino who studied the juice in France and Italy, and makes it her life goal to lure people away from the beer aisle and into the wine cellar. Have a wine or wine experience you want to share with us? E-mail, mail Corkscrew at 1310 East 9th Ave., Tampa, FL 33605 or call our new reader feedback number: 1-800-341-LOAF.

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