France - Wine Hub for the World

Jul 13, 2009

Burgundian slope

What does the vineyard do to me?... What would heaven do to me if heaven were empty?
- Alphonse de Lemartine

The beautiful thing about wine is often just drinking wine. And the beautiful thing about learning about wine is also, well… you know… drinking it. Or, tasting wine (less fun sometimes because this might involve spitting).

My journey began with beer and harder spirits – gin and Canadian Rye still being my two favourites. Scotch is not for me.

I used to enjoy a nice, refreshing lager on a summer day. Sometimes a deep, dark ale. But over time, I found wine more fascinating. I ventured first into the world of whites. Living in Victoria and then North Vancouver, in British Columbia, I began to drink Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris from the Okanagan Valley, Sumac Ridge, Tinhorn Creek, and Grey Monk being three of my favorite producers. Soon enough I discovered that Alsace, in Eastern France right on the German border, is the home of both these varieties.

I started putting a puzzle together. Every time I learned about a different grape, I would try to source its origin in Europe.

Soon a bigger picture was revealed. I began to see France as the hub of a greater world wine-wheel, with different spokes (grapes) finding homes in different countries.

CABERNET SAUVIGNONBordeaux – left bank of the river Gironde, from Médoc in the north down to Graves. Cabernet is the superstar grape of the wine world, used to make the world’s most brilliant and expensive wines. Names such as, Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton Rothschild, Château Haut-Brion and Château Margaux are all synonymous with Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated wines (left-bank Bordeaux – i.e. Médoc, Haut Médoc - wines are blends which include Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdo and Malbec).

Where else and what to expect - You can find Cabernet Sauvignon literally everywhere but the best places after France are California (Napa Valley), Chile (Central Valley, including the Maipo, Maule Valleys), Australia in the region of Coonawarra in the state of South Australia. In South Africa, New Zealand and Argentina you’ll find some good Cabernet Sauvignon wine, either as a varietal (single variety) or a blend. Cabernet is also used to make excellent blends in Tuscany, Italy.

But how do you like your Cabernet? If you like big black fruit, most will satisfy but there are slight variations. California is for you if you like hints of herbal sage. In Chile, green pepper. Australia can have interesting notes of eucalyptus. South Africa can be smoky and bold while Argentina is often rich. New Zealand, like Bordeaux has a bit more acidity and a finer body, often blended with Merlot.

CHARDONNAYBurgundy – from Chablis down through Maconnais. Where Cabernet is the King of red, Chardonnay is the great royal white. In France, especially in Burgundy, the grape is rarely listed on the bottle. Famous vineyards of Burgundy include “Le Montrachet” where bottles fetch hefty high prices. You’ll find Chardonnay in Champagne where it is either used to make blancs de blancs (white from white) or blended with Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir.

Where else and what to expect - Chardonnay, also like Cabernet Sauvignon, can be found in most wine-producing countries. But unlike the red grape, it is more of a chameleon. In Chablis of northern Burgundy, Chardonnay is often mineral on the palate with notes of green fruit. Further South in Burgundy (Côte de Beaune, Mâcon), it is more toasty, buttery like a good apple pie. When it sees little oak in such villages as Saint-Veran, there is more of an apricot and peach touch. In Australia, the best un-oaked Chardonnays often have a pineapple-tropical flavour. California Chardonnay is often heavily oaked, meaning more butter and toffee notes (I like to call them ‘butter bombs’) than what you will find in France. Chardonnay labels will often tell you if they are oaked or not.

SAUVIGNON BLANCLoire Valley – Main sites include Sancerre, Puilly-sur-Loire and Touraine. Sauvignon Blanc is easily distinguished compared to Chardonnay. The grape has pungent, bright aromas of lime and lemon with asparagus and grassy green pepper. Pouilly-Fumé (fumé = smoke in French), there is a hint of flint that gives the wine a gunpowder touch.

Where else and what to expect - By far the most famous Sauvignon Blanc wine-producing country is New Zealand. In 1985, Cloudy Bay appeared on the wine scene and took the world by storm. Since then, varietal Sauvignon Blanc has become synonymous with the islands of the Kiwi. As the famous English wine critic and writer Hugh Johnson once wrote, it is Sauvignon Blanc with the ‘volume turned up’. Other places include Chile, in Casablanca and San Antonio Valley where you can find surprising value and delicate lemon and grassy flavours. The grape is also found in South Africa in coastal wine regions (more fig and green fruit) as well as Australia where it is blended with Semillon. In California, some Sauvignon Blancs are oaked which impart a tasty, toasty component. In Spain, it is often blended with Verdejo in the region of Rueda in northern Spain.

SYRAHRhône Valley – Côte-Rôtie in the north down through the Southern Rhône. Northern Rhone Syrahs are often very expensive and sometimes blended with a touch of Viognier, a white grape known for aromas of apricot and peach. There is the black pepper, the hint of Brettanomyces (brett – for short), a yeast found on the grapes and in wines of the Rhône that lend a chicken-coup kind of perfume. These wines are complex and need time in bottle before opening. If you’re impatient (like me) you can find excellent Côtes du Rhône Village wines that are a blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre (the latter grapes also known as Garnacha and Monastrell in Spain).

Where else and what to expect - Just as Sauvignon Blanc is synonymous with New Zealand, Shiraz (which is another name for Syrah) is the flagship grape of Australia. The Barossa Valley is the most famous Shiraz growing region. The wines are bursting with big vanilla-rounded black fruit and black pepper. Along the southern coast, where it is noticeably cooler, Adelaide Hills Shiraz often have a white pepper spice to it. California makes excellent Syrahs. In the 1970s and ‘80’s, Cabernet and Chardonnay were all the rage. A group of winemakers, known now as the Rhone Rangers decided to focus on alternatives, Syrah being one of their favoured grapes. Chile also makes excellent Syrah which is similar to the bold California style (although there are some that are more Rhône in style which have a gamey-black pepper to it). In South Africa, it is surpassing Pinotage as the new must-plant grape where the black pepper is softened with blackberries. There is often a smoky quality to the wine, making them ideal with BBQ.

RIESLINGAlsace/South Western Germany – Alsace is on the border of Germany and the region has had a significant German influence (especially in the names like “Schlumberger” which is pronounced with a French feel – i.e. SHLUM-ber-jay). Riesling is Germany’s grape but because the history of the region is intertwined with the legacies of both countries, I placed it here.

You could say there are two styles of Riesling. The German, especially the Mosel version, has a mineral, steely, apple beauty to it you often cannot find in France. These wines I often dub as ‘autumn harvests in a glass’ – drown your nose in the leafy, windy far reaches of vertigo-steep vineyards and cool, steel skies. Elsewhere in Germany, you can expect apricots and melon, sometimes grapefruit. Alsatian Riesling can be off-dry but there is a delicacy to them, a solemn finesse. You can taste the apple but it is more reserved, reticent. Alsace is the place to find dry-style Riesling. Producers like Trimbach and Hugel make solid offerings.

Where else and what to expect -
Riesling is an important grape in Ontario, perhaps the one with the most diverse character. Styles here range from dry to ice wine and Canada has become the go-to place for High Class dessert wines. Green apple, green fruit, honey, petrol, sometimes a bit of peach is what you’ll find in the Niagara Peninsula. Washington and New York State both make excellent Riesling, perhaps closer to the traditional German-style with aromas of petrol, honey and apple harvest. In the Southern Hemisphere, Australia (Eden and Clare Valley) and New Zealand (Wairarapa just north of Martinborough on the North Island) tend to deliver New World dry-Rieslings. These wines are alive with zingy, bright acidity, apple, star fruit and hints of pineapple. Most Southern Hemisphere Rieslings will be typically dry with the off-chance of a hint of sugar.

PINOT NOIRBurgundy, especially, Côte-d'Or, – While Cabernet is blended with four other grapes in left-bank Bordeaux, Burgundy is Pinot Noir. But you wouldn’t just call it a Pinot Noir from Burgundy. Pinot Noir is a vehicle for the expression of Burgundy, one of the many elements that go into making a great bottle. Here, as in many places in France, terroir is the word, more the aura of viticulture that leads to the wonders of vinification. In Burgundy, factors such as soil, slope, exposure, climate, weather, vineyard practices and management all come together to create a wine. For many, red Burgundy is similar to the ecstasy of Saint Teresa in Botticelli’s famous sculpture – it is a religious experience poised with sensuality. The bouquet is a quiet, fading thunderstorm of flowers, earth and red, bright fruit.

Where else and what to expect -
If you venture into Oregon you’ll find the quintessential New World Pinot. These wines are a bit more robust than Burgundian offerings with a delicious dill element that is both aromatic and inviting, not to mention, intriguing. In California, the wines are bigger still. Usually Carneros and other cool climes along the coast will give you the Pinot that has the most finesse but like a WWF wrestler in a tux, they are hefty and muscular. In New Zealand, you can find Burgundian-style Pinot Noir that exhibits more the barnyard, the mulch and red fruit that makes the variety so charismatic. Chile has some beautiful, delicate Pinot Noir along the coast in Leyda and San Antonio. In Australia, Tasmania is considered the best Pinot-producing regions.

And of course, let’s not forget Ontario where the style is reminiscent of Burgundy as well as New Zealand. Ontario Pinot is perfect with salmon, the cherries are light and lovely with a little barnyard beauty.

MERLOTright bank, especially Pomerol and St-Émilion as well as St-Estèphe. Merlot plays a showy second-fiddle to Cabernet Sauvignon in the world of wine. On the right bank in Bordeaux, it comes first followed by Cabernet, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. It is softer, plummier, with black fruit, blueberry and hints of chocolate and coffee. It is what Oz Clarke calls ‘red without tears’ because the tannins are easier on your palate.

Where else and what to expect - In Italy, especially in Veneto and Toscana you can find varietal Merlot (in the former) and Merlot blended with Sangiovese and Cabernet in Super Tuscan wines (see A Tale of Two Tuscanies June 2009). Veneto is cooler so expect more red fruit and juicier acidity.

In the New World, Merlot has found a beautiful home in both California and Washington. Washington State Merlot exudes black fruit with moody doses of chocolate and coffee. In California, the wines are softer, cozy and with the right oak treatment will have a vanilla character that reminds me of toast and black berry jam. If you like Chile, Merlot is chewy and herbal and might even be blended with Carmenere (see The Cinderella Story of Carmenere June 2009). New Zealand and Australia, you’ll find varietal Merlot or blends with Cabernet and other grapes such as Shiraz/Syrah and Petit Verdot. Here in Ontario, I find the Merlot has a blackberry coffee feel with a deeper darker cocoa element.

France offers beautiful wine but unless you feel comfortable with their wine labels, I suggest starting with varietal wines in the New World. Once you get yourself grounded and can maneuver through the various variety names and aromas, you’ll be on your way. Just think of it as research for your palate.

And you don’t have to spit if you don’t want to.


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My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

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