IT HAS been said that France, although not the world’s largest wine producer, produces half the world’s best wines. But like all wine producing countries, it also produces inferior wine. To avoid buying substandard wine, learn to read the label. You don’t have to know the language, just remember some chosen words.
Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) is the highest classification in France. These are the best wines and prices vary according to region, vintage and vineyard. AOC guarantees maximum yield per acre, minimum alcohol content, specific grapes, and that the wine is made in the region stated.
Vins Délimités de Qualité Supérieure (VDQS). The same as AOC, except they are allowed more yield per acre, a lower ABV, but use specific grapes.
Vins de Pays are wines from specific areas, being produced mainly in the south of France and the Loire Valley. By law they cannot be blended with wines from other areas. No maximum yield or minimum ABV.
Vin de Table. Good ‘quaffing’ wines, usually blends from different areas. Very few restrictions.
Useful words to learn on a French wine label are: Sec – Dry, Demi Sec – Medium Dry, Doux – Sweet, Grand Cru – Great Growth, Mousseux – Sparkling, Crémant – Semi Sparkling. Having remembered those words, if you’re buying Champagne, Sec means Medium Dry and Demi Sec means Medium Sweet. Brut is Dry. Don’t try and figure out why … Is it any wonder the amateur wine drinker opts for the much easier to read New World Wine labels?
In Bordeaux, only certain grapes are allowed for AOC wines. The main black ones are Merlot, Cab. Sauv., Cab. Franc and Petit Verdot. Main whites are Sauv. Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle. If you’re not a great Cab. Sauv. person, avoid Medoc wines, as they have a high percentage of that grape.
You will find Pomerol and Emilion wines have a very high percentage of the Merlot grape, which is much softer and less tannic. Bordeaux bottles are easy to identify, as they are square shoulder bottles, whereas Burgundy bottles have sloping shoulders. Burgundy grapes, like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, are not allowed in Burgundy. So if your tipple is Pinot Noir, don’t bother looking in Bordeaux for it. You won’t find it.
Let’s look at the Rhône Region, which stretches from Avignon in the south up to Vienne in the north, producing some of the best wines in France. It is a predominantly red wine region making full bodied wines with high alcohol levels. This is due to the searing summer heat producing enormous amounts of sugar in the grapes, which is then converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The whites can be very dry and fruity or lusciously sweet.
Probably their best wine is Hermitage (not Crozes-Hermitage), which is 100 per cent Syrah grape. Côte Rôtie is another excellent wine from northern Rhone, but like Hermitage, very expensive. Grapes grown in the Rhône include (B) Syrah, Brenache, Carignan, Grenache and Cinsaut. (W) Viognier, Muscat and Marsanne.
Undoubtedly, the most popular wine is Châteauneuf-Du-Pape (meaning New House of the Pope) and each bottle is embossed with the Papel Keys. Most producers use only four to five grapes when making this wine, but there are a few who use up to the permitted 13 varieties.
Côtes Du Rhône Villages is superior to Còtes Du Rhône, because the former is allowed only 520c/s per acre, whereas the latter can have up to 900c/s. For a very good dessert wine, try Muscat De Beaumes De Venise from the south. It’s just as good as Sauternes and only half the price. Tavel Rosé is a world famous dry, full-bodied wine with an orange/pink colour. The grapes have a period of up to two days maceration, before fermentation begins.