Spoilt for choice
France is regarded as the greatest wine-producing nation in the world – and with good reason. The wines of Champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Loire and Rhône valleys remain the ones that winemakers around the world are keen to emulate. They are the benchmarks. And while the labelling of French wines can be confusing – the French tend to use regions rather than grape varieties on their labels – Australians are increasingly enjoying not only French bubbles, but also French table wines.
The sparkling wines of Champagne are unrivalled, while Bordeaux produces complex, long-lived reds, savoury whites and the great sweet wines of Sauternes.
In Burgundy, the whites can be minerally, while the best reds tend toward ethereal. The Rhône wines are more generally a bit more macho.
Beaujolais, south of Burgundy, makes wines using the lighter Gamay grape, and then there are the easy quaffing wines from the warmer south-west of the country, which may be labelled Languedoc, Rousillon, or even just Sud-Ouest.
Burgundy starts with Chablis, two hours southeast of Paris, with Burgundy proper beginning a further hour south. The best wines are made from 100% Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. The greatest wines of the region from producers like Domaine de la Romanee-Conti won’t come cheap, but if you’re sticking to a budget there are plenty of other rewarding wines to try.
Chablis produces dry, intense Chardonnays. Try William Fevre Petit Chablis as an introduction. The Cote d’Or strip on the other hand produces the world’s best Pinot and some superbly complex Chardonnay from villages including Meursault, Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet.
Pinot Noir lovers are spoilt for choice with producers in communes including Pommard, Volnay, Nuits St George and Chambolle-Musigny all outstanding.
In Champagne, usually even cooler and wetter than Burgundy, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes are used to produce sparkling wines of rare intensity, such as the classic Pol Roger Brut NV Champagne.
Banks of gold
Bordeaux and its surrounds are home to the most coveted red wines in the world. The wines from the right bank villages are made primarily from Cabernet Sauvignon, while those on the left bank (St Emilion/Pomerol) tend to be Merlot-dominated. Chateau Lamothe-Bergeron offers an affordable intro.
The area southwest of the city is also home to the Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc blends of Pessac-Leognan and the classy stickies of Sauternes and Barsac.
Bordeaux is a region where the wines are typically designed for cellaring – and sometimes extremely expensive – but for wines that offer value-for-money, the Canon-Fronsac, Fronsac and Cotes de Castillon appellations are worth investigating.
The great wine producing villages of Sancerre and Pouilly are just 90 minutes from Paris but the picturesque Loire Valley stretches all the way west to Nantes, home of the bone-dry Muscadet style.
The range of wines here is immense including dry, flinty Sauvignon Blanc designed for early consumption like Pouilly Fume and the Sancerre from Pascal Jolivet; dry and sweet Chenin Blanc (Saumur, Vouvray); reds made from Cabernet Franc (Borgueil and Chinon) and Rosés (Anjou).
Alsace is a north-easterly region of France perched on the border with Germany that produces aromatic white wines, including Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. Try the Hugel Alsace Gewurztraminer for a taste sensation. Wines labelled Vendage Tardive (Late Harvest) tend to be on the sweeter side.
The Rhône Valley, in southern France near Lyon, has divided into the Northern Rhône and the Southern Rhône – both of which produce wines the closest to Australia in style; reds both medium-bodied and often spicy. The earthy St Cosme Côtes du Rhône is an excellent example.
The northern region produces red wines from the Shiraz grape, sometimes blended with white wine grapes, and white wines from Viognier grapes. Famous names include Cote Rotie, Crozes-Hermitage and Cornas.
The southern region produces a variety of both red and white wines. The reds usually feature Grenache and Shiraz, or are blends of several grapes such as in Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
As people around the world turn their attention to France in the coming weeks and months, it is also timely to look more closely at the wondrous wines of this great European nation and savour each and every sip.