Monday 18th February 2013, 10:00AM GMT.
One of the biggest arguments against French wine is the indecipherable labels. And not just because they’re in French.
Our wine expert Richard Alisette begins to demystify the world of Appellation Controlee and Vin de Pays…
A CUSTOMER came into the shop recently.
‘I don’t buy French wine unless I can see the grape variety on the label,’ he said.
A somewhat extreme view, but I could see his point.
After all, I’ve often advised you in this column to find out which grape varieties you like the taste of and then take your wine buying from there.
The problem that France (as well as several other European wine producing countries) has is that their whole quality-control system (Appellation Controlee) is based on where the grapes are grown, not which variety they are made from.
So you buy a white Sancerre made from grapes grown near the town of the same name, not a sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley (sauvignon blanc is the only grape variety permitted for white Sancerre and the Loire is where the town is situated).
The whole French system is based on ‘terroir’, an untranslatable word which is not only the place where the grapes are grown but the whole geological and meteorological detail specific to the place. The French would argue, for instance, that a Sancerre should taste different to a Pouilly Fume, despite them both being made from sauvignon blanc and both coming from within a few kilometres of each other in the Loire Valley.
Not only that, but a Sancerre grower may decide that different parcels of land produce different flavours in the resultant wine and bottle them separately. For instance, Sancerre producer Henri Bourgeois makes half a dozen different white Sancerres each year – each coming from different soil types.
Is this complete baloney? I don’t think so.
On my first visit to Domaine Bourgeois many years ago, Henri’s grandson Arnaud took me into a vineyard where the soil was made up of tens of thousands of shards of flint. He picked up two of the stones, struck them together and asked me to smell them and to remember that smell.
Later he poured me a glass of Sancerre from that vineyard. Sure enough, in that glass was the distinct flinty smell that I had noted when he struck the two stones together. None of his other Sancerres had that characteristic.
It was the Californians who started the whole trend of varietal labelling (stating the grape variety on the label), closely followed by the Aussies, with virtually every New World country then following suit.
Strangely, down under, only 85% of the wine needs to be made from the variety on the label. The other 15% can be totally different (for instance, buy a wine with sauvignon blanc on the label and you might find, quite legally, 15% of your sauvignon is actually semillon, even if there is no mention of this).
Paradoxically, our bottle of white Sancerre has, by Appellation Controlee law, to be made from 100% sauvignon blanc, though it is not allowed to state this on the label.
I should say here that by ‘label’, I mean the label that is a legal requirement on the front of the bottle – where you must also find the alcohol level and the size/volume.
What a wine says on the back of the label is entirely up to the producer and it is there that I believe the French could improve their sales by helping consumers understand the product. Mention of the grape variety would be an ideal starting point.
So, in an effort to help you understand which areas of France grow which grape varieties, over the next couple of weeks this column will act as a quick guide to the major Appellation Controlee regions of France from north to south.
The list is not meant to be exhaustive, but hopefully if you decide you like the red wines of Chinon while you are on holiday and discover they are made from the cabernet franc grape, you can look to other regions of France (or the world) using the same variety.
I should reiterate that I am talking about Appellation Controlee wines – theoretically the peak of quality in France.
Vin de Pays (now becoming known as IGP) are allowed to use the variety on the label and, in fact, a few renegade growers deliberately bottle their wines as Vin de Pays (in theory, simply country wines) rather than AC wines as it gives them more freedom with the ‘cepage’ (the varieties used in the blend).
As usual, there is one exception that proves the rule and in this case, it is Alsace – which is why I find it odd that their wines are not more popular over here. Part of the reason may be that they are nearly always white and that you are never sure exactly how sweet they are going to be until you pull the cork.
But if you want to find out the difference in flavour of pinot gris, muscat, gewürztraminer and riesling, Alsace makes it easy for you.
Next week we will start our tour of the French Appellation Controlee regions in the Loire Valley near the town of Nantes.