It’s understandable to be intimidated by French wine — even if you know enough about wine to know which varietals you like.
Intimidated by the French section in your local wine store? That’s understandable — even if you know enough about wine to know which varietals you like.
In fact, your question might be, “Why don’t they just put the varietal on the bottle?”
It was while reading the book, “Red, White and Drunk All Over: A Wine-Soaked Journey from Grape to Glass” by Natalie MacLean, that I got the answer to my question.
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During her journey to Burgundy, MacLean asked the same question and was told that in Old World winemaking, especially in France, the wine is simply an extension of the terroir, or land.
You are not drinking a Chardonnay or Aligote if you are drinking a white Burgundy, though that is the varietal from which the wine is made.
You are drinking the essence of the land, she was told.
While in her book French winemakers describe the grape as a sponge, I found that perhaps a better description would be the grape is a conduit between the vines that stretch deep into the earth to the final product in your glass.
To paraphrase one French winemaker, the goal is to not let either the winemaker or the fruit (the grape) get in the way of the land. So you are, in fact, drinking the essence of a place. If you happen to be drinking a red Burgundy you also happen to be drinking Pinot Noir.
Here are some basic varietals and some wines they’re most often found in:
Sauvignon blanc: Sancerre; also White Bordeaux. Though the White Bordeaux blend is primarily Semillon, it’s probably my favorite expression of Sauvignon blanc.
Chenin blanc: Vouvray. This wine ranges from dry to sweet without being heavy or syrupy.
Cabernet Sauvignon: This grape is a major player in Red Bordeaux, along with Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec.
Merlot: A key component in Red Bordeaux; also in Languedoc. The most commonly planted grape in France, Merlot is added to other wines and blends to give the wine a softness.
Malbec: Often found in Red Bordeaux.
Shiraz: This grape, called Syrah in French wines, is found in Cote du Rhone blends along with Grenache and Mourvedre.
Chardonnay: Chablis, where it is usually unoaked, and Burgundy.