Deciphering French wines: How to read a French wine label

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Location, location, location. It applies to land deals and French wine alike. In the 1930s, a prescient French government organization called Appellation d’Origine Contrôllee (“area of controlled origin”) proclaimed certain areas better to grow grapes worthy of praise. Only 15 percent of French wines deserve this designation, and rigorous rules apply. The grapes in these strictly delineated areas endure humiliating quality tests, and if they aren’t up to snuff, they suffer the ultimate disgrace: cheap jug wine that seldom makes it to America.

Quality wine starts with the delicate relationship between the grape and its share of sun, good soil and rain. Mother Nature treats every district differently, and identifying the better regions on French wine labels renders the purchase decision a little less painful. So until the French wise up and admit their confusing AOC system is really a pain in the arse, we’ll continue our effort to decipher the white wine labels of Alsace, Loire Valley, Bordeaux and Burgundy.

Of all the French wine regions, Alsace is the easiest to understand. Unlike other regions, they label their wines by grape name, making the selection less problematic. Alsace’s fruity grapes, Riesling [REES-ling] and Gewürztraminer [geh-VERTS-trah- mee-ner], originally hail from Germany, as Alsace formed part of the pre-World War I regime. Because of this history, people frequently confuse Germany’s often-syrupy Rieslings with France’s dry Rieslings, and this is a shame. French Rieslings are delicious, perfumey and soft. French Gewürztraminers are fresh, spicy and faintly sweet. To aid in your selection, find reliable shippers — companies that buy grapes from local growers, produce the wine, then market under their own name (Alsacian wineries rarely market and export their own wine). Good ones: Trimbach, Dopff au Moulin and Hugel & Fils. (Read more about wines from Alsace)

Loire Valley offers simple, reasonably priced everyday wines. Growers focus on two main white grape varieties, Sauvignon Blanc [SO-vin-yon BLAHNK] and Chenin Blanc [shen’n BLAHNK]. The wines from Sancerre [san SAIR] and Pouilly Fume [pu EE FOO may] are made with Sauvignon Blanc grapes and taste light, dry and somewhat earthy. Vouvray, another large region in Loire Valley, grows Chenin Blanc grapes, and is something of a chameleon; it can be dry, somewhat sweet, or really sweet. Vouvray is for the drinker who prefers to stay away from the drier stuff like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. (Read more about Loire Valley’s wines)

Most people think Bordeaux produces only red wines, but great whites are waiting to be uncorked. The central white wine district is Graves, supplying wines made from Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon [SEM-ih-yon] grapes. These wines are usually blends of both grapes, depending on the year’s harvest and the winemaker’s whims. (Read more about White Bordeaux wines)

All white Burgundies stem from the same grape: Chardonnay. The Chablis district is perhaps the best known, but the name has become bastardized over the years since California wineries slapped the name Chablis on inferior jug wines. Wines coming from the “true” Chablis region in France are a bit different — they’re always dry, somewhat full-bodied and usually very expensive. Reliable shippers of Chablis are Louis Latour, Joseph Drouhin and J. Moreau & Fils.

Until we convince those wily French that simplicity creates more wine sales, I suppose we’ll continue to suffer. But, if you can’t change French tradition, figure a way around it by learning the language.


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