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Dec 12, 2006 08:13 PM

Introduction to French Wines

Does anyone know of a good resource (Internet preferred) for learning about French wines? I am very familiar with the varietals being only 2 hours from Napa, but I am somewhat lost converting them into geographic regions (i.e. Bordeaux, Burgendy, Rhone, etc). Any help would be appreciated.

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  1. Get copies of the World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, and Robinson's Vines, Grapes & Wines: The Wine Drinker's Guide to Grape Varieties.

    1. This is -- truly -- a "piece o'cake."

      The two books Robert suggests are excellent places to start, to which I would add the Oxford Companion to Wine, Third Edition (just released).

      Internet, you say? OK, these are just off the top of my head and generally limited to their PRINCIPAL locations, and I shall OBVIOUSLY miss some . . . .

      Barbera -- mostly Piedmont, but planted all over Italy.
      Cabernet Franc -- Loire Valley, mostly in Touraine; also lightly used in Bordeaux.
      Cabernet Sauvignon -- Bordeaux, dominant in the Medoc.
      Carmenere -- a "lost" grape of Bordeaux, now at home in Chile.
      Dolcetto -- Piedmont.
      Gamay noir au jus blanc -- Beaujolais.
      Gamay Beaujolais -- actually a clone of Pinot Noir; California.
      Grenache -- the Rhone, Languedoc-Roussillon, and widely planted in Spain (Garnacha).
      Lemberger -- Germany.
      Malbec -- Bordeaux and Southwestern France; Argentina.
      Mataro/Mourvedre - Spain; Rhone, Provence and Southern France.
      Merlot -- throughout Bordeaux, though dominant (generally) in the wines of St.-Emilion and Pomerol.
      Petite Sirah/Durif -- originally in France, though it's hard to find there anymore; Australia.
      Pinot Meunier -- Champagne.
      Pinot Noir -- Burgundy; also Champange.
      Syrah/Serine -- Northern Rhone; as Shiraz, Australia.
      Tempranillo -- Spain; as Aragonez, Portugal.
      Touriga Nacional -- Portugal.
      Zinfandel -- only California, though Primitivo is found in Italy.

      Albarino/Alvarinho -- Spain/Portugal.
      Aligote -- Burgundy.
      Chardonnay -- Burgundy, including Chablis and the Maconnais.
      Furmint -- Hungary.
      Gewurztraminer -- Alsace; while there is some found in Germany, it is less than 2 percent of the vignoble there.
      Gruner Veltliner -- Austria.
      Kerner -- Germany.
      Marsanne -- Rhone Valley.
      Melon de Bourgogne -- Muscadet in the Loire Valley.
      Muscat blanc -- Rhone, Languedoc-Rousillon, Alsace; also Italy, Spain, Portugal and elsewhere.
      Muscat of Alexandria -- Alsace.
      Muscat Ottonel -- Hungary.
      Pinot Blanc -- Alsace, France; Alto-Adige and Friuli, Italy.
      Pinot Gris -- Alsace, France; Alto-Adige and Friuli, Italy.
      Riesling -- Rheingau, Rheinhessen, Pfalz, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Germany; Alsace, France.
      Rousanne -- Rhone Valley, France.
      Sauvignon Blanc -- Loire Valley, Bordeaux.
      Semillon -- Bordeaux.
      Viognier -- Rhone.

      OK, that's enough for now . . . ;^)

      7 Replies
      1. re: zin1953

        DNA testing revealed that most of what used to be called Gamay Beaujolais was actually Valdiguié.

        Lemberger = Blaufrankish

        Some Petite Sirah is Durif, but Sean Thackrey says he buys at least three different grapes that the growers call by that name.

        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          I'm not trying to be difficult, Robert, but actually, DNA revealed that Napa Gamay is Valdiguie; Gamay Beaujolais is a clone of Pinot Noir.

          If you check out, it reads in part:

          "Napa Gamay = Valdiguie

          "Napa Gamay FPS 01 came from a vineyard north of Saint Helena, California sometime before 1963 . . . We have known for some time that the internationally recognized name for Napa Gamay is Valdiguie. This information was confirmed in 1999 by DNA analysis which showed that all three Napa Gamay selections matched Valdiguie. Valdiguie is currently the prime name approved for this variety by the TTB . . . Napa Gamay will be shown as a synonym, but it is not approved by the TTB for labels on wine bottled after January 1, 1999."


          Speaking of DNA, when Carole Meredith "fingerprinted" Petite Sirah at UC Davis, she came up with three separate cultivars that were being grown under the "Petite Sirah" name, and since she did not test every single "Petite Sirah" vine in the state, it certainly left room for there to be more than three "mis-identifications." Thus, I have no doubt that Sean is right. However . . . let's let Carole speak for herself:

          1. The grape variety known as "Petite Sirah" in California is indeed the same as the French variety Durif. They are simply two names for the same grape. We confirmed this around 1997, by comparing the DNA profile of California Petite Sirah with an authentic sample of Durif from the French national variety collection. Some of the Petite Sirah vineyards in California are very old and, typical of old vineyards, contain some oddball vines of other varieties. Thus not 100 percent of the vines are always Petite Sirah, just as not 100 percent of the vines in an old Zinfandel vineyard are Zinfandel. There may be a few vines of other varieties mixed in; e.g., Carignane, Grenache, Barbera, Alicante, etc. This kind of "field blend" exists in most old vineyards all over the world, whether it's a Petite Sirah vineyard in California or a Grenache vineyard in southern France.

          2. Petite Sirah is related to the true Syrah of the Rhone Valley. Syrah is the father of Petite Sirah. Petite Sirah (aka Durif) arose as a seedling around 1880, in the experimental vineyard of Dr. Durif in southern France. The seed that became Durif was the result of a cross-pollination between an old French grape called Peloursin and Syrah. Thus Petite Sirah shares half of its DNA with Syrah. We discovered this in 1998, by using DNA paternity analysis methods just like those used with humans.

          Carole Meredith
          Professor Emerita Department of Viticulture and Enology
          University of California


          Again, I'm not trying to be difficult, merely accurate.

          1. re: zin1953

            I was going by this, which matched my admittedly confused memory: "Until the early 1990s, many California vineyards which were previously mis-identified as Gamay Noir or "Gamay Beaujolais" were in reality this grape, now known as Valdiguié. The TTB has allowed producers that have been making this mistake to continue mis-labeling (libeling?) their wines until April, 2007."


            Also, the Charles "two-buck Chuck" Shaw nouveau is labeled, "gamay beaujolais (valdiguie)."

        2. re: zin1953

          That is what I was looking for! It looks like I should try the Burgundy wines first since they appear to follow my tastes.

          1. re: zin1953

            I believe the current thinking is that Zinfandel and Primitivo are related but Zin is directly descended from a Croatian varietal, Crjlenak.

            A quick reference for going from grape to region and vice versa is the DeLong wine grape varietal table, also nice geeky thing to hang near your wine cooler.

            1. re: kenito799

              You're right . . .

              * * * * * * * * * *

              Researchers Discover Zinfandel's Hidden Roots
              September 3, 2002

              After decades of speculation, the origin of Zinfandel is now more history than mystery.

              A UC Davis research group, working in collaboration with scientists in Croatia, has confirmed through DNA tests the Old World origin of Zinfandel -- and it's not Italy.

              "Zinfandel comes from Croatia," says Carole Meredith, a UC Davis grapevine geneticist. "The grape we call Zinfandel and the grape the Italians call Primitivos are both Crljenak Kastelanski."

              Meredith's research proves conclusively that Zinfandel is the same as Crljenak Kastelanski, a grape variety from the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia. Zinfandel is acclaimed as California's signature grape in the state's $17 billion wine industry. Its origins answer a question that has fascinated wine lovers and scientists for more than 100 years.

              Using DNA-profiling techniques, Meredith's group and two Croatian scientists, Ivan Pejic and Edi Maletic at the University of Zagreb, discovered in December 2001 that Zinfandel and the indigenous Croatian grape called Crljenak are one and the same.


              * * * * * * * * * *

              . . . but how easily can you find Crljenak in the U.S.??? ;^)

              1. re: zin1953

                You can't even find it in Croatia. That grape was almost extinct there.


                For Croatian wines in the US:


          2. While I have nothing against the abovementioned books (I own and consult them all, though less *Vines, Grapes and Wines* since *The Oxford Companion to Wine* came out), my first recommendation for people in your position -- not a total neophyte but a bit overwhelmed by the matrix of countries, appellations, producers and wines -- is *Hugh Johnson's Wine Companion*, formerly known in North America as *Hugh Johnson's Modern Encyclopedia of Wine*.

            As you might guess from its title, the focus of *Vines, Grapes and Wines* is grape varieties, which you say you already know something about. *The Oxford Companion to Wine* is a superb resource but quite technical and very dry-reference-book in nature. *Hugh Johnson's Wine Companion*, on the other hand, is a pleasure to read from cover to cover. It's broken down by country and, within country, by region, appellation and producer, which would make it easy for you to get a handle on France. (What's more, once you finished with France, you could move on to Germany, Italy, South Africa, Australia, etc., because they're all covered.) The beautifully written ("one of the great stylists of the literature of wine ... matchless prose" -*The Oxford Companion to Wine*, 3rd edition) introductions to each country and region provide an excellent overview of both the history and the current scene. While concise, the appellation information includes background, specifics (like permitted grape varieties, volumes produced and villages/communes) and often a description of the most common styles. Producer information includes websites, addresses, wines made, background and a description of the house style. Sidebars add interest: profiles of prominent producers; geology; regional lexicons (e.g. words you'll find on a Sherry label); aging German wines; detailed info about specific wines like Marsala and Condrieu; etc. No other work I've seen makes the subject so approachable while refusing to gloss over detail. I've owned one or another edition since the early '80s and continue to refer to it as much as any other general reference work. And when preparing documenation for wine tastings, I rely on it more than any other book.

            Not that it's perfect. Johnson is retiring and the current edition (2003) has been updated by Stephen Brook, whose mastery of English prose does not begin to approach Johnson's, though at least 95% of the previous edition's text appears to remain intact. And the maps are serviceable at best and often hard to read (orange on orange), which is why you might want to supplement it with a decent wine atlas.

            As for websites, try googling "French wines." You'll find plenty of hits and some useful information, but none of it as extensive, clearly explained and all-in-one-spot as the books that have been recommended.

            4 Replies
            1. re: carswell

              That's another great book.

              I thought of Vines, Grapes and Wines because you can look up a varietal and Robinson tells you all the places it's used and its various names. It's the first book I grab when I'm wondering about a particular grape.

              1. re: carswell

                Robert's post is exactly why I "seconded the motion." It's a great "go to" book when you have the grape and want to know where it grows/where it's made into wine. From a California-based perspective, if you know you like (e.g.) Sauvignon Blanc but want to convert it to a geographic region, it's still one of the best and easiest sources/methods to use (IMHO, of course).

                1. re: zin1953

                  Looking on, I see she says that Jancis Robinson's Guide to Wine Grapes is more up to date.

                  1. re: zin1953

                    Let me reiterate that I wasn't knocking Robinson's book or you guys for recommending it, though I do think its target audience is more the wine aficionado than the beginner and though I do find myself turning more to the grape variety entries in the Oxford Companion than to it these days.

                    But for someone wanting an introduction to French wines, I feel Johnson's Wine Companion is a better resource. First, it provides more of the information you need to make sense of the country, more about the mesh of region, grape varieties, traditions, regulations, current trends and producers. That's especially important for someone whose focus has been, say, California wine, which really is a piece of cake compared with the intricacies of the French AOC system. The other point is that so many French wines are not varietals but blends. A varietal focus may see you through northern Rhône, Beaujolais, red Burgundy, Alsace and parts of the right bank, the Loire and the Jura, but that's about it (not counting a few rather obscure appellations like Marcillac -- fer servadou, anyone? -- and Muscat de Beaumes de Venise). And saying Médoc is cabernet sauvignon country or that gamay equals Beaujolais just doesn't cut it: if that's all there is, how do you get a handle on what makes Pichon-Lalande so special? Do you ignore Gamay de Tourraine, Tourraine-Mesland (often a gamay blend) or the delightful sparkling Bugey Cerdon (which may well be 100% gamay, especially if made early in the season before the poulsard has finished fermenting)? And what about the intimate relationship between local wines and local foods, a key to understanding French wine styles and a notion quite foreign to California, despite the valiant attempts of some chefs? Johnson's book puts the varietal in context, Robinson's book not so much. That's all I'm saying.

                2. Here is my recs for you...check out this easy read book by Kermit Lynch "Adventures on the Wine Route", and you will be set. This is one of the best wine stores in CA for French varietals in all price ranges.

                  1. Robert Parker's basic annual wine guides are good breakdowns of the regions, varietals, producers, etc. of every major region in France.... If you want to get a good quick overview, I'd recommend it.