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A French Wine Primer AKA: The Real Tour de France!

Our Route de Vin

BY THE GLASS The “Real” Tour de France
OK, raise your hand if you know that a red wine labeled “Chateauneuf du Pape” hails from the Southern Rhone and contains up to 13 different grapes all of which are specified by law?
That’s what I thought! Understanding French – or Italian or Spanish – wine labels can be harder than Chinese algebra, leading many wine-lovers to just grab their next bottle labeled Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. After all if those darn Frogs don’t want to tell us what’s in there, “Let them eat cake!”
Well you could, but you’d be missing out on some great juice and a fun learning experience. And while I could suggest you study, study, study, you would probably still be confused. So instead I will lead our own Tour de France, but instead of some sweaty Yellow Jersey, we ride for wine!
STAGE 1: Bordeaux If you know two grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, you know about 90% of Bordeaux wine. However if you think Cab is King here, think again, as there is about two-and-a-half times more Merlot grown here. True there is a small strip of vineyards on the left-bank where the wines are primarily Cab, but the right bank AND the rest of Bordeaux is dominated by the “Blackbird”, or in Francais, Merlot. Yes there are four other black grapes allowed, of which Cabernet Franc represents almost all, but Merlot and Cab are what you really need to know.
White Bordeaux, which can be dry or sweet – think Sauternes, is mainly Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, but white wines comprise only about 5% of Bordeaux production.
STAGE 2: Champagne Let’s pedal northeast to Paris and on to Champagne, where three grapes dominate bubble production. Many think Chardonnay leads the way, but mais non! Actually it’s two Pinots – Noir and Muniere – that comprise about 37% each of Champagne. BTW, Champagne is pricey not “just because they can”, but because the traditional production process is time, labor and resource intensive.
STAGE 3: Burgundy Hook a right, and we roll south to Burgundy. North to south we find the regions of Chablis, the Cote D’Or, Cote-Challonaise and the Macon. With very rare exceptions, if you are enjoying a red Burgundy it is Pinot Noir, and white is Chardonnay. Wines from the Cote D’Or – the Golden Slope – are the high-ticket items and will be labeled by their too-numerous-to-mention-here village or vineyard names. Beaujolais is southernmost but the French don’t really consider it part of Burgundy. However we will, and mention that the Gamay grape IS Beaujolais wine.
We are off to a great start to becoming French wine experts, and in a future episode we’ll travel on to the Loire, Rhone, Provence and Languedoc regions.

BY THE GLASS Tour de France Part Deux
TOUR TIPS As with anything, knowing the ins and outs of our own TDF will make for a more pleasant trip. Here are a couple of Tour-Tips. One of the reasons we are here is because the French usually label wines by region and producer giving no clue as to what grapes are used. A few notable exceptions are wines from the Tyrolian paradise of Alsace, and the Mediteranean regions of Languedoc and Rousillon. The former specializes in rich whites from Gewurztraminer, Riesling, and Pinot Gris, and the latter produces many varieties but quality offerings mimic those from the Rhone Valley – our next tour stop.
STAGE 4: The Rhone Valley Rolling south toward the Mediterranean the vineyards of the Northern Rhone rise steeply to greet us. Here red wine means Syrah and is labeled by region – Cote Rotie, St. Joseph, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage and Cornas. Whites are from Viognier, Marsanne and Rousanne depending on village. Reds from the south can contain 13 different grapes, but are primarily Grenache-based. Wines labeled Cote du Rhone, are almost all from the southern regions. Southern Rhone whites often feature Grenache Blanc, Viognier and Rousanne.
STAGE 5: Provence Although this amazingly beautiful area has been best known for beaches, casinos and “the beautiful people”, it has also been a major wine producer. Recent recognition by wine lovers was certainly not hurt by the presence of Brad and Anjolie at Domaine Miraval, who have teamed up with the esteemed Perin family of the Rhone to produce world-class Rose. These Blushes are crafted primarily from Carignane, Grenache and Syrah, and are usually dry wines that marry beautifully with the fresh Provencal cuisine.
STAGE 6: The Loire Valley The TDF always ends with a parade lap on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, and conveniently the Loire River Valley is right on our way. The Loire is a cool climate region that produces expressive versions of Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc that are named for their village affiliations such as Vouvray and Sancerre. Recent warming trends have also made for riper reds such as Cabernet Franc. This has added to their popularity as well, and reds are also named for their villages with the most famous being Chinon.
FINAL STAGE: Oui, Paris! Our triumphant lap along “Les Champs” reminds us this has not been about memorizing regions and varietals, but rather about enjoying our tour and trying some lovely wines along the way. If by chance we have absorbed – pun intended – what we have seen and drunk, as a bonus we may indeed be French Wine Experts. More importantly, I hope you are now inspired to order a “Sancerre” or a “White Bordeaux” confident you know what’s in the bottle.

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