HISTORY OF FRENCH WINE

            French wine originated in the 6th century BC with the colonization of Southern Gaul by Greek settlers.  The Roman Empire licensed regions in the south of France to produce wines.  St. Martin of Tours planted vineyards while spreading Christianity in the fourth century.  During the Middle Ages, monks maintained vineyards and conserved wine making knowledge and skills.  Monasteries had the resources, security and motivation to produce a steady supply of wine both for celebrating mass and generating income.  Over time, the nobility developed extensive vineyards.  The French Revolution led to a lull in the wine industry as vineyards owned by the Church and the nobility were confiscated.

            The French wine industry was devastated by the spread of Mildew and Phylloxera across Europe at the end of the 19th century, the First World War and the Great Depression.  The threat of competition against treasured French “brands” such as Champagne and Bordeaux led to the creation of the Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC) in 1935. This classification system by the government is still in force. After the Second World War, a new generation of wine growers created the modern French wines we know today.

 

LE CEPAGE - THE GRAPE

France has one of the oldest systems and strictest laws concerning winemaking and production. French appellation rules usually restrict wines from each region to a small number of allowed grape varieties. This is very different from California where one can find almost any kind of grape growing throughout the state. In France, most grapes are associated with a certain region, such as the Cabernet sauvignon in Bordeaux and Chardonnay in Burgundy. Therefore, French wines have more of a regional than a national identity.

            Another difference between French and California wine is that most California wines are made from a single grape, while most French wines are blended from the several grape varieties allowed in a region.

Another concept that is very French: Just as nouns in the French language are considered masculine and feminine, so are French wines. For example, take the Merlot and Cabernet sauvignon grapes that grow in Bordeaux. The Merlot grape grows on the right bank and produces a full body wine that is called masculine. The Cabernet sauvignon grows on the left bank and produces a lighter wine that is called feminine. But again, there is a difference between France and California because the grapes somehow changed on their journey here. In California, Cabernet sauvignon is masculine and Merlot is feminine.

 
 

LE CEPAGE ROUGE – THE RED GRAPE

Here is a list of four of the most popular red grapes that we will review in some detail:  Cabernet sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot noir and Syrah.

 

Cabernet sauvignon

The majority of quality wines come from this grape. It grows on the left bank of Bordeaux and is blended often with Merlot and Cabernet franc. It is a tannic wine, meaning it is acid. The tannins are found in both the skin and seed. Cabernet sauvignon has a dense color and aroma of cassis, mint and green pepper. The result is an elegant wine and bottles that keep for decades.

Merlot

This grape grows in Bordelais, the region surrounding the city of Bordeaux. It is often blended with Cabernet sauvignon and Cabernet franc. Saint Emilion is the land of the Merlot and it is here that it develops its most beautiful expression.  It gives red wine an aristocratic and velvety taste. It is somewhat spicy with an aroma of prunes and blackberries. If aged in an oak barrel, one can sense a hint of creamy vanilla.

Pinot noir

This grape, grown in the Burgundy and Champagne regions, produces different effects according to its age. When still young, it imparts a hint of spice and a special aroma of summer fruit. After a year in an oak barrel, it develops a creamy dimension.  With age, one can appreciate a vanilla bouquet and a slight hint of truffles and game. This grape requires a cool climate and extra special care to cultivate.

Syrah/Shiraz

In France, this grape grows in the north of the Rhône Valley. It results in a wine of deep red color that exhales a red fruity aroma and tastes of pepper and burnt rubber. It is also widely known as Shiraz, its name in Australia and much of the English speaking world.

 

Other excellent red grapes include Cabernet franc, Carignan, Cinsaut, Grenache, Malbec, Gamay, Mourvedre and Pinotage.

 

LE CEPAGE BLANC – THE WHITE GRAPE

Next we will look at four of the most successful white grapes: Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon blanc and Sémillon.

Chardonnay

This is the dominant grape in Burgundy. The wine that is made from this grape is generally white, dry and spicy, with an aroma of green fruit that evokes a sense of the tropics. The Chardonnay grape also plays a crucial role in the elaboration of Champagne.

Riesling

This grape originated in Germany and is grown in Alsace, an area of France that borders on Germany. This grape produces a light wine with ample bouquet and little alcohol, a marked acidity and aromatic flavor. At first it tastes like lime, apricot and apple. After, there appears a spicy essence that is more like honey or jam when the wine is very sweet.

Sauvignon blanc

This grape is originally from the Loire Valley but also grows in Bordelais. It makes a dry wine that is intensely aromatic of green pepper and nettles. In Bordelais, it is blended with Sémillon for an exquisite mixture of the dry and sweet of the region.

 

Sémillon

This grape grows mainly in Bordeaux and the Southwest.  Most of the legendary sweet sauternes wines are made from this grape. The bouquet of the Sémillon evokes honey and orange marmelade on grilled bread.  Its rich and concentrated aroma is perfectly married with the acidity of the Sauvignon blanc.

 

Other excellent white grapes include Chenin blanc, Gewurtzraminer, Marsanne, Muscat, Pinot blanc, Pinot gris, Silvaner and Viognier.

LE TERROIR

This term refers to the unique combination of natural factors associated with any particular vineyard.  It includes such factors as soil, underlying rock, altitude, slope of land or hill, orientation toward the sun, and climate (temperature, humidity, rain and winds). When the same grape is planted in different terroirs, it can produce wines that are significantly different from each other.  This is the basis for the Appellation system.

 

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