The wonders of France

Sat, Feb 2, 2013, 00:00

France offers an amazing array of wines in every conceivable style and has had a huge influence on winemaking worldwide, writes JOHN WILSON

Wandering around a French trade tasting recently, I found myself once more in awe of French wine. It struck me that the most astonishing thing is not its quality, although they do make great wines, but its sheer variety.

The country offers an amazing array of wines in every conceivable style. I tasted crisp dry Rieslings and luscious Gewürztraminers from Alsace, light rosés from Provence, refined sparkling wines, elegant reds and sherry-like whites from the Jura, and warming reds from the Languedoc. And that was all at one table.

The French “sherry” from the Jura was in fact more like a Manzanilla, as a Spanish importer remarked.

In Jura, producers use Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as in nearby Burgundy, but also three indigenous grapes, Savagnin, Poulsard and Trousseau. Local specialities include Vins Jaune, the wine not dissimilar to sherry, and Vins de Paille, a sweet wine made from grapes dried on straw mats.

They also produce good sparkling wines, dry whites, the occasional rosé, and red wines too. And that is all in one small, unfamiliar region.

France has a varied climate that provides an environment for virtually every kind of wine. It has the right soils, minutely studied and defined by experts and then classified according to quality and style.

It is a crucial part of French culture and the French economy. Many regions would simply fall apart without their vines and the inflow of money they provide annually.

We tend to think of the grand chateaux of Bordeaux when we think of French wine. In fact, most producers are farmers with small plots of land and a modest income. An excess of wine is a problem in many areas, primarily in the Languedoc, but elsewhere too.

French people are drinking less wine each year, partly a result of strict antialcohol laws. The export market is interested primarily in quality wine, but small producers do not always have the ability to sell their wines in a multitude of markets around the world.

At times, reading the press or talking to producers, you get the impression that the whole edifice that is French wine is about to collapse. Yet somehow it continues, adapts and evolves to satisfy the demands of the world market without losing its solid roots in the local cultures and traditions of France.

It can be difficult to learn all the names, appellations and grapes that comprise French wine. But it can also be fascinating and rewarding. We cannot think about France without thinking about wine.

I also believe that you cannot love wine without loving French wine. France’s greatest gifts to the wine world are surely the well-known grape varieties used in almost every other producer country. Without these, many of us would be lost in the aisles of supermarkets or looking at a restaurant wine list.

Today we celebrate three of the most popular grape varieties and a few other familiar names. Sauvignon Blanc, so popular in New Zealand and Chile, is a French grape, used in every bottle of Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and many others in the Loire, Bordeaux and south-west France. Chardonnay, which comes from Burgundy, is still one of the most popular grapes despite recent bad press, and seems poised to return to fashionable status.

On these winter nights, where would we be without the warming tones of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre? The first and last are Spanish in origin, but it is the French who adopted and exported them. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot may be ubiquitous, but there is a good reason for that; they make some of the world’s finest red wines.

These few grapes make up a large part of production in many New World countries, especially if you include other French grapes such as Malbec, Pinot Noir and Carmenère. Even Pinot Grigio (aka Pinot Gris) can claim a French heritage.

Put all of these together and you can see that France has had a huge influence on winemaking worldwide. However, all of these varieties and many more are available in their home country, often at reasonable prices.

BOTTLES OF THE WEEK

Mâcon-Villages 2010 Chanson, 13%, €14.99
Chardonnay on its home turf produces some of the world’s great white wines. You will also find plenty of affordable bottles, including this nicely rounded un-oaked fruit-filled wine. Stockist: O’Briens

Touraine Sauvignon 2011 Domaine des Grandes Espérances, 13%, €12.99A Loire Sauvignon; fresh, aromatic and full of rounded green fruits, with a crisp finish. The perfect aperitif or sipping wine. Stockist: Superquinn

Domaine de l’Arjolle Cabernet Merlot 2010, Côtes de Thongue, €10.99A Bordeaux blend of Cabernet and Merlot given extra ripeness by the Languedoc sun. Elegant and moreish with blackcurrant fruits. Stockist: O’Briens

Domaine de Fondrèche Cuvee Fayard 2010, Ventoux, 14%, €12.79A classic Rhône blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre; generous fruits with subtle herbs and a rounded finish. Stockist: Donnybrook Fair

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