In the month when the French celebrate their national day, Master of Wine Emma Jenkins applauds their magnifique wines!
Picture the stereotypical French person... there’s surely a beret perched at a jaunty angle, a baguette tucked under an arm, and most definitely a glass of wine to hand. Indeed, it’s pretty hard to separate the French from wine, so pervasively is it entwined through their history, culture and gastronomy. While France may have been recently overtaken by Italy as the world’s biggest wine producer (although it’s still no slouch, at seven to eight billion bottles a year), it remains the spiritual home of wine and makes the world’s most sought after examples.
Pretty much all the major wine varieties – chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and syrah, to name a few – originated there. However, don’t expect to find bottles of French chardonnay lining the shelves. French wines are usually named by region or vineyard, not the grape variety. This can be intimidating, but there’s no need to feel daunted – most French people likely have no idea what varieties they’re drinking either, but that’s never stopped them. It’s easier when you know that, by law, they can only grow certain varieties in certain places. Roughly speaking, from north to south you can expect:
Champagne: sparkling wine from pinot noir and chardonnay.
Loire: whites are sauvignon blanc or chenin blanc; reds and rosés mainly cabernet franc. Burgundy: chardonnay or pinot noir. Bordeaux: cabernet sauvignon and merlot red blends; whites are semillon/sauvignon blanc, with amazingly decadent dessert styles.
Rhône/southern France: grenache and syrah-based reds and rosé, viognier for whites.
Alsace: helpfully, Alsace wines ARE labelled by variety and here you’ll find riesling, pinot gris and gewürztraminer.
These days, plenty of très magnifique wines for all budgets are imported into New Zealand. A good wine merchant will help you expand your horizons – Maison Vauron is an excellent place to start, not least because they sell amazing cheeses too! French wines are typically less fruity and upfront than their Kiwi equivalents, the more restrained, savoury styles being intended to have with food. Often wines that seem a little austere will blossom beautifully once enjoyed with a meal.
There is also a handful of French winemakers in New Zealand, bringing a dash of Gallic flair to their adopted regions. Look for Clos Henri, Georges Michel and No 1 Family Estate in Marlborough, and Aurum in Central Otago.
New tastes and experiences are part of wine’s great pleasure, and there are few countries more rewarding to explore than France. Salut!
There are few countries more rewarding to explore than France.