Sunday, January 18, 2009

my take on the world of French Wines

Ok, as promised, a real wine blog- well kinda

Last week I started one of my new classes, it’s a class on French Wine. If you know me, then you know that in general, I’m not usually a big fan of French wines, so it’s with a bit of skepticism that I signed up, but chalked it up to a chance to learn something either about myself, or about wine that I didn’t know before. (oh yeah, and to give me topics to talk about when I blog too.. )

My goal is totry not to bore you to death, and perhaps be a little educational, or minimally entertaining. Think of my writing as a wine version of mental floss (yes, the incredible knowledge cheat sheets) - great little tidbits to pull out at a party when some wine snob is hogging too much of the conversation.

In no particular order, or continuity - some stuff to know about French Wine:

There are 8 indigenous varieties of “noble’ grapes in France. The white ones would be Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc. The reds Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Syrah. (There are a couple of others, but they are indigenous elsewhere also, so they don’t get the same kinda special treatment… Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Tempranillo) Note - Riesling is also in Germany, but the French seem to still be nicer to it than other halfkids.

Less than 3% of the wine consumed in France is imported, so the French definitely understand the concept of drinking locally when it comes to supporting their own economy.

French wine law dates back eons - to Charles the Great (aka Charlemagne) who introduced the first wine laws. Charlemagne was king of the Franks and according to mental floss, it’s quite possible if your ancestry is European the, well you are related to Charles the Great (if you want to know more, check out their books and their website at here is the link to the dirty details of Charlemagne. I happen to be a HUGE fan of their book of cheat sheets for Cocktail parties and it’s here, that I learned about Charlemagne, Don’t worry people, I do read more than just chick lit. But back to French Wine/History/Culture, yada yada…

Parts of the fancy pants laws, were to designate certain grapes to be grown in certain areas, and to typify the types of wine from the areas. This worked great until certain wine regions made outstanding wine, and the demand for them skyrocketed and greed reared it’s ugly head, as greed often does (is greed ever anything but ugly?)

The laws were intended to set quality standards and make people know what they were getting themselves into when they plunked their hard earned money (or traded their oxen or what ever) for some wine, but corruption happened, people were being sneaky and at one point the overage calculation of just Champagne alone was something like 11 million bottles. Ok, I’ve heard of fibbing, but wow.

This fibbing caused 2 pretty big uprisings in France all over wine. One happened in Champagne in 1911 and the other in Chateauneuf -du-pape in 1923.

Fancy vocabulary that wine snobs may though around:
Gout de terroir = taste of the soil
Chateauneuf -du -pape = new castle of the pope
INAO = Institut National des Appellations d’Origine
and here is a wikipedia version link incase you want more info..'Origine

4 quality levels used in all the regions of France
(The quick and dirty about each)
1) AOC (high quality, limited areas of designation) AOC stands for: Appellation d’Origine Controlee (yes, I’m missing accent marks.. I don’t accent in speaking or writing- sorry) Not that anyone will actually ask that, but hey, it could come up in random trivia some time, and you will thank me for know that.

To qualify to be a AOC wine you have to meet certain criteria:

100% of your grapes have to be appellation approved grapes (no sneaking in some Thompson seedless that’s growing around your arbors… or anything else into the mix)

The grapes have to be grown within the limited approved areas in the appellations, and if you really want to be fancy about it, then those grapes should be grown by highly rated vineyards aka vin des grands cru or vin des premier cru.

There is a minimum brix (sugar) and a min alcohol that must be achieved thru fermentation. (don’t forget that chapetalization is legal here though)

You gotta keep your crops small and tonnages low, because there is a certain amount of allowable yield for your crop.

You gotta use AOC winemaking methods (I’ll spare you)

You gotta bottle it in the same region as you grew it

Lastly - you gotta get it past a taste test panel of the INAO, the panel doesn’t judge if it’s good or not, just that the flavors are “typical” of the region.

1/3 of all French wine meets this criteria.

2) VDQS (quality wine) VDQS stands for vin delimite de qualite superieure (again missing accents)
This started in 1949. Same idea as the AOC, but not as strict, and only about 1% of wine falls into it.

3) Vin de Pays (Country wine) With this one, you gotta put a varietal and region on your label - but aside from that you can have as much variation in quality, style (and of course price) as you’d like. Putting the varietal and region on it, helps to make it marketable to us Americans who like that info on their label.. I can’t tell you how many people have tasted a proprietary named wine in front of me and asked.. But what is it? Apparently we can’t just like or dislike a wine, we need to know what went into it.

To fit this one, you gotta fall into 3 different region categories if you will
(which would be the American state equivalent) or Zonal, and there are about 100 or so Zones

Departmental and Zonal, aren’t too hard for us to equate into US wine logic (State or County, AVA etc) But Regional is a bit harder for us to grasp considering how large our country really is in comparison to France… I think it’s kinda funny, if you think about it in terms compared to here, can you imagine a label on a bottle that says Washington and California or Western US (regional)

4) Vin de table (table wine - duh)
Grapes grown anywhere in France. No Yield limits. No Varietal Specs
The French equivalent to our version of box wine, but I’m sure more eloquently packaged.

So you have these fancy laws that regulate what you can grow, and where you can grow it, and that your wines are typical of that region, so as a consumer, you can sorta generalize if you like or dislike something based on that info.. But no where in the law does it account for a wine’s quality. Some will say that thanks to the ratings AOC for example, it helps direct the consumer to higher quality, but like in life there is no guarantees.. This is one of the hugest weaknesses of the French wine law system - it does shelter and protect the growers and producers, but not the customer.
Another big fault? Say your grapes have a really good year, and you get more tonnage than you expected - well, your whole crop isn’t downgraded, only the part of the crop that went over tonnage. Which is like squeezing OJ into two glasses and saying that the one in the red cup is better than the one in the blue, even though it’s the juice of the same orange. Not really fair.

So next time you are stuck in a corner with a blowhard carrying on about Terroir, you can nod, smile and pretend to follow along and maybe even challenge them a little to see if you can throw ‘em off the blowhard trail. I’m betting your new knowledge of Charlemagne can do just that…

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