France: Some of the Best that the World has to Offer
By Liza B. Zimmerman
However the regions, ancient grape varieties and ratings and rules still make it a hard country to understand well. French wines were classified in 1935 by the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO) in an attempt to classify grape origin and quality. It was one of the most comprehensive systems: although predated by Chianti in Italy in 1716 and Rioja in 1560. The French classification system eventually evolved in the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée system, enforced in the tk, which regulates grape varieties, yields, viticulture methods and alcohol content.
However forward thinking the system was, it has not always served the country well, as new appellation controllée (AOC system)—have often been created for political reasons (which is sadly still common in many other neighboring countries as well). Also, many of the regulations have stunted new growth and innovation in various regions and caused some wines to become declassified, which is not always a bad thing!
The Crown Jewels
Burgundy and Bordeaux have long been the most exclusive and treasured regions—along with Champagne—in France. The wine trade has long been active in all of them, noted families are invested in many estates and ratings remain high for many of the classic wines keeping prices somewhat insulated from market conditions.
It doesn’t hurt that the varietal makeup of most of these wines—be it primarily Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Burgundy—or five classic red varietals in Bordeaux, joined by a handful of white grapes, are familiar to high-end American wine consumers. Major auctions, serious tastings and a very active trade presence have helped promote the notoriety of wines of Bordeaux.
The lesser-known regions for white wines from Bordeaux, such Entre-deux-Mers and other local wine producing regions, are often overlooked, as well as second growths/labels and areas that are less familiar to many consumers. Although many of the whites of France, from Sancerre to sparkling wines from Alsace, are wonderful representations of their terroir and producers, few can command the same prices as red wines.
France’s fortified wines such as Cognac and Sauternes are among the best in the world. Their Champagnes are also hardly worth criticizing.
New Regions and Innovations
The Rhône has long had a strong hold on the American wine consumer. Its lush reds and mineral whites continue to astound us with their rich flavors. What is new and exciting is that larger producers, such as Jaboulet, are also making some delicious affordable wines for everyday drinking. Thankfully areas like Cahors and Madiran are getting the attention due to them as well for their rich, intense, meat-friendly reds.
The Languedoc-Roussillon, in the southern part of the country, has also been contributing some major innovations to the winemaking scene. They have been producing varietally labeled wines for a handful of years, which have been embraced and understood by the US population. Many producers are also experimenting with new varietals and the abundant sun of the region is allowing them to put some of these new wines on the market at incredibly reasonable prices.