An Introduction to French Red Wines

When I started to get more interested in wines, I found it hard to know where to start. French wines are particularly tough to understand. Not only there a huge number of wine growing regions and grape varieties, producing many different types of wine, but the wine bottle labelling conventions don’t tell you much about the wine- unless, of course, you already know what to expect. The variation from year to year can be big, and the winemaker you’ve got can be important too. All of this can mean buying or drinking French wine is sometimes a risky prospect.

This term, the wine tastings I have been to at the Oxford Blind Tasting Society have focused almost exclusively on French wines. Consequently I’ve been trying to learn a little bit more about French wines, but have found it difficult to find anything useful as an introduction on the web- particularly lacking were any general tasting notes from a given region. So, I thought I would collate the information I have gotten from various bits of the web, books, and discussions into two general introductions on French reds and French whites. [The post for French Whites is here.]

Probably the best start to learning about French wines is to look at a French wine map. As a very general rule, wines that come from a more Northern, cooler climate will be lighter bodied, less alcoholic, and more acidic (think of lemon flavoured things for an idea of acidity), whereas wines that come from a more Southern, hotter climate will be fuller bodied, more alcoholic, and with more fruity flavours. So knowing your geography can give you a lot of clues as to what you are going to get.

A few notes about the format of this general introduction. I’m going to simply go through some of the more general winegrowing regions: Alsace, Beaujolais, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Languedoc-Roussillon, the Loire, and the Rhône. If you know a little bit about each region, you’ll have quite a good idea of French wine, as due to French laws, varieties of grapes which go into wines from certain regions are tightly regulared. So, if you know that Bordeaux will be mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, you know a lot more of what to expect from what the bottle.

For each region, I’ve given a little information about the wines produced, some buying advice, and a few basic tasting notes- but given the regional variation, so don’t forget that not all wine from the region will taste like that. Prices are roughly estimated: £ might indicate £5-£10 a bottle, ££ might be £11-£25, and £££(+) are more expensive, so £26+. If you want to get a bit more information about any region, grape variety, or type of wine, Wikipedia is surprisingly good (although heavy on history of regions), and I highly recommend Michael Schuster’s book Essential Winestasting.

Alsace

Alsace, a region close to Germany, produces mainly white wines. There is some Pinot Noir grown here, however. This can be very good value, if you like Pinot Noir, as it is typically less expensive than in Burgundy.

Wine Map

Prominent grapes: Pinot Noir
Alcohol: Low
Acidity: High
Body: Low
Flavours: Cherry, blackberry, plum, blueberries.
Good recent vintages: 2010, 2009, 2007, 2005
Price: ££
Buying Advice: Good value at £9-£15 a bottle, but you likely won’t find it in the supermarket. I particularly like the Hugel 2009 from The Wine Society.

Beaujolais

Beaujolais is the region just south of Burgundy which produces wines exclusively from the Gamay grape. The wines are fruity with a juicy youthful character, and are usually drunk young. Sometimes the bottles are released earlier, as Beaujolais Nouveau, which in the past has had a poor reputation as cheap plonk, but is recently getting better. The best wine growing regions are labelled “crus” in Beaujolais, and are usually available for just over £10, and representing good value. Below the “crus”, wine are classified (generally a mark of quality) in descending order as Beaujolais-Villages and Beaujolais.

Wine Map

Prominent grapes: Gamay
Alcohol: Low
Acidity: Medium
Body: Low/Medium
Flavours: Strawberry and Raspberry Jam.
Good recent vintages: 2010, 2009
Price: £-££
Buying Advice: Some of the crus, particularly Morgon and Moulin-a-Vent, are good buys at £10-£15 and can develop some Burgundy-like character as they get older. Beaujolais is also around for £5 a bottle, but you can get some very fruity plonk still at that price as well.

Bordeaux

Bordeaux produces some of the world’s top wines, but also some really bad stuff as well- I’ve heard it said that 80% of Bordeaux wine isn’t worth buying, presumably given how overpriced it is. The region is split up into “left bank” wines, where the more expensive wines tend to come from, usually with more Cabernet Sauvignon, and “right bank” wines, which tend to have more Merlot.

In 1855, there was a famous classification of Bordeaux Chateaux, which still has a lot of influence today, despite many attempts to update it. The chateaux were classed into “growths”, with the best being “first growths”, and so on. This is still quite a good indication of quality, so if you are drinking a “Grand Cru Classé en 1855”, it’s likely to be pretty good.

Wine Map

Prominent grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot
Alcohol: Medium
Acidity: Medium
Body: Medium
Flavours: A lot of dark fruit like blackcurrants, and Cabernet Sauvignon dominated wines can often smell of green pepper. Older wines develop leathery, tobacco-y, truffle-y, and cedarwood notes.
Good recent vintages: 2010, 2009, 2005, 2000
Price: ££-£££+
Buying Advice: China has recently skewed the Bordeaux market, buying a lot of it simply for the fact is says Bordeaux on the label. If you want to spend a lot on a bottle, you can get some excellent wine, but I don’t think there is a lot of value here. “Cru Bourgeois” wines are usually wines that missed out on classed growth status, but produce quality wine, so probably represent the best buys.

Burgundy

Red wine from Burgundy is probably the most variable in terms of quality. How good the wine is depends a lot on climate in a given year, geography, and the grower. Bordeaux wines are listed by chateau, a recognisable brand, but in Burgundy, wines are sold by location and grower, so unless you know these in detail, you don’t know what you are getting.

That being said, when Burgundy is done well, it’s great, and the top wines are among the best in the world. Red Burgundy is exclusively Pinot Noir, a grape which can make wines with a lot of complexity. The main region of Burgundy is the Côte d’Or, which is split up into the more northern Côte de Nuits (more closed, austere wines) and more southern Côte de Beaune, (riper fruit flavours).

Wine Map

Prominent grapes: Pinot Noir
Alcohol: Low
Acidity: High
Body: Low
Flavours: Cherry, blackberry, plum. Older wines develop “sud-bois” (under wood, i.e. those you might find in a forest), animally, farmyard-y notes. Despite how this might sound, these are actually very pleasant.
Good recent vintages: 2010, 2009, 2005, 2002
Price: ££-£££+
Buying Advice: As mentioned, Burgundy is unreliable, so unless you know what you are getting, or buying from a reliable source, you might not get good value for money. I wouldn’t spend less than £15 on a bottle, as the quality will likely be unexciting. Good value in the £20-£30 range, if you want to spend that much.

Languedoc-Roussillon

A rather recent region for producing quality wine, Languedoc-Roussillon made lesser reputable wine until around 20 years ago. A much warmer region in the south of France around Marseille, Languedoc-Roussillon produces bigger bodied, more alcoholic wines.

Wine Map

Prominent grapes: Grenache, Syrah, Mouvedre, Carignan
Alcohol: High
Acidity: Low
Body: High
Flavours: Liquorice, Spice, Dark Fruit
Good recent vintages: 2010, 2009, 2007, 2005
Price: £-££
Buying Advice: Represent good value at £5 a bottle, there are some good Rhône-style wines. With winemaking improving in the region, this will only become better.

Loire

A more northerly wine region, the Loire valley has been producing wines for a long time, Anjou wines were notably the favourite wines of the three musketeers. The Loire is probably better known for its white wines, but still produces quality reds retaining some of the herbaciousness and acidity that the whites do.

Wine Map

Prominent grapes: Cabernet France, Pinot Noir
Alcohol: Low
Acidity: High
Body: Low
Flavours: Cabernet Franc can be quite herbaceous and green, but with some darker fruit like Cabernet Sauvignon. Pinot Noir will have the cherry, blackberry, plum notes that you see from Burgundy, but I often find the Loire version has some leafiness too.
Good recent vintages: 2010, 2005, 2002
Price: £-££
Buying Advice: Similarly represent good value at £5 a bottle for lighter bodied wines. Harder to get in the UK though, but good food wines when you find them. Waitrose Wines has quite a nice selection.

Rhône

The Rhône winegrowing region is in the south of France, and given its hot climate, grows alcoholic, full bodies wines with a lot of fruit flavours. The northern Rhône generally produces red wines from just the Syrah grape, and southern Rhône reds tend to be Syrah-Grenache blends. These wines pair well with food, particularly meaty stews and darker game.

Wine Map

Prominent grapes: Syrah, Grenache
Alcohol: High (potentially very high)
Acidity: Low
Body: High
Flavours: Syrah tends to be known for black pepper and spice, whereas Grenache is much more fruity, ranging from strawberry to raspberry to cherry depending on the style.
Good recent vintages: 2010, 2009, 2007, 2005
Price: £-£££
Buying Advice: There are some good bulky, fruity reds from areas like Gigondas and Vacqueyras at around £10-£15 a bottle, and good everyday drinking wine from Cotes-du-Rhône. Chateauneuf-du-Pape will be more expensive (starting at around £17 a bottle), but if you get the right one it can be a real treat. I’ve seen a lot of people go for Chateauneuf-du-Pape for Christmas lunch.

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: An Introduction to French White Wines « oxfood
  2. Trackback: Introduction to Wine Structure « oxfood

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