Alsace is so close to Germany, that it keeps going back and forth from Germany to France, depending on the outcome of the last war. The wines are similarly inspired by the Germans, but with the important difference that Alsatian wines are vinified dry.
Even the late harvest wines (Vendage Tardive) that would be sweet anywhere else in the world are dry when made in Alsace. Dry, but unbelievably rich.
Riesling is king, with Gewurztraminer a close second.
Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris make the more simple wines.
Muscat as well is found here, and is very important.
There are no real sub regions in Alsace, as far as the scope of this primer is concerned.
Cuvee, means blend, an important and common practice in Alsace.
Grand Vin means the good stuff, with at least 11% alcohol, rarely is anything else exported.
Grand Cru, like Burgundy this means the best vineyards, it also, in this case, means the grapes can only be Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Muscat or Pinot Gris (once more commonly called Tokay d'Alsace).
Vendage Tardive, literally late harvested. Richer, and within the limits of Alsatian style, sweeter wines.
Selection des Grains Nobles, wines made from hand sorted bunches. Only the very best grapes go into this wine. the German term is Beerenauslese; but unlike the German version, these wines are dry, or nearly so.
The word Champagne refers to chalky soil, and so you will find the word champagne not only associated with the great sparkling wine, but with the region of Cognac as well.
Champagne is a process as well as a wine, here is an over simplification of the process:
• The grapes are pressed, with the reds especially pressed gently to keep any color out of the wine.
• The wine is fermented, more or less the same as all white wines.
• The wine is placed in a bottle with some sugar and yeast, and then capped tightly.
• The secondary fermentation that takes place from the added yeast and sugar results in Carbon Dioxide which is mixed with the wine in the closed bottle.
• Either time and skilled labor, or a machine, coax the sediment caused by the dead yeast to end up in the neck of the bottle.
• The neck of the bottle is plunged into a salt water solution that causes ice to form in the bottle.
• The cap is removed, and the plug of ice, along with the sediment are removed.
• The lost wine is replaced and a little sweetener is added to the wine (this determines how sweet the style of the Champagne is).
• The finished Champagne has a special cork added to the bottle, and it is now ready to drink.
Chardonnay and the red wine grape Pinot Noir are the main grapes. Pinot Meunier is also used regularly, but it is considered by some to be a poor cousin of Pinot Noir.
The villages of Champagne are host to a most unique and in many ways, fitting, form of economic rating. Every year an official price is set for a measure of grapes. Each village has a rating based on what percentage of this official price they can charge. Thus the finest grapes come from towns that rate 99% or more, and high average is 90% - 98%. Below 90% are not quality grapes, and are mostly used for rounding out the non vintage house styles of the numerous smaller Champagne houses that are almost never seen.
Only a few of the finest Champagnes are village designated, and it is hotly debated if this is marketing or if a distinct character can be found. Among these well known villages are Cramant, Avize and Le Mesnil.
Within the area of Champagne are also the larger sub regions of the Montagne de Reims, home of quality Pinot Noir, the Valllee de la Marne with its vineyards full of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier and the Cote des Blancs covered throughout with Chardonnay.
• Demi-Sec (literally half-dry) - Is the sweetest
• Extra Dry - Is the next driest, but is still slightly sweet
• Brut (literally raw or unrefined) - Traditionally the driest, but Natural with no added sweetness is sometimes found.
Rosé - Rosé Champagne is like Rosé Wine, slightly red to pink, and fun and easy to enjoy. The best are dry and serious with just a taste of the red wine (which is often added at the end).
Tete du Cuvee - Not usually found on the label, but the term refers to the best of the lot. These wines have benefited from extended contact with the sediment and have a richer more expressive flavor. These are the expensive wines.
Cremant - Not very common any more this is a dessert style Champagne with less bubbles and usually a sweet style.
The Loire Valley
Winding along with the Loire River, the Loire Valley is peppered with magnificent castles. A reminder of a time long gone.
Most of the wines from this region, red and white, are light and crisp, and easy to enjoy. Bubbly wines from this region are considered by some to be the great value in Sparkling Wines.
Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc are the predominant white grapes, with the notable exception being the Muscadet grape of the wine of the same name.
The Red and Rose wines are almost always made from Cabernet Franc.
To the far east we have the Sauvignon Blanc based white wines of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume. Grassy and rich, these are great wines with most foods.
To the far west we have the Muscadet, crisp and simple, perfect with the local seafood that would over power many other wines.
In the middle we have the Chenin Blanc based wines, some of which (Coteaux du Layon - my favorite wine) can be sweet. The dry Vouvray wines of the region are crisp with a decided green apple quality.
In the town of Chinon and its environs we find the main source for the light, almost raspberry styled red wines based on Cabernet Franc. Anjou when it is not making sweet wines, is likely to make some nice, simple Roses.
The Loire is a huge region with many distinct areas. I recommend you visit for yourself, in many ways it is representative of the best of France.
Learn the major area I mention above, and you may have a prayer. The large number of areas, and the varying labeling habits make it hard to pin down rules for this region.
The usual rules apply, but the only hint of quality is the price and reputation of the producer.
A land of sun and surf. These wines were made famous by visitors to the Riviera. They tend to be coarse and simple. Rose wines were until recently the staple of the region.
Until recently Grenache and Carignan were chief, now with a newfound market for the wines, Syrah, and even Cabernet Sauvignon are starting to be planted.
The best known wine regions of the area are Cassis (no relation to the Creme de Cassis syrup) for whites and Bandol for reds. In fact Bandol Rouge has a cult following due in most part to the importer Kermit Lynch.
Pretty straight forward for a change. The name of the region is prominent, and the producer is also well displayed.
Languedoc and Roussillon
A huge area that is lumped together for the sake of ease. Until a few decadea ago no one ever heard of this region, now it is one of the most popular for well valued wines.
There is a huge rush on to plant to the region well known grape varieties, and then to sell the wines with the name of the grape to the U.S. and other markets where varietal labeling is the norm.
You name it, it is planted here. Grenache was once the most important, and it is still widely planted.
More every time you look, but not as distinct as Burgundy.
While the AC areas below may fetch a higher price, it is the simple wines of the region that have made it famous.
Appellation Controlees (better regions known by their place names)
• Blanquette de Limoux
• Corbieres • Collioure
• Cotes du Roussillon
• Cotes du Roussillon-VillagesVin Doux Naturels (sweet, fortified wines)
• Maury • Rivesaltes
• Muscat de Mireval
• Muscat de St-Jean de Minervois
Every style of label can be found here, from the simple varietal label, to the more confusing regional labels. Chances are that you will only find wines labeled with the above AC names, or with the name of the grape. The more esoteric wines rarely leave France.
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