Speak French – Wine Varietals

Merlot Grapes in France

Merlot Grapes in France

I believe that most of us know that New World wines are typically labeled by varietal (the grape, i.e. Chardonnay, Merlot and so on) while Old World (European) wines are typically labeled by place of origin. In the New World many of the grape varietals that are commonplace with consumers are French in origin. BevX has created this infographic to take notice of the most popular varietals and to identify their provenience. If you are a dedicated lover of New World wines perhaps this presentation will inspire you to sample the original French wines that have made these varietals famous.

French Wines are No More Intimidating than its Varietals

BevX French wine grapes infographic

BevX French wine grapes infographic

Many New World wine drinkers have confessed to me that they find French (and European wines) to be intimidating. They site the use of appellation names and the strict adherence of varietals to particular regions and appellations. However, it is this strict use of certain grapes in certain areas that make understanding these wines simple.

Of course you can spend a lifetime studying the subtle nuances of the vineyards and micro-climates of each appellation, as well as the idiosyncrasies of the individual growers. But grasping the basics is not a monumental task and once you dive in it will all begin to make sense.

In order to make the subject as easily understood as possible we have created this handy infographic (right) identifying the major French wine varietals and the regions where they have been made famous. Click the image to see the full-size infographic and feel free to download it for reference and share it with your friends. Get the free infographic.

French Wine Varietals

Varietal Description
Abouriou A variety found in France’s Southwest region particularly in the Cotes du Marmandais. This varietal is noted for its high tannins and low acidity. For a time it was believed that Abouriou was a sibling to , if synonymous with, Gamay but DNA evidence suggests otherwise.
Aligoté A white wine grape used in various blends in many countries but best known for its fruity, light wines from France’s Burgundy where it plays second-fiddle to Chardonnay. The grape is noted for its high acidity and early ripening making it a frequent choice in sparkling wine blends.
Auxerrois The local name for Malbec in Cahors, France and not to be confused with Auxerrois Blanc a grape that is widely utilized in Alsace.
Cabernet Franc Cousin to Cabernet Sauvignon, with many similarities, both in the vineyard and in the wine bottle. One of the big three varieties in Bordeaux (Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot being the others). Cabernet Franc is also very important France’s Loire where it is the dominant varietal in the vastly underrated Chinon. This varietal can be difficult to master as at times it can become excessively herbal or green. When done right Cabernet Franc is wonderfully floral and fruit driven with complex herbal accents.
Cabernet Sauvignon A noble and omnipresent red variety native to Bordeaux but has since been adopted by virtually every wine producing nation in the world. When grown in ideal soils and climates (such as Bordeaux) Cabernet Sauvignon can produce wines of incredible strength and elegance. Outside of Bordeaux terrific examples are being made in several California appellations, as well as Washington State, Australia’s Coonawarra, and in a number of regions in South America.
Carmenere A red variety that was once widely planted in Bordeaux but is now quite scarce in the appellation. The variety is gaining popularity in Chile where it is being touted as the missing Bordeaux varietal.
Chardonnay Clearly the world’s most popular white wine variety, so much so that in the US it is virtually synonymous with white wine. The sole component of the top white wines from France’s Burgundy region and a key component to Champagne. It is hard to find a wine producing nation that does not grow Chardonnay and produce this varietal. It best performs in regions that supply cool nights that extend the growing season developing complex flavors while retaining natural acidity.
Chenin Blanc A terrific white varietal widely planted in many regions of the world but most famously in France’s Loire Valley. In the Lorie Chenin Blanc is vital in many appellations most notably: Saumur, Savenniéres, and Vouvray. When made with care Chenin Blanc offers great floral and fruit qualities while possessing tremendous natural acidity that show well in still, sweet, and sparkling wines. The best made examples can age gracefully for decades.
Cinsault A popular red variety widely grown in Southern France including the Southern Rhone where it can be found in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Cinsault is vigorous in the field giving great yields. The wines are juicy with low tannin and a pleasing spice note. This variety has great potential in California as both a blender and a solo performer. Cinsault is also an important varietal in Morocco, Algeria, and Lebanon where it is important in the famous wines of Chateau Musar.
Colombard A prolific white variety that is the major component of many “generic” white wines. Colombard (often called French Colombard outside of France) is also an important player in the production of brandy most notably Armagnac, and Cognac to a lesser degree.
Cot The Loire (France) local name for Malbec.
Durif This variety is named for the doctor that developed this hybrid, a cross between Syrah and Peloursin. Today it is rarely seen in its native France and is now better known as Petite Sirah. The name is greatly misleading as the wines from this grape are anything but petite but rather dense and hardy with power and flare.
Gamay A red variety, grown throughout the world but especially known in the Beaujolais region of France. Gamay is most often fruity and soft best consumed young. In the crus of Beaujolais, Gamay produces wines with great depth and character and can rival Pinot Noir.
Gewürztraminer This is a noble mutation of the ancient Traminer variety that developed in France’s Alsace region. Gewürztraminer literally translates to spicy Traminer. This varietal is now grown around the world but it arguably reaches its greatest potential in the Alsace where it produces dry wines that are very fruity, complex, spiced, and uniquely aromatic.
Malbec One of the five major red varieties of Bordeaux and the primary varietal in France’s Cahors appellation, the under-appreciated wine of Southwest France. It is widely planted in Argentina where it produces deep, dense, wines often displaying both finesse and intensity. Today the varietal is far more associated with Argentina than its native France.
Marsanne A popular white variety from France’s Rhone region where it is an important blending component in both Southern and Northern appellations of the region. Marsanne has gained popularity in the New World in recent decades where it produces dry, fruity wines with great aromatic qualities.
Merlot Merlot is an essential varietal in France s Bordeaux region where it at times takes the lead role particularly on Bordeaux right bank in the appellations of Saint-Emillion and Pomerol. Merlot is most often softer and less tannic than Cabernet Sauvignon requiring less aging to achieve peak maturity. Merlot has also become an essential varietal in many New World wines being both blended with Cabernet and a remarkable solo performer. Despite the proclamations made by some overrated Hollywood movie, Merlot is one of the world’s great red wine grapes!
Muscadet Not to be confused with Muscat or Muscatel, this under-appreciated varietal is synonymous with Melon de Burgogne in its native country, France. This is one of the rare instances where the appellation and its sole white wine varietal have become synonymous. The wines are crisp, and light and an ideal companion to shellfish and seafood dishes popular in the region.
Muscat A white, spicy, and aromatic variety family of grapes that are often used for sweet wines but can produce dry whites as well. As there are countless variations of the varietal the origins are often disputed with France, Greece, and Italy claiming to be the ancestral home.
Petit Manseng This white grape originates from the Jurancon district in Southwestern France. Petit Manseng is prized for its unique aromatic qualities offering scents reminiscent of cinnamon and brown spices with sweet tropical fruits. To our knowledge, wines made from this variety can be found only in the state of Virginia.
Petite Sirah A red variety with great popularity in California. Once a variety of mysterious origins it is now known to be synonymous with France’s Durif. Petite Sirah produces dark, robust, and somewhat tannic wines. See Durif.
Pinot Blanc A popular and successful white variety widely grown in France’s Alsace region where it is noted for its dry, crisp wines used in both still and sparkling wines. Pinot Blanc was once important in Champagne and Burgundy as well but its now using sparingly in both regions. Pinot Blanc is used in Austria where it known as Weissburgunder, as well as Italy and Spain where it is called Pinot Bianco.
Pinot Meunier A red variety most noted for its work in Champagne along with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Pinot Meunier is noted for the body and richness, as well as acidity it brings to the wines of the region. The varietal was once important in the Loire Valley but is now just sparsely planted in the region. Pinot Meunier is also found in cooler growing regions in both Germany and Switzerland.
Pinot Noir A noble red variety from France’s Burgundy region, as well as being an essential player in Champagne, where it produces some of the world’s most famous and pricey wines. Pinot Noir is planted throughout the world with varying degrees of success. The varietal undoubtedly prefers cooler regions thriving in California’s Russian River Valley, as well as Oregon’s Willamette Valley and the Yarra Valley of Australia (among others).
Roussanne A white varietal associated with France’s Rhone region where it is an important blending component in both Southern and Northern appellations of the region. Roussanne contributes unique and racy fruit aromas and flavors, in addition to great acidity. The grape is also prized for its ability to age far better than the average white varietal.
Sauvignon Blanc White grape, second only to Chardonnay for table wines in many quarters. Used around the world for its ability to produce fine wines in regions a little too warm for the best Chardonnays. Often blended with its sister variety, Semillon. In recent decades New Zealand has emerged as a nation producing Sauvignon Blanc in its natural form showing all of the grape’s wild citrus and spice notes.
Semillon One of the primary white wine grapes of the Bordeaux area (Graves and Sauternes) where it pairs with Sauvignon Blanc. It doesn’t have a large following in the US, but it should as some historic uses of the grape in California have been big favorites of mine.
Syrah Syrah is an important red wine grape, grown in France s Rhone region where it primarily responsible for the wines of the Northern Rhone and important in blends in the Southern Rhone. In recent decades Syrah, synonymous with Shiraz, has become a major player in the New World most notably in Australia and the USA. At its best, Syrah can produce some of the most profound red wines in the world. The wines are stuffed with dense berry flavors and aromas with tannin and structure to add complexity and longevity. Many of the best Syrah wines have complimentary flavors of earth, smoked meats, and leather.
Tannat This native of France’s Southwest is the national red grape of Uruguay. At home Tannat is best known for its use in the Gascony appellation of Madiran where it produces concentrated wines with deep fruit and firm tannins. In recent years the grape has gained some traction in California.

 

 

 

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