The A-Z of French wine
ALSACE is a cold northern region that specialises in aromatic whites, such as riesling, pinot gris, gewurztraminer and pinot blanc. There, Vendange Tardive denotes a late-harvested and often semi-sweet wine; Selection de Grains Nobles (SGN) denotes a sweet, botrytis-affected and often expensive wine. Regular Alsace whites are normally dry or near-dry, but not always.
BURGUNDY seldom has the grape variety on the label, but it is chardonnay if white, pinot noir if red. Frustratingly, the labels often don't say ''Burgundy'' or ''Bourgogne'' either, so you have no choice but to learn how to recognise them. The most famous part is the Cote d'Or, whose wines are benchmarks for chardonnay and pinot noir.
CHABLIS is a light-bodied, racy, usually unwooded white wine, always made from chardonnay. Considered part of Burgundy but actually closer to Champagne.
DRY WHITE Bordeaux and the sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac are made from semillon and sauvignon blanc, sometimes with a touch of muscadelle. Semillon dominates in sweet wines, sauvignon blanc in dry.
EVERYONE'S favourite dessert wines, Sauternes and Barsac are full-bodied, rich sweet wines from the Bordeaux region made from botrytis-affected grapes. Other less-expensive but similar wines from neighbouring areas are Cadillac, Loupiac and Sainte-Croix-du-Mont.
FIVE levels of growths exist in Bordeaux's Medoc region. The levels are intended to be a guide to wine quality. Premier cru (literally, first growth) is the highest quality. Below it are four levels down to fifth growth, with communal appellations next (such as Margaux, Pauillac and St Julien); below these is Medoc, with plain Bordeaux below that.
GRAND CRU is the top of the quality pyramid in Burgundy, Chablis, Champagne, Alsace and some other regions. Premier cru is the second level in Burgundy, Chablis and Champagne although, confusingly, it sounds like the first.
HAUT-PAYS is inland from Bordeaux in south-west France. The region includes Cahors and Gaillac. Cahors is an underrated, historic region producing heroic full-bodied reds made mostly from malbec, but also tannat. Gaillac is an interesting region with many obscure local cepages (grape varieties), mostly white, including mauzac, len de l'el and ondenc (white) and duras and braucol (red).
INLAND from Bordeaux (not quite as far inland as Haut-Pays) are many satellite appellations such as Bergerac, Montravel, Buzet and Cotes du Marmandais. Bergerac wines are like junior versions of Bordeaux and made from the same cepages.
JURA is east of Burgundy's Cote d'Or near the Swiss border, a small, rather forgotten region that makes idiosyncratic Vin Jaune, which can be heavenly. The most famous of these is Chateau Chalon (an appellation, not a producer). The key grape is savagnin. Chardonnay is also grown and sometimes blended with savagnin.
KRUG If anyone ever draws up a classification of champagne houses, Krug is my candidate for Premier Grand Cru.
LOIRE VALLEY has France's longest river, which supports many wine regions as it winds its way from the Massif Central to the Atlantic. Highest, and coolest, are the sauvignon-blanc regions of Sancerre, Pouilly-Fume, Menetou-Salon, Reuilly and Quincy. The central Loire region of Touraine also grows good, inexpensive sauvignon blanc as well as light reds from gamay and pinot noir. Near Tours, Vouvray and Montlouis are pure chenin blanc wines of varying grades of quality and sweetness from sec (dry) to demi-sec to doux (sweet) to moelleux (very sweet and botrytised). Chinon and Bourgueil are light- to medium-bodied reds made from cabernet franc. Towards the lower end, cabernet franc is used in oceans of Anjou rose´. The central Loire is also a huge sparkling wine source. Its Cremant de Loire and Vouvray, Montlouis and Touraine Mousseux are made mostly from chenin blanc and cabernet franc.
MERLOT is Bordeaux's most widely planted grape, though many think of cabernet sauvignon first. Many regions make up Bordeaux; the Medoc and Graves/Pessac-Leognan on the left bank of the Gironde River; St Emilion and Pomerol on the right. Right-bank wines are strong on merlot and cabernet franc; left-bank wines are usually dominated by cabernet sauvignon, with merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot as supporting varieties.
NORTH of Rhone is Beaujolais, a region that produces a light-bodied, early-drinking red made from the gamay grape. In ascending order of quality and price are Beaujolais Nouveau, Beaujolais and Beaujolais Villages. Above Villages there are 10 crus (growths) or superior sub-regions, including Morgon, Fleurie, Brouilly and Moulin-a-Vent. Some are very good and the best vintages can also age.
OYSTERS: the best wine to drink with oysters comes from Muscadet, where the Loire Valley nears the ocean. It is bone dry and made from melon de bourgogne grapes.
PROVENCE is famous for its rosé, but also makes red wines including Bandol, which is principally mourvedre. Other appellations of note are Cassis, Palette, Bellet, Cotes de Provence and Coteaux Varois. The cepages are grenache, mourvedre, cabernet sauvignon, cinsault, carignan. A famous cabernet shiraz blend (Domaine de Trevallon) comes from Les Baux-de-Provence.
QUALITY LEVELS in French wines are categorised three ways: Vin de table is basic and non-regional; IGP (indication geographique protegee) indicates a wine from a designated region. It replaced vin de pays in 2009. Above that is AOC (appellation d'origine controlee): the highest quality wines from specific vineyards and localities.
RHONE VALLEY: the valley is in two halves. The north produces reds from syrah; whites from marsanne and roussanne (Hermitage Blanc is the best) and viognier (Condrieu is the most famous). The best syrah wines are Hermitage and Cote Rotie while Cornas and St Joseph can be excellent; Crozes-Hermitage is more variable.
SOUTHERN RHONE: around Avignon the valley is more diverse in its cepages. Basic Cotes du Rhone red can be outstanding value for money. They can use up to 13 varieties, some white, but basically grenache, syrah, mourvedre and cinsault. Chateauneuf-du-Pape is the region's megastar. Chateauneuf white, also from a basket of cepages, can be very good. Sub-appellations include Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Tavel and Lirac. The sweet white (lightly fortified, non-botrytis) is Muscat de Beaumes de Venise.
TROUSSEAU and poulsard are quirky local red cepages of the Jura region.
UGNI BLANC is the white grape of the Charente region, which produces watery, bland white wine ... but, when double-distilled in a Charentais pot still, it miraculously turns into the wonderful essence that is cognac.
VALUE FOR MONEY: the Languedoc produces some of France's most inexpensive wines. They come under the IGP of Pays d'Oc. Most wines are varietally labelled: look for chardonnay, syrah, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, sauvignon blanc, grenache and blends. Minervois can be very good and Picpoul de Pinet is a specialty seafood white. Other reds of note include Corbieres, Faugeres, Fitou and Costieres de Nimes.
WEST FRANCE (or, more correctly, south-west France) is where you find two interesting regions: Jurancon and Madiran. Jurancon, beside the town of Pau, makes delicious semi-sweet, non-botrytis whites from gros and petit manseng in the Pyrenees foothills. Madiran is a rugged full-bodied red from tannat with cabernet franc as a secondary grape.
X-FACTOR is what makes France such a great wine nation. Many things contribute, including climates, soils, the people and their culture, the monks and the church's early role. Soil also rates high on the list of factors. France is blessed with an inordinately large share of limestone-based soils, which most grapevines love.
YQUEM There are 11 Premier Cru Sauternes chateaux but only one Premier Grand Cru: Chateau d'Yquem (to give its correct French name). There is no other classification where the top level has only one winery, such is the esteem the world of wine holds for this nectar of the gods.
ZUT ALORS! What else can you say when you've run out of French wine?