Most of us in North America know very little about French wine. This is understandable. The labels are difficult to understand. The grape varietals aren’t named. And the regions, for the most part, are unknown to us. Puligny-what? Haut-Medoc?
We’re used to reading popular, immediately recognizable regions and varietals. Places like Sonoma and the Okanagan Valley, and grapes like Pinot Grigio and Cabernet Sauvignon are our familiar standard.
All of this is a way of saying that our cultural reference for wine and wine labelling is decidedly New World. But if we’re going to understand wine in greater depth, and open ourselves up to new (and sometimes even better) wines, it’s essential that we forget Columbus for a while and sail back to the Old World—France, in particular.
France has a winemaking history dating back to the 6th Century, and many of the grape varietals we are familiar with today originated in France’s famed wine regions. With such a long history, it’s no surprise then that France is the largest wine producer in Europe, and that Bordeaux, its largest wine region, produces some of the most iconic and important wines in existence.
For the record: Bordeaux is the name of the city, which the larger wine region is named for. Bordeaux, the region, is then divided into many distinct sub-regions (“appellations”) that have their own special histories, winemaking standards, and distinctive character (“terroir”).
You may have heard reference to “Left Bank” and “Right Bank” Bordeaux, which are catch-all descriptors for the appellations on either side of the Gironde Estuary.
Let’s look at a few of the major regions:
Bordeaux (“Bord-oh”): Wines labeled ‘Bordeaux’ are entry-level white, red, and rosé wines that can come from anywhere in the region. The reds are often Merlot based and the whites are often Sauvignon Blanc based.
Médoc (“May-doc”): This region lies on the Left Bank, and wines from this region are dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon mixed with smaller parts of other grapes, including Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec. “Médoc” will appear on the label.
Graves (“Grahv”): This region also lies on the Left Bank and produces both red and white wines. Reds are usually equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with smaller amounts of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. Whites are predominantly Sauvignon Blanc with some added Sémillon. “Graves” will be clearly indicated on the label.
Right Bank: There are many small appellations on this side of the river, and they are known for making excellent, Merlot based wines. Two such regions are Pomerol and St-Emilion. Wines from the Right Bank tend to be less tannic and more approachable for novice drinkers than Left Bank wines. “Right Bank” will not be indicated on the label, but if you have a doubt about the origin of the bottle, ask your wine advisor for clarification.
Sauternes (“So-turn”): This sub-region in Graves produces sweet, luscious dessert wines made from shriveled Sémillon grapes. “Sauternes” will be clearly indicated on the label.
There is much more, of course, to know about Bordeaux, but this should be enough to start you on a new journey of discovery.
Sail across the waves of your tired palate. Try something new. Be risky. And for gosh sake brush your teeth after sipping all that red.