Spring is finally on its way which means it’s time to stock up on the white wine. Richard Hemming outlines the best white wine from France and recommends his favourite bottles for you to try…
Chardonnay is probably the best-known but most misunderstood grape variety of them all. Many British drinkers associate the variety with Australia or California, but its motherland is France – indeed, it takes its name from a tiny village in southern Burgundy.
Most French Chardonnay isn’t known by that name, however – and this is where the confusion arises – because European wine tends to be named after its origin rather than its ingredients. For instance, Chardonnay is the sole grape used to produce the vast majority of white Burgundy – including famous names such as Chablis, Meursault and Mâcon-Villages.
It doesn’t stop there, either. Chardonnay is an essential component of champagne, accounting for one third of the classic non-vintage blend – and 100% of any champagne labelled Blanc de Blancs. This partly explains why the grape has become so popular – not only is it responsible for some of the most brilliant (and expensive!) white wines on the planet, it is also incredibly adaptable. Chardonnay can be made in a huge array of different styles. For example, Chablis is renowned for its light body, crisp acidity and a flavour often described as ‘mineral’ whereas in the warmer climes of Limoux, near the Spanish border, Chardonnay is much fuller in body, with ripe stone fruit flavours. Since the 1990s, the ‘anything but Chardonnay’ mantra has given the variety a bad name, but the truth is that there is a style of Chardonnay to suit everyone.
For centuries, the villages of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé in the Loire Valley quietly specialised in making delicious, fragrant, dry white wines from the Sauvignon Blanc grape – but it wasn’t until New Zealand started producing it in the 1980s that this variety became world famous.
The Kiwi style had a powerful and ripe gooseberry fruit flavour that everybody loved. It was worlds apart from the more restrained, delicate styles of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé – and besides, hardly anybody knew that these wines were made from the same raw ingredients anyway.
While flavour intensity can vary, all Sauvignon Blancs share some common characteristics. High acidity is one of the most distinctive, giving the wines a crisp, mouth-watering style. They are nearly all light or medium bodied, and very rarely have oak influence. Aromatically, they tend to have citrus flavours – lemon, lime, gooseberry – as well as herbal characteristics, often compared with cut grass or nettles. The most prized examples can have a ‘mineral’ quality – which is a bit like the aroma of flint or slate.
Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé are the best examples of the mineral style – but they tend to be quite expensive. More affordable versions from the Loire can be found from the appellations of Quincy, Touraine, Menetou-Salon and Reuilly – and you can also find some Sauvignon Blanc in Bordeaux.
Not that long ago, Viognier was nearly extinct. Its heartland is the northern Rhône, specifically a small appellation called Condrieu, which lies approximately 40km south of Lyon. In Roman times, these fields were highly prized for viticulture, but by the 1960s the amount of Viognier planted had dwindled to just a few hectares. Since then, however, it has become more and more popular, thanks to its distinctive and powerful fruit flavour.
At its best, Viognier gives a pure and ripe scent of peaches and apricots, is usually full bodied and often high in alcohol. Having such a strong personality means that not everyone is going to like it. Throughout the 1990s it was mooted as the natural successor to Chardonnay, but today fashions have swung away from big, blousy whites more towards lighter, more citric styles such as Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc.
But if you like the idea of juicy, tropical fruit flavours in your wine, then put Viognier on your shopping list. Serve it cool but not ice-cold, and try serving alongside hearty dishes – or even a good strong cheddar.
Melon de Bourgogne
You’ve probably never heard of the grape variety Melon de Bourgogne, but I bet you’ve heard of its homeland: Muscadet. This vineyard region of the Loire Valley has supplied easy-drinking, crisp white wines to the UK (and other markets) for many years, but has recently been reinventing itself in an attempt to improve quality and interest.As a grape variety, Melon de Bourgogne doesn’t appear to have a great deal going for it. The comprehensive Wine Grapes book describes it only as ‘neutral in flavour, with a touch of citrus’, which is hardly the most glowing report. But the good news about ‘blank canvas’ grapes such as Melon is that they can reflect their origin with crystalline clarity. The granite, clay and schist soils and cool Atlantic temperatures give a saline crispness to the style, as bracing as a tequila slammer but without the booziness – Muscadet never goes above 12.5% alcohol. Muscadet’s other trump card is lees ageing. This is when the wine is deliberately rested on its yeast cells, typically for about nine months, to give more body and texture – look for ‘sur lie’ on the label.
No other grape variety has a longer history than muscat, which was probably brought into France by the Roman Empire, and shares its name with the ancient capital city of Oman. Many centuries later it continues to thrive, and while it takes on many different guises, every muscat wine has one very distinctive characteristic: a flavour of white grape juice.
Saying that wine smells of grapes is usually flippant – and usually not true, either. Most wines take on many different flavours, but never taste of table grapes. Muscat is the exception. As such, it has a really user-friendly, easy-going style that should appeal widely.
Most muscat in France comes from Alsace. It can range from dry to lusciously sweet. The latter style is usually labelled ‘late harvest’ (vendange tardive) or ‘noble berry selection’ (sélection de grains nobles), whereas the drier examples tend not to mention any sweetness level on the label. Elsewhere in France, principally in Languedoc-Roussillon, dry muscat is labelled as muscat sec. The variety is also an ingredient in several fortified wines, known as vins doux naturels. These are high in sugar and alcohol, and show off that characteristic grape juice flavour at maximum volume.
For British drinkers, chenin blanc is mostly associated with South Africa, but its heartland is the picturesque Loire Valley, close to the cities of Angers and Tours. While the variety is prized for its ability to make inexpensive, easy-drinking white wine, it is also capable of achieving top quality in a versatile range of styles.
Chenin blanc is the prime ingredient of several Loire appellations, including Anjou, Saumur and Savennières – but the best known is probably Vouvray. Styles range from dry to very sweet and can be sparkling or still, so it pays to know what to look for on the label. Sec indicates a dry wine, while demi-sec, moelleux and liquoreux are progressively sweet.
While sweetness levels can vary, every wine made from chenin blanc tends to share several distinctive characteristics. Naturally high acidity is the most significant, making the wines crisp and zingy. They often have quite rich texture too, sometimes compared to beeswax or wet wool. In terms of flavour, green apple is common, often accompanied by floral aromas and gorgeous honeyed characters in the sweeter styles.
The final grape variety in this year’s tour of French vines is often more closely associated with Germany. And indeed, so is the main region in France that grows it: Alsace.
In fact, the ownership of Alsace has switched between France and Germany several times since the 19th century, and there is a strong Teutonic influence throughout the region – including over its wines. This even extends to the distinctive shape of the bottle, known as a flûte, which is tall and thin, just like most German wines.
There is one important difference, though, which is that most riesling from Alsace is dry, as opposed to the German versions which commonly contain some residual sugar. In terms of flavour, classic Alsatian riesling should have strong lime fruit, some elegant floral aromas and perhaps a touch of honey.But one of riesling’s most valued qualities is its ability to age in bottle for years, developing esoteric flavours such as petrol and toast. That might not be to everyone’s taste but it certainly creates a memorable experience!
At their best, rieslings from Alsace have a wonderfully refreshing, pure, flavoursome palate that is frequently paired with spicy food or rich cheeses, such as the local Munster. Furthermore, the best examples are far better value than whites from more fashionable regions like the Loire and Burgundy. Here are three to look out for.
Other articles you might like: Our favourite 10 wine producing towns in France