A trip through France’s wine regions introduces the complexities of centuries-old stories.
Winemaking in France’s Bordeaux and Loire Valley is a serious tradition. It’s rare to find a winery owner or winemaker who is not toiling away on family property. In many cases the château dates back a century or more.
I spent a rain-soaked week traveling through these two storied regions last spring, checking out everything from an insect hotel (part of a biodynamic philosophy to attract insects to a desired place) at certified-organic pioneer Château Guiraud, in Sauternes, to bicycling through caves at Bouvet Ladubay, a Crémant producer in Saumur.
What I found is that all of these wineries are battling the same dilemma: How to turn Americans on to French wines? It’s hard to tone down the intense passion poured into these wines that, to the novice, is often mistaken for pretension. Thousands of miles away from the vineyards, it’s the job of sommeliers and wine directors to bridge that gap.
In addition to the struggle of trying to translate that passion, there are an overwhelming number of appellations, and a seasoned wine drinker must know the grape varietals produced in each in order to decipher a label.
Want to bicker with a French winemaker? Ask him what he thinks about printing grape names on the labels. Most still argue that the winery name is enough, a definite departure from New World wineries where not only are grape varietals named, but their percentages within the blend are listed, too.
The Loire Valley, for instance, has 69 appellations and is France’s longest stretch on a map. Four grape varietals are planted for commercial use: Cabernet Franc, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and Melon de Bourgogne.
Only by doing a tasting of wines from the same winery but different vineyards, made from the same grape, over the same year, can one spot the nuances in each.
At Domaine des Baumard in Rochefort-sur-Loire, I sipped through an impressive portfolio of around 15 wines with owner/winemaker Florent Baumard. I quickly learned that the hand of the winemaker is what sets each wine apart, not always the vineyard block.