The Importance of French Wine

05/26/2010 11:09 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Somehow, when all the critics declared that Bordeaux's 2009 vintage was the finest they had ever tasted, the clamoring from the wine drinking public in the US was very lukewarm. There are many legitimate factors that have come into play at the same time. First, even for those that can afford the exorbitant prices that top Bordeaux demands, the pricing is geared closer to an item that you would want to invest in, rather than consume. Secondly, the US market is no longer singularly fixated on French wines as the only source of the finest wines. That viewpoint was not always the case.

The Old Model

Before the famous Steven Spurrier tastings in Paris in 1976, if you were a wine lover you had to know about French wine. French wine was the standard-bearer so much that someone in the US, asking for a generic white wine would ask for a Chablis, and someone asking for a red wine would ask for a red Burgundy. They weren't getting a fine Chablis from Burgundy, nor a fine Pinot Noir from Burgundy. They were receiving a cheap field blend of grapes from California, that fit a price point. Still, the reference was to French wine, and wine had not become popular at all yet. Wine was really a mindset of the Europeans, and the well-to-do.

A high compliment about an Australian Chardonnay, or a California Chardonnay was that it tasted Burgundian, or was made from clones of the best producing regions of Burgundy. A great Cabernet Sauvignon, or a red Bordeaux blend, may have other names, such as Meritage in the new world, but the best compliment is still to call it a great Bordeaux blend.

Examples of this New World borrowing of French techniques and grapes are spread throughout the winemaking world.

Here are some of the more common grape varietals that are planted around the world whose origins are French:

Red Grapes
Syrah (Shiraz) the red grape varietal that was once most famous in France's Rhone Valley, might have a legitimate argument to its popularity with Australia's success. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the staples of the Medoc portion of Bordeaux. Those two varietals are planted all over the world. Cabernet Franc whose fame is derived from the the right bank of the Gironde river whose two most famous communes are St. Emilion and Pomerol, is also a prominent red grape in the Loire Valley. You can find Cabernet Franc planted in vineyards from New York's Long Island, to many places that grow other red Bordeaux varietals. The only difference in the philosophy of most of those producers is whether they are trying to emulate the style Bordeaux or the style of the Loire Valley.

Argentina has planted and prospered with the Malbec grape, whose origins are from Bordeaux and the southwestern French region of Cahors. Grenache, the grape that dominates blends in the southern Rhone Valley, has prospered in Spain, as well as Australia; and much of the world. Then, there is Pinot Noir. The grape that Burgundy made famous, has proliferated all over the winemaking world. Pinot Noir, the heartbreak grape speaks of the terroir of Burgundy, and is planted everywhere in an attempt to duplicate its greatness. Those winemakers who plant Pinot Noir in the cool growing regions that mimic the conditions of Volnay or Gevrey Chambertin, are clearly looking to emulate a wine that has been admired for centuries.

White Grapes
Chardonnay is the most popular white varietal. Long after people in restaurants stopped asking for a generic white wine by asking for a "Chablis", they started to ask for Chardonnay. Still this is the elegant varietal that makes up Burgundy wines such as Puligny Montrachet, Pouilly-Fuisse, and Corton Charlemagne. Chardonnay, is a hearty varietal that can be produced in many styles, and is known as a "winemaker's wine", meaning the winemaker can sometimes mask deficiencies of the quality of grapes. Sauvignon Blanc is found in the Loire Valley in its most recognized wines of Sancerre and Pouilly Fume. Sauvignon Blanc is also the primary grape in white Bordeaux blends. Lastly, Riesling, which is often associated with Germany, can be found in the northern region of Alsace. Riesling, while often thought to be a sweet wine, is traditionally vinified in a dry style in Alsace.

I would argue that if you truly want to understand what is happening in the world of wine, you still need to have an understanding of the wine producing regions of France. Today, the world of wine is; well the WORLD of wine. Twenty-five years ago, the wine drinking world looked to western Europe; France, Italy, Spain, Germany, and Portugal for fine wine. The rest of the world was in experimental phases, that borrowed from this old world model. Today, the winemaking world trades back and forth borrowing techniques and ideas from old world to new world and from new world to old world. Someone just entering the wine business, or has a fascination about learning about wine has an overwhelming amount of information to absorb. Still, we all have to start somewhere, and I believe the best place to start is in France.