The Problem With the French

French wines are known as Old World wines. That is wines from the old world, primarily western Europe. Wines from the United States, Australia, South America, etc. are considered New World wines. I have to honest and admit that I don’t drink a lot of French wines. There are a couple of reasons. Probably the most important is that I haven’t found many affordable French wines that I like better than their New World counterparts. Second, the French don’t make it very easy to get familiar with their wines in that they don’t label them in a very user-friendly way.

For example, lets supposed that you recently purchased a bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild Medoc Réserve Spéciale. What kind of wine do you suppose is in the bottle? Even though the label is in French, we can guess that the winery is Chateau Lafite Rothschild, it is a reserve, and the appellation (where it is from) is the Medoc region. But we still don’t know what kind of wine is in the bottle? Is it a Chardonnay, a Merlot or perhaps a Pinot Noir? Well, for me at least, therein lies the problem with French, the grape variety does not appear on the label. I can tell you that the wine in this particular bottle is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. How did I know that? Besides having looked it up, I know that because the appellation on a French wine label tells you everything.

Our bottle of wine was produced in the Médoc. The Médoc is a French wine growing region north of the town of Bordeaux and has about 1,500 vineyards. You can think of it as being analogous to wine growing regions in the United States like the Napa Valley. It is simply a geographic area where grapes are grown. Unlike the Napa Valley however, all things related to wine in the Medoc are regulated by the French government under a system called the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée’, or AOC. The Medoc, like other wine producing regions, has one or more unique sets of AOC regulations that dictate just about everything having to do with the cultivation of grapes in the region and much to do with methods of production, including what varieties of grapes are allowed in the wines produced there.

If we knew that the ”>Medoc Medoc “>AOC dictates that wines from the Medoc may contain only a blend of Cabernet-Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet-Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Carmenere, then seeing the Medoc appellation on the label would tell us that our wine was a blend of those grapes. That narrows it down some, but we still don’t know how much of which of these grapes are in our bottle. It turns out that we also need to know that, as a very broad generalization, Cabernet Sauvignon dominates the blend in red wines produced in the Médoc, and that a typical blend from the Lafite Rothschild will be 50% to 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% to 40% Merlot, 5% to 10% Cabernet Franc and occasionally small percentages of Malbec and Petit Verdot.

If you find this all a bit confusing, you are not alone. Would it kill them to put information about the grape varieties on the label? Knowing the French, we shouldn’t hold our breath. If you’re going to try French wines, you’re going to have to do a little work and some research. There are seven principal wine regions in France: Alsace, Beaujolais, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Côtes du Rhône, Languedoc Roussillon, and the Loire. You might want to start by looking into what types of wine each are known for. There is an excellent web site that will help you in your quest at

Cellar Notes

On May 24, 1976, a wine tasting took place in Paris that changed the world’s view of California wines forever. The tasting was the work of an English wine merchant from Paris. He associated with Americans who worked in Paris and liked the wines that they brought over from California. Curious to see how these upstart wines would fare against French wines, he organized a blind wine tasting in celebration of the American Bicentennial activities in Paris. The judges, all French, had impeccable credentials. The French wines were red Bordeaux and white Burgundies. They were matched against California Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays. The tasting was blind, with the identities of the wines concealed and the labels revealed only after the jury of nine tasters had voted its preference.

The unimaginable, at least from the French point of view, happened. An American Cabernet, Stag’s Leap, was judged the winner, besting four top-ranked Bordeaux, including first-growths Château Mouton-Rothschild and Château Haut-Brion. The Chateau Montelena Chardonnay from California also bested its French Burgundy counterparts. Needless to say, the French tasters were stunned. The impact of the tasting for California wines was immediate, catapulting California wines onto the world stage and helping create the industry we know today.

If you would like to know more about this momentous event in wine history, read The Judgment of Paris by George Taber. This book is the basis for the movie Bottle Shock that dramatized the Paris tasting. The author was in Houston last week and I had a chance to spend some time talking and tasting with him. He has just released a second book called In Search of Bacchus which recounts a six month sojourn he took through twelve wine producing regions of the world. Both books are worth a read.