French wines are amongst the most popular and widely drunk wines in the world and the French are renowned for the quality of their top wines. However, because of the French classification system which means that the wines are labelled according to their region of production rather than the grapes used to produce the wine, it can sometimes be difficult to know what to expect from an individual bottle of wine.
The French AOC classification system dictates which grapes or blend of grapes must be used for a white wine to receive a certain classification. However, unless you are armed with plenty of knowledge and experience it can be baffling when faced with racks and racks of regional French white wines.
Many French white wines are far too enjoyable to risk missing out on just because the label is unfathomable to the uninitiated so here is a guide to the primary grapes used to produce white wine in France and in which regions they tend to be used. Arming yourself with a little information can make choosing a French white wine less of a lottery.
Aligote is a white grape with a high level of acidity but with lovely apple characteristics at its best. It is most commonly used in the village of Bouzeron in the Cote Chalonnaise area of Burgundy where it makes unusual but good quality white wine. Look out for the AC Bouzeron on the label.
Chardonnay is one of the world’s best known white wine grapes and it produces some top quality white wines in France including Chablis and Champagne. It is the mainstay of most white wine from Burgundy and is also popular in the Loire where it is sometimes blended with Chenin Blanc in Anjou and in the sparkling white wines of Saumur. The Sauvignon Blanc-dominated crisp white wines of Haut-Poitou in the Loire include Chardonnay occasionally too. The Chardonnay grape also features in many Vin de Pays from southern France.
Once popular throughout France, the non-aromatic white grape Chasselas tends to be used these days in white wine from Pouilly-sur-Loire and Alsace. Pouilly-sur-Loire shares the same geographical area as it’s more famous and prestigious relative Pouilly-Fume. Until the phylloxera outbreak in the late 19th century the area’s vineyards were all planted with the Chasselas grape but many of the diseased vines were replaced with the Sauvignon Blanc variety which is now used to produce Pouilly-Fume whilst the remaining Chasselas vines are used for Pouilly-sur-Loire wines. The grape crops up in a handful of white wines in Alsace under the Edelzwicker classification which is a blend of grapes and also in some Savoie whites.
Chenin Blanc is one of the two classic Loire white wine grapes. It is an extraordinarily versatile grape which is demonstrated in the famous Vouvray white wines which can be dry, sweet or sparkling. It is also the grape used to produce the lusciously sweet wines from Bonnezeaux. Elsewhere in the Loire, it is used in white wine made in the appellations of Anjou, Chinon, Coteaux du Layon, Jasnieres, Montlouis, Quarts-de-Chaume, Saumur, Savennieres and Touraine.
Colombard has characteristics of apple and is grown largely in Gascogne in southwest France where it is blended with Ugni Blanc and Chardonnay to produce good value white wine under the Cotes de Gascogne Vins de Pays classification.
Gewurztraminer produces wonderful perfumed whites with hints of rose water, lychees and violets. Its French home is the Alsace region which is, helpfully for the novice white wine drinker, the only region in France which labels its wines according to the grape. Therefore, it is easy to identify wines made from this exotic grape.
Marsanne is a white grape with flowery and lime hints. It is often used as part of a blend in Rhone valley wines, commonly mixed with the delicately perfumed Roussanne in wines from the appellations of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Crozes-Hermitage and Hermitage. It also crops up in white wine from Coteaux du Tricastin, Lirac, St Joseph and St Peray.
Melon de Bourgogne is the non-aromatic grape used to make Muscadet wines. Look out for Muscadet wines from the Sevre-et-Maine appellation – the remaining three Muscadet appellations can produce some poor quality wines.
Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris are two more Alsace white wine grapes. White wines made from Pinot Blanc grapes tend to be dry, creamy and nutty whilst those made from Pinot Gris grapes are rich and spicy. Riesling is another favourite Alsace white grape with many fine wines coming from the region.
Sauvignon Blanc, popular around the world, is used in white wines from the Loire and Bordeaux. Many of the Loire’s top whites are made with Sauvignon Blanc including Pouilly-Fume and Sancerre. This white wine grape with strong hints of gooseberry also features in wines from other Loire appellations such as Cheverny, Haut Poitou, Menetou-Salon, Quincy, Reuilly and Touraine. Bordeaux whites, including the famous sweet wines from Barsac and Sauternes, all feature Sauvignon Blanc, often in a blend with the peachy-flavoured Semillon.
Viognier, a perfumed grape now fashionable again after a period in the doldrums, is one of the main grapes used in northern Rhone whites. Viognier wines produced in Condrieu are the best in France, although the grape is also used successfully in the appellations of Chateau Grillet and Coteaux du Tricastin.
Viognier image by Anachronist, from Wikipedia.