Category Archives: France

Beautiful Bordeaux

Beautiful Bordeaux!

Grand Vins de Bordeaux, a fabulous wine store to explore!

Grand Vins de Bordeaux, a fabulous wine store to explore!

Despite the explosion of New World wines out there, no one country or region has managed to snatch the title of “World’s Most Emminent Wine Region” that Bordeaux holds tightly in its grasp. It is the red wines of Bordeaux, (formerly called “Claret” by the poms for centuries), that have set the standards for quality wine the world over.

That’s not to say that all of them are exciting … there are the vin ordinaires for the princely sum of a few euros, and only the backpackers are thankful for those … But the true Bordeaux red rewards those with patience, and offers a challenge not for the feint-hearted. Opening these wines too early is a waste, as is opening them in the middle of their maturity, or too late.

Big Bordeaux are tannic and tight for the first 5 or 6 years, holding back the blackcurrant or plum flavours of the signature Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Then strangely, they seem to slump – becoming flat and lifeless for the next few years, before taking on a new depth of complexity, aromas and fruit.

Probably Bordeaux’ biggest enemy is itself. It’s out of control in terms of … err, control.

Chateaux in the Blaye Bourg region, Bordeaux, France

Chateaux in the Blaye Bourg region, Bordeaux, France

In an area of 123,000ha under vine, there are 10,200 growers, 35,000 Chateaux, 400 Distributors and 100 Brokers. One out of every six people in Bordeaux work in the wine industry.

Stats (at time of my visit – late 2006) held that 790,000 bottles are produced every year to reach a market value of €3,000,000,000. 90% of these are red – Merlot, Cab Franc, Cab Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, and 10% white – Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle, Ugni Blanc, Colombard.

Harvest in Bordeaux is determined by chemical analysis. What they’re looking for from grapes is 220 g/ltr sugar, 12.5 Baume – min level as per AOC. Bordeaux reds must be fermented dry, and the use of tartaric acid addition is prohibited.

Vineyards in the Blaye Bourg region, Bordeaux, France

Vineyards in the Blaye Bourg region, Bordeaux, France

There are a whopping 57 appellations within this region, telling growers what to grow, how to grow it, how much to grow …

In 2007, a new appellation “Côtes de Bordeaux” was introduced. This encompasses an area of the right bank of the Garonne river, from Saint Maixant and Cadillac to the city of Bordeaux, and in short paves the way for lower value wines to use oak chips during production. All these sub-regions are located on the right bank, and all currently produce easy-gowing, fruit-driven, primarily Merlot-based wines, 85% of which are reportedly consumed locally.

Bordeaux wines reflect terroir

Beautiful Bordeaux city

Beautiful Bordeaux city

They’re not allowed to irrigate in Bordeaux. Underground water supplies keep them alive, but also provide sediment to feed the vines – which helps the grapes and resulting wines take on the characters of the soils, which are actually quite poor.

Bordeaux wines are named after their location. So you won’t see the names of the grapes used in a wine on the label.

They divide the Bordeaux region between the left and right banks of the Gironde Estuary, which continues divided between the Garonne and Dordogne tributaries.

On the hilly right bank the soil is primarily clay and limestone – suitable for fruit-forward, lower tannin Merlot. These cooler soils slow down the ripening stage (avoiding August heat and rain), and budburst (avoiding April frosts).

The right bank encompasses Côtes de Blaye and Bourg to the north, and St Emilion, Pomerol, Lalande-de-Pomerol, Fronsac, Canon-Fronsac, Côtes de Castillon and Francs divided from Entre-deux-Mers by the Dordogne.

Roman ruins @ Palais Gallien, Bordeaux.  Once on the outskirts of the city, now in the suburbs!

Roman ruins @ Palais Gallien, Bordeaux. Once on the outskirts of the city, now in the suburbs!

The left bank is more sandy, and has pebbles to absorb heat during the day, for distribution during the nights. It is a continuation of the sedimentary Acquitaine Basin; lowlands boundaried by Gironde Arch, the Pyrenean mountain chain, and the Bay of Biscal. This is big, tannic Cabernet Sauvignon territory, producing wines with pronounced blackcurrant and cassis flavours.

The left bank is home to five major communes of Saint-Estephe, Pauillac, Saint-Julien, Margaux and Graves. Located here are the five esteemed First Growth Chateaux: Chateau Latour, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, Chateau Margaux and Chateau Haut-Brion. Further north we find the Médoc, and in the hinterland we find the Haut-Médoc. Alas, poor Médoc doesn’t get a mention on Grand Cru labels, however Haut-Médoc does.

I must add here that the above is not an exhaustive list of all vignobles Bordelais but quite frankly this page is getting too long, and I haven’t talked about Cellar Door visiting yet … such is the complexity of Bordeaux!


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Méthode Champenoise – Doing it French Style

This is a complicated process, and I hope you give it some thought when you pop that next celebratory bubble of Champagne!

First, the Grapes …

Chardonnay - photo courtesy Dusan Jelic, Belgrade, Serbia


The most popular grape varietals used for making Champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

Why so? The combination works extremely well together!

Chardonnay exhibits strong flavour on the palate initially, but dies back.

Pinot Meunier offers little initial flavour, but intensity increases on the middle palate as the Chardonnay dies back.

Propping them up along the way and building intensity with time is Pinot Noir – offering length and flavour persistence on the palate.

Juice extraction

Selection criterion for grape ripeness varies between viticultural location, grape varietal and style of wine to be produced. But in general, you’d be looking for:

  • high quality grapes which show some varietal flavours, without being over-ripe,
  • sugar levels around 10-11 degrees Baumé, and
  • balanced acidity with low pH to ensure freshness of the base wine.

Grapes are preferably hand-picked, and whole bunches pressed without crushing. This minimises colour bleed and tannin pick-up from the skins. As an added benefit, this decreases the need for sulphur dioxide use, so gives the winemaker the opportunity to use controlled oxidation techniques to introduce complexity in the wine.


The juice is settled and clarified – solids are racked off. If necessary further filtration -perhaps centrifuging – occurs.

Primary Fermentation

Juice is fermented with use of selected yeast at between 11-14oC for 10 – 14 days. In France the addition of sugar is allowed to compensate for inadequate natural grape sugars. After fermentation, bentonite and diammonium phosphate are added for clarification purposes.

Assemblage & Coupage

At this point the wines are racked off and blended.  This sometimes involves different grape varietals, even from different regions, to make the desired base wine.

Reserve wines can make up to 25% of the blend, and are used to add dimension and structure to the base wine.  Reserves wines are often aged in oak barrels of different sizes to enable a variety of blending options.

The base wine is then fined using isinglass or gelatin and undergoes cold stabilisation.

Tirage Liquer

Tirage Liquer is sugar syrup, which is added to the sugar at a level depending on the alcohol content required, prior to levurage [yeast addition], and tirage [bottling]. The bottles are crown sealed [metal cap] and stored.


Moet in the making - Epernay, France

Moet in the making – Epernay, France

The bottles are stacked laying horizontal for 6 months to several years depending on the quality of wine being produced, and maintained at a temperature of 12 to 15oC.

Yeast autolysis is not fully understood, however it is believed that it takes around 12 months for the yeast to impart sensory properties into the wine.


Champagne undergoing Rémuage, Epernay

Champagne undergoing Rémuage, Epernay

After the desired period of aging has passed, the bottles are stacked on shaking tables [riddling tables or pupitres], then inverted into racks.

For several weeks the bottles are individually twisted back and forth every day by hand.

The reason for all this agitation is to bring the yeast deposit to the neck of the bottle against the crown seal.


The necks of the bottles are chilled to minus 24oC, before the bottle is held right way up and the crown seal removed. The pressure inside the bottle blows out a plug of yeast and sediment. This can be done by hand or machine – obviously depending on size of production!

The bottles are then topped up [remplissage] with a mixture of expedition liquer [sugar dissolved in base wine] and the original wine. How sweet this liquer is depends on the style of wine being made.

Sometimes there is no liquer addition at all. Usually this is where richly fruit-driven styles are being made.

Bourbage & Habillage

The bottles are then corked [bourbage]. If an agglomerate cork is used, one or two high quality cork discs come in contact with the wine. A muselet [wire frame] holds the cork down against the pressure inside the bottle. Finally the cap is dressed [habillage] with foil over the muselet, and the bottle labelled.

Champagne undergoing remuage prior to disgorgement in tunnels under the Avenue du Champagne, Epernay, France

Champagne undergoing remuage prior to disgorgement in tunnels under the Avenue du Champagne, Epernay, France

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Posted by on August 24, 2013 in France, Winemaking


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Provence, Southern France

AixEnProvence0039The quintessential Provencal wine is Rosè, however they do some other red wines here.

There is a mish-mash of grape varieties brought into the region by various invaders over the past few centuries – however Carignan planted to supply cheap reds in the 1900’s to the rest of France is slowly being replaced by more Rosè-friendly varieties of Grenach, Cinsault and Syrah [Shiraz].


Provence actually consists of several different appellations – the largest being Côtes de Provence, which covers a triangular area from Toulon in the south west to almost Cannes in the east, and inland to the small town of Cotignac.

Then curiously enough, this appellation also includes some dotted areas just east and south of Aix, and even the odd coastal region between other appellations.  Altogether, this patchwork appellation is France’s largest.

The other appellations of Provence include:

  • Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence – spreading north and north-west of Aix
  • Les Baux-de-Provence – south of Avignon (although this has become an appellation of its own in the past 20 years)
  • Coteaux Varois – east of Aix
  • Côte du Lubéron – noth of the Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence
  • Bandol – a relatively tiny region on the coast between Marseille and Toulon;
  • Bellet – struggling to maintain ground around a growing Nice;
  • Cassis – east along the coast from Marseille;
  • Pallette – encircling Aix;
  • Côte du Ventoux on the northern border of Provence.

 Blessed with good winds …

Château des Baux overlooks Les Baux-de-Provence in Southern France.

Château des Baux overlooks Les Baux-de-Provence in Southern France.

Whilst at first it seems that the southern French just can’t make up their minds whether their wines are Provencal or not, it is more likely there are so many appellations within Provence because of the varying climatic influences.

An appellation considers the terroir of an area, rather than a geographical location, and this of course includes the climatic influences.

The mediterranian warmth spreads across much of Côtes de Provence, however the massifs [mountains] inland shield some areas from maritime influence and produce sometimes alpine temperatures.

The mistral winds which blow across the south of France quickly reinstate dry conditons after rainfall in some areas – particularly Les Baux – creating almost ideal conditions for organic viticulture. [Less chance of rot = less fungicides]

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Posted by on August 19, 2013 in France, Viticulture, Winemaking


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La Belle France

There is no doubt, despite the past decade’s trend towards New World wine consumption, France is untouchable in terms of perception of its wines. French wine is renowned around the world as the benchmark for fine wines.

Map of french wine regions

Map of french wine regions

France has the ideal terroir to produce fine wines – with climate-moderating benefits of two large bodies of water [Atlantic and Mediterranean oceans], varied soil types to accommodate and bring out the best in grape varietals, and centuries of expertise.

Ironically, in the war between Italy and France for wine-world supremecy, it is interesting to note that the Romans actually brought winemaking to France in the early ages.

In fact, if it weren’t for the ingenuity of Roman aquaducts, Bordeaux may not exist today.

Regardless, the French ran with it, perfecting the art of winemaking to the point that today France is so synonymous with wine that it’d be hard to picture the two not coexisting. However, that was almost the case in the late 1800’s when phylloxera nearly wiped the whole industry out!

French labeling system:

All over the world, people are both captivated and bamboozled by the complex control systems in place for the past two centuries- “appellations” – which render French wine labels incapable of enunciation or comprehension. I won’t bore you with all the details of every appellation but let’s look at the basics:

The labelling system consists of two classifications – Quality Wine and Table Wine, which are further split into two categories:

Quality Wines:

Vins de Délimités de Qualité Supérieure (VDQS) Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC/ AC)
Small category – covers only around 1% France’s production;
Regulations similar to AOC but less stringent – eg yields and varietals can differ.
Criteria varies between regions, however this is the most stringent of the controls;
Delineation of production areas – based on soil composition;
Short list of grape varietals based on suitability for region, history and reputation;
Maximum yields set per hectare in each region;
Viticultural practices defined: planting density, pruning techniques, etc;
Winemaking practices also defined;
Minimum natural alcohol potential imposed;

Table Wines:

Vins de Table Vin de Pays (Est 1979)
Produced anywhere in France;
Any grape can be used;
Cannot be chaptalised;
No maximum yield;
Proportion of production over 100hl per hectare must go for distillation.
Certain areas of production: regional, département or zonal;
Certain grapes listed for Vin De Pays – more than VDQS and AOC wines;
Maximum yields imposed – usually 80 or 90hl/ha;
Minimum alcohol content – 9% (some southern regions – 10%);
Controls (max usage guides) placed on Sulphur Dioxide and Volatile Acidity levels.

I’ll publish more information on individual French wine regions in seperate postings. There’s far too much info for one post!


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Chalkboard Côtes du Rhône

S KThe Côtes du Rhône is a French appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) that trips and spatters  from Vienne to Avignon in South-East France.

Like most French wine regions, it offers considerable variation across the appellation – dependent on the soil the vines are planted in, the vineyard aspect, the grape varietals and the expertise of the winemakers.  Climatic conditions are pretty constant, and sunlight hours pretty average, but don’t think for a minute that this boring consistency results in run-of-the-mill wines.

Broadly speaking, Rhone wines are Grenache blends (usually with Shiraz, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Carignan and others).  The red ones, anyway.  They also come in a white version, but it’s the red, red Rhones you’re likely to come across more frequently in the local liquor store.

 I was looking for something to accompany my recent curry-experimentation period.  The family favourite seems to be curried sausages – by a mile – and my sauce is a complex mixture of curry and pepper spices, enhanced with exquisite home-made sweet chutney, red apples and strawberry jam.  It’s my own invention.  .

I settled on a fresh bottle of Vintage Cellar’s Chalkboard Côtes du Rhône (2012).  Now,  I’m no fan of mass-produced, generic house brands of anything – let alone wine – but the price tag of $12.50 had me sold.  We’re on a pretty tight budget these days.

Côtes du Rhône reds come in anything from a deep crimson or ruby to bright purple, and are usually medium bodied with smooth tannins.  Those from the region’s right bank tend to be lighter in style; and without too much information being disclosed on the label – I’m willing to bet this one comes from there.

The back label tells me it was bottled by the winemakers of L’enclave.  I assume they mean L’Enclave des Papes (the enclave of the popes); the Canton of Valréas – which includes the towns of Valréas, Grillon, Visan and Richerenches.  Definitely right-bank, then.

Surprisingly well-balanced, with subtle plum and cherry notes – and a touch of spice that really didn’t have a chance against my curry’s rich sauce, but was definitely discernible.  The medium body did tend to the weaker end, and the finish was softly dry.  Overall, it really was a good accompaniment to my spicy curried snags.

It’s worth mentioning that L’Enclave des Papes wines could well be worth investigating as a fountain of youth.

During most of the 1300’s there were several (French – of course) popes who figured they wouldn’t lower themselves and live in Rome, and Avignon was appointed prestigious honour as the seat of the Pope.  In 1316, Pope John XXII became the second Avignon pope.  He was pretty old at the time, and had some controversial views – like; Christ and his apostles were not povs at all (as was the belief of the Franciscans) and further; once you’re dead, you don’t see heaven until Judgement Day.  Whoops, that means the whole concept of praying to Saints is pointless – a belief which put him in closer collusion with the Protestants than the Catholics.  It’s a wonder he wasn’t burned at the stake as a heretic!

Regardless, the Cardinals voted him in to what some hoped would be a short papacy.  Unfortunately he was a huge fan of L’enclave wines – and frequent consumption was considered a contributing factor to his extended life.  Despite the wishes and prayers of his opponents, the old bugger hung in there for 18 years, dying at the ripe old age of 89 in 1336.


Visiting Cellar Door: Provence

Wine tourism in Provence, in my experience, is a struggle.  I should have stayed in Nice.

There are no bus tours of the wine regions – at least none that the tourism office in Aix-en-Provence could tell us of.  I decided after much consideration – and counting of the pennies – to hire a car in Aix and drive to Avignon.  I met a French-speaking Canadian at the hostel in Aix, who was waiting for word about a Couch Surfing booking in Dijon.  Without any other plans, a private trip to Avignon seemed like as good an idea as any, so he agreed to come with me and be my interpreter.  That hire-car cost me more than I spent in the next two months in Europe … for a single day’s hire!

We picked up a brochure “Route de Vins” at the Aix-en-Provence Tourist Information Centre, which supposedly showed some larger estates in the Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence region, but the tiny map included  didn’t name or number the highway you’re supposed to be on. And it was only in French.  Good start.

The car hire company in Aix gave us shockingly incorrect ‘waving of the hands’ directions to the Route des Vins region. No other map whatsoever was available.  [I did actually wonder, yes.]

There is very little signage leaving the city, in fact NONE indicating the Route de Vins, and it wasn’t long before we were lost. We actually fell across the correct route by accident when we came across one of the very few signs announcing  “Route de Vins” actually on the circuit.

People were scarce on the road and in the vineyards themselves. When we arrived at several of the cellar doors/wineries, they were closed for their 2-hour lunch. Or was it 3 hours?  We sat at one of them for over an hour – in fact 30 minutes past the “Back at 2pm” sign on the door.  No-one turned up.  I can easily understand how Phylloxera spread like wildfire in France … I wandered freely around the vineyards waiting and looking for someone to help us, and nobody stopped me.

Those cellar doors that we did find open appeared somewhat perplexed that we wanted to look around the vineyards and winery. The impression we took away with us was that they just thought people come to taste and buy wines, not to look around the facilities.

It was all worth it, though, when passing through Les Baux … just 20km south of Avignon. It was an area I came across in my studies, and had waited a long time to see. The vignerons there take great care of their environment, and Les Baux is famous for its organic and biodynamic wines – which constitute around 85% of production.

The Chaîne des Alpilles glistening in the sun made a magnificent backdrop to the vineyards of this rugged landscape.

Dividing the 30 estates of the Les Baux region equally, is the remains of an ancient Chateau (Des Baux) which has been occupied since prehistoric times. Although the drive up the hill is fraught with danger – with some serious rocky outcrops sticking out into the narrow road – it’s truly a magnificent find. Don’t miss it.

Incidentally, the cicadas you find everywhere in this region (including the Route de Vins signage) in all forms from hairpins to wall-mountable ceramics are believed to bring good luck. Grab one if you’re going to attempt chateau visiting!

And one more thing … if you’re backpacking, avoid the Hostel in Avignon like the plague … it might just be where you catch it …


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Posted by on May 9, 2012 in France, Wine Touring


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Visiting Cellar Door: Champagne

There are several towns you can travel to to experience Champagne, however Epernay claims to be the capital, so that’s where I headed.

It’s easy to get to Epernay by train from Paris (130km), Reims or even from the west via Strassbourg.

With a population only around 26,000 people Epernay is small and comfortable, and if you’re there primarily to discover its champagne caves and view some surrounding vineyards, you can do it all on foot from the town center.

The primary destination for visitors is the Avenue de Champagne, originally known as the Fauborg de la Folie, which is lined with mansions and Champagne producers.

The avenue runs over the top of around a quarter of a million bottles of Champagne stored in deep underground caves. The Moët & Chandon caves, for example, run 2km under the avenue!

The tourist office is on this avenue … but it appears to close down outside peak tourist season.  I arrived just after the 2006 vintage, and never saw it open.

At the end of the avenue is Place de Champagne. This is where you’ll find the Mercier winery, as well as some of their vineyards extending up a slope. Climb up the slope beteen the rows, and you get a great panoramic view over Epernay and the surrounding hills covered with vines.

The largest producer, and indeed the most impressive winery, is De Castellane. Running along the train line, the tower of this winery is a centrepiece of the town. In contrast to the more traditional champagne houses who tuck away the industrial side of their production, De Castellane bares its massive stainless fermenters, automated riddling, bottling, corking, labeling and finishing lines for all to see during tours.

Moët & Chandon claim to be the leading house of Champagne in the region, and indeed their world-reknowned status supports this. Of the 41 Premier Crus, and 17 Grand Crus in the region, 25 and 13 respectively are part of their heritage.

The tour of Moët & Chandon’s Champagne house and Hotel Moët [conveniently the first one you come across on Avenue de Champagne] was a highlight of my visit.  A sculpted Dom Perignon stands watch out front, as fluent-english-speaking, immaculately presented guides with the most meticulous French pronunciation skills  lead you through the house and underground caves. Interesting that they claim the Dom as the ‘father’ of champagne – when in fact he hated the bubbles forming through a second fermentation after winter, and went to great lengths to work out how to get rid of them.

At the end of the tour is the obligatory tasting, and my group were left to finish our generous pourings at our leisure, then find our own way out.  Tour cost was around €10.

Epernay was one of the friendliest places I came across in my travels around France.  As soon as I got off the train and headed up the street, locals were quick to point out highlights, where to stay etc. As with most areas of Europe, the younger people speak English at least to some degree, which helped me, as I speak only the basic pleasantries of French.

You could easily visit Epernay, do a Moet tour and wander the streets a little as a day trip from Paris.  I stayed a few nights so I could soak up the historic ambience. Expensive place, but worth it to a vinophile such as myself.

One more thing about Epernay … make sure you spoil yourself with the magnificent French pasties at the local bakeries!

Read more interesting information about Champagne on my wine web. CLICK HERE to go now.

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Posted by on May 8, 2012 in France, Wine Touring


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