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Published: Tuesday, 3/25/2003

The great wine regions of France

Writing just a month ago about the principal French wine regions, I alluded to the contrast between burgundies and bordeaux: “Though each can appreciate that the other can be a great wine, burgundy lovers and bordeaux lovers are born, not made.”

But the wines are very different, at least until they become very old, by which time they have lost their distinctive fruit and acid balance. In their prime they are distinctively different because the grapes themselves are different, the red Cabernet sauvignon (rapidly giving way to Merlot) and the white Sauvignon blanc.

To the point here is the region whose wines, red and white, may be sold as bordeaux, after the name of the industry's commercial center and of the region it dominates. It is the country's biggest, so big and varied, in fact, that it embraces several districts or sub-regions. The wines of each are identified as such on their labels.

Which is most important? In the not too remote past it would have been easy to say the Medocs, upper and lower. The upper Medoc - and in one instance the Graves - is home to a number of great names and wines. All red, they are Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Ch. Latour, Ch. Mouton-Rothschild, Ch. Margaux, and in the Graves, on the edge of the city of Bordeaux itself, Ch. Haut-Brion.

Below the Medocs and around the city of Bordeaux is the Graves, losing its vineyards and wines to urban sprawl, and below it (“below” here means up-river), also on the west side of the Garonne, are two districts, Barsac and Sauternes, famous for dessert wines, among the world's best.

But there are more, for on the east side of the river systems are still other major producers, among them St-Emilion and Pomerol.

Burgundy, Champagne, Bordeaux are names familiar to American wine lovers, but there are other regions to be aware of, both for the wines which they produce now, and for what may be expected of them later.

Does a typical American wine consumer know the wines of the Loire Valley? “Shy” is the word that first comes to mind when one thinks of these wines, almost all white, delicate, perfumey, a vouvray, a sancerre, a pouilly-sur-loire, wines to grace a summer supper. But it must be remembered that muscadet, too, a steely white match for shellfish, is a loire, though an atypical one.

A well-established region, second only to Bordeaux in size, lies along the Rhone River between Vienne, just south of Lyon, and Avignon. It has long been home to reds - hermitage - and whites - condrieu - to match any in the world, besides making a spectrum of only somewhat lesser wines from two red grapes, Syrah, also called Shiraz, and the Grenache, a generous producer of good but mostly everyday dinner wines.

As time passes, more in volume and quality can be expected from the growing industry emerging in lands lying along the Mediterranean, Languedoc and Rousillon, wines still hardly familiar in France itself. These promising developments face problems that must be met and managed, but wines from sections of this region were competitors of Bordeaux, losing not because of inferior quality but for want of access to world markets.



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