In defense of the derided French wine label

The French have long been lambasted for their labeling practices. Unlike many New World wines which label their wines after the grape varietal that is put into the bottle, the French prefer "place names" such as Vouvray, Gevrey–Chambertin, and Côtes du Rhône.

The classic argument against such a practice is that "place names" do not convey enough information to the consumer… that a wine background is needed to interpret the label.

And there is some truth to this. Vouvray, for example, can be dry or sweet…and some basic wine savvy is needed to know that Gevrey-Chambertin is pinot noir and Côtes du Rhône is a grenache-based red blend.

But in the Old World, such facts are part of the inner fabric of cultural knowing. Just as New York Yankees means baseball to an American or the Baltimore Ravens means football to Marylanders, Pouilly Fuisse is chardonnay to the French. The term "World Series" may mean nothing to a European, but for Americans it carries an entire package of reality. And so it is with "place names" on wine labels. They, too, carry meaning.

For sure, it would be a great assist if the French also list the grape variety on the label. And many producers are doing just that these days. But there is a fundamental and deep-rooted resistance to the idea of substituting "place names" for varietal nomenclature, because, in many ways, the "place names" tell you more.

Take Burgundy as an example. There are 140 miles spanning Chablis to the north and the Maconnais to the south. The north is influenced by cold winds from the Atlantic; the south by the warmth and sunshine of the Mediterranean. They both grow chardonnay, but very different styles of chardonnay.

And not all of these differences are climate related.

The geography of Burgundy is best described as a pile of elliptical serving plates that stack from smallest to largest…or to put the analogy into a geological context, from youngest to oldest, working from the top down. Each plate represents a layer of soil that formed during a specific geological epoch.

The "bottom plate" of the region is a granite massif that surfaces in Beaujolais. All other, younger soils stack on top of this.

180 million years ago, the central portion of France was semi-tropical and covered by a warm and shallow sea. Shellfish were abundant. As they died, they settled to the bottom. Under pressure, these deposits became limestone and limestone-rich clays called marls.

Each geological epoch, an expanse that ran millions of years in length, was dominated by different types of sea creatures, thus giving birth to different types of limestones and marls. In other words, each plate in the stack is different.

The oldest soil is the 220 million year old eroding granite massif in Beaujolais, followed by the marine deposits of the Maconnais. Then, getting progressively younger, are the soils of the Côte Chalonnaise, the Côte d'Or and Chablis.

The fruity and delicately floral chardonnay of the Maconnais, whose roots touch a geological history 195 million years old, is quite different from the rich and weighty chardonnay of the Côte de Beaune whose essence is extracted from soils that date back 170 million years. And both differ markedly from the chardonnay of Chablis that takes its verve and electricity from the small bivalves that lived 140 million years ago.

It is for this reason that the Burgundians take great issue with simply putting "chardonnay" on their wine labels. This would perpetrate a grave injustice to what is uncorked.

"Place names" convey a wealth of information. And you can put this to the taste test!

Using one producer (so as to eliminate variation in winemaking philosophy), try two white Burgundies and two Beaujolais side by side.

Drouhin Saint-Veran 2009 from the Maconnais has tons of harvest apple fruit, a hint of strawflower and a nut skin finish. The wine is broad and fat on the palate…a juicy little number that reflects the warmth of the south. $17.

Drouhin Rully 2009 from the Chalonnais… just to the north of the Maconnais has gobs of golden delicious apple fruit with a touch of toffee, roasted nut and sweet corn. $20

The wines are both made from chardonnay and there is a world of difference between the two.

Drouhin Beaujolais Villages 2009…mellow and mouth-filling with loads of cranberry/pomegranate fruit and soft, supple tannins. The zone of production for Beaujolais-Villages encompasses 38 villages. This bottling hailed from vineyards on pink granite soil. $12.

Drouhin Brouilly 2009…vibrant wild strawberry and cranberry fruit with silken tannins. Brouilly is one of the 10 Beaujolais Crus. Within Beaujolais, the Crus represent the best of the best. These vineyards are located at the base of Mount Brouilly on soils of pink granite and black decomposed diorite. $18.

The wines are both made from Gamay and there is, again, a world of difference between the two.

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