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   2012 En Primeur
En Primeur

French Main Grape Varieties

We have taken a lot of time to look into the French grape varieties that we sell and here are some informative facts about the grapes and wines they are used in:

Gamay | Grenache | Carignan | Merlot | Malbec | Cabernet Sauvignon | Syrah | Cabernet Franc | Pinot Noir

Sauvignon Blanc | Chardonnay | Pinot Gris | Chenin Blanc | Semillon


GamayA purple-coloured grape variety used to make red wines, most prominently in the Beaujolais region. A very old grape cultivar, it was first mentioned in the 1400s. It is known for its abundant production but also great potential in producing wines of exceptional quality when planted on appropriate soils.

The grape brought relief to the village growers of the Burgundy and Beaujolais regions following the losses of the Black Death. Unlike the Pinot Noir variety, Gamay ripened two weeks earlier and was far less difficult to cultivate. In addition, it produced a stronger, fruitier wine in vast quantities.

By July 1395 such was the popularity of the grape that the Duke of Burgundy, Philippe the Bold, outlawed cultivation of the grape – referring to it as the “disloyal Gamay” that, although capable of producing vast quantities of wine, was full of “very great and horrible harshness.” He especially took issue with those who planted Gamay on soils that were well-suited for the more “elegant” Pinot Noir. 60 years later Philippe the Good issued another edict against Gamay, stating that “The Dukes of Burgundy are known as the lords of the best wines in Christendom. We will maintain our reputation.”

In reality, Beaujolais produces vibrant and exceptionally fruity wines. Producers of the highest caliber (Beaujolais Crus) can give rise to varied wines of the highest quality. Some vintages produce wines of impeccable structure that can improve over the course of 20 years. Look out for Beaujolais wines from Brouilly, Regnie, Fleurie, Saint-Amour, Chenas, Julienas, Morgon and Moulin-a-Vent to name just a few.

CinsautCinsaut is one of the oldest native grape varieties from the south of France. Its high tolerance to heat means it is an important viticultural presence not only in Provence and Languedoc but also in the former French colonies of Algeria and Morocco. The hill-loving cultivar has also made its home in the New World where in South Africa it is grown under the name of Hermitage and usually blended with Cabernet Sauvignon. In Australia it gives rise to wines such as Black Prince, Blue Imperial, Oeillade and Ulliade.

Cinsaut produces large grains and wines that are very sweet and juicy. Although it tends to produce very heavy crops the quality is far better if yields are stringently controlled. Although drought and heat resistant it is fairly susceptible to disease, and so is perfectly suited for a drier climate. It produces cylindrical bunches of black grapes with thick skins.

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GrenacheOne of the most widely planted red grape varieties on the planet. It ripens late and so needs hot, dry conditions such as those found in Spain and the south of France.

Grenache is most widely associated with the Rhone and regions of southern France. Its history in the Rhone can be traced to the influence of Burgundian wine merchants in the 17th-18th centuries who were looking for a blending variety to add body and alcohol content to their fairly light bodied wines. Grenache, with its propensity for high alcohol and high yields, fit the bill.

Today Grenache is most widely planted in the Languedoc-Roussillon region where it is widely blended with Carignan, Cinsaut, Syrah and Mourvedre. The vines strong, hard wood and affinity for bush vine training allows it to also flourish in the Mistral-influenced Rhone regions. The schist and granite soils of southern France are also highly beneficial to this grape.

Grenache produces a sweet juice that can have an almost jam-like consistency when very ripe. Syrah is usually blended to provide colour and spice while Mourvedre can add elegance and structure to the wine.

The grape’s thick skin and pale colouring also makes it well suited for the production of full-bodied, fruity red rose wines. Grenache is the principle grape behind the roses of Tavel and Lirac and plays an important role in the Provence region as well. In the Roussillon region Grenache noir and its gris and blanc mutations are used in the production of the fortified vin doux naturels of Banyuls and Maury. The characteristics of French Grenache based wines depend largely on what other grape varieties are blended with it, ranging from the spicy richness associated with Chateauneuf-du-Pape to the chewy fruitiness associated with Cotes du Rhone Villages. Other regions with sizable plantings of Grenache include the Apellation d’origine controlee regions of Minervois, Fitou and Corbieres.

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CarignanCarignan is a red wine grape variety that originated in Carinena, Aragon. Later it was transplanted to Sardinia, Italy, Algeria and later France. In Aragon it was historically a component of the neighbouring Rioja’s wine blend and from Spain gained prominence in Algeria, feeding that country’s export production to France.

Upon Algeria’s independence in 1962 the French supply of Carignan wine was cut off and growers in Southern France began to plant the wine for their own production. In 1988 it accounted for 167,000 hectares and was then France’s most widely planted grape. However since then various EU schemes have brought the number down.

Carignan produces very large yields in the range of 200 hl/ha (or 11 tons/acre). The vine has to contend with various viticultural hazards however, including high sensitivity to rot, powdery mildew, downy mildew and grape worms. It is usually blended with Syrah and Grenache, producing a soft wine with rustic fruit and perfume.

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MerlotUsed for both blending and varietal wines, Merlot is the foremost grape in the Bordeaux. Merlot wines usually have a medium body with hints of berry, plum and currant. Its softness and fleshiness, combined with earlier ripening, makes Merlot a popular grape for blending with the sterner, later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon, with its higher tannin levels. Its name comes from the Occitan word “merlot” which means “young blackbird” – a nod towards the grape’s beautiful dark-blue colour. An offspring of Cabernet Franc (and therefore a sibling of Cabernet Sauvignon), it was first mentioned in 1784 where a labelled wine made from the grape attracted praise from all quarters.

The grape can easily be identified by its loose bunches of large, plump grapes. The colour is less or a blue/black hue than Cabernet Sauvignon and it has a thinner skin, with correspondingly fewer tannins. Pruning has a massive impact on the outcome of the wine, with reduced yields giving higher quality wine. Merlot has a propensity to quickly over ripen after hitting its initial ripeness level, sometimes in a matter of a few days. The renowned Chateau Petrus favours early picking to ensure acidity and ageing potential, while other growers favour late picking and the added fruitiness that comes with the additional ripeness of the fruit.

Merlot is now the most commonly grown grape in France, which claims two thirds of the world’s total Merlot cultivation.

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MalbecAt one point Malbec was more popular in the Medoc region than Cabernet Sauvignon. Many of the great clarets of the 1800’s lasted well into the 1900’s – proof positive that Malbec has massive quality potential. However, its susceptibility to coulure, downy mildew and frost meant that it became increasingly unpopular. In 1956 a terrible frost wiped out a huge proportion of Malbec varieties in Bordeaux, allowing many growers to start a new with different, hardier varieties. Today it is most easily found in Cahors where AOC regulations stipulate that Malbec must compose at least 70 percent of the blend (with Merlot and Tannat rounding out the remaining percentage).

The variety has had a better lot in Argentina where it has become something of a “national variety” – the Argentine clone having smaller berries in smaller, tighter clusters. This may suggest it is descended from a clone that was wiped out in France during the phylloxera epidemic. The Argentine Malbec offers a plusher texture than the more rigid French Malbec, but offers similar ageing potential.

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Cabernet Sauvignon:
Cabernet SauvignonDespite being so prominent in the winemaking industry, the origins of this variety were shady up until the 1990s. Prior to this, many felt that the variety was ancient origin – perhaps even the Biturcia grape used to make ancient Roman wine. However, these romanticised and altogether dubious origins were placed on the shelf when DNA typing, undertaken by the UC David Department of Viticulture and Enology, determined that Cabernet Sauvignon was the offspring of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc – most probably due to a chance crossing in the 17th century.

Cabernet Sauvignon can grow in various different climates and soil types – in fact the wine usually gives a sense of the terroir in the taste. Naturally prone to vigorous yields, winemakers must be careful not to compromise the quality of the wine. Practices such as using less vigorous rootstock, green harvesting and aggressive pruning of grape clusters ensure lower yields.

This variety is most famously found in Bordeaux blends and thrives on the gravelly soils of the Medoc, being both well drained whilst also radiating heat to the vines. However, internationally varietals are very common – especially in warmer climates.

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SyrahSyrah has long been found in the Rhone region of South-Eastern France, but before 1998 it was not known with certainty if it had originated in the region or was instead brought there earlier. However, DNA typing in that year proved that Syrah was the offspring of two local varieties – Dureza (father) and Mondeuse Blanche (mother).

To this day it remains a fixture of the Northern Rhone and is closely associated with classic wines such as Hermitage, Cornas, and Cotes-Rotie. In the Southern Rhone it is utilised as a blending grape in such wines as Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, and Cotes du Rhone, where Grenache usually makes up the bulk of the blend. Although its best incarnations will last for decades, less-extracted styles are meant to be enjoyed young for their lively red and blueberry characters and smooth tannin structure.

The variety has also had astounding international success in Argentina, Chile, South Africa, the United States and, most famously, in Australia under the name “Shiraz”. In Australia it was introduced in 1832 by James Busby, an immigrant who brought vine clippings from Europe with him. Today it is Australia’s most popular red grape; however it has not always been dominant. In the 1970’s white wine was so popular that growers tore up Shiraz and Grenache, which were deemed to be unprofitable. However, since then Shiraz has enjoyed international success and plantings have increased rapidly (standing at approximately 41,115 hectares in 2006). Recently, blending with Viognier at 4 percent has become popular in order to add apricot tones – something that has been practiced in the Northern Rhone region for many years.

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Cabernet Franc:
Cabernet FrancCabernet Franc is one of the major red grape varieties worldwide, principally being grown for blending with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in the Bordeaux style, but can also be vinified alone, as is the case with the Loire’s Chinon.

As might be expected it is in general it is very similar to its offspring Cabernet Sauvignon, however it buds and ripens at least a week earlier. This allows the vine to thrive in slightly cooler climates, such as the Loire and even Canada. The winged bunches are elongate and small-medium in size, with the berries being quite small and blue-black in colour, with fairly thin skins. The grape is highly yield sensitive, with over-cropping producing wines with more green, vegetal notes than is usual.

In France it is found predominantly in the Loire Valley and in the Libournais region of the Bordeaux. As of 2000, it was the sixth most widely planted red grape variety in the country. Internationally speaking it can be found in Italy, Canada, and the USA in significant quantities. Interestingly in the USA it is used by ‘Meritage’ wines that aim to emulate the Bordeaux blend in California, while in Canada it is used to produce superlative ice wines with immensely concentrated flavours.

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Pinot Noir:
Pinot Noir is grown across the world, mainly in cooler regions, but it is most famously associated with Burgundy Chehalem Pinot Noirwhere it is considered to produce some of the finest wines in the world – provided one can overcome the difficulties present in cultivating it.

The grape clusters are small and cylindrical, vaguely shaped like a pine cone – this has lead some viticultural historians to speculate that this shape may have given the variety its name. In the vineyards it is sensitive to light exposure, cropping levels (it must be low yielding), soil types and pruning techniques. In the winery it is sensitive to fermentation methods, yeast strains and is highly reflective of its terroir. Its thin skin makes it highly susceptible to bunch rot and various other fungal diseases. The vines themselves are prone to downy mildew, leaf roll, and fanleaf. It is because of these complications that Jancis Robinson calls Pinot a “minx of a vine” while Andre Tchelistcheff declared that “God made Cabernet Sauvignon whereas the devil made Pinot Noir.”

Despite these drawbacks the payoff is considerable. Master Sommelier Madeline Triffon calls pinot “sex in a glass”. Robert Parker describes it thus: “When it’s great, Pinot noir produces the most complex, hedonistic, and remarkably thrilling red wine in the world…”

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Sauvignon Blanc:
Sauvignon BlancThis variety gets its name from the French word sauvage (“wild”) and blanc (“white”) due to its early origins as an indigenous grape in South West France. It is planted in many of the world’s major wine regions, producing a crisp, dry and refreshing white varietal wine. Conversely, it is also a component in the sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac.

In France Sauvignon Blanc is grown in the maritime climate of Bordeaux as well as the continental climate of the Loire Valley. The climates of these areas are particularly favourable in slowing the ripening on the vine, allowing the grape more time to develop a balance between acidity and sugar levels. Like Cabernet Sauvignon, this variety closely mirrors its terroir in the taste. The chalk and marl of Sancerre and Pouilly produces wines of richness and complexity while areas with more compact chalk soils produce wines with more finessse and perfume.

The wine has also become well-established in New Zealand and Australia. Sandy soils over slate shingles have become the most desirable locations for plantings due to the good drainage of the soil and poor fertility that encourages the wine to concentrate its flavours in lower yields.

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Chardonnay is famed for its delicate, almost precarious aroma. Even the smallest contribution from another varietyChardonnay ensures that it will dominate the flavour. Chardonnay’s distinctive aroma is reminiscent of apples, lemons, peaches and tropical fruits.

This delicate neutrality also allows Chardonnay to completely reflect both the influences of its terroir and the techniques employed by its cultivators. It is vinified in many different styles, from the elegant “flinty” wines of Chablis to rich, buttery Meursaults and New World wines with rich tropical fruit flavours.

It is a highly vigorous wine, with extensive leaf cover that can inhibit the energy and nutrient uptake of the grape clusters. Vineyard managers therefore counteract this with aggressive pruning and canopy management. Densely planted Chardonnay vines will compete for one another, funnelling energy into their grape clusters. As is often the case, high yields can have a dramatically negative impact on the quality of the wine produced.

Chardonnay is seen as one of the dominant grapes in Burgundy, though Pinot Noir outnumbers it by a 3 to 1 ratio. It is mainly found in Chablis where it is the only permitted AOC variety, producing crisp and elegant wines that are internationally renowned. In Champagne it is one of the three major grape varieties planted in the region, thriving on the chalk soil found there.

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Pinot Gris:
Pinot GrisPinot Gris originated in the Burgundy region, where it was probably called Fromentaeu. It spread from Burgundy, along with Pinot Noir, and became a favourite of the Emperor Charles IV, who had cuttings imported to Hungary. In 1711 the variety was (re)discovered by a German merchant named Johann Seger Ruland, who found it growing wild in Germany.

Until the 18th and 19th century the grape was a popular planting in Burgundy and Champagne but poor yields and unreliable crops caused the grape to fall out of favour in these areas. The same fate nearly occurred in Germany, but vine breeders in the early 1900s were able to develop clonal varieties that would produce a more consistent and reliable crop.

In all other respects apart from colour Pinot Gris is almost identical to Pinot Noir. The colour difference is derived from a genetic mutation that occurred centuries ago, and the leaves and vines of both grapes are so similar that this is the only way to tell them apart.
Pinot Gris is considered one of the noble grapes of Alsace, and may be used for varietal Alsace Grand Cru AOC and the late harvest wines of Vendange Tardive and Selection de Grains Nobles. However, it is also enjoying great success in Australia, Italy, New Zealand, Oregon and California. In general, Alsatian Pinot Gris are medium to full bodied with a rich, floral bouquet. German Pinot Gris are more full-bodied with a balance of acidity and slight sweetness, whereas in Oregon the wines are medium bodied with aromas of pear, apple, and/or melon.

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Chenin Blanc:
Chenin BlancChenin Blanc is first mentioned in 845 where it is recorded as being grown on the left bank of the Loire River. It probably originated as a mutant of the Pineau d’Aunis in Anjou. It later spread to South Africa by way of vine cuttings sent to Jan van Riebeeck in the Cape Colony by the Dutch East India Company.

The Chenin blanc grapevine buds early in the growing season and ripens late-traits that would make the vine more ideal in warmer climates rather than the cool Loir Valley. However, in warm years (which become steadily more common due to climate change) the balance between the Loire’s marginal climate and the warmth to attain full ripeness has the potential of producing wines with depth of complexity and finesse. The climate of the region will largely dictate whether Chenin Blanc is produced in a predominantly sweet or dry manner, while the vineyard soil type will influence the overall style of wine.

The quality of Chenin Blanc is intimately connected to the care taken in the vineyard. If the grapes are harvested too soon, before they ripen, the high acidity of the resulting wine will be (according to wine expert Oz Clarke) “one of the nastiest wines possible”. If the grapes are harvested at too high of yields, the grapes will not retain any of Chenin blanc’s distinctive character notes. With optimal ripeness and balance between acidity and sugars being such a viticultural priority for this variety, many growers will harvest the grapes in tries or successive picking through the vineyards.

Wine expert Jancis Robinson has noted that Chenin Blanc is probably the most world’s most versatile grape, being able to produce quality wines of various sweetness, including dessert wines noted for their aging ability, as well as sparkling made according to the methode champenoise and fortified wines. It can distinguish itself as a single varietal wine or it can add acidity as a blending component. Across the dry to sweet spectrum it is capable of producing premium quality wines.

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SemillonSemillon, responsible for the legendary dessert wines of the Sauternes and once the most widely planted grape variety in the world, is today generally undervalued.

The variety is relatively easy to cultivate and consistently produces six to eight tons of grapes per acre from its vigorous vines. It is fairly resistant to all diseases with the notable exception of rot. The grape ripens early and adopts a pinkish hue. The thin skin means there is a definite risk of sunburn or raisining – therefore it is best suited to areas with sunny days and cool nights.

In France the Semillon grape is grown mostly in the Bordeaux where it is blended with Sauvignon blanc and Muscadelle. It is most famously known as the foremost contributor to the sweet white wines of Sauternes, Barsac and Cerons. In such wines the vine is exposed to “noble rot” or Botrytis cinerea which consumes the water content of the fruit, concentrating the sugar present in its pulp. When attacked by Botrytis cinerea the grapes shrivel and the acid and sugar levels are intensified.

It is also grown widely in Australia where it is used to produce a dry wine, usually exhibiting citrus flavours of lemon, lime or green apple. For some time it was incorrectly identified as Riesling.

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