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An introduction to French wines

Updated: Nov 19, 2021

Once upon a very long time ago, a group of friends were on board a seventy-year-old yacht, crossing the English Channel on a calm sea at night. It was election night 1987 and two of the people on board were leaving England for a nautical adventure via the French canals to the Mediterranean, where they planned to sail to Greece and Turkey, visiting Italy on route.

Sailing with friends and enjoying French wines

We arrived late afternoon in the city. It was a Sunday and up until that point our masts were still up. From Rouen, there were bridges the yacht wouldn't pass under until the masts were lowered. Rouen is a great port and we found a deserted area off the river, where there just happened to be a derrick. We had the necessary pulleys and rope on board, so someone skimmed up the pole, attached the equipment and the masts were duly lifted and set into the specially designed kit we had for them on deck, which meant we could walk around them, albeit with a degree of difficulty. We motored to a safe place to rest for the night and whilst I cooked dinner, some of the others went ashore to look for liquid refreshment. Our supplies had been exhausted by the 'long' voyage from England to Rouen. They came back triumphantly with ribbed plastic bottles of red, at the vastly expensive price of 50 cents a bottle. We expected vinegar and got nectar! It was our first introduction to French wines bought on the river voyage and it was a joy to taste. We couldn't believe it could be so cheap and so good.

The following morning, as the friends left to go back to England, we set off back to the tiny establishment to get in great stocks, only to find that the shop was shut on Mondays. It was possibly the greatest sadness of the four-year trip! Sailing around for those years I dreamt of going back on the way home. Passing through Rouen four years later we were unable to find it again. One of life's great regrets. But at least we were able to taste it once!

Passing through the wine regions of France, from Rouen in the north to Port Saint Louis on the Mediterranean.

On the trip south and north we travelled through some of the great French wine regions - the Loire valley, the area around Orléans known for its Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, the Rhône valley, known for its Cote du Rhône’s. There is archaeological evidence that it was the Romans who started planting vines in France in the first century AD and the Loire seems to have been one of the early pioneering regions for their introduction. By the middle ages the wines of the Loire valley were more esteemed in the courts of England and France than those of Bordeaux, where today over 700 million bottles are produced annually and some of the most prestigious and expensive wines in the world are produced.

The Loire Valley produces over 700 million bottles of wine each year

The Loire starts life in the Cévennes and wends its way to Nantes and eventually the Atlantic coast. Muscadet is produced in the lower reaches around Nantes, closer to the Priory and visitors coming from England to stay can plan their trip down by car to stop at one of the well-known producers to enjoy a wine tasting and perhaps buy a few bottles for their holiday! The Loire province includes 87 appellations - an appellation is a French method of classifying the grape varieties and winemaking practices in hundreds of geographically defined areas. It can cover regions, villages or even just vineyards - so an appellation defines the area and the quality of the wine produced. The Loire appellations come under the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC), Vin Délimité de Qualitié Supérieure (VDQS) and the Vin de Pays systems. The Loire region produces mainly white wine from Chenin blanc, Melon de Bourgogne and Sauvignon grapes. Red wines are produced from Cabernet franc grapes, especially in the area around Chinon. The area also produces rose, dessert and sparkling wines. The Loire region is the second-largest sparkling wine-producing area after Champagne, producing Crément that we frequently enjoy in Pressigny. If you are staying in Pressigny, a great day out to discover the wine of the Loire region is on a tour through caves on foot or even by bicycle! As we travelled south towards the Mediterranean we bought local wine in each region we passed through. After the river Seine, we moved into the Yonne, passing through the Burgundy region. At times we were sorely in need of a glass at the end of the day! Each of the canals or rivers had its own peculiarities - the first time we encountered locks with sloping sides it was a struggle to keep our deep keel away from the sloping stone wall as the water emptied from the lock. We used boat hooks to push off from the sides, but some of the locks could empty very quickly and the swirling waters, especially when they were filling, could make for quite a hairy experience. We bought Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Our budget didn't reach to spending on the Crément de Bourgogne and anyway, we didn't have a fridge to chill it in! One evening we met a couple travelling north on their yacht. The canals and rivers are very friendly places and we often met other travellers and some became friends for life! On this occasion the lovely French couple invited us to join them for a glass of wine before dinner. We sat at a picnic table on the bank and they opened a bottle of Gewurztraminer, a wine from the Alsace region in the east of France. It was my first introduction to wine and it was, we were told, a very good bottle. I was amazed at the incredible difference in taste to the wines of the regions we had passed through. Fresh and fruity, I loved it - but for some reason have rarely drunk it since. I must get a bottle to remind myself of that lovely evening! We passed into the Rhone and travelling down the river the hillsides were covered in beautiful lines of green vines. The Rhone locks are massive and extremely deep. The first one was daunting as we went down into what felt like a deep black hole, the blue sky almost a dot above us! Here we bought Cotes du Rhone and Syrah. The weather improved as we headed south (it was a very wet summer!), and as we got to Provence at the end of our passage through France, we sampled some of the wines of Provence...Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc and Semillon. Not being a connoisseur, I had a passing recognition of French wine names, but if, like me, you are keen to improve your basic knowledge, a great place to start is at this website, where they have a great map of the wine regions of France and lots more information on the wines of France. If you are in England, I highly recommend Bray Valley wines to buy wines and to sample some more unusual French wines at really great prices. The owner, Charlie Cotton will be delighted to help you in your discovery of the wines of France.


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