The great French wine conspiracy

Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
Trip End Mar 16, 2009

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Flag of France  , Centre,
Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The most frustrating thing about understanding French wine is being able to decipher the cryptic label on the bottle. When you order or buy a bottle of 'New World' wine (basically anything produced outside of Europe) you simply choose by ordering the type or cultivar of wine you like, for example a chardonnay or a merlot or a blend of you favourite varietals. The French however have a plot or rather a conspiracy I believe to confuse the rest of the world by not telling you what is in the bottle!

So in order to know what you are buying you need to understand what the breakdown of the AOC in France or in other words what gets produced where or what 'is' allowed to be produced where. Which really means that if you have a wine estate in Bordeaux for example, you can't just grow and produce wine from which ever grapes you choose. To get the acclaimed accreditation you have to grow only the grapes that are on the approved list for that area and use wine making techniques that are deemed appropriate. This is great when it comes to setting a standard and for controlling quality but for the non French consumer this is a problem.

The fact that the label only states the AOC or the area the wine was produced in means that you have to know that if a wine was produced in Bordeaux it could contain any one of the following Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Carmenere or all of the above or if you ordered a Rhone wine that only consists of Syrah or Viognier if its white. Considering there are over 300 appellations it makes quite tricky to buy a simple cabernet sauvignon.

This just means that to truly appreciate some of the French wines you need to understand a little about the wine growing areas of France, The best way to do this is through stimulating all the senses. Seeing the endless neatly cropped rows of vines, smelling the musty oaky aromas of the barrel cellars, hearing the pop as a bottle of great French wine is opened and finally tasting a delicate flavours of great wine. That's why we decided to spend so much time in France in the hope of trying to get a better understanding of the difference between a Beaujolais and a Bordeaux.

Since we had almost conquered the Bordeaux region it was time to move on to another famous wine region, the Loire Valley. The Loire Valley is famous for its Vouray or Chenin Blanc and its delicious Chinon or simply Cabernet Franc. Since this wine region is slightly less well know than its big sister Bordeaux there were less options for wine tours but this did not stop us from booking back to back tours of the white and red wine areas.

Our first tour was of the Vouray area which consisted of an afternoon tour to some of the more famous Chenin Blanc producers. We visited the Marc Bredif cellar and were taken on an amazing tour of their premises including their 3km's long cellar network. Unlike the caves in Bordeaux which have been carved out of limestone these caves are dug in chalk. How they hold up I don't know but by just touching the walls you can feel the chalky substance come loose. Marc Bredif specialised in turning their Chenin Blanc into sparkling wines in the same traditional way as used in Champaign.

Second stop was a 5th generation wine farm that clearly was not expecting us from the look on her face but nevertheless the old lady took us for a tour of their operation. It was a little different to other tours as you walk through the underground cellar with your glass in hand and taste along the way. The amount of mould in their caves was incredible and must have been a few inched thick in places.

Our final was a 3rd generation one man or rather woman operation what matured all her Chenin Blanc in old oak barrels. This was a very different way of fermenting the wine and it also proved that bottle need to be cellared for at least 5 years as the younger wines all had a horrible bile aftertaste. If we though the previous cellar had big mould this place took the cake, it was unbelievable that anything good could come out of something covered in a thick greeny brown growth. Might explain the bile we tasted.

The wines in general were unlike anything we had ever tried before but were still thoroughly enjoyed. We'll defiantly be looking out for them in the future, not the bile stuff though!

Our second day's tour was focused on red wines or more specifically Cabernet Franc which apparently means 'the pure cabernet' or the original. Out tour took us to three very different cellars but the most impressive was Chateau de La Grille where we were taken on a personal tour of the premises by the owner and wine maker. It was a very entertaining and informative visit and the Cab Franc we tasted was some of the best I have ever tried. After a little picnic in the vineyards we were taken to yet another famous Cab Franc which was just as enjoyable as the first.

Sadly our visit to Tours was all about fun and wine we also had some minor setbacks in our trip planning and budget. We discovered after a few hours of investigation that the company arranging our overland trip through South America, Overland Club, were apparently not as reliable as we thought. After scouring the net to find some traveller reviews on the company we were devastated to find nothing but negative reviews. It seems the company have been going through some financial problems as a result of their poor customer service and have not delivered what was promised.

The good thing is we found this out before we paid a huge amount of money over to them for the 3 month South American tour. We have now decided not to take the risk with a company that had websites dedicated to its bad service and rather to do South America on our own. Throughout this trip we have had a pretty good idea of where we were going and how we'd get there but now for the first time it's not planned at all, and it's very exciting! Seven months of travel have given us the confidence to tackle the big continent and basically take it a day at a time, only deadline is the Rio carnival.

An even worse shock than the demise of our overland trip was that out European budget had gone badly wrong somewhere. I might have mentioned this before but the bank account we have through a very well known international bank does not give us internet or electronic access to our credit card transactions so tracking down any missing money is almost impossible. This has resulted in us having to keep a paper record of every single cash withdrawal and credit card payment so we can monitor our daily spend which we meticulously did. So you can imagine the shock when we discovered we had no Euros left and two weeks still to go in Europe! Hopefully this is all a mix up and we won't be stuck somewhere in the middle of South America without a penny.
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Where I stayed
Hotel Val de Loire
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