Quality wine starts with the delicate relationship between the grape and its share of sun, good soil, and rain. Obviously, Mother Nature treats every district differently, and identifying the better regions on French wine labels renders the purchase decision a little less painful. So until the French wise up and admit their confusing AOC system is really a pain in the arse, we'll continue our effort to decipher the white wine labels of Alsace, Loire Valley, Bordeaux and Burgundy.
Of all the French wine regions, Alsace is the easiest to understand. Unlike other regions, they label their wines by grape name, making the selection less problematic. Alsace's fruity grapes, Riesling [REES-ling] and Gewurztraminer [geh-VERTS-trah-mee-ner], originally hail from Germany because Alsace formed part of the pre-World War I regime. Because of this history, people frequently confuse Germany's often-syrupy Rieslings with France's dry Rieslings, and this is a shame. French Rieslings are delicious, perfumey, and soft. Their Gewurztraminers are fresh, spicy, and faintly sweet. To aid in your selection, find reliable shippers -- companies who buy grapes from local growers, produce the wine, then market under their own name (Alsacian wineries rarely market and export their own wine). Good ones: Trimbach, Dopff Au Moulin, and Hugel & Fils.
Reasonably priced, Loire Valley offers simple, everyday wines. Growers focus on two main white grape varieties, Sauvignon Blanc [SO-vin-yon BLAHNK] and Chenin Blanc [SHEN'N BLAHNK]. The wines from Sancerre [san SAIR] and Pouilly Fume [pu EE FOO may] are made with Sauvignon Blanc grapes, and taste light, dry and somewhat earthy. Vouvray, another large region in Loire Valley, grows Chenin Blanc grapes and is something of a chameleon; wines from here can be dry, somewhat sweet, or really sweet. Vouvray is for the drinker who prefers to stay away from the drier stuff like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
Most people think Bordeaux produces only red wines, but great whites are waiting to be uncorked. The central white wine district is Graves, supplying wines made from Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon [SEM-ih-yon] grapes. These wines are usually blends of both grapes, depending on the year's harvest and the winemaker's whims.
All white Burgundies stem from the same grape: Chardonnay. The Chablis district is perhaps the best known, but the name has become bastardized over the years since California wineries slapped the name Chablis on inferior jug wines. Needless to say, wines coming from the "true" Chablis region in France are a bit different. The wines are always dry, somewhat full-bodied, and usually very expensive. Reliable shippers of Chablis are: Louis Latour, Joseph Drouhin, and J. Moreau & Fils.
Until we convince those wily French that simplicity creates more wine sales, I suppose we'll continue to suffer. But, if you can't change French tradition, figure a way around it by learning their language. Begin by trying these wines.
2000 Chateau Graville-Lacoste, Graves Smooth as ice, this hot-diggity wine goes down great! It's very well balanced, and offers a wonderful, perfumey nose. $19. 1/2
1998 J. Moreau & Fils Chablis Nothing but the best in this wine. Crisp and dry, it has very little oak, which allows the fruit from the grapes to come through. Incredible value in a white Burgundy. $14. 1/2
1999 Chateau de Valmer, Vouvray Slightly sweet & flowery, this is a stereotypical Chenin Blanc. Great for sipping, with or without food. $10.
1999 Trimbach Alsace Riesling Juicy and fruit-forward, this wine smacks of good drinkin'. If you're looking for a good Riesling, go for this one. $16. 1/2