MAJOR WINE AREAS
French wines lead the world in quality. The area adjacent to the port of Bordeaux is the home of the widely planted "noble" vine, the Cabernet Sauvignon, which, with other related varieties, principally Cabernet Franc and Merlot, produces such famous red wines as the châteaux Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, and Mouton-Rothschild in the Médoc district; Haut-Brion from the Graves; Cheval-Blanc and Ausone in Saint Emilion; and Petrus in Pomerol. Equally renowned is Château d'Yquem, a luscious white wine produced in Sauternes from Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon grapes. A large number of other châteaux produce a vast quantity of red and white wine of middle and lesser quality.
Burgundy is a smaller region but produces many famous wines from two related grape varieties: Pinot Noir for reds and Chardonnay for whites. The best reds come from the Côte d'Or, a narrow strip of hilly land that follows the course of the Saône River and extends roughly from Dijon for 60 km (37 mi) south to Chagny, a town 20 km (12 mi) to the south of Beaune, the municipal heart of the Burgundian wine trade. The Côte d'Or is traditionally divided between the stronger, heartier red wines of the Côte de Nuits, such as Gevrey-Chambertin, Chambolle-Musigny, Vosne-Romanée, and Nuits-Saint-Georges, and the more delicate reds of the Côte de Beaune, such as Beaune, Pommard, and Volnay. Of equal standing are the dry white Burgundies: Chablis from the north; and Corton-Charlemagne, the Montrachets, and the Meursaults from the southern part of the Côte d'Or. Southern Burgundy has extensive vineyards producing good red wines of lesser quality: Macon Rouge, Mercurey, and Beaujolais from the Gamay grape, plus dry whites, including the currently popular and overpriced Pouilly-Fuissé.
The Champagne region in northern France produces indisputably the best sparkling wine in the world. Other good sparkling wines are produced in the Loire, Burgundy, and Savoie. The Rhône valley produces excellent full-bodied reds such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Côte Rotie, and Hermitage; rare and subtle whites such as Condrieu and Château Grillet; and the most renowned rosé, Tavel. Alsace, in the Rhine valley to the east, produces consistently good quality white wines named for the grape variety: Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Muscat, Sylvaner, and others. The Loire valley, in west central France, produces excellent, light, and refreshing white wines such as Sancerre and Muscadet; the well-known rosé d'Anjou; and the minor reds Chinon and Bourgeuil. The Midi and Provence regions in the south of France produce a great deal of ordinary wine, as well as some aperitif and dessert wines and popular rosés.
Although wine is made in no fewer than 34 states, only California wines can be said to rival those of France. French wines are usually named by the region, town, or vineyard where they are produced, and, occasionally, by a generic name (Beaujolais). California wines, on the other hand, are often named for the principal grape variety used in making the wine. The finest California red wines are made from the Cabernet Sauvignon grape. Others include the Pinot Noir, Grenache (a rosé grape), Zinfandel, and Petite Sirah.
Fine whites are led by the Chardonnay, by Pinot Blanc, and by some late-harvested Rieslings. Wines from the Chenin Blanc and Semillon grapes are not in the same class. The finest wines are made in the Napa and Sonoma valleys north of San Francisco, in nearby Sonoma and Mendocino counties, and in an expanding grape-growing area to the south of San Francisco Bay as far as Monterey. Mass-produced table and dessert wines come mainly from the Central Valley.
The quality and quantity of grapes depend on geographical, geological, and climatic conditions in the vineyards, and on the grape variety and methods of cultivation. Some of these factors may be governed by local laws.
The crop is harvested in the autumn when the grapes contain the optimum balance of sugar and acidity. For the sweet white wines of Bordeaux and Germany, picking is delayed until the grapes are affected by a beneficial mold, Botrytis cinerea, which concentrates the juice by dehydration.
For red wine, the grapes are crushed immediately after picking and the stems generally removed. The yeasts present on the skins come into contact with the grape sugars, and fermentation begins naturally. Cultured yeasts, however, are sometimes added. During fermentation the sugars are converted by the yeasts to ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide. The alcohol extracts color from the skins; the longer the vatting period, the deeper the color. Glycerol and some of the esters, aldehydes, and acids that contribute to the character, bouquet, and taste of the wine are by-products of fermentation.
Traditional maturation of red wine, as practiced, for instance, in Bordeaux, then takes up to two years in 50-gallon oak casks, during which time the wine is racked drawn off its lees, or sediment three or four times into fresh casks to avoid bacterial spoilage. Further aging is usually advisable after bottling.
The juice of most grape varieties is colorless. Grapes for white wine are also pressed immediately after picking, and the must starts to ferment. Fermentation can proceed until it is completed, which will make a dry white wine; or it can be stopped to make a sweeter wine. Maturation of white Burgundy and some California Chardonnays still takes place in oak casks, but vintners now tend to use large tanks of such modern materials as stainless steel. Minimum contact with the air retains the freshness of the grapes.
To make rosé wines, the fermenting grape juice is left in contact with the skins just long enough for the alcohol to extract the required degree of color. Vinification then proceeds as for white wine.
The best and most expensive sparkling wines are made by the champagne method, in which cultured yeasts and sugar are added to the base wine, inducing a second fermentation in the bottle. The resulting carbon dioxide is retained in the wine. Other methods, such as carbonation, are also practiced.
The alcohol content of fortified wines is raised by adding grape spirits. With port and madeira, brandy added during fermentation kills off the yeasts, stopping fermentation, and leaves the desired degree of natural grape sugar in the wine. Sherry is made by adding spirit to the fully fermented wine. Its color, strength, and sweetness are then adjusted to the required style before bottling.