It’s week five of our WSET Level 3 course in London and we’re really getting into the swing of things. Saying Auf Wiedersehen to Germany and Bonjour to France, we head off to taste our way through Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Loire Valley.
We start off in Burgundy, where the we appreciate the effect of the region’s range of climates and winemaking practices on the two white Chardonnays we taste. The youthful Chablis Premier Cru has notes of green apple, lemon and minerality from the cooler climate in which it’s grown, whereas we taste some riper peach and even banana and creamy, buttery flavours in the Les Aigrots wine from the warmer Côte de Beaune.
The advantage (other than for our bank balances) of visiting these regions through our wine glasses rather than physically trekking out there there is that, with the pop of a cork, we jump from southern Burgundy to the Atlantic coast and Loire Valley.
Here, we taste two famous examples of white grape varieties, one Sauvignon Blanc and one Chenin Blanc. The Pouilly-Fumé delivers on the expectation for a flinty edge accompanying its notes of gooseberry, grapefruit and blossom. Not to be outdone, the Vouvray sec we taste is a fine example of a wine from its region and grape: dry, with hints of stone and citrus fruit alongside a deliciously toasty, coconutty note. To ‘very good’ wines and, unusually for a white, the latter even has ‘potential for ageing’ (if you can bear the wait).
Finally, with a hop, skip and a jump down the coast, we’re revelling in the deliciously balanced sweet Sauternes wine we try: its deceptively high acidity keeps the sweetness in check, allowing us to relish its deliciously complex array of flavours, which range from fresh grapefruit and quince to gingerbread, honeysuckle, marmalade and even a hint of mushroom. Sound like a strange mix? Try for yourself, it’s irresistible and has a Melanie-approved assessment of ‘very good’. Not bad for a Monday evening in February.
Here are a few of the things we cover in this weeks WSET Level 3 programme
Bordeaux is the biggest wine-producing region in France in terms of both volume and value. A few, premium wine producers can claim responsibility for its prestige, but the bulk of production is designed to be simple table wine.
Bordeaux has a moderate, maritime climate that benefits from the warming effect of the Gulf Stream, and is divided into two main areas: the Left Bank and the Right Bank. However, just like us London commuters, winemakers struggle with the problems brought by ‘inclement weather’ (in this case rain and humidity), which means that each vintage varies greatly. As a result, most wines from Bordeaux are blends; it’s too risky for winemakers to rely on a single variety, as a heavy shower could ruin the whole crop in one fell swoop.
The main black varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot. White grapes do offer one exception to the ‘blends’ generalisation, with Sauvignon Blanc increasingly found alone. The other main grape, Sémillon, is susceptible to noble rot and thus often used for sweet wines. Finally, Muscadelle supports both sweet and dry wines with its floral, grapey flavour.
Burgundy is at once very complicated and easy-as-pie: it is home to enough appellations and producers to give you the kind of headache only a Burgundy Premier Cru will clear, and yet only two grape varieties predominate throughout: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
It’s continental climate ranges from cool in the north (hence the green fruit and high-acidity of Chablis) to moderate further south (where you’ll find riper fruit flavours in wines from Mâcon). The soils in Burgundy are as varied as the weather hazards winemakers face (which range from a wet growing season and spring frosts to dystopian-sounding summer hailstorms). The best sites are located on south or east-facing slopes where they’re protected from the worst of the weather and gusty westerly winds.
Burgundy’s heartland is the Côte d’Or, which splits into two main areas. For the full-bodied Pinot Noir of your dreams head to the Côte de Nuits, or if it’s a wonderfully expressive Chardonnay you’re after, follow the Massif Central down south to the Côte de Beaune.
The Loire Valley
The crucial stretch of France’s longest river is the last few hundred kilometres before it reaches the ocean. Why? This is where the Loire Valley’s most important vineyards are located, loosely grouped into the four sub-regions: the Central Vineyards, Touraine, Anjou-Saumur and Nantais. As you move from the inland Central Vineyards towards the Atlantic, the climate changes from continental to maritime.
The Central Vineyards is the place to go for Sauvignon Blanc, the grape in the famous Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé wines. The best examples of the former are known for being particularly expressive, whereas the latter are said to have subtle smoky notes, as the name suggests (‘fumé’ means smoked in French).
Moving west to Touraine, you’ll find the bulk of less-premium Sauvignon Blanc, along with some excellent examples of Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc wines. Finally, a whiff of sea breeze tells you that you’re in the Nantais region, where the early-ripening and frost-resistant Melon Blanc predominates.