Beyond Cabernet: France’s Lesser-Known Grape Varieties

Many wine lovers have come to have an intimate appreciation for grape varietals like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s no secret that many French wines are supremely developed blends, as well as one-grape standouts, but what does remain mysterious are those lesser-known, succulent grape varieties that create the foundation for many a fabulous creation. It’s time to pay homage to a few of the red and white grapes that help make France one of the most marvelous wine regions in the world.

Heavenly white grape varieties that may not be in your immediate vernacular include:

  • Chenin Blanc, also known as Pineau de la Loire, is one of the most heralded and versatile white French grapes. Chenin is the darling of the Anjou region, and though it starts off acidic and is slow to mature, the resulting gems make outstanding sparkling and dessert wines. The finest emerge from the illustrious Loire Valley region, and generally, Chenin’s are not blended. Occasionally, however, winemakers will add up to 20% Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc varieties, and the notable aromas include quince, cinnamon, and apple. This variety is grown in many other nations, but the extremely versatile climate of the Loire Valley couldn’t be more ideal for cultivating the delicious Chenin grape.
  • Clairette Blanc, grown mostly in the Provence area and Rhone, France, is one of the oldest grape varieties. It is most often used to make vermouth, as it produces a high level of alcohol and a lower level of acidity. Once upon a time, this was a revered trait, but nowadays, most consider it a fault. It’s also used most successfully to make crisp sparkling wines, muscats, and for the famous Clairette de Die in the Drome. The prominent aromas of Clairette Blanc are apricots and peaches.

Lesser-known but equally luscious red grape varieties include:

  • Cinsault, the fourth most widely planted grape in France, is originally an old variety of grape from the “heel” region of Italy. Today, it’s cultivated in the Languedoc and Roussillion areas of France, and has received a little more love in recent times from individuals interested in reviving old varieties. Cinsault is normally blended with grapes like the Pinot Noir and Grenache, and it produces large, sweetly juicy grains. The aromas include the whole family of succulent red fruits and berries.
  • Gamay holds the distinction of being the only grape included in the heavenly Beaujolais wines. It’s a deeply purple-colored fruit that most likely originated as a mutation of Pinot Noir. Mentions of Gamay go all the way back to the 1400’s, but eventually, the production of this grape came about more due to abundance rather than quality. The Gamay has one of the most instantly distinctive flavors, however, exuding an intense cranberry aroma, with strawberry, cherry, and spice notes as well.

Remember these delightful and somewhat exotic varieties the next time you’re at your local wine store, and experience another side to French winemaking. While grapes like Gamay and Clairette Blanc may never trump your tried and true favorites, you may experience a coveted wine epiphany, right where you least expected it.