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Going French

By Simon Curkovic | Sommelier, Cafe Sydney


Getting customers heads around French wine is not necessarily about giving someone an encyclopaedic description about all the regions of France; this simply would take too long. Rather more important is to discuss essential differences. So, what are the main characteristics that make Australian wine different to French?

Australian wine is often described as “sunshine in a glass” and this is very true. However, the essential character of French wine cannot be described in the same way with wines often “earthy, and savoury”, and less fruit driven. A trip to famed Bordeaux estate Domaine de Chevalier a few years ago elicited a rather French explanation of whether a wine is “from the sun or from the earth” which confirmed this view.

What else differentiates Australian wine from French? French wines often are more structured in areas like acidity and tannin or phenolics. Whilst Australian wines can tend to greater alcohol than the more basic French alternative, this is not always the case.

But what does this really mean? Nearly always, the condition of the fruit of French wine tends to fresher, more acid driven, flavours and often less ripe, jammy, cooked or stewed. Not that all Australian wines have such overripe fruit conditions, far from it, but it ties into the different acidities of the wines. In the context of tannin in red wines, the bitterness from tannins is often more pronounced in French wines along with their greater acidity.

In terms of oak, this is far less consistent and few general rules apply. French wine can be more or less oaked than similar Australian wines. However, the type of oak can differ. Australian red wines, particularly in the classic warmer regions of South Australia, can often use at least some American Oak. Of course, the classic Grange uses American oak entirely. In comparison, no wine in France uses American Oak. Importantly, the perception of oak can also often be moderated by the impact of acid, tannin and alcohol, so that French examples generally do not show the same level of oak impact.

But it is the combination of all of these differences that shape a wine. Alsace Riesling, Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminer is riper and richer whilst still being dry in comparison to Australian examples.

Bordeaux Cabernet and Merlot blends are more tannic with higher acidity and savoury qualities than Australian wines. In Bordeaux reds at the premium level the oak treatment is consistent with the high cost of the wines. Bordeaux whites, made from sauvignon blanc and semillon, can offer a similar variety of styles from unoaked to oaked with some texture and richness from lees work.

Whilst Burgundian and Australian Chardonnay are a kaleidoscope of styles, the differences can be stark. Chablis is far more than simply unoaked chardonnay, or better put, a chardonnay where oak is not the dominant feature. Here Kimmeridgean soils with fossilized oyster shells provide flavours associated with salinity and chalkiness. These wines are internationally unique and quite different from any unoaked wines produced in Australia. However the richness of a Montrachet can offer sumptuous quality akin to Margaret River, particularly well regarded for the acidity and fullness of flavour from its famed ‘gin-gin’ clone.

Burgundian Pinot Noir likewise can offer a variety of styles not dissimilar to the array on offer in Australia. Whether one wants to compare Yarra Valley to Volnay, Macedon Ranges to Pommard, the wines can vary in weight, richness and finesse.

Loire whites made from sauvignon blanc in Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, amongst other appellations of the Central Loire, can offer a variety of styles from unoaked to oaked with various amounts of texture from lees. Australian Sauvignon Blanc is often unoaked, light, crisp, dry and herbaceous as well as occasionally richly textured from oak and lees. However, Chenin Blanc from the areas of Touraine can also lay claim to a level of international distinctiveness, in a similar way that Hunter Valley Semillon is unique to region and variety even though the wines could not be much more different.

Loire reds made from cabernet franc, malbec or cabernet sauvignon are also uniquely different to most examples in Australia, where the sumptuous use of new oak often tends to be much stronger in its impact, as opposed to the more delicate Loire reds. Spicy Northern Rhone Valley Syrah too is quite different particularly from classic warmer regions of South Australia with their dark, rich fruit and oak, whereas some of the cooler climate Australian examples can resemble the wines of Saint-Joseph, Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage, with similar spice and pepper.

Getting customers heads around French wine is actually much simpler than may be imagined. Giving useful advice on the essential differences in acidity, tannin, alcohol and fruit condition goes a long way to broaching that difference. Varietal characteristics also differ and provide both French and Australian wines with their essential character.