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French grape varieties

These are called cépages in France. Wines can be of a single cépage, such as Chablis, but are usually a blend of two or more. Much of the winemakers skill is from cultivating multiple cépages on the same land, and blending them successfully in the chai.

In France, for a wine to carry the AOC label it must use only the allowed cépages of the local AOC. It is legal to plant cépages not endorsed by the AOC, but then one forfeits the AOC label. Each AOC uses different cépages depending on the unique terroir. Below is a description of the most common cépages to be found in France.

This guide to vine varieties would have been impossible without the kindness and skill of Charles (Chuck) O'Rear, who provided permission to use his excellent copyright photographs of leaves. To see more of his work or to contact him click here.

The vine leaf

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Cabernet sauvignon

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This red wine cépage is famous around the world. Sauvignon most likely derives from the French word sauvage, meaning wild, and thus a native plant. It used to be called Petite Vidure, not to be confused with Petit Verdot. Château Mouton and Château d'Armailhac in Pauillac, Bordeaux, were the first instances of recorded cultivation. Recent studies have shown Cabernet sauvignon to be a 17th century crossbreed between Cabernet franc and Sauvignon blanc, probably in Bordeaux.

Cabernet sauvignon wine is full bodied and powerful, with high acidity and tannins. These properties allow it to age well, although can potentially make it a hard and astringent wine if unblended or sipped too young. Blackcurrant, green bell pepper, mint and cedar might all be found in this cépage, with blackcurrent by far the dominant. It is often aged in oak to soften the tannins, and this usually imparts vanilla and spice to the wine.

Although Cabernet sauvignon is late budding, which gives it a slightly shorter season than other cépages, this does mean it can avoid early season frosts. It is thick skinned and naturally resistant to grey rot, yet susceptible to powdery mildew and wood diseases. A low yield is balanced by easy of cultivation.

Cabernet sauvignon vines have long branches and prefer well drained gravel soils. The grapes are rounded.

Adult leaves have flat, U shaped bases, with 7 or 9 lobes with lateral veins. Lobes can sometimes overlap and be deep. The leaf is orb like, termed orbicular. The convex teeth are medium to large. The vine leaf used for the labelled diagram above is a Cabernet sauvignon.

The underside of the leaf can be a little hairy.

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Merlot

Another globally renowned red wine cépage and the most commonly planted varietal in Bordeaux, where it originated. Merlot derives its name from the French word for the blackbird, merle, who like to eat the ripe grapes. In Bordeaux Merlot is harvested relatively early in order to retain its acidity, compared to the International style of Merlot which is harvested later when it has more intense flavours, more sugar and tannin.

 

Merlot was first recorded in Libourne, Bordeaux, in 1784 and is a cross between Cabernet Franc and Magdeleine noire des Charentes. In the 19th century some called it lou seme doù flube which means the seedling from the river, as it popped up along the Garonne and Gironde. In 1855 Merlot travelled to Italy, where it was called Bordò, and 50 years later it moved into Switzerland. Much later it became popular in the USA, apparently influenced by the ease of pronouncing its name.

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Merlot is full of soft pulp and ripens early in the season, possessing much less tannin that Cabernet sauvignon. Merlot and Cabernet sauvignon are often grown by the same vineyard and blended, as they compliment each other so well; this is especially common in Bordeaux. 

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Young twigs of Merlot vines are extremely hairy. The adult leaves are a dark green hue and wedge shaped, possessing between 5 and 7 lobes and an open petiole sinus. Leaves have a U shaped base, with medium sized teeth that can be either straight or convex. The lower side of the leaf can appear bubbly and in high relief, with a low but present density of hairs. The veins are never discoloured red, blue or purple from anthocyanin.

The berries are medium sized and round in shape.

Malbec

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An International cépage of great repute, Malbec is also called Côt, or Noir de Pressac in some parts of Bordeaux, Auxerrois in Alsace and Cahors, and hundreds of other local names throughout France. It probably originated in Bourgogne. However, many attest that the name comes from a Hungarian peasant called Mal Bec, who travelled France promoting the vine.

 

Cahors is the most celebrated Malbec region in France where a minimum content of 70% is demanded by the AOC and it is often blended with Tannat. Though, increasingly, Malbec is becoming synonymous with Argentina where it was introduced in 1868 by Professor Pouet.

 

A major frost in France during 1956 killed off most of the vines and led Malbec to become only a minor blending variety; only Cahors significantly replanted it.

Sensitive to frost, Malbec adores and needs heat and sunshine, and as such flourishes in warmer countries than France. It ripens in the middle of the season. It also requires well irrigated and well drained soils or else it is prone to rot, coulure, and downy mildew. Malbec has body, boasting flavours full of plum and black cherry. 

 

Expect aromas of plums, black cherry, raisins, coffee, raspberry, leather and chocolate and tastes of plum, cherry, balsamic, chocolate, and dried fruits. Yum.

It is a thin skinned large, round, purple grape variety with a dark, almost black colour and high in tannins, making it an intense wine. Young green leaves can have bronzed patches, and adult leaves can appear whole and unlobed or have three lobes with a U or V shaped petiole sinus and small teeth. The underside is slightly hairy.

Malbec came from crossing Magdeleine noire des Charentes with Prunelard and works well with a high planting density.

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Pinot Noir

Cabernet Franc

Gamay Noir

Mourvèdre