The Great Grapes of Southern France
As we move south in la belle France, we start getting into warmer territory; the grapes here benefit from Mediterranean influences and the styles of wine get richer, more full-bodied, and a little higher in alcohol. Blends are the byword of southern France and you'll encounter a combination of both familiar and slightly less familiar grape varieties. Think red grapes like Grenache, Cinsault and Carignan, or white grapes like Roussanne, Picpoul, Viognier, and Marsanne.
Here's your guide to the major grapes you'll meet as you drink your way through the ultra-tasty wines of southern France.
White Wine Styles
Starting off with the white varieties, we make our way to Bordeaux where Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon dominate the white wine scene. Bordeaux Blanc comes in two different styles; the light, citrus-driven, unoaked version which makes a brilliant match for seafood and salads, and the richer oaked versions which can command a higher price.
These oaked white Bordeaux wines tend to see a higher percentage of Semillon in them, which gives them more of a lemon curd, baked tree fruit, and cream soda flavour. This style is outstanding with creamy pasta sauces, chicken, and meatier fish.
Speaking of fish, one of the lesser-known of Southern France is Picpoul. Picpoul is in very high demand globally given it is great value-for-money so keep you eye out. This is a zippy, minerally white wine offering lovely citrus flavours that comes from its own region, Picpoul de Pinet, on the Mediterranean Coast. This is a great light white wine for fish and seafood dishes.
Love full-bodied, rich, tropical scented white wines? Then Viognier will sweep you off your feet. You many have heard of this grape as it is blended in a small amount (around 5%) into Shiraz to provide more mouthfeel, lighten the wine and increase the aromas. As a white wine itself, the aromatic peachy, mandarin scented Viognier wines are sometimes aged in oak, further lending to their lush mouthfeel. Viognier is the star of Condrieu and Château Grillet in the Northern Rhône, but delicious examples are also made in the Languedoc. Viognier can be made in dry or fully sweet versions, but even dry versions can have a touch of residual sweetness to them, making them wonderful wines with slightly spicy dishes, as well as roasted poultry and white meat like pork.
Clairette makes an appearance in vineyards throughout the Rhône Valley, Languedoc-Roussillon, and Provence. It makes fruity white wines with flavours of apple, citrus, and stone fruits. It tends to be slightly lower in acidity, so winemakers often blend it with other local grapes. It's the top planted white grape of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and is also featured in the sparkling wines of the Clairette de Die appellation, where it's blended with the fragrant Muscat Blanc.
The always popular Chardonnay crops up in many of the Languedoc-Roussillon's vineyards, where the wines express more tropical flavours and aromas and can offer better value yet top quality than counterparts in Burgundy.
Red Wine Styles
There is a wealth of red grapes to be found in the south of France and we begin our look with the king and queen of Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. While they make up the backbone of the Left and Right Bank of Bordeaux respectively, both Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot appear in vineyards across southern France. Cabernet Sauvignon, in particular, is a popular grape in the Languedoc-Roussillon, where it yields delicious, great value wines.
Malbec may originally be one of the traditional Bordeaux grapes, but today it's largely fallen out of favour in its native country. There is one outpost in France for Malbec in Southwestern France. Cahors is home to rustic, tannic Malbecs which are often blended with local grape Tannat. The results are inky, intensely flavoured red wines which are a must for game, steaks, and roasts.
Moving on to another classic, Syrah or Shiraz commands a large share of vineyard space in the Northern Rhône; in this region's red wine appellations, it's the sole red grape. Spicy, herbal, fruity, and mineral, it makes savoury wines which are the perfect choice if you prefer to drink bolder reds.
As we make our way towards the Mediterranean Sea, the Southern Rhône gives way to blends. Shiraz becomes a frequent blending partner of Grenache and Mourvedre (also known as Mataro in Austalia) across the Southern Rhône and the Languedoc-Roussillon. This blend is typical of many Côtes du Rhône wines albeit plummy 100% Grenache wines offering a lovely medium-body style are also found.
If you're keen on blends, you'll never go wrong with the wines made in the southern half of France. Rich and bold, savoury yet often with a deeply satisfying fruit-forward profile, these are wines for all occasions, tastes, and budgets. Enjoy these wines all year round, whether you're whipping up a weekday dinner, organising a brunch bash, or simply looking to unwind from the day.