If you love wine, or perhaps you’re just considering a relationship with wine, you will certainly come in contact with the wines of France. Many Americans are deeply intimidated by French wines. That’s understandable as the names are foreign to American eyes and ears and the all familiar grape names are missing. These French – it’s like they speak another language.
In general terms Old World wine producing nations, like France, name their wines by region or appellation while the New World winemakers name theirs by the grape varietal. Again, this is very general but it’s a great starting point.
This is why the Old World wine producers and wine devotees are quick to point to the concept of terroir. Terroir is just a fancy way of saying that a product like wine, tea, vegetables, and even cheese has unique characteristics due to its environmental factors such as soil, temperature, wind, sun exposure, or proximity to water. This is a sound and logical concept as everyone can agree that Chardonnay grown in Sonoma County, California will naturally taste different than the same grape grown in Michigan’s Lake Michigan Shore AVA.
The French produce their wines under the guidance of a very strict set of rules set out by the Appellation d’origine contrôlée, or simply AOC. The AOC regulations regarding wine are based on the very sound belief that certain places, based on the environmental factors previously discussed, are better suited to growing certain grape varietals and not so good growing others. While this may sound intimidating it’s actually a blessing for those seeking to know French wines.
For example, the red wines from Bordeaux must be made with a strict set of grape varietals; chief among them are Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. You may find Bordeaux scary but I bet you do know Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. This rules based system actually makes it easy to understand the wines of any given region.
The secret is that you are already familiar with the wines of France (via their native grapes) but you just don’t know it.
Many of the grape varietals you know so well like Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Sauvignon Blanc are all French in origin. All you have to do now is to learn the regions that feature these (and other) well-known varietals. You’re already half-way there.
French Wine Regions
Alsace – Tucked away in the Northeast corner of France with Germany to the East and Switzerland to the South a visitor to the region would be forgiven for believing that they had drifted into Germanic territory. The culture, dialect, architecture, food, and of course the wines all embody a careful hybrid of French and German influences. As in Germany, white wines are king with varietals like Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc adorning the labels. Even the bottles of Alsace wines are tall and slender as they are in Germany. Unlike most of France, the grape names are prominently included on the labels in Alsace. Being a cool climate the wines tend to be moderate in alcohol, floral, and aromatic, while possessing vibrant acidity. These are lovely wines to sip but their natural acidity and complex flavors beg to be included at the dinner table.
The majority of wines produced in Alsace are white while red wines made from Pinot Noir are available in relatively small quantities. Also, Alsace is known for their refreshing sparkling wines, made in the Champagne method, known as Crémant d’Alsace. Most of the wines of Alsace are dry, or off-dry, while there are great dessert wines also made here. Two late harvest classifications exist: Vendage Tardive (late harvest), and Selection de Grains Nobles (SGN) the rarest of the Alsace wines. These SGN wines are quite sweet and made with grapes that have been affected with “noble rot” (a fungus that robs the grape of water while contributing unique flavors).
Bordeaux – Without question Bordeaux is one of the world’s most famous wines regions primarily known for its world-class red wines. Located in the Southwest of France near the Atlantic and greatly influenced by the Gironde River estuary that divides Bordeaux into its unofficial “left bank” and “right bank” zones. On the left bank you will find the Cabernet Sauvignon dominated wines of the Medoc subdivided into iconic appellations like Margaux, St. Julien, and Pauiliac. On the right bank you will find Saint-Émilion and Pomerol among other appellations that favor Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The best red wines from Bordeaux are all sturdy and complex, often capable of aging for decades.
While Bordeaux is world-famous for its red wines the region also produces some incredible whites wines (made with Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon), as well as one of the world’s most famous sweet wines, Sauternes. Dry white wines are made through the Bordeaux region while the appellation of Graves is home to many of the most highly regarded and expensive whites while Entre-Deux-Mers offers many refreshing and simple whites frequently sold at bargain prices.
Burgundy – In the English speaking world Burgundy was once (and still is to a small degree) a generic term for red wine. In truth Burgundy is a complex and vast region that produces some of the world’s greatest red and white wines. Across much of Burgundy’s appellations Pinot Noir is king being the sole grape varietal permitted in many of the region’s most famous red wines.
Burgundy runs north to south with Dijon at the north and Lyon to the south. Burgundy has six distinct sub-regions: Chablis (detached and north), Côte de Nuits (home of the famous reds), Côte de Beaune (home of the famous whites), Côte Chalonnaise (relative bargain reds and whites), Maconnais (famous whites of Pouilly-Fuissé), and Beaujolais.
The greatest red exception is found in the southern most reaches of Burgundy in the appellation of Beaujolais. Here in Beaujolais the Gamay grape produces wines that are typically more fruity and less age worthy than the sturdy Pinot Noir wines made in the rest of Burgundy.
The whites of Burgundy are made with Chardonnay and range in style from the steely and subtle wines of Chablis in the North to the rich and silky wines of Meursault and Montrachet. The wines of Chablis exhibit bright acidity and they are typically unoaked or given a subtle dose of oak. Meursault and Montrachet are made in the Côte de Beaune and tend to be rich, barrel-fermented, and expensive.
Both the reds from Pinot Noir and the whites made with Chardonnay are considered to be the pinnacle of these two great grape varietals.
Champagne – Pretty much every wine from Champagne bubbles while not all wines that bubble are Champagne. Got it?
Champagne is a very well-defined region in the north of France that is known for producing the world’s most famous and arguably the best, sparkling wine. While most of the sparkling wines are pale in color, two-thirds of the permitted grapes in Champagne are red (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier), and the sole white grape is Chardonnay. The unique sparkling wines of Champagne get their signature effervesces from a secondary fermentation in the bottle. These bubbles, that are natural to any fermentation, are captured in the bottle and forcibly absorbed by the wine since they have nowhere to go.
Types or classes of Champagne are important to note and greatly impact the price. The majority of the bubbly from Champagne is non-vintage meaning that it is made with a blend of vintages to maintain consistency. You won’t often see the words “non-vintage” on the label but you will note the absence of a vintage (year). Next there is vintage Champagne, which is as the name suggests a wine made entirely of the stated vintage and are more expensive than non-vintage Champagne. At the top of the pyramid is the Prestige Cuvée that is the top bubbly offered by a producer. A famous example would be Moët & Chandon’s Dom Pérignon. If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it.
Champagne styles include: Blanc de Noir (white from black) indicating that the wine is made entirely with red grapes, Blanc de Blancs (white from white) made entirely with Chardonnay, and Rosé Champagne is soft pink to ruby in color and most often dry.
Champagne labels will also indicate sweetness. Most Champagne is dry but there are varying degrees. These are the terms that you will encounter listed in order from driest to sweetest: Brut Zero, Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Sec, demi-sec, and Doux.
Loire – The Loire Valley region is one of France’s most diverse and picturesque as it follows the Loire River from the Muscadet appellation, near the Atlantic coast, to the iconic Sauvignon Blanc wines of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé near the central city of Orléans. The region is best known for its white wines but it does produce a respectable number of reds, most notably Chinon (Cabernet Franc) and Sancerre Rouge (Pinot Noir).
The Loire also provides lovely rosé wines, sparkling wines, and world-class dessert wines as well. Loire is second only to Champagne in the production of sparkling wines.
Vouvray famously produces pleasing and world-class white wines from Chenin Blanc in styles ranging from dry to very sweet. While Sauvignon Blanc originates from Bordeaux many believe that the grape’s truest expressions can be found in Loire’s Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé appellations. The wines of Sancerre are bone-dry with a delicate fruity core and accents of mineral. The wines of Pouilly-Fumé are a bit more structured with a distinctive flinty or smoky character. The Sauvignon Blanc wines from Loire are far less herbaceous than those made in New Zealand or even California.
Rhône – The Rhône wine region runs north to south along the river of the same name. The Rhône is commonly dived into two primary sub-regions with very distinct wine making styles.
The wines of the Northern Rhône showcase reds made primarily or exclusively with Syrah. The wine appellations of Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage are among the most famous and expensive Syrah based wines of the North. Saint-Joseph Cornas and Crozes-Hermitage tend to be better values but not by much. All of the Syrah wines of the Northern Rhône are drier and more earthy than Syrah you may know from the New World. Also in the North is the famous Viognier (white) based wines of Condrieu.
In the Southern Rhône the wines are more fruit-forward due to warmer temperatures and the extensive use of two Spanish grapes: Grenache and Mourvédre. The most famous wine from the South is Châteauneuf-du-Pape while the neighboring appellations of Gigondas and Rasteau utilize the same grapes and all share a similar, but not exact, terroir. However, perhaps the greatest gem from the Southern Rhône may be the region’s all-encompassing wine appellation of Côtes du Rhône. While these wines can come from the North the great majority are Grenache forward wines from the South that offer rich and complex flavors and a price tag that thrills bargain wine hunters.
Other regions of note include Languedoc-Roussillon and its better known appellations of Languedoc, Corbiéres, and Minervois produce a wide range of wines and many offered at great values. The South West France region offers a wide array of wines. The ancient appellation of Cahors and its dense Malbec based wines is perhaps the most famous wine while Madiran in Gascony is on the rise.
I hope that this French wine primer has given you the confidence to explore the subject further. There are so many layers to discover as each region’s appellations have their own internal variation and each producer brings their own unique interpretation as well. Most of all, have fun.