A Beginner's Guide to French Wine

October 19, 2018

A Beginner's Guide to French Wine

France and wine are inextricably linked. No other country in the world makes quite such a broad spectrum of different wine styles, and although Italy produces more quantity in certain years, the overall quality of French wine is really what sets it apart from its global competitors. You only need to look at the rest of the world of wine to see the influence that French wine has had on the industry. The captivating, savoury wines of Bordeaux have inspired wine-makers the world over to plant Cabernet Sauvignon, the haunting, fragmented nature of Burgundy is the benchmark for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and has anyone ever made Syrah to match the best wines of Hermitage and Cote-Rotie? When the topic of fine wine comes up, France is invariably at the top of the list.

Yet, it's also the country that perhaps causes the most confusion when it comes to understanding what's inside a bottle, which has led to a huge loss of the market to more user-friendly wines, mostly from New World countries. French wines are usually produced with the intention of drinking them several years after they've been bottled, which is rarely what the large supermarket chains that dominate our retail scene are looking for, whilst the labels are about as confusing as can be, with grape varieties rarely mentioned. This is because the philosophy of wine-making in France is all about the land. Bordeaux tastes the way that it does because it comes from Bordeaux, not because of the grapes. The scattered, parcellated land of Burgundy all has its own story to tell. Even a tiny appellation like Hermitage is divided into 17 different plots, all with their characteristics and styles. Great for the wine geek, not so much for the casual shopper.

Whilst entire books have been written about the subject, we're going to try and break France down for you in brief, to help you understand the lie of the land, as well as the important essentials about what makes a wine taste the way that it does. From the cooler, maritime climates of Bordeaux to the hot, Mediterranean south, there's more wine to discover in France than even a dedicated wine expert could ever hope to taste in a single lifetime. As far as a life's work goes; not a bad choice!

Don't forget that if you're visiting France and want to bring wine home with you, we can ship a Lazenne Wine Check to your hotel in 48 hours!

French Wine Overview

Over-view

Before we break France down, region by region, let's have a quick look at some statistics to help give you a broad over-view of where France stands in the world:

France accounts for 17% of the global market in terms of production, with almost 46% of that made under the highest quality appellations (AOC).

France has 792,000 hectares (1,95m acres) planted with vines, making it the 3rd most planted country in the world, after Spain and China.

Many of the worlds most famous grapes, the so-called 'international varieties', owe their fame to France. Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Chenin Blanc all made their name here, before being planted elsewhere in the world.

30% of France's wines are exported, mainly to other European countries. If you really want to discover French wine, you'll definitely have to visit!

French consumption per capita is 2nd in the world, with 47.4 litres consumed every year

France's appellation system (AOC - Appellation Contrôlée) is the benchmark for almost every other appellation system in the world, mainly in Europe but increasingly in New World countries as well.

France is the worlds leading produce and exporter of oak barrels for the use of wine maturation, sought the world over for the tannic structure and aromas they impart to a wine.

Bordeaux Wine

Bordeaux


Bordeaux is France's most important wine region, and perhaps the most famous wine region in the entire world. A moderate, wet climate next to the Atlantic Ocean, Bordeaux has prospered for decades due to its ability to produce large quantities of reliably good wine, dominated by either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, depending on where in Bordeaux it's made. Bordeaux produces more wine under the AOC appellations than any other in France, and its top wines are increasingly valued, despite their relatively high quantities of production. The region is roughly split into three parts:

The Left Bank – This is the region on the western side of the Gironde River, including the town of Bordeaux itself. Wines here are mostly dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot and Cabernet Franc playing secondary roles, and are firm and quite dry in their youth, opening up after several years to showcase aromas of blackcurrant, green bell pepper, graphite, tobacco and leather. The most famous appellations here are St.Estephe, St Julien, Pauillac, Margaux, Pessac-Leognan and the sweet-wine appellations of Barsac and Sauterenes.

The Right Bank – This is the region on the eastern side of the Gironde River, including the town of Saint-Emilion. Wines here are mostly dominated by Merlot with often significant proportions of Cabernet Franc. The wines are richer and softer than their left bank counterparts, with gentler tannins, plum, fruitcake, vanilla and spice aromas. The famous names to look out for are Saint-Emilion and Pomerol.

Entre-deux-Mers – This is the region in the centre of Bordeaux, literally 'between two seas', or in this case, the Garonne and Dordogne rivers. There aren't any particularly famous names within the region, although some of the better producers offer excellent value for money. Wines labelled as Entre-deux-Mers are dry, white wines which account for barely 10% of total production in Bordeaux.

As a general rule, wineries here go by the name 'Chateau' and there are close to 6,700 of them, making it an enormously fragmented region and lots of fun to visit. Despite this, there are around 200 very famous names, some of which are known the world around, due to an organisation of the regions estates in 1855, classifying the wines from a 1st growth down to a 5th growth. The reality doesn't quite work out quite so easily, and there's a lot of quality at all levels.

Burgundy Wine

Burgundy


If there's a name to rival Bordeaux in France, it's Burgundy, yet the two regions could hardly be more different than one another. Compared to the grand estates and chateaux of Bordeaux, Burgundy is far more rural, with fragmented land ownership and the same architecture that dominated during the Middle Ages, when the Dukes of Burgundy ran Burgundy as a prosperous region. As famous for its famous white wines made from Chardonnay as for its hauntingly beautiful Pinot Noir, Burgundy has recently become the investors wine of choice, catapulting prices to stratospheric levels. Despite this, there are many bargains to be had and the very best wines, whilst expensive, are unrivalled anywhere else in the world. Whilst most think of the striking, valuable Cote d'Or when they think of Burgundy, there are really three major zones, from north to south:

Chablis – This is the northern-most region of Burgundy and in terms of distance, it's actually closer to Champagne than it is the Beaune. The chalky soils here contain fossilized remnants of oyster shells, giving Chablis's signature grape, Chardonnay, verve, persistence and lots of refreshing acidity. The wines here are steely and dry in nature, with piercing flavours of green fruits, citrus and chalky minerality. Enormously undervalued compared to the rest of Burgundy.

Cote d'Or – This is the heartland of Burgundy, and the most valuable strip of vineyards in the world. 100Km south of Chablis, Burgundy opens up into a long strip known as 'The Golden Slope', envoking images of its Autumnal brilliance. This is where the famous names of Burgundy are to be found, dotted along the strip from north to south, with villages famous for certain styles of wines surrounded by a confusing myriad of vineyards, all with different classifications. There's simply too many fragmented appellations to cover here, so I'll link you to this handy guide for anyone who wants to dig a little deeper. Beware; it's consumed many a wine-lover for an entire lifetime!

Mâconnais – Mâconnais is in the flatter, warmer south of Burgundy and whilst not reaching the giddy heights of its neighbours in the Cote d'Or, there are some very good value, well made wines here. This is also a source for a lot of the grapes that go into Bourgogne Rouge and Bourgogne Blanc; generic wines made from grapes found anywhere within Burgundy. Appellations to keep an eye out for include St-véran; Pouilly-Vinzelles, Pouilly-Loché, and Pouilly-Fuissé, which producer riper, more generous styles of Chardonnay than found elsewhere in Burgundy.

The other thing worth noting about Burgundy is the way it's divided from a production point of view; between domaine bottled wines and wines made by negociants. Due to the fragmented, expensive nature of land in Burgundy, it's very common for producers to buy grapes instead of growing them themselves, or buying finished wine and blending it themselves. This is known as being a negociant and it's usually indicated on the bottle of wine by any of the following terms: Négociant Éleveur, Récolté, Vinifié, Élevé et Mis en bouteilles. Comparatively, estates that produce their own grapes and make their own wine will bottle it with the following term on the label: Mis en bouteilles à la propriété. Some of the very best wines we've tried in Burgundy have been negociant labels, yet they usually cost far less than their domaine bottled counter-parts; there aren't many bargains to be had in Burgundy, so keep this in mind when you're searching for wine!

Rhone Valley Wine

The Rhone Valley


Like so many of France's famous regions, The Rhone Valley is based around a river that was historically used to ship wine and other goods around the country. Today, we know the Rhone as one of France's most historical yet exciting regions, with a broad variety of different wines, defined by whether they're grown in the cooler, more mountainous north or the warmer, flatter south:

Northern Rhone - This is actually very small in comparison to the total size of the Rhone Valley, producing barely 5% of the total production here, yet home to a disproportionately large amount of famous names. Vineyards here are etched into the mountains, often on terraces hewn into the rock, on the wooded banks south of Lyon. The names of Hermitage, Cornas and Côte Rôtie are as famous as any in France, made exclusively from Syrah, which really finds its spiritual home on these sun-kissed slopes. Production is relatively small and prices are often high, although still considerably less so than their counterparts in Burgundy and Bordeaux. The better producers of Croze-Hermitage and St.Joseph offer some of the greatest value in France. There's some white wine here too, mainly produced by either the floral, voluptuous Viognier in Condrieu, or the nutty, savoury combination of Marsanne and Roussanne in most of the other appellations.

Southern Rhone - The south of the Rhone Valley is warmer, flatter and dryer, with Grenache coming into its own in the famous appellations of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas and Vacqueyras. The Cotes-du-Rhone appellation includes wines made from anywhere in the entire valley, but 95% of these wines hail from this region, including some remarkable value options. Be aware that wines here are predominantly blends, with Grenache usually at the forefront, but with great variability. Wines with more Syrah can be a lot fresher, whilst the spicy, dark Mourvedre takes on a smoky, savoury aspect with a little age. Alcohol levels are usually high, so perfect wines to pair with those winter dishes! For rosé lovers, don't miss out on Tavel and Lirac; some of the best, most distinctive rosé wine in France is made here!

Like Burgundy, negociant wines are very important here and even some of the most famous names in the Northern Rhone have a merchant line alongside their domaine-bottled estate wines. The wines of the incredibly famous Jean Louis Chave in Hermitage are now very expensive indeed, whereas his negociant wines are available, often for as little as 20-30% of the price! Guigal, Chapoutier, Tardieu-Laurent, Jaboulet... keep these names in mind whilst shopping, and don't be afraid to try a few together as styles can vary drastically!

Champagne

Champagne


Ask anyone in the world, regardless of their background or experience with wine, what they think of when they think of sparkling wine. 95% of the time, Champagne will be at the top of their mental list and with good reason; Champagne is one of the single most famous wines in the world, with imitations spawned across the world in homage to these delicious, frothy wines from the cool north of France. An hours drive east of Paris brings you to this remarkable region, home to some of the most famous brand names in the world of wine. Trying to understand the geography of Champagne is tricky at first, and it's far easier to approach it from a commercial perspective instead; Houses vs Growers.

Champagne Houses – Champagne is a region of 34,000 hectares, yet the grapes are produced by an enormous 19,000 different growers, each with a tiny, parcellated piece of land! As a result, negociant wines are the norm and the largest of these merchants are known as Champagne Houses. You'll have heard of them, as they are the most famous names in the region; Bollinger, Moët & Chandon, Mumm, Perrier Jouët, Pol Roger, Veuve Clicquot and so on. Over the centuries, these producers have perfected the art of blending, to create a house-style from the various grapes they purchase from around the region of Champagne. Usually there are various NV wines (Non-vintage – a blend of grapes from different years), 1-2 Vintage Champagnes and a Prestige Cuvee, such as Roederer's Cristal, or Moët & Chandon's Dom Perignon. The wines can be fantastic, although usually command a premium price, such is the marketing clout of these large producers.

Grower Champagne – A trend over the last 20-30 years in Champagne has seen these smallholders choosing to make their own Champagne instead of selling the grapes to co-operatives or large Champagne Houses, and they're referred to as 'Grower Champagne'. Whilst massively inconsistent in terms of quality and style, these wines reflect the terroir of Champagne more than any other, and are the most exciting when you find a top quality producer. Whilst the better producers are now commanding top prices to rival the larger Champagne Houses, there's still so much undiscovered potential here, and it's really a wonderful way of exploring the different regions of Champagne. There's far too many to mention here, but if you want to explore this side of Champagne in more detail, we heartily recommend the new book by Champagne Expert Peter Liem, detailing the geography of the region, and how these various growers map it through their wines.

One commonly misunderstand aspect of Champagne is the grapes used to make the wines. In reality, whilst rosé Champagne is increasingly popular, most of the wine here is white, yet produced primarily from black grapes; 70% of the vineyards are planted with the dark-skinned Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, with only 30% made from Chardonnay. Most wines are typically a blend of these three, but do keep an eye out for 'Blanc de Blanc', meaning a 100% Chardonnay wine, or 'Blanc de Noir' which will be made exclusively from black grape varieties. There's a huge difference stylistically!

Alsace Wine France

Alsace


The most north-easterly region of France is Alsace, a strip of land separating France from Germany, and historically it has been owned by both countries at different times, leading to an interesting blend of languages and culture; it's said that Alsace is a German town with a French soul! It's a cool but very dry region, sheltered by the incredible Vosge mountains and home to some of France's most characterful white wines, which dominate production here. As with Champagne, understanding the geography here is complex, and it's easier to look at it with regards to producers but even more so, to regard the wines as defined by the so-called 'Noble Grape' varieties. Fortunately, Alsace is one of the very few regions in France to put their grape varieties on the label, making selection a little easier!

Riesling – Riesling is the king of Alsace and whilst there's a recent trend to make wines with a little residual sugar, most are full-bodied and bone-dry, with steely acidity and fresh, persistent flavours. The greatest wines of Alsace are invariably made from Riesling.

Gewürztraminer – If Riesling is dry and steely, Gewürztraminer is the opposite stylistically, with opulence, perfume and residual sugar making for a very attractive, exotic wine. There's no mistaking Gewürztraminer on the nose, with its characteristic smell of rose petals, lychee and spice; a great pairing option for spicy foods!

Pinot Gris – Pinot Gris is made the world over in many formats, but arguably reaches its peak in Alsace. Not particularly aromatic, Pinot Gris is full of flavour on the palate and combines some of Riesling's verve and acidity with the spice of Gewürztraminer. Some of the greatest sweet wines in Alsace are made from Pinot Gris.

Muscat – Much the lesser-favoured of the 4 Noble Grapes, Muscat still makes some wonderful, aromatic wines that are mostly bone-dry, despite what the perfumed nose may be telling you. Whilst usually lacking the depth and power of some of the other Noble Grapes, these wines are charming and a lot of fun to drink!

The tricky element of choosing a wine from Alsace is understanding its sweetness level. Some producers have started to indicate a sweetness level on the back of their wine to help us out, but unless the following two terms are used, you should expect a relatively dry wine:

Vendange Tardive (VT) - translates directly as Late Harvest, which is indeed what these wines are. Most of these wines are sweeter than the average Alsace wine, but do be aware that some can be quite dry, particularly for Riesling where the high level of acidity reduces the perception of sweetness.


Sélection de Grains Nobles (SGN) – These are usually the sweetest, most concentrated examples of wine in Alsace, made from grapes that have been been dried in the sun, and often affected by botrytis. Most commonly, you'll find these wines made from Gewürztraminer or Pinot Gris.

The Loire Valley

The Loire Valley


The Loire Valley, perhaps better known for its beautiful medieval architecture, is one of France's greatest wine regions and the most north-westerly region for quality viticulture in Europe. Based along the meandering River Loire, these wines are distinctly fresh and appealing, with lower levels of alcohol and higher levels of acidity, thanks to the cooler, wetter climate here. White wines dominate, although some of France's most distinctive red wines hail from certain regions along the Loire, although vintages play a greater role here than in many other regions. In terms of geography, it's easiest to think of the Loire Valley in 3 stages, moving gradually upriver away from the Atlantic Ocean:

Muscadet - Muscadet is both a wine and a wine region in the Loire, based around the mouth of the river and heavily influenced by the Atlantic Ocean. The wine here is almost exclusively white, made from the neutral Melon de Bourgogne grape and usually aged for a long period of time on its lees (deposits of yeast left after fermentation) to develop extra character, body and often long, savoury flavours. The best examples are remarkably affordable and can defy even optimistic expectations when it comes to ageing!

Middle Loire - This is where the Loire Valley comes to life, and it's home to most of the most famous appellations in the region. White wine here is made from the distinctive, often powerful Chenin Blanc, and reaches its apogee in the appellations of Vouvray, Montlouis and Savennieres, with the best sweet wines hailing from Bonnezeaux and Quarts de Charme. Cabernet Franc is the red grape of choice, producing unmistakably firm, fragrant wines in Chinon, Bourgueil and St-Nicolas de Bourgueil. Then there's every stripe of rosé and sparkling wine imaginable; a wine-lover could spend years here and still not try everything there is on offer!

Upper Loire – The vineyards furthest away from the Atlantic Ocean are to be found here, with a distinctively different climate as a result. The famous regions of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé are the names to look out for here, both making a precise, lean and hugely refreshing example of Sauvignon Blanc, demanded by restaurants around the world for their food-friendly nature and consistent quality. There are some lovely rosé wines to be found here as well, and as the world gradually gets warmer, some quite convincing Pinot Noir!

Whilst we've covered the most important regions in the Loire, it should be emphasised that there are a myriad of smaller appellations and discoveries to be made here, and the wines are nearly always excellent value for money. If you like fresh, food-friendly wines then the Loire Valley may well be the best discovery you make this year!

The Loire Valley is close to Paris and makes for a great expedition from the capital city. Don't forget to read our guide to the Dos and Donts of Enotourism if you're not familiar with organising a wine trip!

Southern France Wine

Southern France


When it comes to the powerhouse of France in terms of production, the flat, warm vineyards of the south come into their own. That's not to say that quality isn't also very high in certain appellations as well, but a great deal of the cheap-and-cheerful wines are produced in this increasingly Mediterranean-influenced part of the country. There's a remarkable amount going on here, and some of the countries best bargains are tucked away in the corners, but we're going to focus on the three largest and most important regions to be aware of:

Provence – If you enjoy a glass of rosé wine, you've no doubt heard of Provence, who pioneered the perfumed, delicately coloured rosé that's sweeping the worlds bars and restaurants at the moment. The name to look out for here is Côtes de Provence, an appellation that covers most of the better quality rosé wine, although with a region as large and diverse as this, quality can also be quite variable. There's also high quality red wine made from the Mourvedre grape variety, on the Mediterranean slopes of Bandol, which can be quite rustic and chewy in youth, but really open up with some bottle age to express a warm, spicy character.

Languedoc – The warm, dry Languedoc was the first region of France to be cultivated for vines by the Romans, and indeed even today, some of the oldest, most characterful vineyards are still to be found here. The difficulty is that the region is so vast and diverse, it's hard to know what to look out for, particularly as close to 10% of the entire planets production of wine comes from these flat, fertile fields. Appellations that are likely to produce more concentrated, interesting examples of wine include Fitou, Corbières and Minervois, where the steeper slopes, older vines and quality-minded production make all the difference.

Roussillon – Roussillon is almost as Spanish as it is French, with a particularly strong link to neighbouring Catalunya. Much the warmest and driest of France's wine regions, Roussillon has historically been known for producing some of France's most famous sweet wines, such as Banyuls, Maury and Muscat de Rivesaltes. There's also some top dry wine to be found here as well, with many internationally-acclaimed winemakers attracted to the region over the last 2 decades, although discovering it as a trial rather than an exact science, as there's few quality appellations to point you in the right direction.

French Wine Labels

French Wine Labels


As you can see, in France the region is more important than anything else when understanding the style of wine you're likely to buy, and unfortunately there's no easy way around it. However, here are some extra terms you may find on your wine bottle that can give you a clue as to what to expect:

AC/Appellation Contrôlée – France's premium appellation system, denoting the most strictly controlled regions. This includes restrictions on grapes varieties that may be grown, maximum yields, how grapes can be planted and much more. Usually of a consistently high quality and come to denote the style of the wine more than anything else, owing to this stylistic, regulatory framework.

Château – This literally translates as 'castle', but in reality its a wine producer, usually to be found in Bordeaux.

Côte/Coteaux – This usually indicates a wine produced on a hillside slope, often with superior quality.

Domaine – Most commonly associated with Burgundy, this is the wine produced by the estate itself, including the use of their own grapes rather than any purchased from other growers.

Premier/Grand Cru – Again mostly Burgundy specific, denoting a superior vineyard, with Grand Cru being the pinnacle.

Vigneron – Literally, 'grower'.

Villages – Usually used as a suffix to denote a superior wine, hailing from a smaller part of an appellation that has stricter regulations, such as Beaujolais-Village instead of just Beaujolais.

Vielles Vignes – 'Old Vines', theoretically used for a producers wines produced from their oldest vines, although there's no regulation on the term so expect wide variability.

IGP – A broader appellation than AOC, this usually covers a broader geographical region and is less regulated. Whilst this makes for less stylistic consistency, it must be said that some of the countries most interesting wines are made outside the strict regulations of its best regions! Huge variability in quality.

Paris France

Conclusion


We couldn't hope to do justice to the powerhouse of the wine world that is France within one article, but we hope that this has cleared up some of the basics for you. In truth, and not just because we're a French company, we consider France to be the heart of the wine-world, and if you talk to wine-makers in other countries, they'd probably agree with the sentiment. There's so much to discover here and the more you understand the benchmark wines of France, the more you understand the influence they've had in the rest of the world. Whether you're visiting the country and spending your time in their wonderful vineyards, or sat at home with a delicious glass of French wine, we salute you. Santé!

Once you've found the right wine and want to get it home safely, make sure you do it properly! Check out the information on our specially designed wine luggage below:

 






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