Offering over 2,900 different wines from many thousands of wineries, navigating French wine can seem daunting. Wines are made from over 200 indigenous grape varietals, from the well-known Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon varieties to rarer grapes, such as Savagnin and Prunelard. The key to understanding a country’s wine is to first understand how a country opts to control and label the wine produced and then to understand the role geography plays in regional designations. Together with the tips included in this article, understanding the basics of French Wine will help you begin to explore the country – one bottle at a time.
In France, wines receive an AOC designation and are also named for specific regions where they are produced, such as Champagne or Bordeaux. By understanding the relationship between the two, you will be able to pick an exquisite representation of what France has to offer with their wine.
France’s Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC)
The AOC was created to protect the names of the best wines produced in France from fraud and quality variations within a region. The four wine categories are: Vins de Table (table wines), Vins de Pays (country wines), Vins Delimites de Qualite Superieure (VDQS: delimited wines of superior quality), and AOC or appellation wines. Wines are regulated and must adhere to production levels, minimum alcohol strength, allowed amounts of sulfur dioxide and acidity. Wineries also have to adhere to strict bottling and labeling protocols.
The AOC designation serves to protect and control geographical regions throughout France, guaranteeing a collective property right to wine makers. Basically, the land is broken up into sections and wineries make their wine on their vineyards within these sections. With an AOC designation, the process and experience of French wine becomes one based on quality and process and opposed to vineyard name and marketing. For the buyer, by seeking out specific designations, you can expect a certain sensory experience from the wine as well as understand the process a winery took to produce the wine.
- Vins de Table is just that, table wines. This designation simply tells you that the wine was produced and bottled in France, but producers cannot label them with a grape variety, year or region of production. Table wines are not often found outside of France and because they are table wines, they are cheap.
- Vins de Pays are divided into three categories: regional, zonal and departmental. The wine in this category are made by non-traditional methods or grape varietal usage and do not have to adhere to the strict regulations laid out by the AOC. Because of this, producers experience more freedom with their winemaking that allows them to compete with New World producers on a global level. Unlike Vins de Table, Vins de Pays wine carries a geographic designation of origin. However, wines do have to be submitted for tasting and have to be made from certain varieties or blends of the region.
- VDQS wines comprise 1% of French-produced wines. This designation serves as a waiting zone for aspiring AOC wines. While they are not yet AOC wines, they can be very close and a great option if you would like to try an AOC wine without the high price.
- AOC wine designation is highly dependent on the idea of “terrior,” or the geographical boundaries and geological composition of the land the wine is derived from. In an AOC designated wine, regulations are very strict – grape varietals, wine making method, yields and its chaptalization (addition of sugar to a must to increase alcohol content and not sweeten the wine in cool climates only) are all heavily regulated. To ensure a quality wine, look for wines produced by wineries with a Grand Cru rating, of which Premier Cru is the highest classification. With an AOC wine, you can be sure you are purchasing a wine that is a pure experience of the region.
Tip: Terroir is the combination of the grapes, climate (or micro-climate), soil (geology breakdown), vineyard placement (vines love slopes) and human touch to create exquisite wines
France is known for their 11 major wine producing regions: Champagne, Alsace, Burgundy, Beaujolais, Rhone Valley, Provence, Languedoc-Roussillon, South-West, Bordeaux, the Loire Valley and Corsica. While most regions produce several varieties of wine, Champagne and Beaujolais primarily produce a single variety of wine named after their region. In other words, true Champagne can only come from the Champagne region of France.
Champagne is both a protected variety of wine and a region. In other words, only Champagne can come from the Champagne region of France. Sparkling wines from other regions cannot be called Champagne and are usually called sparkling wines. Because of this, the Champagne region produces Champagne exclusively.
Champagne is a blend of grape varieties including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier and under two sub categories. Blanc de Blanc varieties will be made of 100% Chardonnay (white) grapes while Blanc de Noirs will be a blend of Pinot Noir and Pinto Meunier grapes. Both will be crisply acidic and have bubbles.
Tip: The best Champagnes are aged upwards of three years
Alsace sits on the border of France and Germany with the regional terroir largely varied, producing a variety of wines with subtle differences in taste. The region produces a variety of grapes, primarily Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Auxxerois, Pinot Noir and Silvaner varieties. Most notable wines are the region’ Reisling, Pinot Gris as well as Gewürztraminer.
Wines bottled in Alsace are required to be bottled in the official bottle of the region, a bottle shape called the flute. Most bottles will also include a grape varietal of which the wine will be 100% comprised. If no variety is labeled, it is likely a blend.
Burgundy, also referred to as Bourgogne, boasts some of the most expensive wine available but there are also affordable wines produced. The region focuses on producing primarily varieties of Bourgogne Rouge and Bourgogne Blanc from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, respectively. Other grape varietals are grown, but in small amounts.
What makes wines from Burgundy so unique is their terroir. The winemakers believe it is the terroir that gives their wines the complex aromatic elegance that is expected of Burgundy wines. The five primary growing areas in Burgundy are made up of limestone soils that gives the grapes a minerality zest that contributes to the unique flavors of the wines produced.
The Beaujolais region is most known for its Beaujolais Nouveau, France’s most famous primeur, or young wine. It is on shelves 6-8 weeks after the grapes are harvested, released on the third Thursday of November, known as Beaujolais Nouveau Day. Because of the quick processing time, winemakers use special techniques and yeasts to speed up fermentation processes. However, Beaujolais and Beaujolais Rose are also produced in the region with more traditional methods.
The region is devoted to the Gamay grape – offering notes of plum and cherry as well as peony and violet. It is produced by using the whole grape and not extracting any tannins from the skin – producing a light red wine. Because of the clay soil and flatland dominating the region, making it hard for grapes to ripen properly, quality varies widely. The best way to sample this region is to look for wines from the 10 Crus of the region – these will be labeled Beaujolais.
Tip: Wines labeled “Supérieur” will be darker and more concentrated with a higher alcohol content
The Rhône Valley is divided primarily into two major areas divided by the Rhône River. The smaller, northern area produces a savory Syrah with black olive, dried herb and plum flavors. The southern area focuses on blends of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre grape varieties to produce red wines with raspberry, plum, and lavender flavor profiles. A small amount of white wine is also produced in the southern areas using Marsanne and Roussanne grapes.
Chateauneuf-de-Pape is the most sought-after sub-region in the Rhône Valley, known for its full-bodied, seductive reds full of flavor and aroma reminiscent of raspberry, olive tapenade, lavender, cinnamon and black cherry. Large pebbles dominate the terrain in the sub-appellation that store heat and reflect it back on the low-lying vines, enhancing natural sugars within the grapes.
Provence is one of the oldest wine producing regions of France, producing wine for the last 2600 years. The region produces red and white wine but focuses its efforts on perfecting Rosé. The Mediterranean climate is perfect for vines providing tons of sunlight for them to ripen. Soils are diverse throughout the region with slopes and valleys amongst the mountains dotted through the terrain. Throughout Provence wild thyme, lavender, and rosemary grow everywhere, lending their unique aromas and flavors to the grapes grown alongside.
A sub-region of Provence, Les Baux de Provence is the warmest part of the region, producing red wines. It receives around 3000 hours of sunlight each year and dry winds that keep vines from rotting from moisture. Because of this, upwards of 40% of vineyards have gone ‘green’ with biodynamic and organic viticulture techniques.
Tip: 88% of the region produces Rosé, making it one of the largest producers of the wine and the only region to have a research institute devoted to it.
This region excels at blending grape varieties and is becoming known as a great value wine region. Wines produced here blend the Grenache, Syrah, Mourverde, and Carignan grape varietals and tend to be more full-bodied and fruit forward.
The wine styles produced in this region are: Red Wine, White Wine, Rosé Wine, Sparkling Limoux (sparkling wine made in the same style as Champagne) and Sweet Wine. For great examples of Languedoc-Roussillon wines, seek out wines labeled with Limoux and Blanquette de Limoux, St. Chinian, Faugères, Côtes du Roussillon Villages and Corbières.
Tip: When buying wine of this region, sub-appellations are not a concern as most wines are Vins de Pays due to their blended nature and no strict adherence to AOC regulations.
South West France is an exciting region for wines with the strong terroir qualities of Bordeaux without the Bordeaux prices. Because of the size of the region, 5th largest in France, the region is divided into four sub-regions. Each sub-region grows different grapes best acclimated to their unique climates and geology.
The region is home to several very rare grapes that are indigenous to the area: Négrette, Tannat, Abouriou, Prunelard and Mouyssagués that are grown among Duras, Gamay, Syrah, Pinot Noir and many other grape varieties. Wines are made in the same styles as Bordeaux wines and are of similar quality. However, it is the mix of unique grapes and terroir that elevates wines from the South West region.
Tip: The South West Region is the 5th largest in France featuring 2x more vineyards than Burgundy
Like Champagne, Bordeaux produces a wine after its name, Bordeaux. 90% of wines produced in the region are red wines made with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grape blends with other varieties added.
A small percentage of Bordeaux produced in the region is white, but the majority is medium to full-bodied reds with deep, dark flavors and dry tannins (extracted from the skin of grapes). Because of the high tannin content, wines can age for decades. Vintages are very important in Bordeaux. Some lesser quality Bordeaux is not aged as long, with wineries opting to speed along the process with yeasts that speed up the fermentation process.
Tip: Check for vintages of 2015, 2014, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2005, 2003 and 2000. On average, one to two years per five years will yield a great vintage.
The Loire Valley region produces a wide array of red, white and sparkling wines with varying flavors due to varying geology across the region. The region is considered one of quality with about 75% of the wineries boasting an official AOC rating. The region is divided into three sections along the Loire River: Lower, Middle and Upper.
The Lower Loire Valley is dedicated to producing white wines. Wineries sit within 6-60 miles from the Atlantic Ocean and enjoy a cool, damp environment. The soil is comprised of both volcanic and gneiss (porous, granite-like rock), ideal for the wetter climate. These soils allow for wineries to have good drainage, keeping grapes healthy in the wet climate.
The Middle Loire Valley is known for its impressive Chenin Blanc, delicious sparkling wines and its Cabernet Franc, among other varieties. The climate in this part of the valley is more regulated and protected from the maritime climate more hospitable to growth. The soil is varied making it possible to grow and produce many varieties of grapes and wine in the area.
The Upper Loire Valley is home to the most well-known Loire Valley appellations producing Sauvignon Blanc emulated throughout the world. This part of the valley sees a drastic change in day and night temperatures and wineries must combat frost in the spring and fog in the fall. The topsoil varies but sits atop a limestone base.
Tip: Sancerre AOP plants vines in three types of soil – blending grapes to create a benchmark Sauvignon Blanc
This region primarily produces Nielluccio (aka Sangiovese) and Vermentino (an Italian wine). The Nielluccio from Corsica sets itself apart from others with the addition of a local grape, Sciaccarellu, blended in. While the Vermentino (or Vermentinu) produced in this region features a higher acidity than its Italian rival with a subtle smokiness and a less minerally taste profile. This is because the soil of Corsica is less fertile, containing fewer minerals.
With so many different regions, and many more not listed here, navigating French wine can be intimidating. However, by understanding what different regions have to offer, the AOC designations within the regions and how terroir plays into the wines, choosing a delicious taste of France is not difficult. Each region brings its own interpretation to wines, as do the winemakers, creating tasting experiences that are unique.