A Primer to French Wine: The AOC and Top 11 Regions
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.
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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 winemakers. 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 “terroir,” 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, winemaking 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 its 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 subcategories. 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
Laurent-Perrier Cuvee Rosé
This brut wine is an exquisite sample of Rosé from Champagne. Flavorful, opulent, the rosé from Laurent-Perrier is among the most esteemed in the world. Intense fruit flavors are accompanied by a clean, supple, and rounded finish. Morello cherries, black currants, raspberries, and a splash of mandarin provide a mouse-like blend of deep fruit flavors. Hints of licorice spice and toasted notes provide an elegant, impressive finish. Buy Here.
Laurent-Perrier Brut Millésimé 2008
From the same esteemed producer comes a classic vintage Champagne. An even blend of chardonnay and pinot noir constitutes this acclaimed sparkling wine. Produced from grand cru vineyards, ripe fruit flavors are paired with structure and lively acidity. Stewed apples and light lemon rind provide a bright, tanging, and mousse-like finish. Toasted aromas and dried almonds are paired with summer florals. A pie crust taste provides a lasting impression. Buy Here.
Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé Champagne
Sometimes, Rosé risks being too sweet and losing nuance. Not so here. This brut Rosé presents with a classic blush hue but is packed with intense fruit flavors and lively acidity. Redberry flavors, including strawberries and raspberries, marry with citrus zest and floral notes for an immersive experience. Perfect for celebrations and service with salmon, shellfish, and even a fruit and cheese tray; Buy Here.
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 labelled, it is likely a blend.
Lucien Albrecht Crémant d’Alsace Brut Rosé
This critically acclaimed wine features strawberry and wild cherry notes, with enough richness to carry the palate. Dry, crisp acidity is present, but the finish is delightfully creamy. Bright red fruit and lively zest showcase the brightness of the Alsace wine region. A bit of lemon, red apple, and fine bubbles make this perfect for celebrating. Buy Here.
Domaine Marcel Deiss Alsace Blanc
This white wine blend is a great introduction to Alsace. This accessible wine presents a light yellow hue and striking fruit notes. A crisp, refreshing drink with vibrant acidity, white florals and lemon zest accenting yellow peach and pineapple. This light drink is still full of flavor, and pairs well with seafood and light chicken dishes. Buy Here.
Trimbach Pinot Blanc 2018
Need wine for entertaining, and at an affordable price? This Pinot Blanc from Alsace checks both of those boxes. Trimbach has been producing wine since 1626 and specializes in terroir wines. Family-owned and operated now by the 12th generation, the company has a history of acclaimed wine with elegant and balanced fruit flavors. Here, this balanced wine provides refreshing classic yellow fruit flavors with refreshing acidity. Pair with shellfish, deli meat, pies, and appetizers. Buy Here.
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 give the grapes a minerality zest that contributes to the unique flavours of the wines produced.
See how Burgundy compares to other wines:
Louis Latour Bourgogne Pinot Noir 2020
From one of the most well-known producers in the Burgundy region, this Pinot Noir is elegant and pleasing. A deep ruby hue is accompanied by bright cherry notes. Blackcurrants add dimension to a silky wine. This deceptively simple, rich wine pairs well with grilled food, aged cheeses, and stews. Buy Here.
Faiveley Nuits-Saint-Georges 2016
This wine is produced with grapes from both Burgundy and St George’s and earned a spot on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 wines list in 2019. A bold garnet hue is accompanied by fruity notes, touches of oak, and tantalizing spices. Velvety tannins accompany a lingering, elegant finish. Blackberry, black currants, cherries, and raspberries provide a lush blend of red fruits. Juicy acidity is met with dry tannins. This wine is perfect for an elegant dinner. Buy Here.
Pavillon de Chavannes Côte de Brouilly Cuvée des Ambassades 2019
A ruby hue presents with an array of aromas for an expressive, slightly mineral, and savory burgundy wine. This high-elevation wine distinguishes itself with soil and stone notes, which complements raspberry, cherry, and rose flavors. A berry preserve palate is given dimension with bright acidity and striking spices. The finish is long and juicy, accompanied by fine tannins and floral notes. Buy Here.
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
Château Thivin Côte de Brouilly 2020
From Beaujolais and Burgundy comes this complex French wine. Gunflint is a stand-out note from the century-old vines used to produce this wine. A dense, mineral foundation adds ambiance to the abundant ripe berry melody. Blueberry, plum, blackberry, plums, and cherries pair with cocoa and spices in the medium to full-bodied wine. Layers of flavors are punctuated with ripe fruit, fresh acidity, and elegant tannins. Buy Here.
Maison L’Envoyé Morgon Côte du Py 2018
Powerful aromas, deep berry flavors, and touches of fennel form the basis for this lively, layered, and rich wine. Generous tannins provide structure to blackberry and cakey flavors, laced with cherry and licorice notes. A medium to full-bodied wine, this is at once layered but also incredibly versatile for holiday events. All of this comes from producers who won a 2015 “Winery to Watch” nod. Buy Here.
Louis Jadot Beaujolais Villages
This wine is affordable and a good entry point if you’ve never tried French wine from the Beaujolais region. Drinkable and pleasing, light soil notes pair with strawberries and black cherries. Subtle spices finish this crisp, refreshing wine, produced with hand-picked grapes. Ideal for serving with appetizers; Buy Here.
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.
Rhône Valley Picks
Château de Saint Cosme Cotes du Rhone 2020
Love Syrah? This is a great representative of an affordable option from the Rhone Valley. Produced in southeastern Rhone, the Syrah is noted with sandalwood, violets, and black pepper for spicy undertones. Firm tannins and deep red fruit flavors make for a drinkable but flavorful wine. Serve this French Syrah with red meat or spicy dishes. Buy Here.
Château La Nerthe Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2017
This critically acclaimed wine is aromatic, expressive, and full of energy. The lively blend of rhubarb, orange peel, and cranberry are accented with notes of sweet Asian spices for a wine bursting with personality. This wine also is produced on a vineyard that’s been certified organic since 1998 and boasts a healthy sandy clay soul. Expressive and juicy, chewing tannins finish this earthy and fruity wine. Buy Here.
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.
Chateau d’Esclans Rock Angel Rose 2019
This rosé provides unexpected stricture and complexity, with a bolder and richer palate. Cooked pears, green apples, and raspberries mingle with mineral touches. Light honey couples with grapefruit acidity for a balanced, creamy finish. The medium to the full-body includes hints of cedar, white flowers, and just the right astringency for a more complex finish for this critically acclaimed wine from Provence. Buy Here.
Château d’Esclans Whispering Angel Rose 2020
Whispering Angel is one of the most famous winemakers in Provence. This rosé is a blend of Grenache, Cinsault and Vermentino. A pale blush hue makes a beautiful presentation for this bone-dry wine, accompanied by a smooth and elegant finish. The critically acclaimed wine includes notes of apple, pink grapefruit, and red berries, Floral and stone notes add dimension to a creamy and smooth finish. Just a bit of orange zest adds fresh acidity for lifted flavors. Serve with everything from chicken to salmon, vegetables, and cheese. Buy Here.
Maison No. 9 Rose 2020 by Post Malone
This gorgeous wine is a brilliant soft pink hue, with inviting aromas. Hand-picked fruit presents with ripe pineapple, strawberry, and pear notes. Fresh acidity brightens, while balanced tannins provide texture to a round, savory finish. Ideal pairings include fatty fish, shellfish, fresh salads, and roasted chicken. Made with a blend of Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah, and Merlot; Buy Here.
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 labelled 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.
Domaine Cabirau Côtes du Roussillon Rouge 2016
Dan Kravitz began importing wine– and did so for nearly 3 decades. But in recent years he’s been producing some excellent, accessible wines from the Languedoc-Roussillon region. This wine is a blend of Syrah and Grenache for a medium body, intense array of black fruit flavors. Mountain herbs accent the black fruit flavor for an affordable, drinkable wine. Pair with red meat or pasta; Buy Here.
Château Massiac, Sentinelle, Languedoc Roussillon
This red blend is priced under $15 and can be delivered to your door in under 60 minutes.
The ‘Sentinelle’ cuvée is the boldest red wine produced by Chateau Massiac, but with a touch of sweetness. Supple tannins accompany the blend of Syrah and Carignan for black fruit, drinkable wine with hints of spice. Buy Here.
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
South West Picks
Clos La Coutale Cahors 2018
This wine is an excellent sample of what reds from Southwest France have to offer. Affordable and drinkable, there’s plenty of structure to the rustic Malbec. Black fruit notes, including blackberries, plums, and dark cherries, form the basis for this balanced but tannic wine. Bits of violet and black pepper accent the jam profile. The balanced acidity and earthy undertones make this a classic wine for a dinner party. Buy Here.
Mont Gravet Côtes de Gascogne 2019
A pale but inviting yellow hue welcomes with a refreshing and bold aroma. This wine is 100 percent Colombard, a white French wine that’s an offspring of Chenin Blanc and Gouais Blanc. Known for its distinctive guava flavors and a dry profile, here blackcurrant accents bright citrus. Light, crisp acidity makes this wine ideal for pairing with appetizers, white fish, and shellfish. Buy Here.
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 flavours 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.
Château Fleur Cardinale 2018
Unprecedented fresh fruit flavors, racy acidity, and bright notes are just a few reasons why this red wine blend is a stand-out. Made with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon, this blend is present with ripe, bracing acidity, rounded out with velvety tannins. Blackcurrants pair with clove, walnuts, and pine cone notes. The medium to full body carries layers of dark fruits and wood accents. Acclaimed as a wine that ages well; Buy Here.
Domaines Barons de Rothschild Legende Bordeaux Blanc 2019
As much as Bordeaux is prized for its red wine blinds, it’d be a mistake to overlook white wine from the region. This white blend is a nearly even split of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, for a balanced and pleasing taste. Don’t let the pale hue fool you: tropical fruit flavors, including pineapple and passion fruit, are full of personality. Mineral notes accompany a round and full-bodied finish. Buy Here.
Château Greysac 2016
A deep ruby garnet hue makes this red wine blend presentation-worthy. Currants and red berry note pair with spices and bell peppers for a juicy and flavorful finish. The medium body features firm but silky tannins. A blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot provides a sampling of the region. Suggested food pairings include mushrooms, poultry, and aged cheeses. Buy Here.
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
Loire Valley Picks
90+ Cellars Loire Valley Sancerre
This Sauvignon Blanc from Loire Valley is versatile. Serve with lemon chicken, tangy cheese, or salads. Bright and lively, grapefruit pair with blackcurrants for a zesty and refreshing finish. Touches of minerals and wildflowers distinguish this easy-to-drink wine. It’s also a nice wine for a warm afternoon or evening. Buy Here.
Jardin en Fleurs Vouvray Loire Valley
This Chenin Blanc is excellent for entertaining. Affordable, soft, and approachable, it can be paired with shellfish and white fish, but even dishes with a bit of spice. Fresh pears accompany white floral notes. Bright acidity is carried alongside touches of honey for a balance of sweet and tart notes. Buy Here.
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.
Domaine Vico Corsica Blanc
Vermentino is a white grape with floral notes with nutty undertones. Though associated with Italian wine, it’s also produced in France. This wine is aged 6 months and lightly filtered to bring out the natural minerality and sweetness of stone fruits. This balanced and pleasing wine is crisp, light, and refreshing. Consider pairing with pesto, soft cheese, seafood, and citrus, or even Key Lime pie. Buy Here.
Locations by Dave Phinney – Corsica
Also made with Vermentino, this French wine is light, refreshing, and crisp. Lively floral aromas pair with ripe green apples and bittersweet almonds. Thai basil adds a playful, spicy accent. This well-rounded but light wine is versatile and a budget-friendly pick. Pair with appetizers, salad, citrus, and poultry; Buy Here.
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.
FAQs About French Wine
While Cabernet Sauvignon is the most popular French wine, it is still not the wine that has been produced in the highest amounts. In fact, 66% of the wine produced in France is Merlot.
Yes, of course. It would be a shame if there were not French wine subscriptions, so if you want to try one ASAP you should consider Sommalier or Pierre Hourlier Wines.
There have been lots of succesful years for French wine in the last 30 years, so some of the most common years include 2000, 2005, 2009, 2010, 2014, 2016, 2018, 2019, so feel free to experiment with the French wine of your choice, especially Cabernet Sauvignon.
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