Ah, French wine. Its wonderful taste and amazing history make it one of the world’s leading wine countries. French wine is incredibly complex to understand, especially as it has its own unique classification system that varies from one region to the next. There are 7 main regions. However, there are sub-regions upon sub-regions in all but one. It helps to know what grape is grown where, so that the rules set by the AOC as well as the traditions and history of each region will lead you to a wonderful experience with French wine. I view it as discovering something new that I would never had found otherwise.
The 7 main regions are Alsace, Champagne, Loire Valley, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Languedoc-Roussillon, and Rhône Valley. There are many famous sub-regions (Chablis) or not so famous (Chateaneuf-du-Pape); I will talk about those in their respective regions. You can learn more about the famous regions as well as discover some fantastic new wines to treasure.
Alsace is in the northeast corner of France. This is the only region where their AOC has them list the varietal on the bottle. The name of the village or vineyard is also listed on the bottle. Alsace is protected by the Vosage Mountains and has a cold climate. This combination makes it a perfect area for white wine grapes. It is cool, yet daily there is an abundance of sunshine. 90 % of the grapes grown are white. The red grape grown there is Pinot Noir, used in their Crémant or Rosés. The white grapes grown are Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc, and several others that are mainly used in blending. They also make some dessert wines. The AOC also enforces that the wines are bottled in the tall thin bottles.
The Alsace wines are known for being quite fruity and very dry. The area is North to South with the Vosage Mountains in the West, and the Rhine River to the East. There are 67 communes off the main Route des vins de Alsace. (170 km).
Champagne, of course, is one of the most famous regions of France. The name Champagne is exclusive to this area. That means if a bottle of sparkling wine has the word Champagne on it, it MUST be made in the region of Champagne, France.
The sub-regions of Champagne are The Aube, Cȏtes de Blancs, Cȏte de Cezanne, Montagne de Reims, Valle de la Marne. These viticultural boundaries were defined in 1927 by the AOC. In 1942 the Comite Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne was formed to protect their name and marketing. Now most champagne houses use their labeling system and are not required to put the AOC designation on their labels.
The monk Dom Perignon declared he was drinking stars when he discovered champagne by accident. At first, the bubbles were considered a flaw and undesirable. The English were instrumental in making the bubbly drink more desired, and the process was written about in 1662 by Christopher Merret. The drink began to also be preferred by the French nobility and continued to grow in popularity.
In 1810 Madame Clicquot revolutionized the champagne method by adding the riddling process to the champagne making. This method pulls all the sediment out of the bottle, leaving the liquid clear. Previously, champagne was not pretty and sparkling as it is today. (This was done by hand until the 1970’s. This is now done by a machine invented in Spain called the gyropallette. )
This discovery put the Veuve Clicquot House at top of the champagne world. The champagne was the first to be allowed past the Russian Blockade and was served in the royal houses of Russia and England. The house is still in existence today under the Louis Vuitton umbrella.
The Loire Valley wine regions run East/West in the Mid to Northwest section of France. They are known mostly for their white wine productions, but also produce red wines and dessert wines.
Loire valley is often divided into the 3 categories: Upper, Middle and Lower. A total of 87 appellations make up the entire region. Two of the main sub-regions are Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume. They are known for dry whites made from Sauvignon Blanc. Sancerre also produces a red wine from Pinot Noir.
In the middle region, there is Anjou-Saumur. In the Anjou area, there are mostly rosés made from Cabernet Franc. The white wine produced is from Chenin Blanc. The area around Saumur is the 3rd largest producer of sparkling wine; their Crémant (called Saumur Mosseux) is made from the Chenin Blanc grape. They also produce still whites and a red made from Cabernet Franc. While Vouvray and Touraine also produce wine from Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc, these regions have a larger range of varietals. They have small plantings of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Gamay and several other grapes. There are rosés made from an assortment of grapes from this region. There are also dry Chenin Blancs and dessert wines labeled Molleux.
The Chinon region differs from the rest of Loire Valley because it is dominated by red wine. Cabernet Franc is grown in this area with a small planting of Cabernet Sauvignon. The grape Cabernet Franc is referred to in this region as Breton. The white wines that are produced here are Chenin Blanc.
The Muscadet region is in the Western-most part of the Loire Valley and produces dry white wine from the grape Melon de Bourgogne. Because this is a very neutral grape, the wine making process imparts many characteristics to the wine, such as aging in oak barrels, or making it “sur lie”. Sur lie refers to not racking the wine to remove sediments. This gives the wine more flavor as it ages, and then it is filtered when poured.
Bordeaux is the largest wine growing area of France. It is located on the West Coast and follows both sides of the Gironde River. There are only 6 red wine grapes permitted to be grown in this area. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot, Malbec and Carmenere. There are very few producers who use Malbec and Carmenere. The white wine grapes are mostly Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc. Also allowed are Muscadelle, Sauvignon gris, Ugni blanc, Colombard, Merlot blanc, Ondenc and Mauzac.
The complicated part to understand about Bordeaux is the French Classification system. It can vary between regions and even sub-regions. The main things to remember are left and right bank, what the white grapes are, what Sauternes is, and what first growth means.
If your red Bordeaux is from a village or region on the right bank of the Gironde River, it will mostly be Merlot. On the left bank, it is Cabernet Sauvingon. If you have a white Bordeaux, it will be a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon. If it is Sauternes, that is a sweet dessert wine made from late harvest Sauvignon Blanc grapes.
First growth is also referred to as Premier Grand Cru. These ranking systems are not uniform across Bordeaux, causing further confusion. The sub-regions of Graves and St. Emilion have their own ranking system. Pomerol does refuse to make a ranking system, but is considered to have some of the best wines in the world.
Then there is Burgundy. The most important thing to remember about Burgundy is that the red grape is Pinot Noir, and the white is Chardonnay. Without Burgundy, there would be no Pinot. There are some sub-regions of Burgundy that produce other grapes, but those are clearly labeled with their sub-regional names. It is in eastern France and runs North to South.
For the AOC in this region, there are 100 designated AOC vineyards. The concept of terroir is very important to this area. There are 6 sub-regions of Burgundy. Chablis (also called Cȏte de Auxeurre), Cȏte de Nuits, Cȏte de Beune, Cȏte de Chalannoise, Maconnais and Beaujolais. The classification system of Burgundy is geographically focused, instead of producer focused. There are over 400 different soils in this area. Because this area has a continental climate of cold winters, hot summers and unpredictable frosts and rains, vintages are very important.
Cȏte d’Or refers to 2 regions together: Cȏte de Nuits and Cȏte de Beune. All Grand Cru vineyards except for one are located here. Vineyards built on the higher slopes of the hilly region are considered Grand Cru. The hill tops give the vineyards more sunshine, better drainage and projection from the wine. Premier Cru areas are further down the slopes, while Village wines are on the flat areas.
Chablis holds the other Grand Cru and is known for its dry white wine made from Chardonnay. The producers in this area use stainless steel for aging, and rarely use oak. Also, because of the cooler climate, the wine is less fruity and has more acidity than other Chardonnays. The Chablis classification system is similar to Cȏte D’or, but has added the level, Petit Chablis. In this area as well, slope and soil mark the quality differences in the classification system. Chablis is thought to be the purest expression of this grape due to the wine makers using very little oak in aging or maturing. These wines can have a wet stone, green apple acidic taste and are known to age well.
In Cȏte de Chalannoise, reds and whites are made. The main red is Pinot Noir, with a small percentage of Gamay. The white is Chardonnay with a small percentage of Aligote, Melon de Bourgogne, Pinot blanc and Pinot gris.
In Maconnais, it is mostly white wine (again Chardonnay) with some Pinot Noir and Gamay. The wine Pouilly-Fuissé is from this area and is Chardonnay.
The last sub-region is Beaujolais. Here 99% of the grape grown in Gamay. The bottles are labeled Beaujolais, or Nouveau Beaujolais. The wine is a lighter red and more acidic. It can be served slightly chilled.
The region of Languedoc-Roussillon is in Southern France, along the Mediterranean coast line. This is a very large production area. They have been known for quantity of quality. However, recently, there have been many wine-makers in this area working towards low-yield crops and improving the quality of wine. With the Mediterranean climate, many different varieties of grapes thrive in this area. Most of these wines are red or white blends and late harvest wines. The higher quality red wines tend to be made from Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre. A Crémant is also made in this area called Crémant de Limoux.
Rhône Valley is located in Southern France along the Rhône River Valley. The region is usually divided into North and South. The Northern region’s continental climate is cooler than the Southern region so the wine grapes and styles are different than in the South. The only red wine grape permitted to grow in this area by the AOC is Syrah. Wines designated with Cornas AOC must be 100% Syrah. In other sub-regions, they may blend the red and white wine grapes together. The white wine grape grown there is mostly Viognier. For white wines from Condrieu and Château-Grillet are 100% Viognier. The other regions can include Marsanne and Roussanne.
Southern Rhône has a Mediterranean climate with mild winters and hot summers. There are many microclimates in this area that leads to a larger diversity of wines. There are also several sub-regions in this area, and each has its own style. The most famous in this area is Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which can be a blend of up to 19 grapes, red and white. However, the dominant grapes are the G-S-M blend of Grenache, syrah, and Mourvedre. The high quality wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape concentrate on these grapes. Within this region is also the Tavel AOC. These are high quality rosés. These rosés are made mostly from Grenache and Cinsault. Syrah and Mourvedre is also used in some quantities. This rosé has been referred to as “The Wine of Kings” as it was declared to be the favorite of King Phillip IV and King Louis XIV. The Tavel Rosés tend to be drier and more full-bodied than other rosés.