The Ultimate Guide to French Wine
From grape to bottle, all the major French wine regions explained.
French wine is without a doubt the most respected and coveted drink on the planet. Vinous traditions go deep in France, and every bottle is a testament to the country’s impressive reputation.
Still, French wine might be too much to handle for the inexperienced. There are hundreds of grape varieties and appellations, and the wine labels aren’t as straightforward as you’d want them to be. This means to appreciate French wine, you must dedicate some time to understanding it, and that’s fantastic news! There’s nothing more enjoyable than learning more about the things that bring you pleasure, and French wine is undoubtedly pleasurable.
This is the Ultimate Guide to French Wine, from the country’s wine laws and terms to the most popular grape varieties and regions. Let this be the first step on an exciting journey into France’s vineyards and cellars.
History of French Wine
The grapevine Vitis vinifera arrived at what we now call France with the Ancient Greeks through the port of Massalia (Marseille), founded around 600 BC. Still, archaeological evidence suggests people already grew grapevines in the region 12,000 years ago.
Although the Greeks shared their viticultural knowledge and helped spread it around France, the Romans took winemaking to every corner of the known world. Some French terraced vineyards, built by the Romans themselves, are still cultivated today.
With the fall of the Roman Empire came the influence of the Visigoths, Burgundians and the Franks. The Middle Ages and the increasing influence of the Catholic Church helped cement France’s wine production and established its reputation as one of the most sophisticated of the era. Even Pope Clement V moved the catholic headquarters to Avignon, France, from 1309 to 1376.
Strong bonds between French winemakers and English wine traders consolidated France’s dominion of wine production in Europe and set a precedent for Britain’s love affair with wine.
The French Revolution (1789 - 1799) shook the French wine industry, stripping the church from its estates and redistributing the vineyard ownership across social classes. Still, the most significant event that helped shape the French wine scene was the arrival of the American pest called phylloxera (1858), which devastated over 40% of the country’s vineyards. The devastation eventually led to the creation of France’s sophisticated appellation system.
The 20th-century brought new problems to French wine producers, who were affected by the World Wars, but the recovery led to today’s vibrant wine scene. French wine is more varied and of higher quality than ever.
French Wine Laws and Labelling
Wine laws in France are among the strictest in the world, as the government, through the Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité (INAO), supervises wine production at all levels, from grape to bottle, through a complex appellation system.
What is the Appellation System?
France’s Appellation system consists of rewarding production areas, large and small, with the ability to label wine with a unique name protected by international law. Each appellation watches a specific wine style and establishes the rules to follow in the vineyard and winery to guarantee its quality and accurate representation of its terroir.
What is Terroir?
Terroir is a French term that can roughly be described as ‘sense or place.’ The climate, soil type, altitude, orientation, proximity to sea, lakes, oceans and mountains are all factors that determine wine’s personality. Fine wine, unlike commercial, industrial wine, reflects its terroir in the wineglass.
Categories of French Wine
The INAO currently classifies wine in three main quality tiers, each stricter than the next.
- Vin de France. This is France’s table wine, and it can be produced in a wide variety of styles with countless wine grapes. This type of wine can’t specify the wine’s origin, but it can state the vintage and the grape or grapes used.
- Vin de pays (Indication Géographique Protégée IGP). The second tier in the French wine quality pyramid is the IGP, and it represents wine from broader areas and regions. Wine producers have more creativity at this level, as the production laws are more relaxed than the highest quality tier, the AOPs.
- Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC, now AOP). AOPs represent the highest quality level in the French wine repertoire. Appellations might cover large areas or a specific vineyard. It comes without saying not all AOP wine is of the same quality, but the most prestigious wines are produced at this level. Some AOPs have their own quality tiers, making them quite complex to study. Today there are over 450 appellations in France.
How to Read a French Wine Label?
Wine labels in France can be challenging to read, mainly because, traditionally, producers won’t include vital information such as the wine’s sweetness or the grape varieties used. You’ll commonly only find the producer’s name, the vintage and the IGP or AOP corresponding to the wine. It’s up to the consumer to know the style and wine grape used in the stated region.
Most Planted Grape Varieties in France
Although over 60 grape varieties are commonly planted in France’s 792,000 hectares of vines, these are the most common.
- Merlot 13.6%, 116,715 hectares
- Grenache 11.3%, 97,171 hectares
- Ugni Blanc 9.7%, 83,173 hectares (used to make Cognac)
- Syrah 8.1%, 69,891 hectares
- Carignan 6.9%, 59,210 hectares
- Cabernet Sauvignon 6.7%, 57,913 hectares
- Chardonnay 5.1%, 35,252 hectares
- Cabernet Franc, 4.4%, 37,508 hectares
- Gamay 3.7%, 31,771 hectares
- Pinot Noir 3.4%, 29,576 hectares
The Most Famous French Wine Regions
Knowing French wine is all about learning the country’s history, gastronomy, grape varieties, and most importantly, its wine regions. Here are the most influential wine regions in France, the grapes used in each, the wine styles produced and food pairings.
Champagne, The Finest Bubbles on Earth
Champagne is one of the northernmost wine regions in France. The cold terroir allows grape growers to cultivate Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir (amongst others) — the ingredients behind the most prominent sparkling wine on the planet.
Champagne is quite complex. Producers make white and rosé sparkling wine, and they have their own quality classification. The finest grapes come from Premier Cru and Grand Cru Villages, each specialising in one or several grapes.
Champagne houses or Maisons produce a diverse range of sparkling wines, from entry-level Champagne to exclusive Prestige Cuvées, produced in limited quantities and often expensive.
The secret behind Champagne is its unbeatable cold-climate terroir and the time-worn and labour-intensive winemaking process. The bubbles appear naturally in the bottle through a second fermentation.
Wine Pairings with Champagne. Finger food, appetisers, seafood, caviar, fine-dining sophisticated dishes.
Alsace, where French and German Traditions Meet
Alsace is a northern region right at the border with Germany, between the Rhine River and the Vosges Mountain Range. Here, the geography allows for plenty of sunshine all year long, permitting premium viticulture, mainly for the production of white wine.
The noble grapes: Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and Muscat share the vineyard with Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir, and are used to create extraordinarily textural white wine of astounding age-worthiness. Most Alsatian wine is vinified to dryness, but mirroring German traditions, some sweet wines are not uncommon.
Grapes used in Alsace Wine: Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot blanc, Pinot Noir
Wine Pairings with Alsace. Coq au vin, sausages, veal cutlets, choucroute, dry-cured meat.
The Loire Valley, The Garden of France
The extensive vineyards along the Loire Valley offer a wide range of wine styles from sea-scented Muscadet to herbal Sauvignon Blanc, dry and sweet Chenin Blanc, structured reds made with Cabernet Franc, elegant Pinot Noir and even rosé and sparkling wine.
The Loire Valley doesn’t have one terroir, but many. Just like the region is dotted with castles and summer mansions, each village has a unique wine style and champions particular grapes.
Despite not being as famous as other French regions like Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy, the Loire Valley has wine styles at all price ranges and for every occasion, and quality is overall high. The area is also a pioneer in organic and bio-dynamic farming and is an inspiration for winemakers worldwide.
Grapes used in the Loire Valley. Melon de Bourgogne, Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Gamay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc.
Wine Pairings with wine from the Loire Valley. Muscadet and Sauvignon Blanc wines are delicious with seafood, salads, fresh cheese and light food. Loire’s Red wine is suitable for red meat and game.
Burgundy, Land of Monks
Burgundy is one of the better-known wine regions in the world, and it’s home to the most prestigious wines made with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The region is divided into different areas, the colder Chablis up north, home to mineral Chardonnay, the Côte d’Or, land of vineyards of Premier and Grand Cru level, and the southern Cote Chalonnaise and Maconnais, where wine is equally delectable and more affordable.
Burgundy’s vineyards were tended by Cistercian monks during the Middle Ages, meaning the most acclaimed vineyards have hundreds of years of history. The intricate classification of vineyards in Burgundy makes it mind-boggling, as the 42 villages in the area have dozens of named vineyards, each of distinct quality and personality.
Still, Burgundy specialises only in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The wines at a regional or village level are more affordable and are excellent entry-level wines for the region. The most prestigious vineyards are classified as Premier and Grand Crus, the latter considered among the most coveted wines on earth.
Grapes used in Burgundy. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir.
Wine Pairings with Burgundy. Chablis is extraordinary when paired with shellfish, fuller-bodied Chardonnay pairs nicely with white meat, creamy sauces, prawns and lobster. Burgundy Pinot Noir is delicious with oily fish like salmon and tuna, and meat stews like Beef Bourguignon.
Beaujolais, Young and Fruity
Once considered part of Burgundy, Beaujolais lays between Burgundy and the Rhône Valley. The region specialises in red wine made with the lesser-known grape Gamay, which is remarkably similar to Pinot Noir’s texture but offers a more fruit-forward bouquet.
The famous Beaujolais Nouveau, a young wine stile released the same year of the harvest, is cherry scented and uncomplicated. The region also produces contemplative, age-worthy wine, especially in its Cru villages: Brouilly, Chenas, Chiroubles, Cote de Brouilly, Fleurie, Julienas, Morgon, Moulin-a-Vent, Regnie and Saint-Amour.
Appellations to look out for. Beaujolais.
Grapes used in Beaujolais. Gamay.
Wine Pairings with Beaujolais. White meat, dry-cured meat, ham, pâté, charcuterie, semi-hard cheese, roasted poultry, and cranberry sauces.
Bordeaux, the Heart of the Wine Trade
Divided in the right and left banks of the Gironde estuary, the region is blessed with the gravel, clay and limestone soils to offer distinct terroirs suitable for a wide diversity of wine styles. From young, vibrant red and white wines to structured red wines meant to age. Bordeaux’s sweet wine, from which the most popular is Sauternes, also enjoys immense popularity.
Wine Pairings with Bordeaux. Red Bordeaux is the perfect pairing for steaks, roasts, grilled red meat and duck confit. White Bordeaux is fantastic with white meat and seafood. Sweet Bordeaux is compatible with foie gras, custards and fruit tarts.
The Rhône Valley, along the Untamable Rhône River
The Rhône Valley is warmer and harsher than Burgundy and Bordeaux, and the grapes here reflect the arid terroir. Grenache, Syrah, Viognier and others are unique to the area where blending grapes is customary.
The northern part of the valley, near Lion, is dominated by Syrah, and the southern section extending towards the Mediterranean coast offers complex blends based on Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and others. White wines are as robust as their red counterparts and are made with Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne.
Cotes du Rhône is a catch-all appellation covering most of the wine produced in the region, but several villages have their unique appellations — the often-called Crus of the Rhône Valley include prestigious names, such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Vacqueyras, Cote Rotie, Hermitage and Cornas.
Grapes used in the Rhône Valley. Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne, Muscat.
Languedoc-Roussillon, the warm southern France
The extensive area corresponding to the French Mediterranean Coast is covered by two regions, Languedoc and Roussillon. Commonly considered a single entity, the region produces most French wine, especially at Vin de France and IGT levels, particularly Vin de Pays d’Oc. Wine here is often inexpressive and of great value. Still, several appellations call Languedoc-Roussillon home, and they’re well worth exploring.
The warm Mediterranean breeze and the southern aspect of the vineyards allow winemakers to experiment with a wide variety of grapes, from Cabernet Sauvignon to Chardonnay. Having said that, the region’s traditional varietals are not dissimilar to the ones found in the Rhône Valley, including Grenache, Muscat, Cinsault, Mourvedre and others.
Winemakers in Languedoc-Roussillon produce all wine styles, including white, red, rosé, sparkling and even fortified wine. It comes without saying people have been making wine in the region for centuries, and some estates go back for generations. The region is undoubtedly an exciting source of both traditional and modern French wine.
Wine Pairings with Languedoc-Roussillon. Rustic stews, braised meat, roasts, casseroles and grilled red meat. For whites, Mediterranean-inspired seafood dishes.
Provence, Elegant Rosé
Provence covers the Rhône Delta and the luxurious Cote d’Azur. Cities as famous as Nice, Cannes, Antibes and St Tropez make the region a high-end touristic destination, and the region’s rosé is the order of the day.
Made with a combination of red and white grapes, including Syrah, Grenache, Carignan, Mourvedre, Tibouren and Vermentino, producers create fruity, mineral, and sophisticated dry rosé — the perfect partner for the region’s seafood.
Some appellations in the region allow white and red wine production, but Provence’s rosé is by far the area’s most distinguished wine style.
Grapes used in Provence. Syrah, Grenache, Carignan, Mourvedre, Tibouren, Vermentino.
Wine Pairings with Provence. Bouillabaisse, fresh seafood, ratatouille.
The Southwest, the French Picturesque Countryside
The French Sud Ouest lies between Languedoc-Roussillon and Bordeaux. The land is dotted by villages, specialising in a few wine styles and grapes, some as famous as Cahors and its Malbec (Cot) and Marcillac and its grape, Fer.
The Sud Ouest shares similarities to Bordeaux and growers cultivate Cabernet and Merlot. Southern varietals are featured, too, for a picturesque collection of wines of all styles, from white and reds to sparkling and sweet dessert wine.
Grapes used in the South West. Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Duras, Fer, Malbec, Merlot, Syrah, Tannat.
Wine Pairings with South West wine. Casseroles, pot roasts, stews, grilled meat, seafood.
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French wine might be the most sophisticated on the planet, but you need not be an expert to enjoy it. French wine is there for everyone wishing to quench their thirst with the world’s most dependable fermented grape juice.