The Ultimate Guide to French Wine

When you think of the most highly regarded wines in the world, which country springs immediately to mind? It’s got to be France. We’ve spent some glorious summers touring the French wine regions, soaking up the centuries of winemaking pedigree, and relishing the tastings as well. The grape varieties and blends are as varied as the terrains that nurture them, and if you were to try a new French wine every night, it would take you over eight years to sample every one.

But how did La Belle France reach this pinnacle of wine prestige? Here’s our ultimate guide to French Wine, and why it’s still at the top of its game after 2000 years….

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What is the history of winemaking in France?

Incredibly, there is evidence that winemaking began in France in the 6th century BCE, back when it was colonised by the Greeks. But things really kicked up a gear when the Romans arrived in 81 BCE, and began planting vineyards across the length and breadth of Gaul – most of them in the winemaking regions that are still operational today. Ever since, France has been producing wines that have been enjoyed across the world – so that’s for more than 2000 years.

The 19th century saw some of the biggest changes in the industry: some prestigious, and some disastrous. The rise of the bourgeoisie class across mainland Europe, the UK and the US meant a surge in the number of well-stocked wine cellars – and a massive increase in French wine exports to every corner of the world.

Just as French wine was establishing its reputation for being the best in the world, disaster struck. Diseases and parasites from the Americas arrived in Europe, attacking the fruit and the vines themselves, and devastating grape yields. But this was also the Age of Science, and solutions were found almost as fast as the diseases took hold. Grafting North American vines to European ones increased their hardiness and resistance to the native enemies, and as the 20th century approached, the French government even commissioned Louis Pasteur to investigate the threats to the industry. His discoveries and solutions led to new winemaking and maturing methods that are still in use today.

With greatness inevitably comes imitation. As French wine popularity (and prices) soared, it soon became evident that while it’s the sincerest form of flattery, it’s not ideal to have your wine ripped off and sold under false pretences by merchants who can’t claim to grow it, mature it and bottle it in the same conditions. And so the Appellation framework was established in 1935, to protect French wine quality and prevent such fraud.

In full, it was the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), and defined:

  • geographical areas where vineyards could be;
  • strict regulations on the varieties that could be grown in each location;
  • the density of the vine planting and yield;
  • the minimum levels of alcohol.

The original AOC was replaced in 2012 by the Appellation d’Origine Protegee (AOP), and does a similar job – preventing any producer from outside the area from being able to label a product with a region’s name when it didn’t originate there. This system is now used for food and drink products throughout the EU.

The AOC established a hierarchy of wines within the regions as well (more on this in How is French Wine Classified?). Big investment in the industry followed the post-war years, and a burst of ideas and techniques came from the new generation of winemakers in the 1970s – all building on these centuries of grand heritage and knowledge, and giving us the industry as we know it today.

Why is French wine famous?

Wine is a central part of French culture, dining, international identity and a huge source of pride. It’s been exported around the world for hundreds of years, and over that time has built up a massive brand value – since Victorian times at least, French wine has carried a mark of quality, luxury, and intellectual and social status.

This brand value was boosted even further as the cult of celebrity grew during the 20th century. Champagne was the drink of high society and good times in the 1920s; in 1946, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II served Bordeaux wine at her wedding to Prince Philip; President Kennedy and his wife were known to have a wine cellar stocked with Petrus. When some of the world’s best-known figures place a brand centre-stage, the rest of the world follows suit – and recognition and high demand follow.

Why is French Wine Expensive?

French wines have an excellent reputation, which always drives up price – and demand. And when demand goes up, the price goes up even more.

A finite amount of wine is produced per year, so when demand outstrips supply, the price goes up accordingly. And when you consider that so many of them can only be produced in certain regions of France – by law – the finite nature of each grape and production yield becomes even more of a factor in the ultimate price. Prices are also affected by international trade deals and import taxes.

Collectors and investors also drive up prices – the most expensive bottle ever sold was a Chateau Lafite 1787, which went for £109,000 at auction in 1985 (although having the previous owner’s initials – Thomas Jefferson’s – carved into it by the man himself probably helped achieve that…).

What are the main wine regions in France?

Each region has a different “terroir” – not just location, but climate, soil and environmental factors – than give the grapes and their wines distinct flavours and characteristics. Let’s work from North to South…

French Wine Regions

Champagne

The most northerly, and arguably the most famous of French wine regions – it’s widely known that the sparkling wines produced here are the only ones in the world that can bear the name of Champagne.

Alsace

Along the border with Germany in the west of France, Alsace produces Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gerwurtztraminer wines. Floral and fruity, Alsace wines are rarely aged in oak barrels – winemakers instead use the ripeness of the fruit and the balance of alcohol to create the flavours.

Loire

Littered with stunning chateaux and picturesque vineyards, the Loire valley is in the north west of France. Sancerre is its most famous appellation, and its Sauvignon Blanc vineyards draw on the rich limestone in the soil to produce some fabulous dry whites.

Burgundy

In the centre of France and a little to the east, Burgundy has a variety of wine growing areas and terrains. In the 14th century, the Duke of Burgundy decided to plant primarily Pinot Noir grape varieties across the five main growing regions: Chablis, Cote de Nuits, Maconnais, Cote Chalonnaise, and Cote de Beaune. There are over 100 different appellations for this region.

Beaujolais

The Beaujolais soil is watered and nourished by the Nizerand river, and the region is just to the south of Burgundy. Beaujolais vineyards grow Gamay grapes almost exclusively, aside from a small number of Chardonnay vines for still and sparkling whites. Beaujolais Gamay grapes produce strong, fruity, aromatic wines, in contrast with the Pinot Noir variety favoured by their Burgundian neighbours.

Bordeaux

In the south west of the country, and with a Mediterranean climate, Bordeaux mainly produces red wines – most famously, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc – but there are Bordeaux whites too, from Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle grapes. The flavours can be rustic but soft, and can vary depending on which bank of the river the grapes are grown.

Rhône

Boasting the Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Hermitage appellations, the Rhône Valley blends come mainly from Syrah and Grenache Syrah Mourvedre (GSM) varieties. The region is watered and divided by the river Rhône, into Northern Rhône Valley and Southern Rhône. Smoky and savoury flavours abound in Rhône wines.

Cahors and the South West (“Sud-Ouest”)

This is the hidden corner of France – with the Pyrenees to the south, Bordeaux to the north, and the Atlantic to the west, the “Sud-Ouest” offers many delicious blends with a slightly lower price tag than its near neighbours. Rich Malbecs, Colombards, Ugni Blancs and Gros Mansengs are grown here, and the high tannin wines carry some excellent maturing potential.

Provence

The most prolific producer of rose wine out of all the French regions, Provence perches on the south coast and bakes in the Mediterranean sun. This is the area colonised by the Greeks, so it is likely to be the oldest winemaking region in France.

Languedoc-Roussillon

Packed with history and rural beauty, Languedoc-Roussillon reaches from Provence to the feet of the Pyrenees and Spain. This region produces mainly Cinsault, Mourvedre, Syrah, Carignan and Grenache blends, and the flavours are bold and fruity.

Which grapes are used in French wine?

Merlot is the most commonly-planted grape variety in France; other popular grapes are:

Each variety is unique, and each variety’s final flavour can depend on a wide range of influences – including the geographical location and climate, the qualities of the soil, the altitude, and the water where it grows. This is known as a grape’s “terroir”, and all of its elements will combine to produce the final flavour and aroma. And that’s before the variations in winemaking process come into play!

Brut Champagne, white Sancerre from the Loire, a rich red from Bordeaux, and a crisp Chardonnay from Burgundy – so many famous French wines are just endemic in our cultural knowledge.

How is French Wine Classified?

There are four classes of French wine:

  1. Top Tier: Appellation d’Origine Controlee / Protegee
  2. Tier Two: Appellation d’Origine Vin De Qualité Supérieure (AOVDQS) – similar to AOP with rules and regulation for growth and production, but less restrictive.
  3. Tier Three: Vin de Pays – literally “country wines” that don’t fall qualify for the top two tiers, because of the more generous grape and production types allowed
  4. Tier Four: Vin de Table – the lowest classification, with no rules to govern the management of the vineyards, varieties or winemaking procedures. These are usually the cheapest bottles on the market.
How to read a French Wine Label

How is French wine labelled?

This can vary between regions – but all French wine labels are named with their region, rather than their grape variety (except in Alsace, where the grape is also included). Most will contain the following information:

  • Estate name
  • Classification
  • Appellation region
  • Bottling information
  • Vintage
  • Alcohol content
  • Bottle size

In Alsace, as well as the grape varieties within a bottle, they also include the sulphite levels

French Wine Terms

Regardless of where they’re being shipped to, many French wine labels are produced only in the French language – and if you’re not a fluent speaker (and even if you are!) some of the terms may be unfamiliar. Here are some of the top terms used, and what they mean.

Sur Lie: the ageing of the wine on the dead yeast particles, or lees – so literally, how long the wine has spent “on the lees”.

Premier Cru: literally it means “first growth”, and refers to different classifications of vineyards – although the meaning can vary between regions. In Bordeaux, it’s applied to different wineries, and is the top tier designation, with Grand Cru at the next level down. In Burgundy, the term refers to vineyards – and Premier is the second spot here, with Grand Cru at the top. So when you see this term, the first thing to do is check where the bottle’s from and go from there!

Blanc de Blancs: found only on bottles of champagne, this refers to champagne made entirely from white grapes – usually Chardonnay.

Blanc de Noirs: a white wine made from dark-skinned grapes, separating the juice from the skins. Pinot Noir grapes, for example, can be used to make champagne.

Cremant: this is sparkling wine made in France, but produced outside the official Champagne area.

Brut: literally this means dry or unrefined, and it’s used on bottles of champagne – which must have been made with less than 12g of sugar per litre.

Cote: a slope or hillside on which the grapes are grown.

Nouveau / Primeur: wine that is meant for drinking now, and not for long-term maturing in the bottle.

French Wine Blends in other countries

Grape varieties that were traditionally grown in France alone are now famously grown in other countries, where winemakers have cultivated them in their own terroirs, developed their own blends, and created brand new wine experiences as a result. Here are some renowned examples:

Super Tuscans:

Originally created in Toscana (Tuscany) in the north of Italy by a local Duke who wanted to plant French grape varieties, Super Tuscans take those grapes grown in Italian soil – such as cabernet sauvignon and syrah – to produce some incredible wines, sometimes blending them with Italian varieties too. This innovation was so successful that it brought about the most seismic change the Italian winemaking industry had ever experienced. See our Ultimate Guide to Super Tuscans guide for more details.

Bordeaux and Chile:

Chilean winemakers have refined a brilliant technique of blending Bordeaux grape varieties to create beautiful wines. Chile is now the world’s largest producer of the Carmenere grape, which was previously only found in France, and for which Chile is now the most renowned country in the world.

Bordeaux and California:

the Californian Napa Valley climate is well-suited to Bordeaux varieties – and the wide expanse of vineyard land available means that experimentation opportunities are many! Cabernet sauvignon is the most widely-planted in the state, with Chardonnay and Merlot a close second.

Rhone (GSM) and Australia:

when launching into the world of Australian wine, the first thing to note is that they’ve given some grape varieties different names: so in the land Down Under, a syrah is a shiraz, and a mouvedre is a mataro. In their biggest wine region, Barossa Valley, shiraz is grown in huge quantities and is rich and spicy. The other main grape varieties from the French Rhone region,  grenache and mouvedre (mataro), are also grown in high volume and are usually blended with a shiraz.

Malbec and Argentina:

hailing originally from the Sud-Ouest region of France, malbec wines nowadays have their greatest renown from the vineyards of Argentina. It is the chief grape variety produced in the country, and Argentina is responsible for most of the malbec wines produced in the world. They’re dry but rich and fruity, with moderate tannin levels and plenty of body.

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