Despite a labeling system that is often confusing to many outside of France, French wine still gives the greatest pleasure of any wine producing region. The style of French wine echoes that of the French themselves—elegant, well-dressed, showing an appreciation for the good things of life but never to excess. French wines go best with food, never overpowering either in flavor or in alcohol, always well-mannered, often beautiful.
The fact that, today, the quality of even the least expensive French wine has improved impressively, means that there is a whole new range of wines open to wine drinkers.
All these qualities make it worthwhile to spend some time to get to know French wine and to appreciate its many facets. The country produces all styles of wine, from the cool wines of the Loire Valley, the stylish whites of Alsace, through the classics of Bordeaux and Burgundy, to the more powerful, muscular offerings of the Rhone, to the warm wines of Languedoc and Roussillon, suffused with sun. And unique in their northern fastnesses are the great Champagnes.
In a world of international brands, where origin doesn’t matter, France offers an alternative ethos. There is much talk of terroir, of the place and the culture from which a wine comes. It makes every wine different, makes many of them special. There is no homogeneity here.
France is an ordered country, and despite the seeming chaos of French wine, there is order in the system. Wines come from places, and these places are designated appellations. An appellation—appellation controlee on a wine label—is not a guarantee of quality. It is a guarantee of origin, and a guarantee that the wine has been made following certain rules specifying grape varieties, soil, planting, yields, and winemaking. The wine has also passed a sensory test which approves its style and its typicity for the appellation.
There are nearly 280 appellations in France, ranging from the huge—Bordeaux appellation, or Champagne—to the tiny, single-vineyard appellations of Coulée de Serrant in the Loire and Romanée-Conti in Burgundy. There are regional appellations, there are district appellations, and there are appellations which cover only one commune.
A good example of this hierarchy is in Burgundy. The main appellation of the region is plain and simple: red and white, Bourgogne Rouge or Bourgogne Blanc. Climbing up the hierarchy are district appellations such as Chablis, for white wines, Mâcon for white and red wines, Côte de Beaune for reds, and so on.
Rising again in quality while the area of the appellation gets smaller are village appellations: Vougeot, Auxey-Duresse, Pommard, Nuits-St-Georges. In these villages, certain superior vineyards are designated premier cru—and you will find the name of the vineyard on the label. At the top of the quality heap are the single vineyard appellations, the Grand Cru: Clos de Vougeot being perhaps the most famous.
There is one other category of wine which is in some ways the most interesting and exciting: Vin de Pays. These are the everyday, ready-to-drink wines which offer some of the best values in the world. The labels, unlike appellation wines, will show grape varieties. Coming generally from the warm south of France, the wines will be warm, ripe, and fruity. The best known example is Vin de Pays d’Oc.
Having established some of the ground rules for French wine, let’s examine the fascinations of the different regions in more detail.
By far the largest, the most important, and one of the best, both for great wines and for bargains, is Bordeaux. Great reds from the great chateaux are what make the headlines, but Bordeaux is so big, that there is plenty of choice. Appellation with the name Côtes in the title are always worth seeking out, as are the white wines (yes, Bordeaux makes whites, both dry and sweet). And the general level of quality has improved dramatically. The reds are fruity, but never over-alcoholic, always with a layer of tannin which makes them great food wines. The whites are fresh, the best with wood flavors to give complexity. They may all be called “chateau this”, “chateau that”, but that’s simply a way of saying that many Bordeaux wines come from one individual property.
Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc are the main red grapes; Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon for the whites. But most Bordeaux is not a single varietal wine—it is more often a blend, which makes these wines more than the sum of their individual parts.
Burgundy is the other big French wine. It is a fifth the size of the Bordeaux region, and produces correspondingly more expensive wines, with fewer bargains, and more disappointments. The best way to buy Burgundy is to follow the best producers, and reliable reviews from buying guides or wine magazines. If you take that advice, the most seductive wines (red from Pinot Noir, white from Chardonnay, always 100 percent) are in your glass. It’s not just chance that the Burgundy bottle has rounded sides, the Bordeaux bottle has straight: Burgundy appeals to the senses, Bordeaux to the intellect.
Much larger in scale than Burgundy is the Rhône valley. From the alcoholic and powerful highs of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, through the dense elegance of the Syrah wines of appellations like Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage, this is red wine country. Rich and generous, these wines appeal to wine drinkers used to California reds. And, just like Bordeaux, there is also great value to be found in this region: wines labelled Côtes du Rhône. If they have a village name attached (Rasteau and Seguret are among the best), they will be that much better even if more expensive.
Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the Rhône are the best known wine regions of France except for Champagne. This sparkling wine from the chalk slopes east of Paris is France’s best answer to a global brand. It is the drink of celebration, of success, and the best way to drown sorrows. And, unlike the still French wines, which have been successfully copied around the world, Champagne remains inimitable, despite thousands of attempts. The combination of cool climate, chalk soil and—there’s no other word for it—terroir are just so special.
As a complete contrast, there are the hot, sun-drenched vineyards of the south. Languedoc and Roussillon don’t just produce tanker loads of inexpensive wine. Some areas such as Corbières, Minervois, Coteaux du Languedoc, Côtes de Roussillon offer a magic mix of great value, history, and some fascinating herbal and fruity flavors.
After these greats, come the Loire and Alsace regions, which produce some of the greatest and most fascinating wines in France. Bordeaux and the Rhône are known for reds, Burgundy for reds and whites. The two cool climate areas of Loire and Alsace are where the whites shine.
Alsace is unique in France in that producers are allowed to put the grape variety on the label of an appellation wine. It is also unique in that the grapes are a mix of German and French: Riesling and Gewurztraminer, Muscat and Pinot Gris. These are not light wines, but they have a fruitiness and a richness that is quite different from the German models just across the Rhine river. At the top of this list are the Alsace Grand Cru vineyards, single vineyards which can produce astonishing quality and longevity.
The Loire is a complete mix. Every style of wine can be found along its six hundred mile length. The greatest styles are the Sauvignon Blanc of Sancerre and Pouilly Fume, the models for Sauvignon Blanc around the world. And the Chenin Blancs of the central Loire—the sweet wines of Vouvray and Anjou—have a poise and acidity which allows them to age for decades, yet be fresh when young. The dry Chenins of Savennières are the purest expression of their granite soil to be found anywhere. Finally to complete the mix are the reds of Chinon and Bourgueil and the fresh, easy whites of Muscadet.
It’s obvious from this brief list that France has variety, in profusion perhaps, but it does mean that there is never a dull moment when reaching for a bottle of French wine. If your wish is to have the same, safe bottle of wine every day, then non-European brands are the better option.