France, the epitome of winemaking excellence, has continued to inspire winemaking around the globe for centuries. The country is split into 11 major wine regions, French wine is known for its wide variety of grapes and its excellent quality. This ultimate guide to French wine consists of a combination of the best wines from France, their production regions, and rules for French wine classifications.
France is home to several of the worlds’ most famous wine regions
Bordeaux is one of the oldest and most notable wine regions in the world. Located in southwestern France, this region is home to a vast array of grape varietals and is famous for red wine featuring Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. Popular red wines from this region are come from Medoc and Libournais. French wines The Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon grape varietals produce certain white wines, such as Bordeaux Blanc.
The region is divided into two parts by the Gironde Estuary: The left bank includes the Médoc region, while the right bank includes the Libournais region. This natural divide contributes to the vast typography of land in the Bordeaux region. Its varied soil conditions provide diverse growing conditions for many different types of grapes, leading to a wide range of wine options and setting Bordeaux apart as a benchmark for quality and elegance in the world of winemaking.
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Located in the heart of France, with vineyards dating back to medieval times, Burgundy is another region known for its quality French wines. Its most popular red wines are made from the Pinot Noir grape varietal, while its most popular white wines are made from Chardonnay. These two grape varietals enable the production of a wide range of fruity French wines in this central region, including but not limited to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Chablis, and Crémant de Bourgogne.
The Burgundy wine region is adorned with terroir “climats”, specific vineyard sites that differ from each other in terms of climate, soil type, grape type, and geographical location. This unique landscaping enables the production of many different types of wine with individualized features. With over 1,200 climats throughout Burgundy, the region is famous for captivating wine lovers with its benchmark quality French wines.
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Champagne is a region in northeastern France that is famous for its sparkling wines that bear the same name. One of the coolest growing regions in France, its three primary grape varietals are chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier. These grapes enable the production of a large assortment of sparkling French wine, including Non Vintage styles, Blanc de Noirs, Blanc de Blancs, and, of course, Vintage Champagnes.
The Champagne region of France has distinguished itself from other wine-producing regions because of its unique vinification process: The Champagne (traditional) Method. This expensive, laborious technique consists of a secondary fermentation within each bottle, and legally can only be performed in Champagne, France. This special craftsmanship generates the delicate bubbles that have come to embody luxury and celebration.
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The Languedoc-Roussillon wine region, a combination of the Languedoc and Roussillon regions, makes up the largest vineyard area in France. Located in southern France, this region is known for its blends of Syrah, Grenache, Carignan, and Mourvèdre grapes. Languedoc-Roussillon specializes in French wines that are fruity and aromatic, including Languedoc Red blends,Languedoc white blends, Picpoul de Pinet, and Côtes du Roussillon. Other specialty wines from this region include Cremant de limoux, a sparkling wine, and other dessert wines.
Languedoc-Roussillon is distinctive because of its sunny, Mediterranean climate and diverse soil types such as clay, limestone and schist. The region stretches along the Mediterranean coast all the way to the Spanish border. The different grape varieties, along with its unique landscape, provide connoisseurs with vibrant, innovative choices of French wine.
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Loire Valley is a French wine region situated along the Loire River, the longest river in France. Often referred to as “The Garden of France”, this region is famous for its lean wines that are produced in a slightly cooler climate. Notable white wine grape varietals grown in this region include Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadet (melon). The production of red wines in Loire Valley include Cabernet Franc, Gamay, and Côt (malbec), which produce robust, herbaceous French wines. This region is also home to many sparkling wines, such as Saumur and Crémant de Loire.
Distinguished by vineyards, farmlands, and gorgeous châteaux, the Loire Valley spans from the Atlantic coast to central France. The river next to the valley creates a stable growing environment for harvesting grapes, leading to favorable conditions for French wine production.
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The Rhône Valley, a wine region located in southeastern France, is renowned for its strong wines. With grape varietals including Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, and occasionally Viognier, this French wine region is notable for its Côtes du Rhône blends that feature up to 18 different grapes (red and rosé blends).
The Rhône Valley bisects into two regions: the northern Rhône and the southern Rhône. Syrah is the most popular grape in the northern region and Grenache is prominent in the south. This region consists of granite soil, galets, and mistral winds that contribute to the character and flavor profiles of their wines.
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France produces a wide range of red white, and sparkling wines
Merlot is a red wine grape varietal famous for its dark-blue coloring. Originating in France’s Bordeux region, Merlot remains popular worldwide due to its versatility. Merlot produces medium-bodied French wines with low acidity, low tannins, and a smooth texture. Its flavor profile is fruity, with hints of plums and cherries. A unique aspect of Merlot is that you can drink it even before it ages.
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Another red grape varietal produced in France is Grenache. Highly adaptable to different climates, Grenache is commonly used in blends such as the Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which is a popular wine from Rhône Valley. It typically produces medium-bodied and full-bodied French wines that have high alcohol content. Grenache’s flavor profile includes fruity notes such as cherries and raspberries. It is a great choice for a refreshing, velvety mouthfeel.
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Originating in the Burgundy region, Chardonnay is a white grape varietal present in a wide range of French wines. Chardonnay’s flavor profile is dependent on terroir conditions, ranging from light and refreshing to full-bodied. Winemaking techniques such as oak-aging produce richer wines with notes of vanilla and pitted fruits. Without oak-aging, Chardonnays tend to be more acidic with citrus flavors.
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Syrah, a red wine grape varietal native to Rhône Valley, is known for its bold flavor profile. These French wines are darker in color, with notes of blackberries, plums, and black cherries. The full-bodied wine also has hints of spice and black pepper, making it the perfect pairing for grilled dishes. Depending on the exact region, Syrah is recommended to be aged for several years, allowing the tannins to soften and the flavors to balance out. Notable French wines produced from Syrah include Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie.
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French wine labels have unique terms and characteristics that are important to be familiar with
What’s on a French wine label
It’s important to note that French wine is labeled by appellation, AKA the region it comes from. The country of origin will be placed at the very top of the label, in small text. For example, a French wine will read “Product of France” at the top. Right below the country, the name of the winery itself will be found. The “lieu-dit” refers to the wine name or the location that the grapes were harvested from.
The Appellation stands out in large text directly under the lieu-dit. The year on the label, called the vintage, represents the year the grapes were harvested. French wine labels will include a phrase similar to “Mis en bouteille au domaine”, which tells who produced and bottled the wine. At the very bottom of the label will be the names of the proprietors who own the winery. Labels will also include the alcohol content percentage by volume.
French wine terms to know
When reading the label of a French wine bottle, there are a few common terms you should know. One important term to remember is “Grand Vin”, which indicates a winery’s best product. Similarly, the phrase “Grand Cru” refers to the highest quality vineyards in the Bordeaux and Champagne region of France. The word “sec” means a dry wine while the word “moelleux” means a sweet wine, not to be confused with “mousseux”, meaning sparkling wine. If you are searching for a French wine that is aged in oak, keep an eye out for the phrase “Élevé en fûts de chêne”. One more important label term is “propriétaire”, the French word for the owner of a winery.
French wine classifications can tell you a lot about a bottle
French wine classifications
There are 3 major classifications of French wines. The Vin de France tier represents the lowest-quality French wine, such as basic table wines with no specified region. This category will include the variety and vintage date on the bottle label.
The category, Indication Géographique Protétée (IGP), also known as Vin de Pays, refers to everyday French wines. This classification adheres to stricter rules than Vin de France, but not as rigid as the top tier. There are about 150 specific IGP destinations that have a wider range of grapes, but their quality can vary.
The AOP (or AOC) classification designates the highest quality of French wines. This category consists of about 329 different appellations, each with their own individual rules overseen by the French national wine and alcohol committee. These rules specify geographic location, type of grapes, and even the method of winemaking.
Classifications of French wines in the Bordeaux region include: Bordeaux, Crus, and Cru Classés. Regular Bordeaux refers to the more basic wines of the region. Crus represents wine produced from the Médoc area only. The Cru Classés categorizes the most expensive wines of the Bordeaux region.
Classifications of French wines in the Burgundy region include: Appellation, Villages, and Crus.
Wines from the vast Bourgogne appellation are simply labeled as “Bourgogne”. The classification of villages refers to higher-quality wines in smaller, focus areas in the region. The most prestigious French wines from Burgundy fall into the Crus classification.
Classifications of French wines in the Champagne region include: Non Vintage (NV), Vintage, and Crus (including premier cru and grand cru). NV wines are blends from different vintages that need aging. Single-vintage champagne is required to age for 36 months, as aging increases the flavor profile. The highest Champagne classification is Crus, sites that provide the best conditions for growing Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.
Rhône Valley Classifications
Classifications of French wines in the Rhône Valley region include: Appellations, Côtes du Rhône Villages, and Crus. There are 171 appellations that produce basic French wines of this region. Côtes du Rhône Villages consist of approximately 50% Grenache, with higher quality blends. Occasionally, a village will upgrade to the Crus status, referring to top quality Rhône wines.
From the far reaching corners of Bordeaux and Burgundy to luxurious Champagne, each region offers its own unique take on French wine which showcases centuries of winemaking tradition, innovation, and quality. Whether you’re new or a self-proclaimed wine enthusiast, this information presented in this guide will help you immerse yourself in the world of French wine. Au Revoir!