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The History and Origins of French Wine
Winemaking existed in France for centuries before the Roman conquest, but the Romans were responsible for planting vines across France in the wine regions we know today. France has dozens of native grape varieties, many of which have become popular worldwide, such as cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, pinot noir, and sauvignon blanc.
The Roman Catholic Church was a major player in keeping winemaking traditions alive during the Middle Ages. Monks in Burgundy noticed that different soil, climate, terrain, and winemaking techniques all worked together to create wines that tasted different, and France’s idea of terroir was born. These monks experimented to find out which vineyard sites made the best wine, which laid the early foundation for France’s appellation system.
Wine quality in France continued to improve over the following centuries as winemakers and scientists learned more about vineyard management and fermentation, and production increased to meet international demand for French wine. This progress came to a standstill in the mid-1800s when a tiny vineyard pest called Phylloxera arrived in Europe from America. The aphid destroyed over half of the grapevines in prestigious areas like Bordeaux, and the only solution was to rip up whole vineyards and replant them with new vines grafted to Phylloxera-resistant American vine rootstocks.
After rebuilding from Phylloxera, a huge step forward for French wine was the establishment of the Appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) system in 1935. The French government put rules in place about what grapes could be grown in certain areas, as well as how wines could be made if they wanted to wear the name of a given appellation. The AOC system gave consumers more information about the wine they were buying and raised quality levels of French wine across the board. Wine-producing countries across Europe and the New World have since adopted similar systems.
The 9 Main Wine Regions in France
French wine regions are scattered in all corners of the map of France.
- Bordeaux is the largest region in terms of quality wine production, where many of the world’s most expensive wines are made.
- The Burgundy (Bourgogne) region also makes some of the most highly-sought wines, but these are made in miniscule quantities compared to Bordeaux, so their rarity also adds to their value.
- Champagne rounds out the top three regions, making special occasion sparkling wines that are pricey because of the amount of labor that goes into their production.
- The Languedoc-Roussillon area in southeast France is the largest wine region, but the majority of production is bulk wine that is not exported.
- The centrally-located Loire Valley (Val de Loire) region produces most of France’s white wine, in addition to wines from many interesting native grapes found nowhere else.
- The Rhône Valley (Côtes du Rhône) is known for red wines, from syrah in the north to grenache in the south.
France shares borders with other winemaking countries including Germany, Spain, Italy, and Switzerland.
- The Alsace wine region has, in the past, been part of Germany, and the wines made there reflect that history.
- Smaller regions like Savoie and the Jura have alpine Swiss influence.
- Southwest France’s underappreciated wines overlap with neighboring Spain, and the island of Corsica combines the best of French and Italian traditions.
The Basics of Bordeaux Wines
Bordeaux, in southwest France, is primarily known for blended red wines driven by cabernet sauvignon on the left bank of the Gironde River and merlot and cabernet franc on the right bank.
- Bordeaux is defined by its historic wine-producing châteaux, which were classified in 1855 into five quality levels, or “growths,” that still influence the Bordeaux market today. The five first-growth estates (also called premier crus) command the highest prices, with their wine often sold as futures before the vintage is even released. All 61 classified châteaux are in the Médoc region on the left bank of the Gironde River. The right bank appellations of Pomerol and Saint-Émilion, although not included in the 1855 classification, are home to a handful of equally famed producers.
- Cabernet sauvignon-led Bordeaux blends have blackcurrant and new oak aromas with earthy, herbal flavors, and strong tannins. Merlot-led blends tend to be softer and plummy, and easier to drink without long aging.
- White Bordeaux wines are barrel-aged blends of sauvignon blanc and sémillon.
- The sweet wine appellation of Sauternes produces luscious dessert wines made from botrytis-affected grapes, which means a good fungus rots the grapes slightly making them sweeter and have a higher alcohol content.
The Basics of Burgundy Wines
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Burgundy, located between the gastronomic hubs of Dijon and Lyon in eastern France, is dominated by pinot noir and chardonnay. Unlike in Bordeaux, the best vineyard sites may be split up among many small winemakers. Winemaking estates here are called domains.
- The grand cru vineyards are clustered in the north of the region, along the Côte d’Or. The upper part of the “gold coast” is called the Côte de Nuits, where the region’s best pinot noir vineyards are planted. Burgundian pinot noir is earthy and elegant, with soft tannins and spicy cherry fruit flavors.
- South of the Côte de Nuits, the Côte de Beaune is known for the best chardonnay sites, where the wines are rich and full-bodied, yet mineral.
- Further south, the Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnaise sub-regions produce more value-driven chardonnay wines.
- Chablis, a region to the northwest of the Côte d’Or, makes chalky, high-acid chardonnay wines.
- Beaujolais, the region known for Beaujolais Nouveau and the Beaujolais Crus, is technically part of Burgundy. But because this region grows the gamay grape almost exclusively, it is often thought of as a separate region. Beaujolais wines are juicier than Bourgogne reds, with brambly purple fruits and sometimes cinnamon or banana notes from carbonic maceration.
The Basics of Wine From the Loire Valley
The Loire region is defined by the Loire River, which flows from the center of the country to the Atlantic Ocean. This large region grows dozens of grape varieties on many types of soil. From east to west, four sub-regions sit along the river valley: the Central Vineyards, Touraine, Anjou-Saumur, and the Pays Nantais.
- The Central Vineyards sub-region is home to Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, famous appellations for flinty, grassy sauvignon blanc.
- Touraine has plantings of red grapes including cabernet franc, gamay, and malbec. Chenin blanc is the most common white grape, but sauvignon blanc and chardonnay are also popular. Iconic AOCs in the region include Vouvray, known for mouthwatering white wines made from chenin blanc; and Chinon, where cabernet franc is king.
- Anjou-Saumur produces rosé wines from cabernet and the native grolleau grape, and large quantities of traditional method sparkling wines made from chenin blanc.
- The Pays Nantes is the region closest to the ocean, and the wines made here, called Muscadet, have a distinct saline minerality. They are light-bodied, citrusy whites made from the melon de bourgogne grape.
The Basics of Champagne
Champagne is France’s northernmost wine region, located just east of Paris along the Marne River. At this northern latitude, grapes struggle to ripen, so the dominant wine style is sparkling, in which acidity is a virtue.
- Champagne is made using the méthode Champenoise, in which the wine undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle. This traps carbon dioxide in the wine, creating strong yet fine bubbles. The wine also gains complex brioche-like, nutty notes from extended contact with the lees (spent yeast) in the bottle.
- The main grapes of Champagne are chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier, the latter two of which are used to make blanc de noirs, white wine from black grapes. Five subregions, the Aube, Côte des Blancs, Côte de Sézanne, Montagne de Reims, and Vallée de la Marne, each specialise in one of the main grapes. Champagne can be made from just one of the varieties or a blend of two or more varieties.
- Champagne’s taste is not as dependent on the vintage as other wines in France. Most Champagne is a blend of wines from different vintages, which allows for a more consistent flavor profile. Champagne is available with sugar levels ranging from bone dry, to extra-brut and brut, to less common sweet styles.
The Basics of Wine From Alsace
Alsace is located east of Champagne between the Vosges Mountains and the Rhine River on Germany’s border.
- 90% of Alsatian wines are white, with varietal wines from riesling, pinot gris, pinot blanc, and gewürztraminer being most common. The rare red wines are made from pinot noir in a light red or rosé style. About a quarter of Alsatian production is Crémant d’ Alsace, traditional method white or rosé sparkling wine.
- Alsace is France’s driest wine region and gets ample sunlight, so the wines tend to be rich and fruit-forward. Riesling here is dry and powerful, with higher alcohol than German examples. Alsace pinot gris and gewürztraminer usually have a little residual sugar. Pinot gris is spicy and honeyed, while gewürztraminer is highly aromatic with tropical and floral notes.
The Basics of Wine From Rhône
The Rhône valley runs from north to south along the Rhône River in southeastern France. It encompaces two fairly distinct regions, each with different climates and grapes.
- The Northern Rhône is smaller, with a cooler continental climate and granite soils. It is known for syrah-based reds from the famous appellations Côte-Rôtie, Cornas, Hermitage, and St-Joseph. These wines are smokey and meaty, with olive and violet notes. Whites from the Northern Rhône are made from viognier, which is oily and tropical fruited, and marsanne and roussanne, grapes which are often blended together in broad, low-acid wines with orchard fruit aromas. The Northern Rhône produces about 5% of Rhône wine, most of very high quality.
- The Southern Rhône is almost ten times the size of its northern neighbor, and has a warmer Mediterraean climate and more varied terrain. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the Southern Rhône’s most famous appellation, known for bold, high alcohol reds made from up to thirteen different grape varieties. Basic red Côtes du Rhône wine, which accounts for more than half of Rhône wine production, is based on grenache, syrah and mourvèdre, with cinsault and carignan playing smaller roles. This blended red is classic medium-bodied bistro wine, full of ripe red fruit and herbal notes. White wines from the Southern Rhône are usually a blend of soft, fruity white grapes like grenache blanc, roussanne, clairette, and picpoul.
- The southern edge of the Rhône region touches Provence to the east and the Languedoc-Roussillon region to the west. Provence is known for rosé wines from Southern Rhône grape varieties, while Languedoc produces large quantities of red wines from the same varieties.
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