January 13, 2015
A Beginner's Guide To: France
Learning about wine is a major task to undertake; each wine making region has its own regulations, traditions, styles, hallmarks and sub regions. France is widely recognized as the most complicated wine region, with at least eight major sub regions, each of which have their own sub regions. Here's a brief overview of the major wine-producing regions in France to get you started.
Bourgogne, as it is known in French, and perhaps the highest regarded of the wines of France, is internationally regarded for their wines made from the pinot noir grape – referred to as a “Burgundy” wine when produced in this region. There are several famous wine-growing regions that make up Burgundy: Chablis, Cote d'Or, Cote Chalonnaise, the Mâcon, and Beaujolais. Both white and red wines are famed for their quality and rarity, each of them hailing from different sub-regions.
Red wine from Burgundy is made almost exclusively from the pinot noir grape, when the small exception of Beaujolais (made from Gamay, learn more about that here). The wines that come from this region, particularly from Côte de Nuits, are among the most expensive in the world. These wines are highly coveted, and it's tough to find a reasonably priced Grand or Premiere Cru Burgundy outside of France, particularly in the United States. In fact, the New York Times recently published an article about "The Rise of Burgundy," how these wines have surpassed Bordeaux as the highest-value wines in the world.
Most of the white wine produced in Burgundy is made from the Chardonnay grape. Most famous, perhaps, is Chablis. Chablis is a type of wine, named for the region from which it comes. The White Burgundy wine from Chablis (called "Chablis") is actually required to be made from 100% Chardonnay. The rest of the white Burgundy that you will find, is also most likely Chardonnay, it just does not have the same regulations regarding its production as Chablis does. In other words, all Chablis is a "White Burgundy," and made from Chardonnay, but not all Chardonnay wine from Burgundy is Chablis.
Bordeaux is another well known, and often misunderstood wine producing region in France. Almost all Bordeaux wines are blends of at least three or four grape varietals, the majority of them being: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Some of the producers that you might recognize are: Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Margaux, Château Latour, Château Haut-Brion, or Château Mouton-Rothschild, all first growth producers. While these red wines are globally recognized as some of the finest in the world, Bordeaux is also home to a revered sweet white wine, called Sauternes.
The Rhone Valley is located in the Southern half of France, and is largely divided into two sections: The Northern Rhone and Southern Rhone (together, the Côte du Rhône). Each are known and respected for different major varietals and styles.
If there is one thing to know about the Northern Rhone, it's Syrah. This is the main varietal that you'll find, and the most coveted from the region. Different from its Australian counterpart, Shiraz, Rhone Syrah is identified by its more savory and "natural" flavors such as dark fruits, smoke, meat, leather, or white pepper. While Syrah is the only grape permitted in AOC wineries in the Northern Rhone Valley, it plays a supporting role in the Southern Rhone wines, to fill out its Grenache and Mourvedre-heavy blends. Some names that might sound familiar are Hermitage, Côte Rôtie, or Saint-Péray; all Cru vineyards of the Northern Rhone.
When you think of Southern Rhone wines, there is one in particular that should come to mind: Châteauneuf-du-Pape. This is the region's most well known and best wine, generally made predominantly from Grenache, with the support of Syrah and Mourvedre. And if it's not CDP, it might be Gigondas, this area's next best known wine. These wines are not quite as refined as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and are also made into a rosé (more about that below).
The Loire Valley is located in the northern half of France and is dominated by four major grape varietals: Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Melon de Bourgogne, and Cabernet Franc. Three of those four, you'll notice, are used for making white wines, for which this region is most famed. Sauvignon Blanc is the primary grape used to make the white wines known from this region as Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. Hallmarks of these wines are light and crisp grapefruit and grassy citrus aromas. Chenin Blanc, unlike Sauvignon Blanc, is highly versitile, and can be used to make sparkling, medium-dry to dry, sweet or late harvest white wines, it just depends on the vintage. Some years, winemakers are able to make all of these style wines, some years the harvest only yields grapes good for one specifically. Some of the most well known wines made with Chenin Blanc are Vouvray, Crémant de Loire or Savennières. Melon de Bourgogne is named for its region of origin: Burgundy. These grapes were transplanted to the Loire Valley (the Muscadet region, specifically) in the late 18th Century by Dutch traders. Today, Muscadet is made solely from Melon de Bourgogne grapes, only in the Muscadet region. Cabernet Franc is the signature red grape from the Loire Valley. With four major appellations, you can find a wide variety of red wines made from Cab Franc, and even some sparkling wines.
Again, known for white wines. Though also known for its white wines, these wines are made from a different set of grapes, sort of a mix, and are very unlike the Sancerre or Pouilly-Fume from Loire. These wines are heavily influenced by their German neighbors, and produce similar varieties and styles of Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Gewurztraminer, among others. The wines from Alsace, like Riesling or Pinot Gris are light bodied white wines, and what many people think of as sickenly sweet. Unlike in the U.S., the AOC of Alsace requires that 100% of a variety be used to be labeled (i.e. a wine cannot be called Riesling in Alsace unless the wine is made from pure Riesling grapes, whereas in the United States only 75% of the grapes need to be so to say Riesling on the bottle). These wines are floral, with strong aromas, and are mostly off-dry to dry.
Provence is the southernmost region of France, located in the Southeast, almost bordering Italy. Interested in trying rosé? This is the place to go. Typically associated with warmer months, rosé is a refreshingly popular wine that lends itself to easy pairing or cocktail mixing. We've written about rosé before: where it comes from, how it's made, what it's supposed to taste like. For more on that subject, read the article. Rosé isn't the only wine that comes from Provence, but it's the star of the show.
Champagne is another of the more confusing varieties of French wines. Most of the sparkling wine in the world is called "champagne" unknowingly by those who are unfamiliar with the regulations surrounding Champagne wine production. The term "Champagne" indicates that it is the specific type of sparkling wine that conforms to the strict guidelines of the region. In other words, all Champagne is sparkling, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne. Sparkling wines are produced in almost every single wine region in the world, many of them with the same "Methode Champenoise," but only a tiny percentage of them are actually legally allowed to be called "Champagne."
This barely begins to scratch the surface of the depth and complexity that make up all of the French wines produced in each region. France has spent hundreds of years painstakingly cultivating and regulating their wines, from grapes to glass, there is almost no end to the amount that you can learn about these iconic and sophisticated region. Here are a few places to begin your exploration: