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French wines - a short guide

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French vineyard
Glass of French wine

There are ten major wine growing regions in France, plus a number of smaller areas.  Indeed there is commercial wine production in every region of France, except for the five regions bordering on France's north coast.

French wine in a world market


For hundreds of years, France basked in the reputation of being the world's greatest producer of wines. Today, that reputation is being rivalled by other wine-growing nations on four continents, and the French wine industry is facing new challenges. Since the low of 2003, the French wine industry has been trying to reinvent itself, producing new wines for a changing world and European market, while continuing to provide the world's greatest wines, produced on estates with perfect conditions and centuries of winegrowing tradition. For those who know how to choose, and know something about wines, France still offers some of the greatest wines, with the greatest variety, and - yes ! - excellent value for money, even from the main wine areas.

   Map of French wine areas

Wine map of France

Montbazillac
Chateau de Montbazillac, near Bergerac

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French wine links:
Champagne
Bordeaux
Burgundy
Alsace
Cotes du Rhône
Jura wines - the Chateau d'Arlay
Languedoc
Loire valley

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The wines of France
The About-France.com  wine guide :  topical index
Wine growing regions Wine: understanding the label Value for money

The main wine growing regions of France

Alsace. Bordeaux Burgundy Beaujolais Champagne. Côtes du Rhone Jura Languedoc Loire Valley Médoc Provence


Alsace

Situated on the lower eastern slopes of the Vosges mountains, in the Rhine valley between Strasbourg and Mulhouse, the Alsace vineyard is rather different from any other French wine growing area. Like the region of Alsace itself, the wine culture here is steeped in a Germanic tradition, producing mostly dry or fruity white wines, the most popular being Riesling, Sylvaner and the very fruity Gewurztraminer.
The rules of Appellation contrôlée - and more recently of Appellation Protégée (AOP) are not applied in the same way in Alsace as in the rest of France. In Alsace, wines are produced under a simple "Alsace" appellation, after which the next most important element to be indicated, and the most visible word on the label, is the grape variety or "cépage", Sylvaner, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Edelzwicker, Pinot or a few others. Smaller areas do not have their own appellations, though with many Alsace wines, the name of the village or vineyard from which it comes will also be indicated. See also Vendanges tardives.
Lorraine, also in north east France, produces mostly Vin de pays white wines, in the Meuse and the Moselle.

Bordeaux

 Wine, and wine growing region. With Burgundy and Champagne, the Bordeaux region of Aquitaine is one of the three most famous French wine-producing regions. Historically, its fame is at least in part due to the fact that of these three big grape-growing areas, the Bordeaux vineyard is the only one with immediate access to the sea, an advantage that has enabled it to be France's major wine exporting region for many centuries.
In 1152, when queen Eleanor of Aquitaine married the English king Henry II, the Aquitaine region became economically integrated into the Anglo-Norman world, the Bordeaux region becoming the main supplier of wine for England. This historic wine exporting tradition helped Bordeaux to develop far stronger commercial links in the ensuing centuries, firmly establishing Bordeaux wines, often referred to generically in English as "clarets", on the international market.
Cru bourgeoisThe Bordeaux vineyard is centered round the port city of Bordeaux , along the estuary of the Gironde, and the rivers Garonne and Dordogne. It is a large vineyard, and the geo-specific appellation "Bordeaux" covers an area stretching some 100 km both north-south and east-west.
 While the appellation contrôlée covers wines of medium quality from all over this region, many if not most of the top quality clarets grown in the overall area benefit from more specific and distinctive area appellations, such as Médoc , Graves or Saint Emilion, and even more local appellations such as Pauillac, Graves and Saint-Estèphe.
Unlike other French wine-growing areas, the Bordeaux area operates classifications of many of its top wines, notably those from the Médoc and Saint Emilion vineyards. The best estates in these areas have the right to sell wines designated as grand cru. Below the grand crus come other high quality wines designated as cru bourgeois.
Tip: 2009 is said to be an exceptionally good vintage year.

Bourgogne (Burgundy)

 The vineyards of the Burgundy region cover a narrow strip of land on the eastern slopes of the hills running south-east from the Burgundian Capital, Dijon. the heart of the Burgundy wine growing region is the historic city of Beaune, where the autumn wine sale in the historic "Hospices" building is one of the high points of the wine year. Burgundy wines are classified on four levels, the lowest being the generic "Bourgogne" appellation. Selected areas of the Burgundy vineyard have their own classifications, such as Côtes de Beaune. Within these, there are smaller areas, villages and groups of villages, reputed to produce higher quality wine, such as Pernand Vergelesse or Aloxe Corton . Finally, at the top of the pyramid, there are the "grands crus", such as Clos Vougeot, with its mere 51 hectares of vineyard. Finding ones way around Burgundy wines is sometimes a daunting task. The best Burgundy wines are the reds, the best of which can keep for a good 20 to 30 years. However, Burgundy also produces some top quality, though not too distinctive, whites. It is often said that generic burgundies "Bourgogne Rouge" or Bourgogne Passetoutgrains" white are overpriced and not particularly good value for money.
A good tip: 2003 is said to be one of the best vintages for many years.
Beaujolais:
In the south of the Burgundy region, bordering the Rhone valley vineyards, a large area round Beaujeu produces a light red wine known as Beaujolais, paradoxically one of the most famous French wines.. This is a wine that does not usually keep for very many years, and over the last fifty years it has been successfully marketed as a "vin primeur", or young wine, to be drunk after just a few weeks of maturing. But the success of Beaujolais Nouveau - launched on the market each year on the third Thursday of November - has more to do with clever marketing than with any real quality of the wine.

Champagne

The Champagne region, centered on the towns of Reims (Rheims) and Epernay, is the most northern of France's major vineyards. Unlike most of the best French wines, champagnes are blended in order to produce either non vintage champagnes (blended from different years) or vintage champagne, blended from wines of the same harvest. Consequently, since the quality of the champagne ultimately depends on a balance between the quality of the grapes and the skill of the blenders, Champagnes are also ranked and promoted by producer, not by any more finely delimited appellation . Possibly the most highly rated of blends is Krug; other well appreciated brands include Mumm, Bollinger and Heidsieck, not to mention the very well known brands of Moët & Chandon and Taittinger.
The distinct taste and purity of real champagne is certainly due to the chalky soil and the continental growing conditions that abound in the Champagne region. Several of the main French Champagne producers have set up branches and vineyards in California, but in spite of bringing over their best master-blenders, have never been able to achieve quite the same result.
Although many people imagine that Champagnes are all white, this is not quite true. Rosé champagnes also exist.
Note:    Champagne is not a generic term for sparkling wine from France. There are plenty more good sparkling wines from France that are not sold as champagne. While it is true to say that the top champagnes are inimitable, it is far from true to imagine that  you have to buy a real champagne if you want a good French sparkling wine. Some other excellent sparkling wines are produced in Burgundy (Crémant de Bourgogne), the Jura (Crémant du Jura)  and the Loire valley (Vouvray and others) and other areas, using the same techniques (formerly called "méthode champenoise" - an expression now banned from use in other regions) and a similar but not identical mix of grape varieties, notably Chardonnay. Only the most experienced connaisseurs can distinguish a middling Champagne from a good crémant or Vouvray... yet non-Champagne sparkling wines sell at a fraction of the price of equivalent quality wines from Champagne.
  Finally, please, the correct way to open a champagne cork is to ease it very gently out of the bottle. It is not to imitate a victorious Formula One racing driver and spray the contents of the bottle all over one's guests.

Cognac: / Charentes:

The Cognac / Charentes region is a major wine area, though normal wine itself is not the main product of the region; the wine produced is mostly used for distilling into Cognac or other spirits, or else for the production of a delicious apéritif wine known as Pineau des Charentes. Some white wine is produced under the Vin de Pays label, and there are some vineyards that produce rosé or even red wines.

Côtes du Rhone

Côtes du Rhône is one of those French wines that has become famous on account more as a result of the extent of the vineyard than of the quality of the wine. The Côtes du Rhône vineyard runs for over 200 kilometres down the Rhone valley from the south of Lyons to the Camargue. Within the region, there are a number of prestigious smaller areas such as Côte Rotie (in the northern part of the region), Hermitage or Chateauneuf du Pape (near Avignon). But the vast majority of Côtes du Rhône wine is sold under the generic appellations, "Côtes du Rhône" or "Côtes du Rhone Villages". This is a mediterranean wine, and generally speaking it is a wine blended from the different classic grape varieties of the South of France, including most notably Viognier, Syrah, and Grenache. Price-wise, Côtes du Rhône are often at the cheaper end of the "appellation contrôlée" range.

Jura.

Possibly the most underrated of French white wines, Jura wines come from the south of the Franche-Comté region, the west-facing slopes of the Jura hills that look out across the wide Saône valley to the slopes of Burgundy on the other side. The best and most distinctive of Jura whites are made from the "Savagnin" grape variety, which is found only in this region, and gives the wine a delicious sherry-like taste. However, most Jura wines are blended from different varieties, and as in Alsace, the grape variety tends to be indicated on the label. the Jura vineyard also produces dark rosé wines, sometimes called reds, as well as the famous "yellow wine", Vin Jaune, an expensive apéritif wine not unlike Amontillado sherry, made exclusively from the Savagnin grape variety. The most prestigious appellation for Vin Jaune is Château Chalon. This wine is made from late harvested grapes, and then left to mature in casks for at least six years.

Languedoc

 The Languedoc region, covering the Mediterranean coastal plain west of the Rhone, produces a lot of fairly ordinary red wine, much of it marketed as VDQS or Vin de Pays. Languedoc is the largest French wine producing area in terms of volume.  There are seven Appellations controlées in the area, the best-known of which is Corbières, and possibly the best average quality of which is Fitou. AOC wines account for some 10% of the region's production. Thanks to the long hours of summer sun, grapes ripen well and quickly in this region, which means that Languedoc wines are rich and full bodied, and often have high alcohol content. The wines of Roussillon are very similar, this area being particularly noted for its fortified wines such as Banyuls.

Loire Valley

Although there are some excellent wines produced in the large Loire Valley area, there are few Loire wines, whites, rosés or pale reds, that rank among the greatest French wines. "Anjou Rosé" is a good everyday rosé, and "Muscadet" and "Gros Plant" from near the mouth of the Loire are dry white wines that go excellently with seafood.. Another good appellation is "Pouilly Fumé" (not to be confused with "Pouilly Fuissé", a white Burgundy). The Loire valley, however, is also France's second largest producer of sparkling wines, after Champagne. The region also produces vin gris, "grey wine", which is actually a very pale rosé, being a white wine made from black grapes. Two of the more prestigious varieties are Vouvray and Saumur. While there are plenty of Loire wines that benefit from appellations controlées, others are sold under the VDQS label.

Médoc

The Médoc, the region south of the Gironde estuary to the north west of Bordeaux, is the home of many of the most prestigious French wines. It is part of the larger Bordeaux area. Among the famous appellations produced in this area are Saint Estèphe, Margaux, Saint Julien and Pauillac. It was in 1855 that the wine producers of the Medoc region classified their 61 best wines according to a league table of "grands crus", ranking from "Premier Cru" to "Cinquième Cru". These grands crus are generally reputed to be the greatest of all French wines, and naturally their prices generally reflect this status. Obviously, if you buy an estate bottled wine from a chateau with grand cru status, (and of course they are all estate bottled), you can be pretty sure of getting a top quality wine. But take care! Even a grand cru wine can go off if it is not matured and cared for in the best conditions.

Other areas of south-west France

 Inland from the Bordeaux / Saint Emilion regions, there are a number of smaller less well-known wine growing areas, producing some quite good wines at very reasonable prices. These include Bergerac, Cahors, Gaillac and Marcillac (all Appellation Contrôlée wines) , or Côtes du Tarn or Vin de Pays du Lot.

Provence

Provence is a large wine-producing area, best-known for its rosé wines, the most famous of which are Côtes de Provence and Côteaux d'Aix. However, the Provence vineyard also produces red wines, including some very rich red wines from the Var, and "grey wine" from the Camargue area. The most famous of the area's white wines is Bandol, celebrated since the middle ages. Note that the Provence vineyard also includes the southern end of the Côtes du Rhone AOC area.

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Wine growing regions Wine: understanding the label Value for money