wines of France
main wine growing regions of
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
(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.
also in north east France, produces mostly Vin de pays white wines, in
Meuse and the Moselle.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
is said to be an exceptionally good vintage year.
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
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
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
are the "grands crus", such as Clos Vougeot, with its mere 51
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.
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.
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
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.
is not a generic term for sparkling
wine from France. There are plenty more good sparkling
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
real champagne if you want a good French sparkling wine. Some other
excellent sparkling wines are produced in Burgundy (Crémant
Bourgogne), the Jura (Crémant
du Jura) and the
and others) and other areas, using the same techniques
(formerly called "méthode champenoise" - an expression now
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
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
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
produced under the Vin de Pays label, and there are some vineyards that
produce rosé or even red wines.
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
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
Within the region, there are a number of prestigious smaller
areas such as Côte Rotie (in the northern part of the
Hermitage or Chateauneuf du Pape (near Avignon). But the vast majority
of Côtes du Rhône wine is sold under the generic
du Rhône" or "Côtes du Rhone Villages". This is a
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"
Possibly the most underrated of French white
wines, Jura wines come from the south of the Franche-Comté
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
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
wines, sometimes called reds, as well as the famous "yellow wine", Vin
an expensive apéritif wine not unlike Amontillado sherry,
exclusively from the Savagnin grape variety. The most prestigious
appellation for Vin Jaune is Château Chalon. This wine is
late harvested grapes, and then left to mature in casks for at least
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
the best-known of which is Corbières, and possibly the best
quality of which is Fitou. AOC wines account for some 10% of the
region's production, but the proportion is increasing as Languedoc
producers concentrate more on quality, rather than quantity, and strive
to reposition their wines higher up the market. 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.
different from the rest are the sparkling wines produced in Limoux,
near Carcassonne. "Blanquette de Limoux" is reputedly the oldest
sparkling wine in France; and according to the story, it was a
Benedictine monk, Dom Pérignon, who introduced the Limoux
method of producing good sparkling wine, to the monks in Champagne who
were looking for ways to improve the quality of their rather
nondescript dry white wines. Regarding Dom Pérignon, the myth is
almost certainly untrue; but it is well documented that Limoux was
already producing sparkling wines in the 1540s, half a century
before the technique took hold in Champagne.
Although there are some excellent wines produced
in the large Loire Valley
area, there are few Loire wines, whites, rosés or pale reds,
among the greatest French wines. "Anjou Rosé" is a good
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
Fuissé", a white Burgundy). The Loire valley, however, is
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
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.
The Médoc, the region south of the
Gironde estuary to
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
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
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
Inland and southwards from the Bordeaux / Saint Emilion regions,
there are a
number of less well-known wine growing areas, many of them
producing quite good wines at very reasonable prices. These
Cahors, Gaillac and Marcillac (all Appellation
Contrôlée wines) , or
Côtes du Tarn or Vin de Pays du Lot. While Marcillac is a small
area, the vineyards of Cahors, Gaillac and Bergerac are quite
extensive, and best known for their reds. The Cahors area produces some
of the richest and darkest red wines in France, principally using the
Malbec grape variety, sometimes referred to as "purple wine". However
the Bergerac wine producing area is also known for its white wines,
including some strong sweet aperitif wines such as Montbazillac
Towards the Pyrenees, there are some surprisingly good white
wines from the vineyards of Jurançon and Béarn, notably
Pacherenc-du-Vic-Bilh, reputed for its distinctive aperitif wines.
Close by, the vineyards of Madiran produce a well-known red.
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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