Alsace winesSituated 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 winesWith 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.
The 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 Bordeaux 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.
Médoc winesAmong the Bordeaux vineyards, Médoc deserves a special mention. The Médoc, an area south of the Gironde estuary to the north west of Bordeaux, is the home of many of the most prestigious French wines. 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.
Towards the Pyrenees, there are some surprisingly good white wines from the vineyards of Jurançon and Béarn, notably from the Gascony vineyards of Pacherenc-du-Vic-Bilh, reputed for its distinctive aperitif wines, and the vineyards of Madiran which produce a well-known red.
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 Mersault, 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.
Visit: Check out hotels on the Burgundy wine trail
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 enduring quality of the wine.
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.
Visit: Check out hotels on the Champagne wine trail
Loire Valley winesAlthough 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 Nantes, on the Loire estuary, 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). Touraine, the area round Tours, is know for its light red wines, notably from the Gamay grape variety. The region also produces vin gris , "grey wine", which is actually a very pale rosé, being a white wine made from black grapes. While there are plenty of Loire wines that benefit from appellations protégées, others are sold under the vin de pays label.
Finally, the Loire valley is France's second largest producer of sparkling wines, after Champagne. Two of the more prestigious varieties are Vouvray and Saumur.
Cognac: / Charentes:The Cognac / Charentes region inland from La Rochelle 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.
Jura winesPossibly 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.
Côtes du RhoneCôtes 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 Lyon 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 and Gigondas (near Avignon).
The southern end of the Côtes du Rhône appellation area is actually in Provence.
The vast majority of Côtes du Rhône wine is sold under the generic appellations, "Côtes du Rhône" or "Côtes du Rhone Villages".
Côtes du Rhone wines are mediterranean wines, and generally speaking they are blended from the different classic grape varieties of the South of France, including most notably Viognier, Syrah, and Grenache. Price-wise, generic Côtes du Rhône wines are often at the cheaper end of the "appellation contrôlée" or AOP range.
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 AOP area.
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