If you’re interested in drinking French wine (and honestly who isn’t!) – but feel intimidated, don’t worry. Once you understand a few basic things about wine production in France, it won’t be a mystery any longer. In this beginner’s guide to French wine, you’ll find everything you need to know about French wine as a beginner. From regions, to grapes, to terroir, consider this your crash course.
Beginner’s Guide to French Wine
Knowledge of the wine-producing regions is fundamental for understanding French wine. Wine is organised by the region it’s produced in, not by the grape. Most wines are named for the area they come from. There are 17 major wine-producing regions in France, although the names of wine derive from many more than these 17. A geographic area where wine is grown that meets certain quality standards is called an appellation. There are numerous officially recognised appellations in France and they are all grouped into one of the 17 main regions.
Some of the more popular regions are Bordeaux, Alsace, Burgundy, Champagne, Loire, Provence, and Rhône. Here is a quick breakdown of each region.
Bordeaux is one of the largest wine-producing regions in France. Well-known for its fruity red wines, some good names from this region are Saint-Emilion, Saint-Estéphe, and Margaux.
Alsace is close to the German border, and the wines have a German influence. That’s why whites like Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Muscat tend to be on the sweeter side relative to other French wines.
Containing the largest number of appellations of any wine region in France, Burgundy or Bourgogne produces whites and reds. The infamous Beaujolais wine originates from Burgundy. Each November, the year’s batch of Beaujolais is released – the only wine in France allowed to be sold in the same year it was produced. French tradition dictates getting together with friends with several bottles of the year’s Beaujolais to drink and complain about how bad the wine is. This yearly Beaujolais nouveau ritual makes for a merry time with friends and is impossibly French.
Near the Luxembourgish and Belgian borders, Champagne is the coldest wine region in France. Generally, only Champagne is made here, in white and rosé.
Vineyards in the Loire Valley stretch along the Loire river. The region is diverse in wine production but most famous for its crisp whites like Sancerre, Chinon, and Vouvray.
The Provence region sits on the Mediterranean in the south of France. It’s the warmest wine-producing region and is known for sweet reds and rosés like Côtes de Provence and Bandol.
Rhône is just north of Provence, known for its hardy red wines. Consequently, it competes with Bordeaux reds, but Rhône wines like Côtes du Rhône and Châteauneuf-de-Pepe can run a little cheaper than Bordeaux.
Terroir & Grapes
The French notion of terroir is also important for understanding wine. Terroir refers to the characteristics of a region that distinguish the wines produced there. It is a culmination of topography, soil, climate, local traditions, and overall habitat. All of these factors influence how the grapes are grown and harvested, giving the wine its unique, location-based quality. The concept of terroir is also the basis for the AOC/AOP standards the French impose on their wine (more on that below).
Grapes differ from region to region. Wines can be made with a single grape but are often a blend of two or more from that region. The most popular grape varieties in France are Merlot, Grenache, Trebbiano, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Gamay, and Pinot Noir. Which grapes are used in some of the more popular wines?
For reds from Bordeaux, the common grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. For a Chablis or white from Burgundy, it’s Chardonnay. Champagne is made with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. A Sancerre or Vouvray from the Loire Valley uses Sauvignon Blanc or Chenin Blanc, respectively. Red blends from Rhône use Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvèdre; white blends from Rhône use Marsanne, Roussanne, and Viognier.
To learn more about grapes check out vinepair.com.
Wine Classification System
Wines are produced and sold according to the AOC/AOP system. AOC stands for appellation d’origine contôlée and AOP for appellation d’origine protégée. Tied to the idea of terroir, AOC labeling was developed as a way to control the standards of wines produced from certain regions. If a wine carries an AOC certification, that means its production has carefully undergone the rules set by that region for producing quality wine. AOC and AOP labels are also applied to food products, like cheese.
There are tiers to the French wine classification. AOC/AOP wines are the highest, followed by IGP and Vin de Pays (IGP stands for indication géographique protégée) and finally Vin de France. Wines labeled as “Grand Cru” and “Premier Cru” fall in the AOC/AOP category. Cru refers to how the grapes were handled, how the wine was produced after harvesting. Terroir refers to the grape-growing process. Between cru and terroir, you’ll find all the quality restrictions imposed on wine-producers. Grand Cru designates the highest quality vineyard in a region and Premier Cru is one of the top vineyards in a region.
IGP/Vin de Pays wines have fewer restrictions on production, but the grapes used in the wine must still be grown in the geographic area indicated on the label. Finally, for Vin de France (formerly known as Vin de Table), grapes can be grown from anywhere in France and the region usually isn’t mentioned in the label.
The vintage refers to the year the wine was produced. The quality of a wine from the same vineyard can vary drastically from one year to the next. Climate conditions like the amount of rainfall, a late spring frost, and cold or hot temperatures can impact the batch of wine.
Checking the year on a wine, then, is just as important as checking for its classification. It could be your favourite wine from a top-quality vineyard, but if that year was problematic, the wine might not be what you’re expecting. Many wine vintage charts and harvest reports are published online each year, so you can review which vintages are best to buy for each wine. A good chart is published by winescholarguild.org.
Selecting and Storing Wine
All this new knowledge of French wine may seem overwhelming – especially when you go to purchase a bottle! Everything described above can be found on the label. The name of the wine, its region, its vineyard, its grapes (sometimes), its classification, and its vintage.
Let’s say you’re buying a bottle of Margaux. Margaux is a red wine made primarily from Cabernet Sauvignon from the Bordeaux region. On a label, you would see the name “Margaux” on the front, usually with the vineyard’s name, like “Château de Monbrison” and the year, 2013. You’ll also see somewhere “Appellation Margaux Contrôlée” so you know this wine has met the standards to be dubbed Margaux. If the château is Grand Cru or Premier Cru, it will also be noted.
A few other terms you might find on a wine label are “Grand Cru Classé”, “Réserve”, “Grand Vin”, and “Mise en Bouteille.” Grand Cru Classé is not only the top vineyard in the region but officially registered as a high-quality vineyard. Réserve isn’t regulated, so it could mean anything, depending on the château. Grand Vin is a wine the château considers its best. Mise en Bouteille means is it was made from the grapes on that vineyard and doesn’t come from somewhere else.
For storing wine, the rules differ for white versus red. White wine should be kept in a cool, dark place and only placed in the fridge about 30 minutes before opening. Red wine should also be kept somewhere cool and dark and doesn’t need to be chilled before serving.
French wine doesn’t have to be so confusing. If you have trouble remembering all these terms, the one thing that should stick in your brain is the location. Location is the utmost important characteristic of French wines; when in doubt, always refer back to the region. The best way to familiarise yourself with French wines is to taste them. When you try a new one, take note of its name and area so you can find a similar wine next time. Most importantly, branch out. Try new wines and develop your preferences. This is how you’ll truly go from beginner to novice.
We hope this beginner’s guide to French wine has been helpful. If you would like to learn more about the wines of France (and beyond!), Wine Days runs expert wine tasting events held in the heart of the Ashdown Forest, East Sussex. See our website for details of forthcoming wine tasting events days, and contact us for bookings enquiries.