Viti-culture: The French Wine Regions
Find out which French wines are produced where in the country, how, and why...
The world's largest fine wine region fills 750 million bottles each year (give or take). Over 13,000 vineyards spread out from the city of Bordeaux, their wines distinguished by the area's subtle variations in climate and soil.
North-west of the city, on the Gironde estuary's left bank, the Médoc region is the prima donna of world wine. Médoc reds like St Julian, Pauillac and Margaux are dominated by the smoky, blackcurrant twangs of Cabernet Sauvignon.
South of Bordeaux, the gravelly Graves region supports similar reds and a few notable whites. On the Gironde's right bank, Merlot grapes fair better in the clay soils of St Emilion and Pomerol while Entre-Deux-Mers produces famous AOC whites.
South of Bordeaux, the world capital of sweet white wine is found in Sauternes where once every three years or so the weather delivers the perfect level of noble rot for a heavenly elixir.
Wines from Bordeaux are easily recognised by their straight, high-shouldered bottle.
Legendary but unpredictable, the spiritual home of both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir is subject to the climatic vagaries of its northerly latitude. Most of the estates here are small (about ten acres), family run affairs dwarfed by the heavyweights and big business of Bordeaux: often a winemaker will take grapes from a vineyard carved up by dozens of different smallholders.
Growers must also work within strict legislation demanding that many Burgundian wines are pressed from a single grape variety. When grower, grape, maker and vintage are married successfully, Burgundy makes sublime wine – all you have to do is find the right one. The great dry whites of Chablis, reds and whites of the Côte d'Or and cherry twang of Beaujolais – made solely from Gamay grapes – all reside within the region.
Burgundy, like most French wine regions, operates its own classification system alongside the AOC:
- Regional: Labelled Bourgogne Rouge or Blanc, the lowest level of Burgundy wines could come from anywhere in the region
- Village: A wine made only from grapes grown within the boundaries of a certain village
- Premier Cru: Both the village and vineyard name will appear on the label, although some wines are drawn from a mixture of premier cru vineyards within one village
- Grand Cru: The cream of the crop can simply carry the name of their vineyard without mentioning the village name
Sheltering behind the Vosges Mountains, the northeastern hub of French wine is unique in various respects. The varietals used give much of the region's white wine a perfumed, fruity yet dry taste, alien to most of the country. Similarly, in contrast to colleagues in the other major appellation contrôléeregions, Alsatian vintners tend to print a grape name on the label, identifying by variety rather than location. Nearly all the wine produced in Alsace is white, with only a few pockets of Pinot Noir bucking the trend. Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Muscat are three big names – each a bit dryer in Alsatian hands than you might expect.
Alsace has been granted appellation contrôlée status as a whole, indicating that any wine produced here carries the AOC mark. Where a grape is mentioned on the label, the wine will be made purely from that variety. A total of 50 grand crus display the name of their vineyard. A few of the region's cheaper wines are blended, in which case the word Edelzwicker may appear on the label.
Sparkling wines carry the name Crémant d'Alsace, while Vendange Tardive indicates a wine, often sweet, produced from grapes left on the vine for a late harvest. Around 80 percent of Alsatian wines are varietals, pressed from a single grape type.
It all begins innocuously enough. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes (and those three alone) are blended to make a still, often sharply acidic wine. A measure of liqueur de tirage (sugar and yeast) is added to the bottles, which are then stored for a second fermentation. Remuage, gradual turning over a two-month period, brings any yeasty bits to the top before the neck is frozen and the sediment removed (a process called dégorgement). A liqueur d'expédition (wine and sugar) is then added and a cork quickly banged in to round off the process.
Essentially, this complicated, fascinating procedure, the méthode champenoise, unfurls because Champagne struggles to produce a good still wine so far north. That said, the quality of champagne remains dependent on the blend of grapes used.
The two main types of champagne
- Non-vintage: Champagne blended from wines produced across various years, using the same proportions each time to create a consistent taste immediately identifiable with the producer. Can only be sold after 15 months of aging
- Vintage champagne: A blend of wines all taken from the same year's harvest, deemed sufficiently good to declare a 'vintage'. A vintage year usually equates to about five years in every ten. Must be aged for three years before being sold.
The Loire Valley
As the longest river in France, the Loire's corresponding wine region snakes along a considerable course. Viewed in their full extent, the vines curl all the way from Muscadet territory on the Atlantic coast to the Côte d'Auvergne encircling Clermont-Ferrand. Wines produced in the Loire reflect this scale with an impressive variety: dry, sweet, red, white, still and sparkling can all be tasted amid the country's most charming vineyards. Yet, despite such diversity, many outside France associate the Loire solely with the Sauvignon Blanc grape, pressed into affordable dry to medium dry whites like Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé. Alas, as similar New World wines grown in a more reliable climate make inroads into the global market, the Loire's rather mixed, unpredictable bag of wines struggle to maintain their overseas audience.
Another region, another global superstar – wines from the Rhône Valley grace the upper echelons of any wine list. Nurtured by warm climes on well drained slopes, it's no surprise that this ancient corridor of oenological nirvana produces 450 million bottles a year. The region harbours a distinct north/south split, ruled from above by the big Syrah grape and from below by Grenache-led blending. Unlike most of the country's wine producing regions, the Rhône Valley has entered the 21st century in rude health, the voluptuous character of its wines a match for any overseas competitors.
In the valley's northern reaches, the small Côte Rôtie appellation produces meaty single estate reds, while Condrieu offers peachy whites made from Viognier grapes. At the southern end, Châteauneuf-du-Pape carries its reputation well, making use of up to 13 grape varieties – Grenache and Syrah at their heart.
The catch-all Côte du Rhône AOC covers all of the wines produced along the Rhône Valley's length. However, in truth, the majority of grapes squeezed into Côte du Rhône will come from south of the region. Quality varies dramatically, although the best (and most expensive) have traditionally come from the Côte du Rhône-Villages (labelled as such), arranged in clumps around Orange and Avignon.
Other French Wine Regions
The vast area of vines (the largest in France) curving round the Mediterranean Sea is beginning to shed its reputation for perpetual underachievement. As the rise of New World wines continues, Languedoc-Roussillon offers an affordable French alternative. Indeed, many of the makers responsible for raising the region's profile learned their trade in Australia and California. At present, quality remains incredibly varied and the area's woolly appellation zones offer little in the way of a reliable guide.
What to drink: Corbières and Fitou are two of the big reds, produced from Carignan loaded blends. The Coteaux du Languedoc and Roussillon areas have been making wine for well over 2,000 years; the latter has gained a reputation for producing some dazzling reds and rosés, while the former also seems on the up with its Carignan-Syrah blends.
Jura and Savoie
Jura has pulled back from the brink as a wine region, gradually clawing back the land under vine after decades of decline in the 20th century. However, it remains a region where wine (and idiosyncratic grape varieties) has progressed little in centuries.
What to drink: The area is famous for vin jaune, a yellow wine made from the Savagnin grape with its nutty hint of sherry. Here too you find vin de paille, a sweet white traditionally made by drying the grapes out on straw. Both are something of an acquired taste. Arbois and Côte du Jura are the main growing areas, producing vin jaune, vin de paille and a few Pinot Noir-led reds. The scattered Vin de Savoie appellation, harbouring a light white made from the Jacquère grape, is about as close as wine gets to the Alps.
From the Rhône delta around to Nice, Provence harbours some rewarding wines, most of them overlooked outside the region.
What to drink: Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence and Côtes de Provence are the largest appellations. Both are dominated by fruity reds, made with Grenache grapes in Aix and Carignan in Côtes de Provence; certain vineyards have also taken to bolstering their wines with Cabernet Sauvignon but are forced to sell them as mere vin de table in accordance with AOC rules. Côtes de Provence is also home to some famous rosé wines, again with the Carignan grape at their heart. The rosés' colour and taste are achieved by reducing the amount of time the wine spends in contact with the grape skins.
In wine, as in most things, Corsica is something of a law unto itself. Italian grape varieties play an important role in wines for which AOC status seems to have been granted arbitrarily.
What to drink: Vin de Corse is an appellation applying to the entirety of Corsica and is thus largely obsolete as an indicator of quality. Meaty, herb tinged reds, dry whites and full-bodied rosés all fall within its bounds. Other AOC regions are more precise: Patrimonio reds blend Italianate grapes for wines with longevity and clout, while the whites are made exclusively from herby Vermentino grapes. Vermentino is used in Ajaccio whites too, although here the blended reds, led by the Sciacarello grape, take precedence.
Large co-ops and tiny smallholders operate side by side in the south-west. Bordeaux's domineering grape varieties overlap into the vinous mélange, yet you also encounter little known local varieties making distinct if untrendy wines.
What to drink: While Bergerac is still regarded as the cheaper sibling of Bordeaux, its reds are granted increasing prestige. The tannic ‘black wine' of the Cahors appellation is produced from the Malbec grape, although today many makers moderate the brooding red with Merlot. At the foot of the Pyrenees, the dry and sweet whites of Jurançon carry a pineapple bouquet. A few miles north, the Madiranappellation produces a bullish red traditionally made with the Tannat grape.
Marathon du Médoc - Bordeaux: In one of the world's stranger celebrations of wine. Bordeaux fans – most in fancy dress – run 26 miles through vineyards and past historic wine chateaux in September. Aid stations feature cheese and wine tasting, prizes are given in wine and non-participants can, of course, pass the time exploring local vintages.
Fête de la Pressée - Burgundy: In Chenove, near Dijon, September brings the harvest and a festival that dusts off a 13th century press to squeeze the first grapes of the year.
Foire Régionale des Vins d'Alsace - Alsace: This week-long fair in Colmar celebrates wine made across the region; perfect for washing down the distinctive Alsatian cuisine also on show.
Festival of St Vincent - Champagne: The champagne houses parade, concerts are held and festive dinners take place in Epernay and the surrounding villages each January.
Loire: The medieval village of St-Aubin-de-Luigné in Anjou holds a festival celebrating its local specialities – wine and eels – each July.
Bau des Vendanges - Rhône: Avignon pays homage to its local wines at the start of the grape harvest in early September.