Wines of France

Find out about the different wines of France; from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Rhone and the Loire Valley; their classifications, grape varieties and the different French wine regions...

Like food, wine is a part of the daily ritual, entwined with customs, festivities and local identity. However, falling exports and shifting drinking habits in France and elsewhere are pressuring the wine industry to adapt. However, after decades of mechanisation, intensification and chemicals, French vineyards are retreating back to the basics of painstaking labour, of hand-picking and sorting, re-establishing the role of the vine in producing high quality wine.

In touch with the wider reawakening of rural identity and the faith in terroir, the distinct local qualities of French wine are becoming more important than ever.

The History of French Wine: Key Dates

  • Pre-Roman: Vines, probably introduced from ancient Greece, established wine as a daily part of Gaulish life
  • Roman Gaul: Wine regions emerged, setting the grape growing boundaries that remain little changed today
  • Middle Ages onwards: Monastic orders played an important role in developing the winemaking process
  • Mid 17th century: The advent of corks encouraged mass wine consumption. Late 18th century Revolution took vineyard ownership out of Church hands and passed it, fragmented, to the peasants
  • Mid 19th century: The phylloxera aphid decimated vineyards. Some grape varieties were lost altogether – only resistant vines brought in from California saved the industry
  • 1935: The Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) classification system was introduced

Wine Classifications: What they Mean

Vin de table: Apart from the prohibition of naming grape origin on the label, there are few laws governing vin de table. Accounting for about a quarter of French wine, most vin de table is of average quality, although a handful of gems – unable to negotiate the strict AOC regulations – can be found.

Vin de pays: Encompasses about 150 wines of particular regional significance. Originally a humble classification, today many vin de pays carry a higher price tag than their AOC cousins. The label says where the wine is from, production methods and main grape variety used.

Vin délimité de qualité supérieur (VDQS): A small clutch of wines that fall between vin de pays and AOC conforming to rules of production, grape variety and yield. The VDQS classification was due to be phased out a few years ago, but new members are still being created.

Vin d'appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC): AOC classified wine should only come from the region, town or vineyard on the label. Unfortunately, duplicitous winemakers, often blending in non-AOC varieties, and the complexities of the AOC system itself have devalued its worth.

Grape Provenance

While New World wines are free to experiment with new blends and to plant on virgin soil, centuries of development and classification in France have created very strict rules about wine origin and content. Thus, champagne may only contain Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, while you won't find a Cabernet Sauvignon grape in the vineyards of Burgundy.

The Main Grape Varieties

French wines, in contrast to New World varieties, tend to be named by location rather than grape variety. Indeed, today many people only know the famous French grape varieties through their usage on New World wine labels.

Red wines

Grape Region Flavours
Cabernet Sauvignon Bordeaux (Medoc) Blackcurrant, green pepper, dark chocolate
Pinot Noir Red Burgundy, Champagne, Loire, Alsace Black cherry, strawberry
Merlot Bordeaux (St Emilion and Pomerol) Plum, blackberry, mint
Syrah Rhône Valley, Languedoc-Roussillon Blackberry, pepper, smoky

White wine

Grape Region Flavours
Chardonnay White Burgundy (Chablis, Mâcon), Champagne Fruit, nutty
Sauvignon Blanc Loire Valley, white Bordeaux, Bergerac Fresh, gooseberry
Riesling Alsace Apple, spice, floral
Chenin Blanc Loire Valley Apple, honey, cinnamon
Sémillon White Bordeaux Lemon (when dry), honey, peach

How to Read a French Wine Label

French wine labels vary widely between the regions. Some declarations of grandeur, like the phrasegrand vins on Bordeaux wines, are unregulated and effectively meaningless. Others, like the grand cruon certain Alsatian wines, give a guide to quality. The name of the wine – a vineyard, estate or a brand – will appear, as well as the vintage. The constituent grape varieties may also be noted.

There are, however, certain things that must be listed on all labels:

  • Bottle size (37.5cl, 75cl or 150cl)
  • Name and address of the producer (often an abbreviation or pseudonym)
  • Alcohol content
  • Classification (AOC, VDQS etc)
  • Place of origin (those that don't can only be classified as vin de table)
  • Warning to pregnant women (in 2006 a new law demanded that all wines sold in France carry a message about the dangers of drinking alcohol while pregnant)
Extract from Speak the Culture France, a Thorogood publication, recommended by the Institut Français Speak the Culture series website Buy online Copyright © 2009 Thorogood Publishing