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French Wine Primer

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A Little History

France’s history with wine dates back to the 6th century BC, when the city-state of Massalia (modern-day Marseille) began trading wines with other Mediterranean cultures. Viticulturally speaking, it remained a backwater region until the fall of Rome and the rise of Catholicism: it was French Monks who began the winemaking revolution.

The French innovated our modern style of winemaking during the 18th and 19th centuries. Nearly all wines made today are based on these French winemaking techniques. Because of this, knowing French wine regions and grapes is an essential step in learning about wine.

French Wine Regions

Those medieval monks came up with the idea that changed the direction of winemaking forever: The vineyard location will affect the quality of the wine. The French have a term for this: terroir. Over the centuries, this concept has been codified into wine regions and specific grapes that can be grown there.

This is one of the many reasons any self-respecting wine geek will study French wine. In this section, we cover the essential regions. Make sure to check out our list of essential French wine grapes, too.

A Selection of French Wine Region books.
Learn About French Wine Regions

Champagne

Not all sparkling wines are Champagne, not even in France. To be considered Champagne, wine must come from a specific location about 100 miles from Paris. The name of this special place? Champagne. Yep.

Being so close to the heart of French culture made Champagne the poster child of sophistication in the 20th Century. The wines are based on the sparkling triumvirate of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.

The wines are always sparkling, but they vary in hue from blanc to rose. They also vary in sweetness levels. For dry wines, seek out Brut or Extra-Brut. If you want a touch of sweetness, Extra Dry will be your jam.

Loire Valley

It is hard to pin down the Loire Valley. It’s a thin band of wine regions that extend from the Atlantic Ocean, following the Loire river on an epic journey. The end of the Loire wine region is 170 miles away in the center of France.

Because it is a valley, this French wine region is slightly warmer than the surrounding regions. This allows the grapes to mature fully. The grapes grown depend on which part of the valley the vineyard is located.

On the Atlantic coast, wines are made from the Melon de Bourgogne grape. In the middle of the river system, the major grapes are Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc. Further inland, the main grapes are Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc.

When it comes to making sparkling wine, the Loire Valley comes in second after Champagne. Here, the bubbles are typically based on Chenin Blanc

Alsace

The wines of Alsace have a kinship with Germany, whose border the region rubs up against. They have an affinity for German winemaking. This region mainly produces white wines, emphasizing German varietals, including Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, and Pinot Blanc. Red wines are improving in the region, especially Pinot Noir.

It’s commonly believed that the contrast between Alsace and Germany was one of residual sugar: German wines had it, Alsatians did not. That is a simplification that worked a few decades ago, but not anymore. Some Alsatian winemakers are embracing sweetness. At the same time, many of their counterparts in Germany are reversing course to dryness.

Another oddity is the bottles. Unlike many places in France, the producers in Alsace seldom use oak in their wine. Both red and white wines are bottled in the long thin bottles reserved for Riesling everywhere else.

Bordeaux

Bordeaux started as a pirate outpost in an Atlantic swamp. It ended up becoming the most influential wine region the world has ever known. This is the region that made Cabernet Sauvignon the king of grapes.

The classical Bordeaux –circa 19th Century– is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. The Gironde river cuts through the region, and the blends are historically different on either side.  On the left bank, it’s common that their style is Cabernet Sauvignon-heavy. On the right bank, the wines are usually based on Merlot. White wines are based on Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.

Burgundy

Just like Champagne has become synonymous with bubbles, Burgundy has become the exemplar for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay bottlings around the world. This region is also known for having the most expensive vineyards in France – which comes from the fact that it’s the world’s most respected region. The lower portion of the region is called Beaujolais, which produces wines made from Gamay and is much less expensive.

The French Wine Region Burgundy
Grand Cru from Burgundy

Jura

Similar to Burgundy in terms of climate and wine style, Jura produces some of France’s most unusual wines. This region hugs the Alps and borders Switzerland and is more famous for its skiing and cheeses than its wine. The lack of fame has preserved ancient wine styles, including many precursors to today’s natural wines.

Like Burgundy, both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are grown here. The region is significantly cooler and rainier than Burgundy, which results in lighter wine styles. Jura’s fertile soils produce some great but obscure varietals, including Trousseau and Savagnin.

Although this region is one of the smallest in France, it has managed to put itself on the map by making unique wines.

Rhone Valley

The Rhone Valley might be a single region, but the differences between the northern and southern parts are like night and day. The difference in temperature between the two regions means that the style and flavors that develop in either part differ greatly.

Northern Rhone

The winters are quite extreme, and the summers temperate. White varietals like Marsanne and Viognier develop a great minerality and richness. The only red grape permitted is Syrah, which is sometimes co-fermented with a small percentage of white grapes. Red wines from the Northern Rhone include Hermitage and Cornas. These are intense and intellectual wines, often considered some of the best in the world.

Southern Rhone

Is a much larger region and significantly warmer due to its proximity to the Mediterranean Sea. The summers are hot, and droughts are not uncommon. Red wines are typically Grenache-based blends. These wines can offer great quality and value. Notable wine regions in the Southern Rhone include Chateauneuf du Pape, Listrac, and Gigondas. 

French WIne Region: Rhone Valley
Rhone Valley Trip with the Wine School

Provence

The first vineyards in France were planted here, and ancient grape varietals like Mouvedre continue to flourish. Most grapes planted are red wine varietals. However, there is only one corner of the appellation that makes red wine, Bandol.

Provence is best known for its rosé wines. This area has a hot and dry climate that allows the region’s grapes to develop and ripen much sooner than in other areas. Not ideal for red wines, but perfect for pink! When harvested, the skin has not fully developed into a deep red.

Grapes of the French Wine Regions

Most of the wines you love are French expatriates. Wine became great and famous in 19th Century France. For over two centuries, the rest of the world tried to replicate French wine, including the grapes they grew. Fortunately, we now live in a world where greatness can be found in all parts of the world.

Sorting of the grapes after harvest near Bordeaux, France
Sorting of the grapes after harvest near Bordeaux, France

Malbec

Malbec offers grippy tannins and quite an interesting flavor profile. Common descriptors are raisin, tobacco, and blackberry. One wine writer described it as garlic scape, but that’s just crazy: while there is a touch of vegetal, it is subtle to the point of obscurity.

Malbec remains the main grape of Cahors. Known today for the base of many Argentinian wines, it is originally from the Southwest of France. Centuries ago, it was a major grape in Bordeaux. However, that changed when wineries started focussing on Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Mourvedre

A tannic beast of a grape and an ancient one to boot. The grape’s history dates back to Phonecian-era winemakers on the Mediterranean coast. When tasting Mourvedre, look for flavors of plum, white pepper, smoke, and gravel.

Mourvedre is grown in two regions: The Rhone Valley and the Languedoc-Rousillon. The grape is often blended with Syrah and Grenache. You will also find it used in fortified wines and rosés.

Cinsault

Cinsault is used as a blending grape in France. Most winemakers consider this grape to make lower-quality wine on its own. However, it is useful in blends, especially when producing wines for cost-sensitive consumers. In blends, it comes across as light and fruity, bringing floral notes and strawberry.

When bottled by itself, it can make for a vapid experience. However, older vineyards can produce remarkable wines.

Pinot noir

Pinot Noir is often cited as the most difficult grape varietal to grow. That is not exactly correct. Many varietals are far harder to grow. It’s closer to the truth to say, “Pinot is a hard grape to make interesting wines from,”

Pinot is the red grape of Burgundy, which codified this grape’s style for the world. In Burgundy, Great Pinot is a paradox: lean but complex, linear but multifaceted, beautiful despite its barnyard. This is a style that is nearly impossible to replicate.

Pinot Noir is becoming more popular. The trend outside Burgundy is fruit-forward and over-oaked wines. This is a simpler style to produce and shows that the chanteuse of Burgundy can transform into an American pop star.

Gamay Noir

Like Pinot Noir in color and flavor, Gamay elicits currant, violet, and raspberry flavors. The grape thrives in cool climates, where it offers light tannins and crunchy acid. This grape missed its apex turn in Burgundy but found its lane just south in the Beaujolais.

The Boomer generation of winemakers turned this beloved grape into a caricature of itself with banana flavors, extravagant parades, and garrish bottlings. If you want to keep away from that style, steer clear of any bottle with the word “nouveau” on it

Syrah

A noble grape that has found its home in many places in the world. In Australia, it often goes by the name Shiraz. DNA research has traced its ancestral home to France, specifically the Northern Rhone region. It is an ancient grape, grown by Celtic tribes long before the arrival of Roman legions.

Over centuries, the grape’s influence expanded into the Southern Rhone and the Mediterranean coast. The differences between the warm Southern Rhone and the cool Northern Rhone Valleys are the reasons there are two warring Syrah styles.

Cool climate syrahs tend to be lean but robust with intense animal flavors, often bordering on roadkill. Warmer weather Syrah is often jammy and delicious with a bacon-meets-chocolate profile.

French Wine Regions: Syrah from Hermitage
Syrah from Hermitage

Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon

For decades, there were questions as to how Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc were related. We know that  Cabernet Sauvignon is the offspring of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc through laboratory tests.

These grapes are the backbone of the French wine region Bordeaux. Although these two Cabernets share a lot of DNA, they develop in the vineyard quite differently. Both grapes display intense flavors of tobacco, pepper, licorice, and black currents. Cabernet Franc is lighter-bodied and higher in acid than Cabernet Sauvignon.

If you enjoyed reading about French wine regions, you might be a wine geek! If you are hungry for more knowledge, you can take our wine courses, which come with the National Wine School certification!

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