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 Meditteranean cultures. Vituculturally-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 modern style of winemaking was cemented in France 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 mideval monks came up with the idea that where a vineyard is located –and what grapes are planted– effect the quality of wine. The French have a term for this, and it’s called 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 article, we cover the essential regions. The essential French wine grapes are supplied at the bottom of this article.
Not all sparkling wines are Champagne, not even in France. To be considered Champagne, the 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.
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.
In the west, close to the Atlantic, 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. In the lower Loire, 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
The wines of Alsace have a kinship with Germany, whose border the region rubs up against. have an affinity to German winemaking. This region produces mainly white wines, with an emphasis on 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.
Unlike many places in France, the producers in Alsace almost never use oak in their wine. Another oddity is that most wines –both red and white– are bottled in the long thin bottles that are usually reserved for Riesling everywhere else.
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 epic story of this French wine region is far too long to be contained in a few short paragraphs.
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.
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.
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 precursers to today’s natural wines.
Like Burgundy, both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are grown here . The region is signifanty cooler and rainier than Burgundy, which results in ligher 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 for making some of the most unique wines in the world.
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.
- In the 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 amount of white grape. 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.
- The 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. Most red wines are Grenache-based blends, and these wines can offer great quality and value. Notable wine regions in the Southern Rhone include Chateauneuf du Pape, Listrac, and Gigondas.
Some of the first vineyards in France were planted here, on the sunny Meditteranean coast. Ancient grape varietals flourish here, including Mourvedre, and Syrah to just name a few. Despite being most planted to red wine varietals, only a tiny fraction of wines made here are Red; most notably in Bandol, where Mouvedre is king.
Instead, Provence is best known for its Rosé wines. This area has a hot and dry climate which allows the grapes in the region to develop and ripen much sooner than other areas. Since the grapes are harvested so early, the skin has not fully developed into a deep red. Not ideal for red wines, but perfect for
Instead, this French wine region is best known for its Rosé wines. This area has a hot and dry climate which allows the grapes in the region to develop and ripen much sooner than other areas. Since the grapes are harvested so early, the skin has not fully developed into a deep red. Not ideal for red wines, but perfect for Rosé
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 Frence wine, including the grapes they grew. Fortunately, we now live in a world where greatness can be found in all parts of the world.
Malbec is one of the varietals used in a classic Bordeaux blend – with 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.
Known today for the base of many an Argentinian wine, it is originally from the Southwest of France. It is still t he main grape of Cahors, and it used to be the main grape of Bordeaux. However, that changed when wineries started focussing on Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
A versatile grape used in the Rhone Valley, where it’s often blended with Syrah and Grenache, It is also used in fortified wines and rosés.
It’s a tannic beast of a grape, and an ancient one to boot. The grape can be traced back to Phonecian-era winemakers on the Mediterranean coast. When tasting Mourvedre, look for flavors of plum, white pepper, smoke, and gravel.
In southern regions of France, Cinsault is often used in blending. 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.
You will often read statements that Pinot Noir is “deemed the most difficult varietal to grow successfully.” That is not exactly correct. There are many varietals that 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.
However, as Pinot becomes more popular, the trend in places outside Burgundy is to create wines that are fruit-forward, over-oaked, and extracted. This is a simpler style to produce and shows that the chantreuse of Burgundy can transform into an American popstar.
Similar to Pinot Noir in color and flavor, Gamay elicits flavors of currant, violet, and raspberry. 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 garish bottlings. If you want to keep away from that style, steer clear of any bottle with the word “nouveau” on it
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. And it is an ancient grape, tended to 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 are often jammy and delicious with a bacon-meets-chocolate profile.
Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon
For decades, there were questions to how Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc were related. Through laboratory tests, we know know that Cabernet Sauvignon is the offspring of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc.
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. However, Cabernet Franc is lighter-bodied and higher in acidity. It is often added to a Bordeaux blend to soften the harsher tannins in Cabernet Sauvignon.
If you enjoyed reading about French wine regions, you may be a wine geek! If you are hungry for more knowledge, you can take our online wine courses, which come with certification from the National Wine School!