The unique appeal of French vineyards is exemplified by this beautiful picture of the scenic Loire Valley. The Loire is just one of the many prestigious regions of France that produces outstanding wine.
Despite ever-increasing competition from the United States, Italy, Spain, Australia, and now South Africa and South America, France remains the best wine country in the world. Every type of wine is produced here, and most of the grapes grown in France are world-class. Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhône are three primary French red wine regions. Meanwhile, white wine from Burgundy and the Loire is also top notch.
Although filled with vineyards, France is known for quality wine, not quantity production. The wine production in France relies on meticulously organized (and enforced!) regulations on the growing and labeling of wine in order to protect the quality of established appellations. France is known for extremely careful copyright protection to guarantee the best quality. In France, there is widespread respect for the wine in the culture.
France has top quality wine for all these reasons and more. The terrain is excellent, the soil rich and the climate perfect for wine production.
While it is true that some of the oldest regions in Europe (e.g., Croatia) have a longer wine history than France, historians have estimated that French winegrowing has been in practice at least since the 6th century B.C. Almost as soon as wine became popular with the area residents, shrewd merchants realized the possibility of great profit. In early times, French wines were commercialized in the regions that are still popular today.
Over the centuries, all sorts of strife and a variety of wars did not put a stop to wine production in France. French rulers realized the region’s great potential, and used it to their advantage. During Charlemagne’s rule in the late 700s A.D., French wine was treated as a luxury commodity. As the country developed its governmental system, export to other countries was launched and eventually became common. The world began to appreciate the fine value of French wines.
Toward the end of the 18th century, however, overproduction and failure to modernize, as well as exploitation by greedy rulers, dampened the reputation of French wine. During the reign of Napoleon, crucial changes were made that eventually re-elevated French wine to the status of a luxury item. Trade with the UK and other countries brought French wines world attention, and several French regions became famous for the quality of the wine.
Rigid and demanding quality standards were set by the 1855 Classification of Bordeaux. These standards are still used today to rank Bordeaux wines.
At the end of the 1800s, a devastating collapse of the wine market occurred with the introduction of the phylloxera to Europe. The phylloxera is a kind of louse, which destroyed the roots of most of the French vines. As a result, French rootstocks were replaced with some from North America. However, American rootstock created new problems for French winemakers.
The recovery of the wine industry was gradual, but the building of railway systems in France sparked development and growth. Product could be sent by rail to ports, and shipped to the rest of the world. Wealthy people could now enjoy the expensive wines of France at home. With profit in the air, winemakers were even more motivated to produce excellent wines, and quality standards rose. In the mid-20th century, the regional categorization system was instituted, and quality was heightened by the elimination of “knockoff” wines with labels advertising regions in misleading ways.
Up until the 1970s, France was the ultimate authority on wine and the best place to find wine of virtually any variety. Napa Valley was not highly regarded, and regions like South Africa had yet to bring to the world market a reputable wine. But the Paris Exhibition taste test of 1976 signalled a change: Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon, a Napa wine, defeated the best Bordeaux France had to offer. At this point in time, California leaped onto the world stage and began to receive attention as a serious wine region. This provided inspiration to winemakers around the globe, and soon enough other producers–in Australia and New Zealand, Argentina and Chile, Europe and elsewhere–began to compete in the world market place with the best French varieties. Wine connoisseurs switched allegiances, and the debate raged: Who was making the highest quality wines in the world? Did the Napa wines really equal the quality of France’s wines? And what about those wines from Italy, Spain, and elsewhere?
During the 1980s, a time of heady extravagance for the United States, Napa Valley became the most popular wine region, especially with drinkers susceptible to the fashions of the time. However, when unethical American producers realized they could bottle low-quality grapes grown in Napa, then sell the wine for $100 per bottle, the market was flooded with mediocrity. Eventually, the Napa Valley wine bubble burst. French wine was once again the most reliable high-quality choice.
However, Napa Valley and other regions of the American west coast, as well as a variety of new and upcoming wine regions around the world, have continued to develop their winemaking skills and marketing abilities. Competition for public affinity is fierce. France must keep up with a rapidly changing world, technologically and otherwise. As the economic recession of 2008 eased, more consumers turned once more to the high-priced French wines. The more we learn about French wines, the better our wine selections will be.
The French appellation system is commensurate with the quality of the wine, and is the best in the world. Despite a few blemishes, these strict regulations have resulted in a general increase in quality and price, and everyone has benefited from the quality control instituted. The main drawback to the system is the fact that complying with the regulations is costly and difficult, making French wine largely more expensive than unregulated American wine.
A list of the French wine classifications can be found below.
- Vin de Table: Table wine comes only with the guarantee that it was made in France. This is generally low-quality stuff.
- Vin de Pays: Made from certain grapes, and carries the name of a particular region. Levels of alcohol are regulated as well.
- VDQS: This stands for Vin Délimité de Qualité Superieure. It bridges vin de pays wines and high-level AOC wines. VDQS was invented as a designation for wines that had not yet received AOC status. VDQS has never been very common, and lawmakers recently voted to purge it from the list of classifications.
- AOC: Short for Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. Regulations are extraordinarily strict; in order to use the name of the town or region in which the grapes are grown, winemakers must follow all the stringent rules and laws. Wines labeled AOC indicate a higher level of quality. The wine consumer would do well to remember that the preponderance of bargains lie under the classification of vin de table or vin de pays, while the AOC wines guarantee a higher quality. In most cases, on-sale and less costly AOC-designated wine can be found for prices comparable to those for vin de table.
The diversity and quality of the terrain in France is the reason why most of the best-known grape varieties have been planted there. All of the international varieties you will learn about on the grape pages of this site have widespread plantings in France. Many varieties are exclusively grown in France. Gamay is one example of a grape that is almost solely grown in France. Although there is much diversity, there seems to be a strong trend in France toward producing reds due to an increase in current demands for red wines.
France also produces the most esteemed wines for each of the international grape varieties. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot both reach their peak in Bordeaux, on the Left Bank and Right Bank respectively. Pinot Noir characterizes Burgundy wine, which has been receiving accolades for centuries. White Burgundy and Chablis are the prime examples of Chardonnay. Gewürztraminer, Muscat, and Pinot Gris are all marvelous in Alsace. Syrah from the Rhône is famously rich. Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire is top notch, despite strong competition from New Zealand. The only real exception is Riesling, which is good in Alsace, but tops in Germany.
Which wine is best is a subjective decision based on one’s own preferences. You need to find wines you like, and these may not be the top wines of France–or elsewhere. Do keep in mind, however, the fact that French grape varieties and the wines made from them are excellent and almost always the critics’ choice. So give the French varieties a try and see why.
- Alsace: Alsace AOC, located in the northeast of France, has a reputation for world-class white wine. Crémant d’Alsace is a very good sparkling wine, but most of the whites are still. Grapes planted in Alsace include Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Muscat. Sunny and mountainous, Alsace also has very diverse soils, which helps different types of white wine to flourish. The general style of this region is clear, fresh, yet complex. Lovers of classicist whites often are enamored of this appellation, as few parts of the production process have changed over the years.
- Beaujolais: Beaujolais AOC, while technically a part of Burgundy, has developed a completely different style of its own. Famous for their approachability, Beaujolais wines are low in tannins and have a full fruity bouquet. Beaujolais Nouveau is very cheap and low-quality. The best wines come from Beaujolais’ crus, and are much deeper and more complex. These wines are made from Gamay.
- Bordeaux: Not only is Bordeaux the most prestigious and well-known wine region of France, but it is also considered the best place for red wine in the world. White wine grown there is usually botrytized sweet dessert wine made from some combination of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon; the most well-known example of this style is the richly flavored, very expensive Sauternes. More than 85% of Bordeaux production, though, is now directed towards the reds that the region is known for. Bordeaux reds usually use Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and a few other supplementary grapes. Since the 1600s, Bordeaux growers have been creating wines that combine power and finesse more seamlessly than any other red wine in the world, though Napa Valley contenders are considered very close in quality. Within Bordeaux, many subregions exist, the most prestigious of which is a small village called Pauillac. The best flavors can develop in bottle for decades. Bordeaux wines’ strong reputation for quality commands exclusively high prices, often ranging to well over $1,000, even for the new bottles of wine.
- Burgundy: Burgundy is the top European region for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Pinot is a famously finicky grape, often leaving winemakers flummoxed. But Burgundy has just the right conditions to bring it to marvelous fruition. The elegant, rich Pinots produced here top every list of the world’s most expensive red wines. With more than 90 AOCs, Burgundy appellations are a world unto themselves; at the most basic level, it helps to remember that the central region for red wine is the Côte de Nuits. White wine is produced in the Côte de Beaune and Chablis, where Chardonnay is brought to a richness and complexity rarely seen in other regions. Within each of these, Burgundy is the home of many complex terroirs made up of tiny vineyard parcels that vary significantly from one another.
- Champagne: The world’s best bubbly often is worth the high boutique prices. Styles include Blanc de Blancs, made only from Chardonnay, and Blanc de Noirs, made only from Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier (another black grape). The majority of Champagnes, however, are made from a mix of the three, with Pinot Meunier usually a small part of the blend. The bubbles give Champagne a crisp, refreshing flavor that still wines lack, and many de luxe cuvées (the top level of Champagne) are of fabled quality. Like Burgundy, the best producers often have rabid cult followings.
- Corsica: Corsica is a small island off the coast of France that produces wine not commonly featured in American wine stores. The Corsican style is more Italian than French, and Italian grapes are used in most of the wine.
- Jura: Jura is a small region close to Burgundy, but with a slightly colder climate and completely different wine styles. Local grape Poulsard is the most interesting for reds, but plenty of different styles are produced here, including fortified and sparkling wines. Château-Chalon is the most well-known AOC, producing only vin jaune. Made from Savagnin, vin jaune is an extremely distinguishable and unusual style of wine, called yellow wine in English.
- Languedoc-Roussillon: The Languedoc-Roussillon produces an immense amount of mostly red wine, varying enormously in quality and flavors. Just about every common grape is planted here, and every common style of wine is made–fortified, sweet, dessert, sparkling, and all three colors. Rhône grapes Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre, as well as Carignan and Cinsaut, are often principals in the herbal, Spanish-influenced red wines.
- Loire: The Loire Valley, with nearly as many AOCs as Burgundy, is a great place for white and rosé wine, as well as the occasional good red. Along with Alsace, the Loire is a provider of less traditional, more affordable French white wines than Burgundy, but with the same French devotion to quality. Chenin Blanc is the main grape here, making both luscious sweet wines and ageable, terrifically flavored dry wines, particularly in the Loire’s best appellation, Vouvray. From Bourgueil and Chinon, Cabernet Franc takes on an excellent character, while Sancerre is the primary expression of Sauvignon Blanc.
- Provence: Provence is known for its booming tourist industry, but wine has a long history here. Bandol is one of the prominent AOCs, producing rosé from Mourvèdre and very full-bodied, rich red wine from the same grape. It is one of the few wines that can be paired with chocolate. The wines from Provence are Mediterranean-styled, often Spanish- and Italian-influenced.
- Rhône: The Rhône Valley produces wines that are distinctively more down-to-earth than those of Bordeaux and Burgundy. The Rhône is subdivided by location into northern and southern. In the north, Viognier’s best expression, the coveted Condrieu, is the primary white wine. But little-known whites from Hermitage can be even more outstanding. Mainly, though, Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie are known for their pungent Syrahs, often considered the world’s best. The southern Rhône is more known for GSM (Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre) blends, such as those found in Châteauneauf-du-Pape, Gigondas, and Vacqueyras. Châteauneuf is one of the most varied French appellations, producing wines ranging from $15 bargain bottles to among the best boutique wines in the world.
- Savoie: With its high mountains and cold climate, the Savoie is almost as Swiss as it is French in the kind of wine produced. White wines made from local grapes were popular for years, but new styles from international grapes, including reds, are becoming popular.
- Southwest France: Southwest France produces some excellent wines. The region has many wines that can rival the lower-quality wines from Bordeaux. Bergerac, Gaillac, and the Fronton and Madiran are made from local grapes and produce very high-quality reds, while Jurançon and Monbazillac produce sweet wines reminiscent of Sauternes. This appellation also includes Irouléguy, the only Basque wine-producing region.