France is often held up as the cradle of premium wine making, the founder of the modern wine scene and certainly a reference point for the major grapes on the international market such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. A rich, modern history of premium wine making has guaranteed that France is firmly planted in consumer consciousness all over the world for producing some of the greatest wines in the world.
France is also credited with the invention of the appellation system, a concept designed to indicate classification through an increasingly specific reference to the origin of the grapes used to produce the wine. Appellation d’Origine Controlle, or AOC can be found on the label of most French wines.
Champagne, the world’s most famous sparkling wine, is a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and another red skinned variety, Pinot Meunier and is situated ninety minutes south east of Paris. The cool climate here ensures the grapes carry high levels of acidity and crisp fruit flavours, characteristics that make for good Champagne.
The white wines of the Loire Valley are internationally renown. Sauvignon Blanc grown around the villages of Sancerre and Pouilly Fume is widely considered to be the benchmark expression of the grape. Heading out towards the Atlantic, red and rose wines from Cabernet Franc are the norm. Sec or Demi Vouvray, made from Chenin Blanc can be wonderful young but also keep its aroma and freshness for many decades.
In the north east of the country, on the German border, Alsace has a character of it’s own. Here some of the best white wines in France are made. Riesling, Gewürtztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat are produced in a style that seeks to maximise the natural character of the grape. Little to no oak ageing is used. Grand Cru is a term used here. There are fifty vineyards, all with slight intricacies that can legally carry the term.
Burgundy has the power to deceive and mesmerise. An intensely complex classification system builds on the basic AOC model. Premier Cru and the even more esteemed Grand Cru status can be applied to wines produced from certain vineyards in the region. Vineyards carrying such a privilege have been awarded based on many years of yielding wines of consistent classification, of a character deemed possible to originate only from that particular vineyard. The concept is romantic and at the top end of the scale the wines, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, do not disappoint. A vineyard adjacent to another, separated only by a small road or track, can taste infinitely better. The very essence of terroir can be explained and felt nowhere better than in Burgundy.
Bordeaux needs little introduction; the Chateaux that line the left bank of the Garonne have been classified into a hierarchy of classification since 1855. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot dominate red wines here, many of which are among the most expensive and prestigious wines in the world. The classed growths as they are known, are famous throughout the world. On the right bank, Merlot predominates, with softer, fruitier wines taking precedent over the more tannic Cabernet based wines that are built for lengthy cellaring.
In the Rhône Valley, intense heat produces wines of a bigger, spicier and all together more powerful nature. Syrah and Grenache partner each other well, with varying roles for support grapes such as Carignan, Mouvèdre and Cinsault. In some places they also do very well on their own. White wines made in these parts also reflect the sunny conditions, Marsanne, Roussane and to a lesser extent Viognier tend towards a fuller, richer body than those wines produced in the cooler regions further north. Don’t miss Cornas, or Côte-Rôtie in the northern Rhone, or indeed Chateau-neuf-du-pape or Gigondas in the south.
Along the Mediterranean coast, in the Languedoc and Provence, the wines take on a wider variety of styles. AOC rules and regulations, which normally dictate all aspects of viticulture and production, are not quite as strict. In recent years many producers have invested in vineyards here in order to make wines that can be marketed in a way that competes with the simplicity of the new world. Grape varieties can appear on labels for example.
In the southwest of the country a few lesser known wines try to make their mark. Malbec, or Cot is grown with increasing admirers in Cahors, while in Madiran, Tannat is the star, popular elsewhere in Uruguay and the US.
Jura is a small wine growing region located in Eastern France, between Burgundy and the Swiss border. It has just a few appellations but is known for its culture of artisan wine-making. A range of local red and white varieties making interesting wines, although the white Vin Jaune made in an oxidised style is most famous.
The Rhône Valley is home to some of France’s richest, spiciest reds. In the northern half, Syrah dominates and finds beautiful expressions in appellations such as Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage. Further south Grenache is the variety of choice, with Châteauneuf-du-Pape being the obvious benchmark wine.