France is considered to be the birthplace of wine. Although wine making started thousands of years ago in the Middle East, in more recent times the French were at the forefront of producing, exporting and branding their product. When people talk about famous wines, French producers are invariably always mentioned first.
The French influence can be seen all over the world, with French names being used to describe wines that have no connection to the country other than the ambition of the new world producers to emulate them.
There are several distinct wine regions in France, each governed by very strict laws to preserve quality which also results in each region producing distinct wines.
Alsace sits at the eastern-most side of France, along the German border. The climate here is continental, but the biggest geographical influence on this region is the Rhine River to the east and the Vosges Mountains to the west. The mountains shelter the vineyards and make Alsace a dry, sunny region.
Riesling is king in the Alsace; this grape produces wines high in acidity and minerality. You can also find high quality and extremely unique wines made from Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir grapes from the region. Although most French wines are sold according to region or vineyard, which may contain different varieties of grapes, the German influence in the Alsace means that there are more wines sold solely according to grape variety.
The Rhone Valley is situated towards the south of France where the warmer climate makes wines that are fuller bodied and higher in alcohol, including some very prestigious wines of high value. The region stretches for nearly 200km and includes a gigantic 70,000 acres (170,000 hectares) making it the second largest region in France after Bordeaux. However, the length of the region means that wines from the north have distinct characteristics differing from those in the south. The main red grapes are Syrah and Grenache, producing wines with great aging potential. There are numerous white grape varieties, with the most common being Viogner, Marsanne, Roussane and Grenache Blanc.
The Languedoc and Rousillon are the southern most regions in France and have the warmest climate. Again Syrah and Grenache are most suited here, with whites similar to those found in the Rhone with the addition of Picpoul (or Piquepoul if you prefer).
The Loire Valley stretches from central France, along the river of the same name, all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre and Pouilly Fuse are the most well known from this region. Other white varieties include Muscadet and Chenin Blanc. The most common red grape is Cabernet Franc and to a lesser extent Gamay.
Grapes & Regions
Sauvignon Blanc (Loire, Bordeaux)
Chardonnay (Champagne, Burgundy)
Uni Blanc (Gasgony)
Grenache (Rhone, Languedoc & Rousillion)
Cabernet Sauvignon (Bordeaux)
Cabernet Franc (Bordeaux)
Syrah (Rhone, Languedoc & Rousillion)
Pinot Noir (Burgundy)
Champagne is best known for producing sparkling wine, but also produces still whites and rosés. There are only three grapes allowed in the region of Champagne, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Two these are red varieties.
As the region is so far north the climate is cool, and the chalky soil helps drainage.
Burgundy is renowned as being complicated and infuriatingly difficult to understand. It not only has the most appellations (legally defined areas of grape cultivation) of any region, but single vineyards can be split between numerous owners each with their own style and skill. Wines from this region have been popular for centuries and their names have long been abused.
The region lies to the north of France and enjoys a northern continental climate. Winters can be quite severe and the summers tend to be long and hot.
There are four main grape varieties grown in Burgundy and almost all the wines are made from a single varietal, rather than from a blend. Pinot Noir is the sometimes considered as the only red grape of Burgundy. Gamay is also allowed too however, and is in fact the grape used for Beaujolais. The main two white grapes are Chardonnay and Bourgogne Aligote, although Sauvignon Blanc is also allowed.
Chardonnay, Bourgogne Aligote
Pinot Noir, Gamay
Bordeaux arguably produces the best known wines in the world and is home to some of the most expensive and highly regarded wines in the world. Red wines are also known as claret in the UK, but the region also produces spectacular white wines and also the amazing sweet wine, Sauterne.
Bordeaux lies in the middle of France with its most western point is on the Atlantic Ocean. The Gironde River slices through its heart and separates Bordeaux into the right and left banks, each of which produce wines with a very distinctive character. The long hours of sunshine are moderated by the ocean and river which allows for a long ripening season advantageous to grapes.
There are fourteen grape varieties that are grown in Bordeaux, but only eight are commonly used. The main red grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot. The three white varieties are Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle.
The Bordeaux region is made up of over 8,500 producers, known as Chateau, and 60 appellations. Wines with the most prestige and highest price tag tend to come from Pomerol, Saint Emillion, Pauillac and Margaux.
Sauterne is situated to the south of Bordeaux and makes distinctive sweet wines from Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes that have been affected by Botrytis or Noble Rot.
Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc
Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot