Getting to Know the Wines of France

Vineyards in the mist at sunrise, Oger, Champagne, France

Matteo Colombo / Getty Images

France, the proverbial mothership of all things wine, the very heart of the world's wine inspiration, and a pretty big deal all the way around when it comes to vineyard management, winemaking traditions, and functioning as the virtual epicenter to today's trends of pairing local food with local wine.

France can be broken down into eight major wine-producing regions: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Loire Valley, Rhône Valley, Champagne, Alsace, Provence, and the South of France. How one chooses to tackle the essence of a region's wine ambassadors depends on both budget and palate preference. By gaining a working knowledge of the key grapes and ultimately the wines associated within a French region, budding oenophiles can piece together the vineyard puzzle that began centuries ago when Roman soldiers and later monasteries scoped out sacred plots for vineyard sites.

Within each of these pivotal provinces, grapes have been chosen over the years for their innate abilities to thrive in the given terroir. Grapes that need more sun and warmer seasons to fully mature find their footing in the moderate maritime climates of Bordeaux or the Mediterranean climates of Provence and the southern, regions of France including the Languedoc. Likewise, grapes that can come out ahead given cooler climates, promising acidity, and lively palate pep will drop roots deep into the cool continental growing regions of Champagne, Burgundy, Alsace and beyond.

Place Names vs. Grape Names

In general, the wines of France give more weight to the place that the grapes are grown than to the grapes themselves. For this reason, consumers commonly find place names and not grape names on a given bottle of French wine. These places may be the large, more familiar regional names such as "Bourgogne" (aka "Burgundy"), or the smaller village and appellation-derived names such as Burgundy's famous Nuits St. Georges. Such designated regions are called Appellations d'Origine Contrôlée (AOCs), translating to "named places of origin" and are part of a large regulatory system established by the French government in the 1950s. This intricate system determines the bounds of the region, the allowed grape varieties to be used, and even some production methods involved in order to maintain regional standards and style. Many American consumers are still considerably interested in knowing which grapes may be found in the various French wine regions. To that end, we'll endeavor.

Bordeaux - A River Runs Through It

As the largest winegrowing region in France, Bordeaux delivers great diversity in terms of both the types of grapes grown and the styles of wine produced. French wine can quickly become complicated, so we'll start with the basics. The primary red wines of Bordeaux are built on blends of three principal grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. The region's white wines consist primarily of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, for both the bone dry and famous dessert delights of Sauternes.

A river runs through Bordeaux, dubbed the Gironde which forks into the Dordogne and Garonne Rivers. The rivers are important, but as it turns out the river banks carry even more notoriety. It's the river banks, simply referred to as "Left Bank" (west of the Gironde) and "Right Bank" (east of the Gironde) that carry the keys to understanding much about Bordeaux.

Right Bank Wines tend to lean heavier into Merlot for the final blends, while Left Bank wines often carry more Cabernet Sauvignon in the bottle. Geography plays a key factor in buying Bordeaux, looking for Right Bank, Merlot-friendly bottles? Then get to know some of the village names that lie on the Right Bank. Villages like St. Emilion, Pomerol, Fronsac, and many of the "Cotes de Bordeaux" labels are planted on the Right Bank.

Left Bank Wines: Going for Cabernet Sauvignon? Then, know a handful of villages that will appear on the bottle labels from the Left Bank. Villages like Medoc, Saint Estephe, Pauillac, Saint-Julien, Haut-Medoc, and the ultra-famous Margaux. Two other Bordeaux-based districts that have become important for both their value price tags and compelling 50/50 blend of Merlot and Cab are Graves and Pessac-Leognan.

Bordeaux Chateau d'Yquem
The stately Chateau d'Yquem of Bordeaux produces some of the most collectible wines in the world. GettyImages | Esperanza33

Burgundy - A Tale of Two Grapes

If Bordeaux is the king of French wine, then Burgundy is queen. Regal in form, fashion, and reputation, this renown wine region can throw some complicated classification systems and tricky appellations on the bottle, but keep in mind that Burgundy rides on the back of only two key grapes.

Keeping it Simple: Pinot Noir (aka "Red Burgundy") and Chardonnay (aka "White Burgundy"), represent a daring vineyard duo that builds the best of Burgundy. Unfortunately, that's often where the simplicity ends for Burgundy.

Making it Complicated: This small, but esteemed 100-mile region can be masked in complicated layers of classifications (Village wines, Premier Cru, Grand Cru) and an ongoing system of appellations, regions, communes, and vineyard designations. Where to start? For white wine introductions, look towards the AOCs of Cote de Beaune, Macon, Macon-Villages, Pouilly-Fuisse and Chablis on bottle labels. The Cote de Nuits hinges heavily on Pinot Noir production, as does Mercury, and Givry. The wines of Burgundy are characteristically dry, and terroir-driven with specific expression found within minute sections of vineyards, locally called "clos," which impart a piece of place to the wine. Expect moderate amounts of alcohol and acidity in the bottle, with red wines carrying low to medium levels of tannin and restrained oak influence. The region is planted to about 60% Chardonnay.

Since the time of Napolean, Burgundy's vineyards have been sub-divided between generational heirs and today this slicing and dicing of vineyard land has left much of the area highly fragmented in terms of ownership. For example, a family may own several rows in a vineyard that is easily split between 50 or more owners. In certain appellations, cooperatives play a critical role in managing the production of both the land and ultimately the wine.

The Rhône Valley - The Great Divide

While the Rhône Valley is technically viewed as a single wine region that lies along the esteemed Rhône River, it's best handled as two distinct wine-growing areas - simply labeled as the northern Rhône and the southern Rhône. Producing almost 40 million cases of wine a year, the Rhône Valley's claim to fame is firmly rooted in the Syrah and Grenache grapes.

The Northern Rhône: With steep, terraced vineyards, hot summers, cold winters and even a section dubbed "the roasted slope" or more readily known as Côte Rôtie, the terroir and continental climate of the northern Rhône can run extreme. When it comes to the grapes of the northern Rhône, things are pretty straightforward. Syrah is the sole player for red wine grapes and the region's well known white wine trio of Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne play back up.

Place names prevail and Hermitage, Côte Rôtie, and Crozes-Hermitage are integral places for finding top-notch Rhône Valley Syrah. These high-end red wine finds are big-bodied, full-throttle wines that carry considerable structure and tend to need some time to unwind a bit in the cellar. Condrieu, based on the Viognier grape, is the premier white wine of the northern Rhône and enjoys a considerable international following.

The Southern Rhône: Significantly larger and responsible for the vast majority of the wines coming out of the Rhône Valley, the southern Rhône carries a reputation for creating approachable, sometimes rustic wines based on up to 13 different grape varieties. Syrah is no longer the dominant theme but finds itself well blended with the likes of Grenache and Mourvedre in the popular New World label lingo of GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre).

The classic full-bodied, spice-induced, dark berry flavors of the Cotes du Rhône AOC provides a popular introduction to the southern Rhônes accessible wine options. The wildly trendy Chateauneuf-du-Pape (literally "new castle of the pope") AOC is revered for its gutsy blend of 13 grapes, of which the most popular include: Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah, Cinsault, and Roussanne. Tavel, crafted from Cinsault and Grenache, is the regional rosé of note. The wines of the southern Rhône deliver rugged, spirited wines that reflect the windswept region's Mediterranean influence and intense sun-soaked terroir.

Syrah from Hermitage
Syrah is the star of the Hermitage region in the Northern Rhône.  GettyImages | donald_gruener

Loire Valley - Grapes, Castles and (Another) River, Oh My!

Moving to the northwest corner of France, the country's longest river, the Loire, winds its way to the Atlantic near the port city of Nantes. Dotted with stunning fairytale castles, dazzling remnants of kings gone by, the Loire Valley was once the great escape of European royalty. Today, vineyard variety and versatility characterize much of the region's noble wine offerings. From lively and crisp dry white wines based largely on Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc to lighter styled reds derived from Cabernet Franc and rosés based on the same, all the way to stunning dessert wines and festive sparkling options, the wines of the Loire Valley are well worth an introduction.

Chenin Blanc: is typically a lighter-bodied white wine that runs from dry to sweet to sparkling, this ultra adept grape often runs under the label moniker of Vouvray and Savennieres, again based on the place names of local communes. Super susceptible to botrytis, Chenin Blanc may be harvested late season once the noble rot has set in to create world-class, intensely sweet dessert wines.

Sauvignon Blanc: a decidedly crisp, bone-dry white wine with zesty acidity and often carrying intense aromas of fresh-cut grass and long lines of minerality (an unmistakable nod to the region's chalky soil structure), the Loire Valley's best Sauvignon Blanc hails from the Upper Loire. Prime regions (and bottle place names) to scout for include Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume. Sancerre is a cool climate zone that typically prevents the grapes from reaching full phenolic maturity, which results in a wine that carries exceptional levels of innate acidity. The white wines coming out of Pouilly-Fume can come across with a little more body and palate heft, along with a touch less acidity. Both sources of Loire Sauvignon Blanc make wines that show an incredible affinity for all things shellfish and herb-infused goat cheese.

Cabernet Franc: The Loire's most well-known red wine option, Cabernet Franc most commonly hails from the regional districts of Chinon, Saumur-Champigny, and Bourgeuil (again, all bottle label clues to the red grape within the glass). The Loire's cool climate zone keeps Cab Franc on the lighter side in terms of body and flavor profiles. Perfect for pairing with regional dishes carrying considerable herbs, veggies, and red meat options.

Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone Valley and the lingering layers of the Loire all evoke a sense of determined place. An honest reflection of French wine in all its terroir-induced glory and frequent genuflection to the homage owed to the birthplace of modern wine, to know the wines of France is to know the wines of the world, their inspiration, their lineage, their collective strengths, and weaknesses.