Many people see France as the land of wine. They idolise it as a romantic haven covered with vineyards that ooze with delicious love potions. Even without the romantic point-of-view they would be right, to some degree. France is indeed the home of wine as we know it today. It is funny to think that although France was not the first to produce wine, they also aren’t the largest producers nor consumers. So you must think about what is it that the French have done for and with wine that has made us put them on such a high pedestal. We think it might have something to do with the fact that they immortalised wine. The French made it something we want to drink, nay something we need to drink. The French capitalised on romantic agreements a long time ago and came back swinging with a raft of wines the wine world now revere as something out of a Greek epic.
The French have created their profile as the land of fine food and wine. Having the benchmark wines for the wine world being made in your backyard only makes sense. Over the last few centuries the French have been carving legend into the very land they live on. Whether it is demarking small parcels of land around the lands of rural France, leading the world in winemaking instruction or simply crafting the best examples of wine that they possibly can – we can all agree the French indeed have done a lot of work to ensure results. Results that show up in the glass every time a cork is popped.
The wines of France convey the very essence of what wine should be – a liquid vehicle acting on behalf of a specific vineyard or grape. This concept is immortalised in the word: ‘terroir’. ‘Terroir’ roughly translates to the encapsulation of vineyard, climate, region, soil and grape variety – all things that winemakers can’t give to the wine but can only be found in nature. This infamous concept is found in nearly every bottle of French wine you will ever try. There is heritage in every aspect of the French world of wine. It is this concept that gives the reds and whites of Burgundy their racy precision, the reds of the Rhone their floral delicacy, the whites of Alsace their aromatic composure and the reds of Bordeaux their hypnotic fragrance.
Main Grapes or styles
Pinot Noir – is the red grape behind the famed reds of Burgundy. These wines make up the majority of the list of the most expensive wines on the international marketplace today, and will continue to for quite some time, thanks to rarity. Pinot Noir is also cultivated in the Loire Valley and Alsace – here it makes a more fruit-forward style compared to the floral and savoury side that Burgundy produces.
Cabernet Sauvignon – the red grape behind the biggest names in Bordeaux – these being the First Growths: Latour, Lafite, Moutonm Margaux and Haut-Brion. These top five chateaus consistently produce the leading wines of the Bordeaux region. Cabernet Sauvignon is blended with Merlot to create these reds.
Merlot – is paired with the more quoted Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux. Cabernet Sauvignon would be nothing without the fleshy, tannins and depth of flavour that Merlot gives it. Merlot is more predominant in the wines of the right bank, in Pomerol and St-Emilion.
Syrah – the king of the northern Rhone and to a lesser extent the southern Rhone. It is produced as a single varietal red wine in the appellations of Cote-Rotie, Hermitage and Saint Joseph. These regions produce a floral, feminine red wine with a haunting aroma of plums and violets. In the southern Rhone it joins up with Grenache to produce gutsy, full-bodied red blends.
Grenache – is the grape that makes the famous Chateauneuf-du-Pape, famous. In the southern Rhone, where Chateauneuf-du-Pape is located, Grenache teams up with Syrah and a small team of red grapes to create the famous red blends. Grenache helps to give these blends ripe red and black fruit flavours as well as ramping up the colour and tannins.
Chardonnay – the white grape that is one of the most planted across France. It is the face of the whites of Burgundy and Champagne. For any sparkling wine lover you have to ask; ‘what would life be like without Chardonnay?'
Sauvignon Blanc – is planted in two main regions: Bordeaux and the Loire Valley. In Bordeaux, Sauvignon Blanc is blended with Semillon and produces both dry whites and sweet wines in the appellations of Graves and Sauternes, respectively. In the Loire Valley it is king producing zesty refreshing dry white wines – the most famous examples being made in the appellations of Pouilly-Fume and Sancerre.
Bordeaux – possibly the most well known wine style and blend originates from this large region in the east of France. It is, of-course, the ‘Claret’ – to most outside of the UK it is a Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend. The ‘Bordeaux Blend’ is famed around the globe and is replicated in all leading wine countries. Though home to Claret, Bordeaux is also home to the great sweet wines of Sauternes and complex dry whites of Pessac-Leognan and Graves – both of which are blends of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.
Burgundy – the home of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Unlike Bordeaux which produces quite a bit of wine – most of which is very fine wine indeed – Burgundy produces a much higher proportion of fine wine yet overall much less. The smaller quantities of Burgundy, most of which at very high quality levels, has seen the wines reach phenomenally high price points in the last few years. That being said the best wines, and even the average wines, are all great wines and can offer great bang-for-buck.
Champagne – the region that is home to not just Champagne but also the style of sparkling wine of the same name. Here the bubbles are made from a blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier.
Loire Valley – located in the north of France and spans along the width of the country. It is white wine country spanning two of the countries most important grape varietals: Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc. The whites are made in a variety of styles from dry to sweet to sparkling. There are less reds produced here but those that are have higher acidities and produce light easy drinking reds. The key grape is Cabernet Franc.
Rhone Valley – is split into two halves. The northern Rhone is famed for its single varietals whites and reds produced from Viognier and Syrah, respectively. It is in the southern Rhone where you will find the wines of Cotes-du-Rhone and Chateauneuf-du-Pape both of which are blends of Grenache, Syrah, Mouvedre and a cast of red grapes. The whites of the south are blends of Viognier along with Marsanne and a raft of white grapes.
Alsace – the most famous aromatic white wines in the world come from Alsace. It is found in the northeast and is one of the driest and warmest regions in all of France, helped by protection of the Vosges Mountain range. Aside from a few hectares of Pinot Noir, used in sparkling wines, all of Alsace’s wines are white. The four noble grapes are Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Muscat and Riesling.
Climate and its effect on the wines made here
Roughly France has a warm climate but the cold and hot extremes can be found. Naturally the south is hot along the Languedoc-Rousillon, Provence and southern Rhone Valley regions. It progresses into warmer and cooler regions. Bordeaux and South-West France enjoy a moderate climate. Burgundy has a cooler climate – often pegged with hail issues. The Loire Valley and Champagne regions are by far the coolest and most northerly. This explains the zippy and refreshing white wines from the Loire Valley, the warming and aromatic wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux, and the gutsy reds from the south of France.