You’ll find fantastic wine coming from every grape-growing country globally, but French wine is on another level. It’s not that French wine is better than the rest (sometimes it is), but you can’t beat the tradition, lore, and history behind every French wine style and grape.
France has influenced every other wine-producing country on the planet. So much that the most planted grapes globally are French. Did someone say Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay? French wine, though, is a bit complicated. It’s easy to get lost with over three hundred appellations spread between a dozen wine regions. And although no one becomes an expert in French wine in a day, here’s a handy sommelier guide to the country’s provinces and their wines.
The Appellation System
To understand French wine, one must first know the county’s appellation system, now used globally in almost every wine-producing country. Every town that makes wine in France specializes in a few wine styles made with specific grapes and methods. These wine styles are sometimes prevalent in broader areas, covering several towns. Well, each of these wine styles is protected by law against counterfeit and, at the same time, guarantees its quality.
In France, the appellations are named after the town or region that makes that particular wine, and consumers are supposed to know what’s in the bottle with that information alone. If you read ‘Bordeaux’ on a label, you’re supposed to know it contains a red blend of Cabernet, Merlot, and perhaps a few others. Mastering every appellation takes years, but it’s gratifying! Let’s talk about the most remarkable French wine regions and their trendiest appellations.
Famous French Wine Regions
Bordeaux is a well-known region on France’s Atlantic Coast. Here, the Gironde Estuary divides the area into left and right banks. This is the home of the world’s most popular red grape, Cabernet Sauvignon, and its noble stablemates, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and others.
In Bordeaux, the art of blending grapes to achieve robust, age-worthy wines is the norm, so every bottle of wine contains at least two grapes. Merlot and Cabernet dominate the blends on the left bank, and the wines are pretty structured. On the right bank, winemakers blend Merlot with Cabernet Franc, and they’re a bit rounder.
The region also produces white wines, often blending Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. And Bordeaux’s sweet wines, particularly those from the Sauternes appellation, are life-changing.
Burgundy is as prominent as Bordeaux, and you’ll find it inland — this is home to wines made with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. This complex region is subdivided into subregions specializing in a wine style. For example, Chablis is up north and produces crisp and mineral cold-climate Chardonnay. The Côte d’Or or Golden Slope makes superb Pinots and Chardonnays at various quality levels: regional, communal, Premier, and Grand Crus. The latter are amongst the most coveted wines on earth.
Travel south, and you’ll find the less famous but equally charming subregions of Chalon and Macon. You’ll find excellent value in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir here. Then, finally, the odd one in the Burgundian family — Beaujolais, where winemakers make fruit-forward red wines with Gamay.
The Rhône Valley
The Rhône Valley lies south of Burgundy, and the region is noticeably warmer. Here, rustic grape varieties dominate the Mediterranean-influenced area. Syrah is king in the Northern Rhône, but the south is about blends made with Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, and others.
Some of the most exciting Rhône appellations include Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage for Shiraz and Côtes du Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape for blends, but there are many (many) others. White wines are also lovely in the Rhône Valley, and they’re often made with Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne.
Of course, Champagne is one of the best-known appellations in France, and it specializes in French sparkling wine of the highest level. Only wines produced in the region with local grapes and traditional methods can be labeled as Champagne. The grapes of choice? Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier.
What makes Champagne unique is the time-consuming and labor-intensive winemaking process. The wine is fermented twice in a tank and the other in a bottle, which is much more complicated than it sounds. The leading Maisons de Champagne also specialize in blending wines from their vast wine libraries to produce signature styles, often with fans worldwide.
More Types of French Wine
Essential French Wine Scholar Regions
The Loire Valley
The Loire Valley runs east to west along with Northern France. Often called the Garden of France, this area is home to splendid castles and palaces along the Loire River. The Valley is also home to superb wine. Here, the wine styles vary as you explore the region inland.
The Atlantic coast is home to the crisp Muscadet wines, white wines that are the perfect partners for seafood. The central Valley is dominated by Chenin Blanc, a noble varietal that can make still wine, sparkling wine, and even pretty sweet dessert wines. The prevalent red grape here is Cabernet Franc, and it produces big and bold wines with lovely acidity. Noteworthy appellations include Vouvray for whites and Chinon for reds.
Further inland, the vineyards shift to Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. Some of the best appellations here include Pouilly Fumé and Sancerre.
Alsace borders Germany, and you can tell. The food, traditions, and even the architecture are distinctively German-inspired. The wines look a lot like the wines produced on the other side of the Rhine. We’re talking about extraordinary white wines made with Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, and a few others. Only Pinot Noir can withstand Alsace’s chilly weather in the red wine category.
Don’t expect flabby white wines in Alsace; they have structure and weight and are excellent with food. Although most Alsatian whites are dry, there are a few sweet specialties, and the best wines in the region’s catalog come from the prestigious Grand Cru vineyards.
Sunny Provence covers the French Riviera overlooking the Mediterranean. This is the ultimate foodie destination and authentic heaven for lovers of the good life. Marseille, Cannes, Saint Tropez, Nice, and others are the rich and famous hotspots. But, of course, the region makes splendid wine as well.
Provence is a synonym for rosé, often made by blending local red and white grapes. Mineral, elegant, and subtly fruity, this is arguably the best pink wine globally, and it’s the perfect match for the area’s Mediterranean seafood specialties.
Last but not least. Southern France is home to many appellations, most of them under the broader Languedoc-Roussillon regional term. This is the source of most inexpensive table wine in France, but a few gems are scattered in the vast area. Fine wine exists in Languedoc-Roussillon if you know where to look.
The grapes here are commonly Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, and Cinsault, but you’ll also find Cabernet, Merlot, and Chardonnay. Appellations worth seeking out include La Clape, Corbieres, Rivesaltes, and Fitou.
Not As Complicated As You Think!
Sure, it takes years of study to learn all about the hundreds of appellations in France and the dozens of grapes produced. However, what matters most is the people, so find a bottle of wine you like and learn more about the family behind it. Every bottle of wine has a story, and those stories make wine so enjoyable!
You don’t have to know all about French wine to enjoy it; you only need to find suitable wine styles. The only thing we know for sure is that French winemakers make wine for all tastes and palates. So find your favorite French wine! It will be quite an adventure!
French Wine Grapes
Sauvignon blanc is a green-skinned grape variety that originates from the Bordeaux region of France. The grape most likely gets its name from the French words sauvage and blanc due to its early origins as an indigenous grape in South West France. It is possibly a descendant of Savagnin.
Chardonnay is a green-skinned grape variety used in the production of white wine. The variety originated in the Burgundy wine region of eastern France but is now grown wherever wine is produced, from England to New Zealand.
Chenin blanc is a white wine grape variety from the Loire Valley of France. Its high acidity means it can be used to make varieties from sparkling wines to well-balanced dessert wines, although it can produce very bland, neutral wines if the vine’s natural vigor is not controlled.
Viognier is a white wine grape variety from the Rhone Valley. It is the only permitted grape for the French wine Condrieu in the Rhône Valley.
Sémillon is a golden-skinned grape used to make dry and sweet white wines, mainly in France and Australia. Its thin skin and susceptibility to botrytis make it dominate the sweet wine region Sauternes AOC and Barsac AOC.
Marsanne is a white wine grape, most commonly found in the Northern Rhône region. It is often blended with Roussanne. In Savoie the grape is known as grosse roussette.
Roussanne is a white wine grape grown in the Rhône, where it is often blended with Marsanne. Along with Marsanne, it is permitted in Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage, and Saint-Joseph.
An aromatic wine grape variety, Gewürztraminer performs best in cooler climates like Alsace.
Grown primarily in the Loire Valley, Melon de Bourgogne is best known for its use in the white wine Muscadet.
An ancient grape, Savagnin is primarily grown in the Jura region of France.
Pinot noir is a well-known grape from Burgundy. Its name alludes to the grape variety having tightly clustered, cone-shaped pine bunches of fruit.
Dating back to the 15th century, Gamay is notably grown in Beaujolais and the Loire Valley.
Cabernet Franc is one of the major black grape varieties worldwide. It is principally grown for blending with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in the Bordeaux style but can also be vinified alone, as in the Loire’s Chinon.
Malbec is primarily grown in Cahors, but it is also allowed in a red Bordeaux blend.
Mourvèdre is an ancient Spanish grape grown in the Southern Rhône and Provence.
Tannat is a massively tannic grape from Madiran in South West France.
Carignan is a red grape variety of Spanish origin that is more commonly found in France but is widely planted throughout the western Mediterranean and around the globe.
Grown throughout the world, Syrah originates from the Northern Rhone.
Grenache is grown extensively through Provence, Languedoc, and the Southern Rhone.