Happy Wine Day! Whoever decided that May 25th was officially National Wine Day is my hero. Personally, this is my favorite holiday of the year. What better way to celebrate than to create the best wine guide ever?! Wine can seem confusing (so many places to remember) and complex (what are terroirs again?) but don’t worry. This wine guide is going to break down the basics so you will feel like a French Sommelier in no time!
Let’s Go Back to the Start
French winemaking started in the 6th century BC. Greek settlers colonized Southern Gaul and began the art of creating wine from grapes. However, this winemaking was much different than what we know of today as French wine. It was the Romans who planted vines in all the major wine regions in the 300s. There have been a lot of ups and downs since then, including mildew, Phylloxera, economic downturns, and more.
The Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) was established in 1935 to standardize winemaking in the region. The system defined geographical wine regions and their terroirs to protect the quality of the wine. More recently, French winemaking saw a huge boom in the 1970s. A new generation of winemakers invested a lot of time and money into the region.
Break Out Your Webster
Let’s get some definitions out of the way. Have you ever heard of someone referring to a wine region as a terroir? This is actually not a physical place that the grapes grew, but the additional factors that affect a grape’s taste. These environmental factors include soil, climate, and altitude.
Appellation System is a system of regulations that classify wine. It was created by the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. They strictly regulate things like the grape varieties that can be used in each location, minimum alcohol levels, how densely you can plant a vineyard, and how much it can yield. Think of it as a certification granted to certain French geographical indications. In 2012, it was replaced by the Appellation d’Origin Protégée (AOP), which is more universal and is followed by the entire European Union.
Categories of French Wine
1. Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC), now AOP since 2012. This is the highest standard for wine.
2. Appellation d’Origine Vin De Qualité Supérieure (AOVDQS): This falls just below AOC for strictness. It has rules and regulations similar to AOC in terms of grape variety, amount of production, and winemaking processes but less intense.
3. Vin de pays: All the so-called country wines that don’t fall under the AOC appellation rules come under this category. It has much more lenient rules for grape type and production methods.
4. Vin de table: “Table wines” come under this lowest category of French wines. There are no rules governing vineyard management or winemaking. You won’t see any certifications or labels on the bottle.
The Top Grape Varieties In France
- Ugni Blanc
- Cabernet sauvignon
- Pinot Noir
- Sauvignon blanc
- Cabernet Franc
Wines Produced in France
There are red, rosé, white, and sparkling wines that are produced in France. Here are some examples:
- Red wines from grape varieties like Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel
- Rosé wines like the Provençal rosé and the sweet White Zinfandels
- White wines like a Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, or a Moscato
- Sparkling wines from Champagne and Vouvray.
Let’s Get More Specific
Quick, when you think of French wine what do you think of? Bordeaux and Burgundy are probably what come to your mind first! Although those are the most popular, there are so many other wine-producing regions in France.
Located in southwest France, this region has 60+ growing appellations that produce mainly red Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc wines. The region has a temperate, Mediterranean climate. Besides the famous reds, the region also produces White Bordeaux made of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Muscadelle.
The other classic region! Burgundy is known for their Pinot Noir reds, white Chardonnays, and Beaujolais Gamay wines. Burgundy has five primary wine growing area. They are Chablis, Côte de Nuits, Côte Chalonnaise, Mâconnais, and Côte de Beaune near Beaune.
We all know this one too! This is the northernmost wine region that lies just east of Paris. It is known for its sparkling Blanc de Blancs and Blanc de Noirs.
The Rhone river flows through the Rhone Valley or Côtes du Rhône and you can refer to the two sides as Southern Rhone and Northern Rhone Valley. One of my favorite places in Southern France is Avignon which is located on the river. Learn more about this amazing place here. Rhone Valley’s legacy is their Syrah and Grenache Syrah Mourvèdre blend wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Hermitage appellations, and Condrieu wines made from Viognier grapes.
Located on the south-eastern coast, Provence is a French wine region that is known for its red wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Cinsault, and Mourvèdre grape varieties. Some of my favorite wines come from this region!
This wine region is known for a few wines including Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Gewürztraminer. A fun fact about Alsace is that the wines from this region are actually named after the grape variety instead of the place of origin. For example, the Rosenhof Pinot Gris 2018.
Learn More With These Books
Corsica is a French island in the Mediterranean, popular for its Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, and Barbarossa vineyards. It is heavily influenced by Tuscan flavors which is clear when you try a wine from Corsica. The Tuscan flavor comes from the grapes being grown in arid hillside vineyards that produce distinct flavors of herbs, chocolate.
Languedoc and Roussillon
Languedoc-Roussillon is a coastal area in southern France with lots of history. Languedoc-Roussillon extends from the Provence region to the Pyrenees Mountains and the Spain border. The Languedoc wine consists of Syrah, Grenache, Carignan, Cinsault, and Mourvèdre blends.
Loire Valley vineyards in the northwest produce wines like Sauvignon Blanc, Loire Vouvray, Loire Pouilly-Fume, Chinon, Marsanne, and Muscadet. The most famous Loire Valley appellation is the Sancerre with its limestone-rich Sauvignon Blanc vineyards that make dry white wines like Loire Pouilly-Fume. You’ll also find the popular Chenin Blanc Vouvrays in the Loire.
South West France
The South West is also known as the Sud-Ouest. This is known for the Malbecs, Colombard, Ugni Blanc, and Gros Manseng blends.
And that’s it! By breaking it down by region, it is pretty simple to remember. There are also many books and other resources for you if you are interested in learning more about French winemaking. Are there any details I missed? Let me know in the comments below or on Instagram @ouiplease!
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