When one thinks of France it is almost impossible not to get confused, between the regions, grapes, climates, history, and opinions. France often stands as a base of reference for the whole word’s guide for what makes a “fine” wine. Thus, we should certainly give it its due credence as somewhere truly special. From the cool coastal climate of Bordeaux, the hilly sun drenched slopes of Burgundy, humid heat of Provence, and near cool windy hills of Champagne, critics are certainly onto something when they say the best wines in the world come from France. However, this doesn’t mean we have to spend a fortune on French wine to find something worthy of enjoying, and the goal of this post is to help you cut through the massive number of opinions to find something you truly love.
France, must like the rest of the “old world” (aka- Europe) has a nice system of government regulated classifications to help consumers cut their way through the massive number of offerings available. While these classifications are not a guarantee that the wine will taste great or agree with your palate, if you combine this info with our other guides to Bordeaux, Burgundy, and other French regions, odds are you will be able to find something you enjoy.
So, where to begin? Culturally, French wine makers consider themselves to be special (like that kid in grammar school whose dad was cooler than yours because he said so). The history of French winemaking is steeped in cultural nuance, from the blue bloods of Bordeaux and Burgundy the value minded southern Rhone and Loire Valley. To find what you are looking for each region has unique rules (such as what can be on the label, what grapes can be grown in a specific region, and usually quality French wines do not list the types of grapes in the bottle). However here is a brief list of the most important regions and their associated red and white grapes (we will get more into this with guides to all the regions):
- Bordeaux: Red Blends, Sauternes (W), Sauvignon Blanc (W)
- Burgundy: Pinot Noir (R), Chardonnay (W), Gamay (R), Aligote (W), Cremant de Bourgogne (S)
- Rhone Valley: Red Blends (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre) (R), Syrah (R), Viognier (W), Marsanne-Rousanne (W)
- Loire Valley: Sauvignon Blanc (W), Chenin Blanc (W), Muscadet (W), Cabernet Franc (R), Cremant de Loire (S)
- Champagne: Champagne (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Meuiner)
- Alsace: Pinot Gris (W), Riesling (W), Gewurztraminer (W), Cremant D’Alsace (S)
- Provence: Rose (P), Bandol (Mourvedre) (R)
- South-West: Bordeaux Blends (R), Malbec (R), Tannat (R)
- Languedoc-Roussillon: Rhone Blends (R), Carignan (R), Rose (P), Cremant de Limoux (S)
Guide: R-Red, W-White, P-Pink, S-Sparkling
From here we can be on the lookout for the basic three government regulated classifications, which due to strict EU laws looks remarkably similar to those in Italy. In 2006 the laws were revamped to fit better with the EU standardization of agriculture and have a three tiered level system.
The first is Vin de France, this label allows the grape variety and vintage on the label but cannot indicate a region within France. This is the most value minded level of the classification system, however, some wines can be of lower quality and most is consumed by the domestic French market.
The second level is Indication géographique protégée (IGP). Within the IGP level there is more flexibility for producers with regards to how high yields can be and what varietals can be used within various regions. This level allows for the most creativity of the wine maker in a given appellation where laws are highly restrictive for an AOP certification.
The highest and third level is Appellation d’origine protégée (AOP) or Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC). This is the most restrictive and differs from region to region with what is allowed on the label and what grapes can be used. However, it is a great indicator of a wine expressive of its origin, or what the French call terroir.
While this is certainly a highly basic guide to French wine we want to start with the simple(ish) origins of wine classifications and work down from there. That whole you can’t run before you can crawl logic our parents used to say. So get out there and buy some weird French wines to start to match flavors with regions and classifications!