France’s ancient and massive wine culture has a vast and chequered history, complete with abuses of power, plagues, pests and politics. Through all her setbacks though, France’s wine industry has only ever emerged as a stronger force, fiercely proprietorial and arguably a little arrogant.
Nowadays French wines are labelled under incredibly strict Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC) laws which protect quality and define, control and protect the geography (or Terroir), thus safeguarding the authenticity of all wines (along with cheese, some butter and even some lentils) produced. For a wine to use a regional name, such as Bordeaux or Champagne, or a more defined sub-district, it must meet with AOC regulations for that region. The AOC system is tiered for quality with AOC at the top and Vin de Table at the bottom.
Laughably briefly, there are 8 main regional players in France – Alsace, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Languedoc-Roussillon, Loire, Provence and Rhone Valley – each with its own characteristics of Terroir and therefore each producing its own distinct styles of wine.
Alsace, in the northeast, tucked up near Germany and Switzerland, is best known for its Aromatics - dry Riesling, floral Gewurtztraminer and stickies. Unlike wines produced elsewhere in France, Alsace wines tend to identify themselves, helpfully, by grape variety.
Bordeaux, in the southwest, is said to produce a third of France’s total wine, from everyday quaffers to some of the most revered, and expensive, vintages in the world. Chances are if you find yourself drinking a red wine from Bordeaux that it is Cabernet Sauvignon, or perhaps Cabernet Franc. A white from here is most likely to be Sauvignon Blanc.
Burgundy, south of Paris, is as legendary in its viticultural triumphs as Bordeaux. Most commonly the area produces dry white wines, mainly Chardonnay (Chablis comes from here), and full bodied reds, typically Pinot Noir.
Champagne is probably France’s most famous wine producing region and nowhere else on earth is wine production so heavily regulated. Chalky soil, cool summers and mild winters create the perfect Terroir for sparkling wine. Ah, delicious fizz!
The lesser-known but vast Languedoc-Roussillon, found beside the Mediterranean, produces a wealth of wonderful reds and may be best known for its Merlot.
The Loire Valley contains some wondrous sub-regions including Pouilly-Fume and Sancerre and grows mainly Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Melon du Bourgogne. Although specialising in mainly white varietals, including dessert wines, the area also produces great Cabernet Franc and France’s other well-respected fizz, Cremant.
Provence is France’s rose specialist. France’s oldest wine producing area pumps out 45% of the country’s entire rose yield – and nearly all of it is wonderful. If you happen upon one, drink it. Many other varietals do incredibly well here too, thanks to the mighty Mistral wind, which dries the air and keeps the clouds away.
The Rhone Valley has historically been overshadowed by its illustrious neighbours, Bordeaux and Burgundy. However as recently as 30 years ago the region found its mojo and has made its name with its trademarks, Syrah (Shiraz to New Worldies) and Viognier, as well as with its more traditional and at times intensely complex blends – Chateaux Neuf du Pape, for example, is a blend of 13 different grapes.
There is more of course, so much more. To appreciate France is to appreciate wine and to appreciate wine is to appreciate France. French wine presents a huge and wondrous world to explore, and the best way, as with so many other things in life, is not to read about it but to experience it