As the famous saying goes, not all wines are created equal. France may be renowned for its wines, but with so much choice, they don’t make it easy to pick a bottle. In a country that loves complexity, the French wine regions are no different.
There are as many different types of French wines as there are types of French cheese, which is to say a lot. Each region of France has its own “wine personality” and way of classifying what is a good wine, and what is a great one. Some wines get better with age, while others do not.
So in order to decide what our “own wine personality” is, let’s break down the French wines by region, and have a look at the famous names to look out for.
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Along with the region, you also have to look at the quality standard. A good bottle of wine will have the following initials:
- AOC – Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée
- AOP – Appellation d’Origine Protégée
- IGP – Indication Géographique Protégée
- Vin de Table – Table wine
As you can imagine, “table wine” is not great wine, but it is drinkable. And if you are looking for a great bottle of wine, the AOC/AOP wines are further classed based on prestige with Grand cru, Premier Cru to Cinquième Cru (1st to 5th Cru), and Village wines.
Now, if you are shopping at your local grocery store, you are likely not going to find any Grand Crus there. Depending on the grocery store, you may not even find any “Village wines” in there, as if a wine is good enough to identify by its village, it is because the village is of some renown.
Most labels at your local grocery store will only have an AOP/AOC label. For the higher-end French wines, you may have to visit a specialized wine shop. You can read more about French wines labels and how to read a label in French here.
Given the history of the Alsace region, wines from this area started off being heavily influenced by their next-door neighbor German wines. In recent decades, Alsatian wines have diverged in tastes, becoming sweeter and drier gaining wides-spread recognition.
In general, the wines from this region are quite light and fruity. Wines like Reisling tend to be quite acidic, while the Gewurztraminer tends to be very sweet and served with desserts. There is also a crémant (sparkling wine) from Alsace that is quite popular.
Buy a bottle of Alsace Reisling here.
The historical province of Beaujolais, which is today part of Bourgogne (Burgundy), produces some of the most exported wines in the world. The Beaujolais is usually a light red wine made principally from Gamay grapes.
The most famous of the Beaujolais wines is, of course, the Beaujolais Nouveau. If you have been in France on the 3rd Thursday of November, you will have seen the signs announcing that the “Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!” (meaning “the Beaujolais Nouveau has arrived”). It is a young wine, and not always very good, but the tradition endures.
There are also 10 types of Beaujolais Cru, with Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly being the most well known. The wines have an aroma of plums, strawberries, and red currents. The wine is meant to be imbibed when it is young.
Beaujolais wines also come in rosé and blanc (white), but it is the reds that are the most popular.
Buy a bottle of Beaujolais Wine here.
With some of the most popular red wines in the world, Bordeaux is a wine region to be reckoned with. However, in Bordeaux, a good bottle of wine will be named after the château/domaine it is produced at, not the type of grape.
For example, the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec are actually grapes, after which quite a few different wines are named. This is why those wines can be produced in France, the United States, Australia, etc. and all called by the same name.
But a Bordeaux bottle of wine will have names of the area and the producer like Mèdoc, Margaux, Pauillac, Pomerol, and Saint Emilion which are all high-end red wines. These are all areas within Bordeaux with their own AOC appellations.
Pauillac and Margaux (which are both part of Mèdoc) have some of the finest grand cru wines in the world. These wines age well, and so are kept for long periods of time, greatly increasing their value. They tend to be high in tannins and have more fruity tones like cherry, currant, and blackberry.
Buy a Bordeaux Wine Classic Gift set here.
Along with Bordeaux, the other big-name in French wines is the Bourgogne (Burgundy) region. It has the highest number of AOCs in France. Red wines from Burgundy are usually made from pinot noir grapes, while white Burgundy wines made from chardonnay grapes.
Until 2017, all Burgundy wines were AOC/AOP wines, with Vin de Pays being a new appellation for this region. There are 5 main areas in Burgundy including Chablis, Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune, Côte Chalonnaise and Mâcon.
Chablis (white wine) is the most famous name we tend to hear from Burgundy, and but Côte de Beaune also has an equivalent 7 white grand crus in the area.
For reds, Côte de Nuits has 24 grand crus, mostly pinot noir reds that are some of the most expensive wines in the world.
The Pouilly Fuissé is a type of wine from Maçon, which often gets mixed up with the Pouilly Fumé from the Loire Valley. The Pouilly Fuissé is made from the Chardonnay grape (rather than the Fumé’s Sauvignon blanc grape).
Buy a Burgundy Classic Wine Gift set here.
Only champagne produced in the Champagne region of France, near the city of Reims, is allowed to be called Champagne AOC, giving it exclusive status. The production process is nonetheless similar to other French sparkling wines and crémants.
In essence, a bottle of champagne is a blend of different wines, with the fermentation occurring directly in the bottle under seal. You can learn more about the 8 different types and 6 different classifications of champagne that there are based on:
- on soil
- grapes used
- savoir-faire of the Champagne house
Champagne Brut is the most common type of champagne (over 80%), while Champagne Préstige Cuvée is the best of the best. There is also champagne rosé and other varieties, depending on the type of grapes used and the production process.
Buy a Champagne Gift set here.
6. Côtes du Rhône
Côtes du Rhône wines have become famous because there are a lot of them, and you will likely easily find a few at your local grocery store. On either side of the Rhône river in the south of France, they usually use a majority of Grenache, Syrah, and Viognier grapes. The region stretches from Vienne in the north to Avignon in the south, with red, white, and rosé wines.
The vineyards here have existed since Roman times, using age-old techniques that have existed since then. The appellations used in this area are Côtes du Rhône, Côtes du Rhône Village, and Côtes du Rhône Cru. A favorite in the area is the Chateauneuf du Pape wines which have strong raspberry and plummy fruit flavors.
Buy a bottle of Côtes du Rhône wine here.
The Languedoc-Roussillon area in the south of France (around Toulouse, Montpellier, and Carcassonne) doesn’t have a lot of wines, preferring to concentrate on quality over quantity. It does however have the oldest wine in the world, the Blanquette-de-Limoux, which is a sparkling wine that is even older than champagne. (The story from the Limoux side is that a monk from Limoux gave the recipe to the monks from Champagne, but this has not been proven.)
Other big names in the area are the Fitou which is a red wine, and the Corbières which comes in red, white, and rosé. These are mid-range wines of decent quality (and average price tags!)
Buy a bottle of Languedoc wine here.
8. Loire Valley
The Loire valley may be more famous for its châteaux than its wines, but that is not to say there are not some very good wines in this area.
The biggest names from this area are the Sancerre and Chinon AOC, which both come in red, white and rosé.
There is also the white wine Pouilly Fumé, which as mentioned above, is made from sauvignon blanc grape is often confused with Burgundy’s Pouilly Fuissé which is made from the Chardonnay grape. The Fumé has a very fresh dry taste, compared to the Fuissé’s floral nutty taste.
Other great wines from this area are the Anjou Rosé and the Muscadet blanc.
The area around Aix-en-Provence is quite famous for its light rosés. The biggest names in the area are Côtes de Provence and Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence and Baux-de-Provence. They all come in rosé, red and white, but it is the rosés that are the most popular on a sunny hot day in Provence!
Right next to Bordeaux is the tiny Sud-Ouest (South-West) wine region in France, which covers the areas around the Dordogne and Garonne rivers. The biggest names in this area are the Cahors, Bergerac, and Gaillac. These are mostly red wines, although you will find the odd rosé or white.
The grape that is common in this area is Malbec which used to be widely grown in the Burgundy area but which has recently been losing ground to the Merlot which has grown in popularity.
Malbec has a rich aromatic taste with notes of prunes, blackberries, and blueberries and is an ingredient in the Cahors AOC.
There are a lot of other smaller vineyards and AOCs all across France, this is the self-proclaimed capital of wine after all. Other small wine regions in France include Charentes, Corsica, Jura, and Savoie. Even the town of Paris has a small vineyard in Montmartre.
I think I’m ready for a glass of wine after all that! But remember as the French government says “The abuse of alcohol is dangerous for your health. Consume with moderation.“
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