France is home to more of the world’s most highly regarded wines than any other country. It is a matter of great debate whether this situation is the result of a greater interest and dedication to producing great wines or simply better terroir. In truth, France has a climate that is particularly favorable for wine growing due in part to the strong influence of the Gulf Stream.
Southern France: Languedoc and Rousillon
The southern French wine growing regions of Languedoc and Roussillon provide rich terrain for fine wine discoveries. Some real gems are available, especially if you like hearty reds made from southern French grapes such as Syrah, Grenache, Carignane and Cinsault. They share much in common with the Syrah-based reds of their big neighbor to the east, the Rhine Valley. There’s also a sprinkling of distinctive whites, such as Picpoul, Marsanne, Roussane, and Viognier. Fresh rosés made from Syrah and Grenache grapes are being rediscovered in the USA. If you look hard enough, solid values and great wines abound in this vast region. Until recently, Languedoc-Roussillon was the only major wine growing area in France not to have its own regional appellation. This ended recently when AOC Languedoc was officially launched, after more than a decade in the works. The region’s growers and winemakers hope the move will boost the area’s image and reputation.
Searching for the best of Languedoc and Roussillon is challenging because of its geographic diversity and size, as well as the fact that a regional style has yet to evolve. There’s no straightforward quality hierarchy, as is common in many other French regions, like Burgundy and Bordeaux. The sheer vastness of the southern vineyard realm-with more than 700,000 acres under vine means that there’s still a lot of chaff amongst the wheat, so it’s important to choose wisely. The Languedoc has prime conditions for grape growing, benefiting from a mild Mediterranean climate and a range of interesting soils that provide diverse terroirs for quality wine production. The best wines are made in the uplands and hilly terrain that rise above the broad coastal plain, which carries the Coteaux du Languedoc appellation; quality districts include Minervois, Corbires, and St.-Chinian.
There are five appellations in the Languedoc and Roussillon region. Corbires, Fitou, Minervois, Saint Chinian and Costires de Nimes. Minervois takes its name from the village of Minerve, a historical place in the region, just North of Corbires. The first vines there were introduced by Roman legionaries and today, Minervois wines are mostly full body reds. The wines are well structured and elegant when young, yet quite tannic and silky after 2 or 3 years in the cellar. The white wines are dry and lively while the rosé wines, which are round and fruity, should be drunk young.
Corbires is one of the largest wine appellations in France. To distinguish the wines, Corbires is divided into 11 terroirs including Sigean, Lézignan, Boutenac and Lagrasse. Red wines are rich and, spicy, full bodied and fruity. Although competing now with Coteaux du Languedoc and Saint Chinian, Corbires wines thrive due to their good value.
Two production zones span the Fitou vineyards – the hillsides to the south east of Corbires and the coast of Fitou itself. Spiced with flint, bay leaves and cloves, the wines need 4 or 5 years to reach their aromatic potential. The wines of Saint-Chinian cover 3,000 hectares of at the foot of the Montagne-Noire. The collective taste is fruity, soft, rich and often full-bodied. The flavor lasts long on the palate and is full of character
The Languedoc is not the only major wine growing region in the south of France, but it is the most important in its depth and breadth of winemaking. Complementing the Languedoc, the Midi — Provence lies to the east and Roussillon sits atop the Spanish border.
Languedoc and Roussillon wines are still very much works in progress. At their best, they are well-structured, full-flavored, and meaty bottlings, most of which show restrained oak influences. The wines are generally well-priced and are suitable for outdoor summer entertaining and a perfect match for a wide variety of cuisines year round. With the new system in place for the regions own appellation one should look to this region for new and exiting flavors.
With 7,000 chateaux producing 850 million bottles a year, Bordeaux is probably the most well-know wine region in France, and the largest wine-growing region in the world, producing approximately one third of France’s good quality wine (AOC, Crus Bourgeois, Crus Classés). Bordeaux is comprised of five main districts: Medoc, St. Emilion, Pomerol, Graves, and Sauternes. While most people associate a Bordeaux wine with a classic red blend, the region does produce some respected white wines as well.Located in the southwest of France, near the Atlantic coast, the region benefits from a warmer climate tempered by the ocean. Half of the grapes grown in Bordeaux are Merlot, followed by Cabernet-Sauvignon (26%) and Cabernet-Franc (10%). Most red Bordeaux wines include a blend of all three grapes. The dry white wines, grown and produced in Graves, are made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes, along with Sauvignon Gris. Sauternes, the sweeter whites, are made with Sémillon, Sauvignon and some Muscadelle. Bordeaux has its own rating system, dating back to 1855 by the request of Napolean III, and has not changed much today (except for the addition of St. Emilion, added 130 years later, followed by Graves, when the region began producing white wine). The classifications were grouped by region, and are mostly unchanged today.
Located in the south of France between Aix en Provence and the Rhone Valley all the way to Nice (the Riviera), Provence is best known for its fruity rosé wines, which account for about half of all the country’s rosé production. The best known is the Cotes de Provence appellation, while Coteaux d’Aix and Coteaux Varois are also considered to be excellent. The region also produces respected dry white wines, red wines and sweet wines. Red grapes grown in Provence include Grenache, Syrah, Carigan, Cinsault, and Mourv’dre, while whites include Ugni Blanc, Rolle Clairette, and Grenache Blanc. Provence’s wine-making history dates back to Roman times, and are even noted in Julius Caesar’s writings.
The Loire Valley is a strip of France running from the middle western edge to below Paris with wineries located all along the Loire River which runs through the region. The region is known for its white wines, growing Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc, which account for 75% of the region’s production. The two types most recognized are Sancerre and Vouvray, as well as Pouilly Fume, Touraine, Saumur, Chinon, Bourgueil and more. Wines produced in the Loire Valley are mostly dry whites, but semi-dry, sweet and sparkling whites are also produced, as well as rosé, a specialty of Anjou.Historically, Loire Valley vineyards were monasteries, with wines produced by monks. However, legend says that Saint Martin first made wine in the Loire Valley in 380 AD.
Also known as Bourgogne, Burgundy produces some of the best-known French wines, including Chablis, Beaujolais, Macon, Cote de Beune and Cote d’Or. Located in eastern France (just below Paris), the Burgundy region is very diverse, producing many different wines. For example, the region produces notable Chablis, made solely with Chardonnay grapes, while the renowned Beaujolais Nouveau comes from the fruity Gamay grape.Burgundy is divided into several districts: Chablis, Cote d’Or (sub-divided into Cote de Nuits and Cote de Beaune), Cote Chalonnaise, M’connais and Beaujolais. The main grapes grown are Pinot Noir for red wine and Chardonnay for white wine.
About 600 Burgundy vineyards merit the appellation “Premier Cru.” The name of the village, followed by the name of the vineyard, in the same lettering, appears on the label of a “Premier Cru.” Thirty-three of the region’s vineyards hold the “Grand Cru” distinction, considered the top of the line, including: Chambertin, Clos Vougeot, Corton-Charlemagne, Montrachet, Musigny and La Tache. Only the name of the vineyard appears on the label of Bourgogne’s “Grand Cru” wines.
Cotes du Rhone
Cotes du Rhone is likely one of France’s most diverse regions, producing several distinct types of wines, including full-body reds in the north (Cote Rotie) and in the south (Chateauneuf du Pape) to exceptional dry fruity whites in the south (Condrieu and Chateau Grillet) to medium-body fruity red wines (Crozes, Hermitage).This region begins just south of Lyon and follows the Rhone river 125 miles to Avignon. The main grapes include Grenache, Syrah and Carignan for red wine, and Clairette, Ugni Blanc and Grenache Blanc for white wine. While over 75% of the region’s wines are red, the Viognier white (produced in the northern part of the region) is one of France’s most distinctive. A select number of wines qualify for the Cotes du Rhone Villages appellation, a select group of which can also add the name of the village to the label.
Although many sparkling wines produced around the world are called champagne, the only true champagnes are those produced in this region of France. It is the country’s northernmost wine-producing region, extending from about 75 miles east of Paris along the Marne River to Epernay.While 250 million bottles of champagne are produced in this region annually (a vast majority of which is sold between Christmas and New Years Day), Champagne also produces some traditional reds (from Coteaux Champenois, using a pinot noir) and rosés (Rosé des Ricey, a favorite of King Louis XIV). Champagne is divided into three main wine regions: Montagne de Reims, Cote des Blancs and Marne Valley, where 300 established wineries, known as “crus,” produce Champagne.
There are two different categories of Champagne.Vintage (highest quality) are produced during certain years with exceptionally good production, and feature the year on the label (with the added distinction of Premium vintage for particularly exceptional years). Non-vintage, which accounts for more than 80% of the region’s production, includes a mixture of different harvests from different places, which mature for 2 to 3 years before going to market.
Champagne was invented in the 1700’s when an error in the wine storing process caused bubbling. A monk named Dom Pérignon, who initially attempted to remove the bubbles, developed a process of blending and clarifying the beverage that became popular with French aristocracy, and launched it as a popular celebratory drink.
The Alsace region is separated from the rest of France by the Vosages mountains, and borders Germany. Due to its location, Alsacien wines are more German in character than most French wines, and are even named by the grapes (as is done in Germany) rather than the region (like the rest of France). The main wines grown in Alsace, 90% of which are whites, are also found in Germany, including Gewurztraminer, Muscat, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Sylvaner and Chardonnay, although Alsacien wines tend to be spicier than their German counterparts. Twenty percent of Alsace’s vineyards grow Pinot Blanc, also known as Klevner, which produces a dry white wine with a fruity aroma. The wines of Alsace have earned both an Alsace AOC and a Grand Cru AOC distinction. Wine growing in Alsace dates back to the Roman conquest.