As Julius Caesar concluded two thousand years ago, France is a pretty good place to grow wine grapes. Through trial and error, and after centuries of careful cultivation and meticulous record-keeping, the French learned how to make excellent wine. Even their indigenous grapes — Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Chardonnay — have been exported to all corners of the world.
Wine connoisseurs generally accept that France produces many “best of” types:
Champagnes are the best sparkling wines.
Alsace produces the ultimate Gewürztraminer.
The Pauillac and Margaux districts of Bordeaux produce the finest Cabernet Sauvignon–based wines.
Merlot best displays its qualities in the Bordeaux regions of Saint-Emilion and Pomerol.
The grand cru vineyards of the Côte de Beaune produce the finest Chardonnays.
Some of the most refined Sauvignon Blanc–based wines come from Sancerre.
Chenin Blanc is in its glory along the Loire River.
Sauternes is widely acclaimed as the world's finest dessert wine.
The prototype of Pinot Noir comes from the vineyards of Côte de Nuits in Burgundy.
The list above is hardly exhaustive. Other French wine regions may not have the cachet of those listed above, but their wines are equally coveted and can offer real bargains for wine lovers.
French Wine Law
If you purchase a bottle of wine in the United States, your first thought is the grape. If you purchase a bottle of wine in France, your first thought is the region. If the average American wine consumer wants a Chardonnay, it doesn't matter whether it comes from Santa Barbara County or Mendocino County, but for the average French consumer, a Corton-Charlemagne is more highly prized than a Pouilly-Fuissé.
Both of these are Chardonnay wines, by the way, and both are technically from Burgundy. The Corton-Charlemagne, however, is from a very small grand cru vineyard recognized for its outstanding quality. Pouilly-Fuissé wines come from decent vineyards, but not grand cru vineyards, which give the wines less caché. This cultural feature should be no surprise, since regional terroir is the most important consideration for both a French winery and a French wine consumer.
Given the way French wine law is enforced by the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO), a government agency, the gold standard for a French estate is to be able to call its wine AOC (Appellation d'Origine Controllee). An AOC wine must originate from vineyards located in a precisely demarcated area and meet the most stringent government quality standards not limited to the following:
The grape variety or varieties that can be used to make the wines
Grape sugar levels at harvest or date of harvest
The maximum weight of grapes that can be harvested per unit area
How vineyards are planted and managed
How the wine is made
Minimum and/or maximum alcoholic strength of the wine
If an estate falls outside an AOC, it is not necessarily the end of the world. The quality perception of the estate's wines may diminish, but there are three other quality categories that may apply to the wine.
Vins Délimité de Qualité Supérieure (VDQS) — a second set of standards for wines in areas not covered by AOC law. Although a notch down in quality, VDQS is still a reliable government guarantee of quality.
Vin de pays — a third, and slightly more relaxed set of rules that regulate country wines. The phrase is always followed by a place name — be it larger (region) or smaller (community).
Vin de table or vin ordinaire — table wines whose place names are “France.” This is the lowest category of wine in the French system. These wines are rarely sold commercially.
Within France, each region has its own system of organization and classification, and each region is known for producing specific wines.
Bordeaux, an industrial city in southwestern France, is the center of the world's most famous wine region. Several types of wine are produced there:
Dry white wines — blends of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon
Sweet dessert wines — blends of Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, and Muscadelle afflicted with Botrytis cinerea (noble rot)
Medium-bodied red wines — blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot (Some subregions produce wine made primarily from Cabernet, while Merlot is the dominant grape in other areas.)
The most important subregions of Bordeaux are Sauternes (famous for its dessert wines), Pomerol (known for Merlot-dominant reds), Saint-Émilion (more Merlot-based reds), Entre-Deux-Mers (light whites), Graves (home of both fine dry whites and Cabernet-based reds), and Médoc (Cabernet-based reds).
Médoc is probably the most famous of the Bordeaux subregions and has communes within its borders that also qualify for village appellation status: Saint-Estèphe, Saint-Julien, Margaux, Pauillac, Listrac, and Moulis.
The 1855 Classification
Back in 1855 Napoleon III went to the wine brokers of Bordeaux and asked them to rate the red wines of Médoc. This they did by looking at the price history of the wines — the operating theory being that the most expensive wines would be the best. The brokers came up with the 60 “best” wine estates in the Médoc plus one in Graves and then assessed their quality on a scale of one through five, with one being the highest rank. The four chateaux initially granted top status were dubbed premier crus, or “first growths.” This ranking became known as the 1855 Classification.
The châteaux of Sauternes were also ranked in the classification of 1855. Eleven châteaux have the premier cru designation, with one additional producer being given “super” status. Château d'Yquem was designated premier cru supérieur (“superior first growth”).
The four châteaux that were first awarded this classification are Lafite Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, and Haut-Brion. In 1973 Château Mouton-Rothschild was upgraded to premier cru status. You'll see “Premier Grand Cru Classé” on their labels.
With a total of only 61 châteaux listed in the original classification, thousands of other producers in Médoc were left out. In 1932 another classification, cru bourgeois, was created to include the best of them. Later, the Bordeaux appellations of St. Emilion and Graves created their own hierarchies to showcase the quality of their wines.
In Bordeaux, the wine estates are called châteaux. In Burgundy, They're called domaines. That's just your first clue that the two regions are figuratively (and geographically) miles apart. While Bordeaux is dominated by large producers, Burgundy has thousands of small growers who often own only very small pieces of vineyard land. For example, the famous 125-acre Clos de Vougeot vineyard has more than eighty owners.
If anything is certain in Burgundy, it is that red wines are made from the Pinot Noir grape and white wines are made from Chardonnay. One wrinkle is Beaujolais in the southern part of the region, which is known for light and fruity reds made from the Gamay grape.
The French love for classifying wines is supremely evident in Burgundy. Whereas premier cru is top dog in Bordeaux, grand cru (“great growth”) is the epitome of greatness in Burgundy. The designation is reserved for specific vineyards that, based on their location and long-term track record, produce the best wines. The labels will bear only the name of the vineyard — not the name of any village.
Traveling from north to south through the heart of France, you pass through the subregions of Burgundy in sequence:
Chablis — known for its dry white wines
Côte de Nuits — home of the most noteworthy reds
Côte de Beaune — producer of both reds and whites, but known especially for great whites
Côte Chalonnaise — regarded as a lesser region but still home to good reds and whites
Mâcon — known for whites that offer excellent values
Beaujolais — home to the red Gamay grape
Role of Négociants
Négociant is French for “merchant” or “dealer.” Traditionally, négociants bought wines, blended and bottled them, and shipped them. They could take wines from small producers and market them on a more commercially viable scale. More recently, their roles have expanded to buying grapes and making wine. They represent wines of all quality levels — including grand cru.
Large négociant houses blend wines to produce their own house styles. Some of these well-known houses include Louis Jadot, Joseph Drouhin, Georges Duboeuf, and Louis Latour.
Continuing south from Burgundy, you enter the Rhone Valley — home to red and white wines vastly different from those in Bordeaux and Burgundy. The northern and southern regions of the Rhone are distinctly different in terms of their wines. Northern reds are Syrah-based and worthy of aging. You'll run into names like Côte Rôtie, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas, and St. Joseph. White wines bearing these names are made from Viognier (like Condrieu) or a blend of Marsanne and Roussane (like Hermitage).
Most Rhone wines come from the south — in the form of Côtes du Rhone. The primary grape variety is Grenache. The Southern Rhone is also famous for its Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which can be made with as many as thirteen grape varieties — both red and white (although Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Syrah predominate).
Châteuneuf-du-Pape means “new home of the pope.” It dates back to the fourteenth century when the papal court was relocated to nearby Avignon and a summer palace was built in a village just north of the city (now known as Châteauneuf-du-Pape).
Southwest of Châteauneuf-du-Pape is Tavel, home to France's best known and most distinguished rosés. They're dry and full-bodied and have an international reputation.
The Loire Valley stretches across northwest France, following the Loire River. The area has a reputation for its non-Chardonnay white wines. The most important ones are:
Muscadet — a light, dry wine uniquely named not after its region of origin but after its grape variety
Vouvray — made from the Chenin Blanc grape into wines that can range from bone dry to off-dry to sparkling
Pouilly-Fumé — straight Sauvignon Blanc made in a rich style
Sancerre — unblended Sauvignon Blanc in a lighter, drier, more lively style than the Pouilly-Fumé
It's easy to confuse the names Pouilly-Fumé and Pouilly-Fuissé, but they're two different wines from two entirely different areas in France. Pouilly-Fuissé is a Chardonnay from the Mâcon region of Burgundy and is a much more full-bodied wine.
Historically, Alsace (the area across the Rhine River from Germany) has either been part of France or part of Germany. Since World War I, it's belonged to France. Because of its background, Alsace has much in common with Germany, including the grapes grown within its borders.
The packaging of Alsatian wines is unique from the rest of France in that the grape variety may be displayed on the label. You'll never see Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot listed prominently on bottles of Bordeaux wine, but things are different in Alsace. Regulations in Alsace require that a wine carrying a varietal name contain 100 percent of that grape. The most important varietals are:
A small amount of Pinot Noir (the only grape permitted for red wine) is grown in Alsace and is often used for rosé wines.