A basic introductory guide to French wine
France is the Mecca of wine, the country everyone looks to when searching for quality and tradition. Its vineyards are rich and varied, as is the style of its wines. From Bordeaux and Burgundy, to Champagne, through Provence or the Rhone and Loire valleys, France seems infinite.
France and Italy fight annually for the title of the world's largest wine producer (45 million hectolitres/year). The total vineyard area is about 900,000 hectares, of which just over half is under an AOC (appellation d'origine contrôlée). The production of red grapes is almost double that of white grapes, something that is reflected in the average French consumer, who openly opts for red wine. France is still the leader in domestic consumption with around 50% of occasional consumers (once or twice a week) and one of Italy's biggest rivals in terms of exports.
Some 250 grape varieties are grown in France, although 95% of total production is based on a select group of just 40, with illustrious names such as merlot, grenache and syrah present in a large number of the country's 450 AOCs.
Bordeaux and Burgundy are the most renowned red wine regions in France. But they are not the only ones: the Rhône Valley, Languedoc-Roussillon or the South-West region are also producers of excellent red wines.
Located in the southwest of the country, Bordeaux bases the essence of its great red wines on two main varieties, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The former reigns supreme on what is known as the right bank (Pomerol and Saint-Émilion) and produces some of the most voluptuous and seductive wines in France, under the Saint-Êmilion Grand Cru appellation. While to the left of the Gironde estuary is the most prized Cabernet Sauvignon wine region in the world: the Médoc, made up of such historic and renowned appellations as Margaux, Saint-Julien, Pauillac and Saint-Estèphe. Bordeaux wines are renowned for their balance, elegance and superb ageing ability. They are medium-bodied wines, with aromas of redcurrants, pencil lead and spices. Choosing between a wine from the right or left bank is not easy, so here are two great examples for you to judge for yourself: Château de Sales (Pomerol) and Château d'Issan (Margaux).
Located north of Lyon, between Mâcon and Dijon, Burgundy is the paradise of pinot noir, the most loved and hated red grape in the world. It produces subtle, elegant and suggestive reds like no other, but its cultivation is fraught with difficulties. Undoubtedly, the area par excellence for pinot noir is in the Côte de Nuits, between Nuits-St-Georges and Marsannay, in the north of the region. There, in tiny vineyards cared for with extreme meticulousness, the best pinot wines are made, an ode to depth and finesse. Each village, each plot, exhibits a particular character, even though their wines are made from the same grapes and with similar systems. Any good Burgundy wine lover knows, for example, that a red from Gevrey-Chambertin is often more intense than one from Chambolle-Musigny; try comparing a Drouhin Gevrey-Chambertin 2018 and a Dujac Fils & Père Chambolle-Musigny. Some of the most expensive and coveted wines on the planet, such as those from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti are produced in Burgundy. They are wines whose strength is hidden behind the transparencies they show in the glass, whose spicy, floral and earthy aromas acquire a halo of mystifying magic. The Côte de Beaune, further south, is also home to great red wines such as Pommard or Volnay.
Located between Provence and Beaujolais, the Rhône Valley hides memorable red wines. In the south, Châteauneuf-du-Pape stands out, with its intense multi-varietal reds that often combine a handful of different grapes, mainly grenache, syrah, cinsault and mourvèdre; Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rouge is a benchmark. These are wines with strong aromas and intense minerality, juicy and spicy. In the north of the region, we must stop at Hermitage or Côte-Rotie to find the best examples of red wines with the Syrah grape as a base. Their aromas of redcurrant, violet and chocolate, or even pepper and smoke, make them a favourite with all lovers of this multi-faceted variety. Jaboulet - La Maison Bleu Hermitage and Chapoutier Côte-Rôtie Les Bécasses offer us two great examples of this northern part of the Rhône Valley from two of its most renowned winemakers.
Ubicado entre la Provenza y el Beaujolais, el Valle del Ródano esconde memorables vinos tintos. Al sur, destaca Châteauneuf-du-Pape, con sus intensos tintos plurivarietales en los que suelen combinarse un buen puñado de uvas distintas, principalmente grenache, syrah, cinsault y mourvèdre (monastrell); Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rouge es un referente. Son vinos con aromas recios y de intensa mineralidad, jugosos y especiados. Al norte de la región, debemos detenernos en Hermitage o Côte-Rotie para encontrar los mejores ejemplos de tintos con la uva syrah como base. Sus perfumes de grosellas, violeta y chocolate, incluso de pimienta y humo, los sitúan entre los preferidos de todos los aficionados a tan poliédrica variedad. Chapoutier Monier de la Sizeranne Hermitage y Chapoutier Côte-Rôtie Les Bécasses nos ofrecen dos grandes ejemplos de esta parte septentrional del Valle del Ródano de la mano de dos de sus elaboradores más reputados.
Situated in the south of the country, Languedoc-Roussillon borders the Mediterranean, from Provence to the Pyrenees, reaching inland to more rugged terrain. The volume of production is very important and the qualities and styles are very variable, but if you know how to separate the wheat from the chaff, it is possible to find true wine treasures in these southern lands, often at much lower prices than those of their northern neighbours. Le Clos des Fées, Domaine Gauby or Domaine Lafage are some of the must-try names, producing powerful and mineral reds, but not lacking in elegance.
French white wine is one of the most reputed and desired by every good wine lover. Burgundy is the most prestigious and renowned area, but there are other great classic regions such as Alsace and the Loire Valley, where we can also find wines with an enormous personality.
The best white wines of Burgundy are found in the southern part of the Côte d'Or, in the sub-region known as Côte de Beaune (the northern part of the Côte d'Or corresponds to the red sub-region Côte de Nuits). The vineyard extends from Ladoix-Serrigny in the north to the Maranges region in the south and is famous for its great white wines, such as Corton-Charlemagne, Montrachet or Meursault. This is the land of chardonnay, of fresh and mineral white wines with all the creaminess that comes from ageing in oak barrels. Good white Burgundy wine ages for years, even decades, and seduces with its perfumes of quince and truffle, butter and toast; wines like Bouchard Meursault 1er Cru Perrières or Louis Jadot Puligny Montrachet prove it. If, on the other hand, we love chardonnay but we don't get along with the aromas and touches derived from a long ageing in new oak, we can travel even further north of Burgundy, to the Chablis region. Some of the most vertical and profound white wines in the world are produced there, wines with high acidity and a strong terroir character, such as La Chablisienne Premier Cru Fourchaume. Good Chablis is marked by aromas of lime and green apple, hints of brine and brie rind.
This land bordering Germany is the ideal place for those looking for aromatic and full-bodied wines. Despite its northern location, Alsace enjoys moderate rainfall and more sunshine than its location might lead one to expect. Riesling, gewürztraminer and pinot blanc share the white grape vineyard almost equally, with pinot gris lagging somewhat behind. Riesling and gewürztraminer are the most aromatic and floral grapes, while pinot blanc and pinot gris have more subtle aromas. Zind Humbrecht Riesling Clos Saint Urbain and Josmeyer Grand Cru Hengst Gewürztraminer are truly exciting.
Much of this region in the northwest of France is devoted to growing Sauvignon Blanc, with two names leading the way: the appellations of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. The wines of Pouilly-Fumé (or Blanc Fumé de Pouilly) are more mineral, broader and a little less vibrant and aromatic than those of Sancerre; they are wines capable of showing a smoky character irresistible even to the advanced wine lover. Both exhibit delicious perfumes of grass and grapefruit and have the ability to age gracefully, although it is true that the wines of Sancerre (Comte Lafond) are approachable from their youth while those of Pouilly-Fumé (Saget Terres Blanches Pouilly-Fumé) require a little more time in bottle.
There are many regions in France that produce high quality rosé wines, but none as acclaimed and imitated as Provence.
From a few kilometres west of Marseille to Nice, the Provençal vineyards are impregnated with the aromas of the Mediterranean Sea and benefit from a sky that the wind keeps clear. Grenache, syrah and cinsault are the main grapes, with mourvèdre and carignan also claiming some of the limelight. The most common style of rosé wine from Provence is the world-famous onion skin, named for its subtle colouring. Almost 90% of the wine produced in this region is rosé and its aromas of strawberries, peaches, flowers and lemon peel have made it the perfect accompaniment to salads, fish and seafood. Miraval Rosé, a subtle and elegant rosé wine, is one of the most sought-after wines from Provence.
Champagne is undoubtedly the French sparkling wine par excellence. There are many areas in France dedicated to the production of high quality sparkling wines, from the historic Blanquette de Limoux to the various crémants, but none of them can come close to the universal popularity of the AOC Champagne.
El champán o champagne es sin duda el vino espumoso francés por excelencia. Existen muchas zonas en el país galo dedicadas a la elaboracion de espumosos de gran calidad, desde la histórica blanquette de Limoux a los distintos crémant, pero ninguna de ellas consigue acercarse a la popularidad universal de la AOC Champagne.
This magical wine-growing region is located east of Paris and concentrates its production centres around historic towns such as Reims and Épernay. Its wines are made using the traditional method of secondary fermentation in the bottle from three main varieties: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. The Montagne de Reims region is known for its pinot noir, while the Marne Valley is famous for meunier and the Côte de Blancs for chardonnay. The combination of these three grapes with the different soils and microclimates of the region gives rise to various styles of sparkling wines, both white and rosé, which are always elegant. The predominant soil in Champagne is made of chalk, limestone and fossilised seashells, a combination that brings an incomparable elegance to the wines of the region. Champagne is a fresh and subtly perfumed wine, with aromas of apples and lemons, butter, almonds and toasted bread, usually obtained by blending grapes of different varieties and origins, as well as wines from different vintages (non-vintage). When all the grapes come from a single high quality vintage, the champagne is known as millésimé; if it is made exclusively from chardonnay grapes, it is called blanc de blancs, while if it is made exclusively from red grapes and vinified in white, it is called blanc de noirs. Gosset Grand Blanc de Blancs and André Clouet Grande Réserve Grand Cru are two fantastic options to enter the wonderful world of champagne.
Sweet and fortified wine
France is also a producer of memorable sweet and fortified wines. In the south, close to the Spanish border, we find the famous natural sweet wines, made from red grapes such as those of Banyuls or Maury, or from white grapes such as the perfumed and well-known muscats of Rivesaltes. However, the true king among French sweet and fortified wines are the wines from the appellations of Sauternes and Barsac in the Bordeaux region, superb botrytis wines that must be ranked among the best sweet wines in the world.
Made from a variable proportion of white grapes, mainly sémillon and sauvignon blanc, Sauternes wines are wines of botrytis (or noble rot), a type of sweet wine that owes its existence to a fungus, botrytis cinerea. In ideal environmental conditions, this fungus dehydrates the berry, consuming its watery part and, indirectly, concentrating both its sugar and acidity, resulting in very low yields. Nevertheless, the feel and perfume derived from a grape of such concentration allow some of the most desirable bottles of sweet wine on the planet to be made. A good sauternes, such as that of Château Rieussec, is capable of ageing for decades while still gaining complexity. Its perfume combines honeyed hints of dried apricots with hints of candied citrus, spices and ginger candy. One of the most popular pairings that every good food lover should try at least once in a lifetime is sauternes with foie gras, a fascinating play of contrasts and harmonious sensations