The French wine section at my local wine shops is always a favorite. So much so that I wrote a short book on the subject (Decoding French Wine: A Beginner’s Guide to Enjoying the Fruits of the French Terroir). What follows is a quick summary of many of the French wine regions that I covered in my previous book in more depth.
French wine is categorized by its region and each region (or appellation) is allowed to produce wines containing certain grapes specific to the French wine growing standards. For this reason you typically won’t find French wines labeled as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot but instead by where the grapes were produced. In addition, French wines are often blends of these different varietals. This is why many wine shops will have a whole section simply called France.
If you had to boil it down, the big areas to try are Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne and Rhone. Let’s look at what you can expect from each one.
Bordeaux, perhaps more than any other wine region on the planet, is known for its world class wines that fetch into the thousands of dollars per bottle depending on the vintage. The reason for this is the perfect climate, the gravel and limestone soil and generations of wine experience. The good news is that you can find excellent Bordeaux wines at fair prices and the last decade has seen a string of excellent vintages that you should be snatching up.
When you visit your local wine shop or look at French Bordeaux on a menu, you will want to note three things: the year, the Chateau and the appellation within Bordeaux.
Bordeaux is divided into two main regions: left bank, meaning west of the Garonne River, and right bank, which is east of the river. You will get more Cabernet Sauvignon heavy wines on the left bank side and more Merlot based wines on the right bank side.
Bordeaux wines are reds and whites. While the red wines usually consist of a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec, the white wines will consist of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc.
Here are some of the top areas of the left bank to familiarize yourself with:
– St Julien
– St Estephe
– Graves (Pessac‐Leognan and Sauternes)
And from the right bank:
Also, as I briefly mentioned above, we’ve had some great years recently for Bordeaux wines. Try to find some from 2009 and 2010. Good Bordeaux also ages well, so don’t be afraid to dip into an oldie if you have the chance. I still have a couple from 2000 that are drinking really nice right now. 2005 was awesome. On the more recent side of things, ’14 and ’15 are nice vintages as well.
We covered Burgundy briefly in the Pinot Noir section, but Burgundy also produces some excellent Chardonnay, which leads to the designations Red Burgundy and White Burgundy. Easy enough, except that Burgundy also includes wines from Beaujolais made from the Gamay grape. Let’s break down each of these briefly.
Red Burgundy: as mentioned previously, start by looking for wines from Cote D’Or. The best way to explore this area is to always try something new. If you do, you will start to develop a taste for what you like and an understanding of how the areas within Cote D’Or differ from one another.
Beaujolais: an area of Burgundy that you might be familiar with given the incredible retail marketing effort for the release of these wines around Thanksgiving every year. Beaujolais is made from the Gamay grape, and in most incarnations is meant to be consumed young (often times in the year it’s released). But if you venture out a bit and try some of the Cru Beaujolais, they get quite good.
Chablis: a very important region of Burgundy and a great white wine with a variety of meals. Chablis is made from Chardonnay, and has a little more of a new world taste to it compared to the other white burgundies. Chablis remains an excellent white wine choice for almost any occasion and like many of the other great French wines, we are starting to see more and more bottles carried in the stores here in the US.
People often associate champagne with any sparkling wine, but Champagne is an area of France and the only “true Champagne” originates from here. Wines from Champagne are typically made with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and they carry with them designations such as Prestige Cuvee (the best from the winemaker), Blanc de noirs (made from black or red grapes, but still white, no skins), Blanc de blanc (made from Chardonnay), and Rose (some Pinot Noir used). You’ll see these designations on the label and they provide a guide for what to expect on the inside. Champagne is really gaining in popularity in the US in the last few years since it complements just about any meal (not just a special occasion).
The Rhone Valley in Southern France produces stellar wines using many different grapes than are found in other parts of France. In fact, in the popular and renowned Chateauneuf‐du‐Pape region, blends can utilize 13 different grapes. Rhone wines stand out to me because they exude the beauty of the French land, with old vine heritage, and they are consistently exceptional values from the low end ($10) all the way to the high end ($300+). They are incredibly food friendly too.
Northern Rhone is noted for its Syrah which is the primary red grape that is grown in the area. Interestingly enough to many US wine consumers, the winemakers in Northern Rhone will occasionally blend their Syrah with small parts of white grapes, including Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne. Some of the appellations of Northern Rhone to keep an eye out for are Hermitage, Crozes‐Hermitage, Cote Rotie and Saint Joseph.
Southern Rhone has a bit warmer climate and in addition to Syrah, you will also see blends with Grenache (dominantly), Mourvedre, Cinsault and Carignan. One of the key appellations in Southern Rhone that you will want to commit to memory is Cotes du Rhone, a staple of the area, lots of Grenache dominated blends and typically a safe bet at almost any price point. Other notable areas include Cotes du Rhone Villages, Gigondas (great values), Cotes du Ventoux, Vacqueyras, Chateauneuf‐du‐Pape (a personal favorite), Rasteau and Costieres de Nimes.
Rhone offers some great white wines too blended from grapes such as Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne and Grenache Blanc with some lesser known grapes such as Ugni Blanc, Bourboulenc, Picpoul, and Clairette.
Your French Wine Check List:
– Left bank red Bordeaux from Margaux, St Julien, St Estephe, Pauillac, Medoc and Pessac-Leognan (try each one)
– Right bank red Bordeaux from Pomerol, Saint-Emilion and Fronsac
– White Bordeaux (Bordeaux Blanc blend of Semillion and Sauvignon Blanc)
– Dessert wine (sweet) from Sauternes
– Red Burgundy from Cote D’Or
– White Burgundy from Chablis
– Beaujolais (various options here, but try to find a Cru Beaujolais too)
– French champagne
– Red wine from Cotes du Rhone
– Red wine from Chateauneuf-du-Pape
– White Rhone wine
Fast Fact: The French wine-making tradition traces its roots back to the sixth century B.C., when the area that is today southern France was settled by Greek colonists.