Among the many things that draw people to France, French wine is undoubtedly one of the best. The people of France have been winemakers for over two millennia, developing rich tradition and expertise along the way. Like with many fine things, there are myriad varieties of French wine, each one accompanied by its own unique history.
It is difficult to know where to begin on a foray into the world of French wine. This article takes a broad view of the history, variety, geography, and culture surrounding French wine in order to demystify this exciting and prestigious practice.
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A Brief History of French Wine
Wine production began in France centuries before it was named as such. In the 6th century BC, the Gauls developed a method for propagating and caring for grapevines that were unparalleled for its time. All throughout the middle ages, the vineyards of France and their yields were famed.
Before the French revolution, the aristocracy of France had cultivated vast vineyards. After the fall of the monarchy, those vineyards were turned over to the people as resources that would fuel the wine industry in France for centuries to come.
Despite significant tragedy in the form of pestilence and war, France maintained its status as one of the best wine producers in the world. They established the Appellation d’origine contrtrôlée (AOC), a strict system for classifying and protecting the products of French vineyards. This system is still in effect today, albeit having undergone reformations.
Today, France plays host to a booming wine trade and is the proud producer of many of the world’s finest wines. Some of the most internationally famous winemaking regions are in France, including Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Loire Valley.
Types of French Wine
France produces a massive variety of wines, from white, to red, to rose’, to champagne. Each of these wines is categorised according to the AOC. A bottle of French wine is usually marked with AOC lettering on the label to designate its pedigree.
A bottle of AOC wine has been produced according to strict guidelines and criteria that are controlled by a governing body. The parameters of being AOC compliant are rigid and specific. Only wine produced in certain regions under traditional methods make the cut.
This, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that all AOC wines are inherently superior to other French wines. By venturing outside of AOC boundaries, other winemakers have successfully created some of the best French wines.
French wines that don’t meet AOC requirements may be classified as Indication Géographique Protégée (IGP). IGP regulations are far less stringent and allow winemakers more room to explore. This does lead to less consistent quality, but also to some truly unique and masterful creations.
Finally, French wine may also be classified as Vin de France (VDF), which only guarantees that the wine is in fact, French. There is no specification of the region allowed. VDF wines are generally lower quality and cheaper, but you can’t always afford the top-shelf stuff!
Top French Wine Regions
French wine types are mostly differentiated by region. France contains a number of prestigious winemaking regions whose products are internationally coveted for their quality. You can tell a lot about French wine by its place of origin. Each region has its unique specialities and traditions.
- Bordeaux: Perhaps the most renowned winemaking region in France, Bordeaux can be found in the temperate Southwest of the country. It is known far and wide for its legendary reds – Merlots, Cabernet Sauvignons, and Cabernet Francs. Some of the best French wines hail from this region.
- Champagne: This region speaks for itself. Famed for its variety of sparkling white wines, Champagne is a prolific producer of fine French wines. It also plays host to a booming wine tourism trade.
- Burgundy: The extensive vineyards of Burgundy lie Southeast of Paris. This region produces some of the world’s most expensive bottles of wine, and with good reason. Their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are exquisite, widely considered to be the international gold standard.
- Loire Valley: When most think of the best French wine, they conjure up images of the Loire Valley. It runs alongside the picturesque Loire River, serving as a playground to the upper crust of French and international society. It is particularly appreciated for its Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc.
Best French Wines
Everyone has a different opinion on which French wines are the best, but here are some that we think you have to try.
- 2004 Bollinger R.D. Extra Brut: This bottle will set you back a bit, but if you’re going to spend £230, this is a good way to spend it. This spectacular bottle of Champagne, aged 15 years, is characterised by its enticing aroma, fruity undertones, and subtle honey taste.
- 2014 Château Climens Barsac: A slightly less expensive but equally as divine Bordeaux, this bottle promises an understated fruity flavour and nutty undertones. It will set you back £75, but the quality of the Bordeaux region is unquestionable, and this bottle proves why.
- 2016 Domaine Laroche Les Montmains Chablis Premier Cru: Apart from being a mouthful to pronounce, this white Burgundy has subtle floral notes to it and drinks beautifully.
- 2017 Domaine Zind- Humbrecht Clos Saint Urbain Rangen de Thann Riesling Grand Cru: This richly flavoured Riesling is the ideal companion for haute cuisine, or simply a temperate summer afternoon. It is produced in Alsace, which is known primarily for its exquisite white wines. It is an aromatic, sweet wine that does not leave you wanting for flavour.
What is the Most Popular Wine in France?
The popularity of various French wine types differs depending on who you ask and where you go. However, it can be said with some confidence that Bordeaux reds are among the most favoured. There is simply no surpassing Bordeaux for the quality of its red wines.
Bordeaux Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are particularly prized amongst locals.
The world of French wine is daunting and complex but holds many rewards for those who venture within. Whether you like bubbles, Bordeaux, or blends, you will likely find some of the best of it in France.
Now that you have a better idea of everything that makes up French wine, you’re ready to get out there and make your own discoveries!