French Wine Regions & The Best Wines of France

Bordeaux Wine 

Bordeaux is one of the largest fine wine producing areas in France. Its white wines account for slightly more than half of its entire production, but it is the red wines, known in Great Britain as Clarets, that are famous throughout the worldFrench Wine Regions. Some of these wines are widely considered to be the best produced anywhere, and they can, over time, become absolutely astounding. It is because of this that wine collectors will spend inordinate amounts of time and money seeking and storing red Bordeaux that they might not drink for another 20 years or more. At their best they are the benchmark against which quality reds throughout the wine world are judged, but they are rarely, if ever, cheap.

The principal red grape varieties grown in Bordeaux are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc. Merlot and Malbec. The Cabernets provide the tannic backbone to Bordeaux wines, behind an aroma of currents, cassis, cedar and a distinct fullness of flavour.  Merlot is noted for its softness and early ripening, while Malbac gives richness and good colour.

The white grape varieties are Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscedelle. Care should be taken not to confuse the black grape, Cabernet Sauvignon, with its distant cousin the white Sauvignon Blanc.

Vintages vary considerably in Bordeaux, just as they do throughout the rest of France, but Bordeaux has the distinct advantage of being in a maritime climate. Because it is situated between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gironde River, temperatures stay fairly constant, becoming neither dangerously hot nor severely cold.

Bordeaux itself is divided into six main districts: Medoc, Graves, Pomerol, St-Emilion, Entre-doux-Mers and Cotes de Bourg/Cotes de Blaye.

Within some of these districts there are many communes or village that have their own AOC. The best known of these are St-Estephe, Pauillac, St-Julien and Margaux, all of which are situated in the Haut-Medoc, and each of which produces its own specific style of wine.

Most of the wines from Bordeaux are good quality, everyday wines that will bear the appellation Bordeaux. Wines of somewhat better quality will be labeled with the name of the region in which the vineyards are located, such as the previously mentioned Medoc, Pomerol, St-Emiliion, Graves, etc. Wines carrying the village names of St-Julien, Margaux, Pauillac and St-Estephe will be better quality and show some of the regional character that makes these names famous. Within all of these regions you will find properties or chateaux.

If each district has its own distinct style of wine, and each village within that district comes up with a more specific style again, it follows that the Chateaux within that village must again produce a wine that has style not only of the district and of the village, but also of the chateau itself. Similarly, the closer we get to the specific source, the more we should assume that the level of quality will increase, because each producer should want the best reputation they can get for their wines.

With this in mind, the first official classification of Bordeaux took place in 1855, but only included the red wines of the Medoc and the white wines of Sauternes and Barsac. Chateau Haut-Brion, a red wine producing property in Graves, was felt to be so good that it could not be ignored and for classification purposes was treated as through it was Medoc. Only the top 61 vineyards or chateaux were given status in the classification system. They were arranged as first, second, third, fourth and fifth growths, according to the price that each could command, and the assumed level of quality that goes with this. This classification has remained largely intact since 1855, with the First Growths (Premiers Crus) still producing spectacular wines.

The following wines enjoy first growth prestige:

  • Chateau Mouton-Rothschild
  • Chateau Lafite-Rothschild
  • Chateaux Latour
  • Chateau Margaux
  • Chateau Haut-Brion

In the Medoc, Cabernet Sauvignon is the most prominent red grape variety. In their youth these wines are markedly hard and tannic on the palate with a nose of red and black currents, and a hint of clear in the background. In their prime, which can take a matter of years if not decades to reach, the scent of red current turns to one of ripe cassis, and the wines take on a deep complexity of flavour and aromas.

In St-Emilion and Pomerol, the Merlot grape is used more than in the Medoc. Consequently, their wines are softer and more rounded. They are often easier to appreciate young than wines of the Medoc. Chateau Ausone and Chateau Cheval Blanc in St-Emilion, and Chateau Petrus in Pomerol command very high prices in today’s marketplace.

Graves produces both red and white wines of good quality. Although most whites of Graves are dry, there are some semi-dry wines made in the south.

Entre-Deux-Mers is mainly a white wine area, producing quality basic table wines for everyday consumption.

The red wines of Cotes de Bourg and Cotes de Blaye are less well known than the wines from Medoc or graves. Their quality often makes them a good value to the informed consumer.

Another area to watch fro is Sauternes. This area produces of the finest sweet wines in the world, the most famous of which is Chateau d’Yquem.

Burgundy Wine 

In Burgundy, both red and white wines from the best vineyards and producers can easily rival the best wines of Bordeaux in terms of both quality and price. It’s learning to be able to identify those producers and vineyards that becomes the trick because unlike Bordeaux, where only one owner can ever lay claim to the name Mouton-Rothschild, in Burgundy, quite a number of people can call their wine Clos de Vougeot (the name of a vineyard.)

However, Burgundy is not that difficult to understand. Like the rest of France, each of Burgundy’s districts has its own distinct style- you just have to get to know them.

Burgundy is located in central France, approximately 50 miles southeast of Paris. The climate is cooler than that of Bordeaux, and is not unlike Dijon to Lyon and is divided into six main districts north to south: Chablis, Cotes de Nuits, Cotes de Beaune, Cote Chalonnaise, Maconnais and Beaujolais.

Burgundy produces more red wine than white. Chardonnay (white) and Pinot noir (red) are the two main grape varieties used in burgundy. Aligote (white) and Gamay (red) are also used.

A simple method, if such exists, to learn about Burgundy is to take a trip through the individual districts. Chablis is the place to start. Located some 100 kilometers northwest of Dijon, it is somewhat separated from the rest of Burgundy. This is white wine country, with Chardonnay producing dry, crisp and clean wines that at times are said to have a steely or flinty taste. Good acidity makes these wines ideal companions for seafood. From fresh oysters to simple fish and chips, from salmon to lobster- good Chablis is a very safe selection. Petit Chablis, an AOC within Chablis, is generally a little bit lighter in flavour.

Just south of Dijon lies the northern boundary of the Cotes de Nuits. Here Pinot Noir produces rich red wines. Village names like Nuits St-Georges, Chambertin, Vosne-Romanee, the vineyard Clos de Vougeot and many others have become famous throughout the world. White wine production is very small.

Most vineyards in Burgundy are subdivided into small parcels, and different owners hold many of these subparcels. This will explain why it is possible, as suggested in the beginning, to come across a number of wines labeled with the same vineyard name, but made by different producers with varying degrees of quality. Quality can directly relate to the amount of care given to the vineyard and the winemaking ability of the grower. As is always true, a good house will regularly produce good wine. As you recognize the better houses, and you will rarely be disappointed.

Continuing south, you leave the Cotes de Nuits and the Cotes de Beaune begings. Together, these two areas are what are known as the Cote d’Or or Golden Slopes.

In the Cotes de Beaune, white and red wine production is more evenly matched than in the Cotes de Nuits and the names are just as well known. Villages like Pommard, Volnay and Santenay are familiar names among the red wines, while Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet stand out among the whites. These wines can range from full bodied and rich in style, through medium bodied and lighter, more delicate styles.

All of the red Burgundies mentioned so far are made from Pinot Noir grape. If other varieties are used, it must be indicated on the label. The words Passetoutgrain (a blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay), or Grand ordinaire (a blend of whites varieties) are such indications. All of the white wines are made from Chardonnay unless indicated otherwise. You will find some white wines in the familiar Burgundian-shaped bottle labeled Bourgogne Aligote indicating that they are made from the crisp, almost sharp, Aligote variety.

In the next area southward, the Cote Chalonnaise, the wines are similar to those in the Cotes de Beaune, although they are considered lighter. These wines are also well known, which often makes them good value. Continuing south, the next area is the Maconnais, well known for both red and white wines. Lugny, Vire and Pouilly-Fuisse are white wine villages we see quite often. Made from the chardonnay grape, these wines are usually more delicate than the rich and complex Puligny-Montrachet or Meursault with their wood/vanilla tones derived from oak cask aging. The Gamay grape in Maconnais produces light, fruity and fresh red wines that are very similar in styleto the wines of Beaujolais.

Beaujolais, the southernmost area in Burgundy, produces mainly red wines. The few white wines are similar in style to white Macons. Gamay is the red grape that produces the light and fruity wines of this area. Red Beaujolais are at their best when they are young and fresh, and can be treated like white wines and chilled slightly before serving. Cru Beaujolais are wines from one of the 10 villages that there own appellation. Instead of using the name Beaujolais on the label, the name of one of these specific villages is given instead (morgon, Fleurie, etc) Cru Beaujolais is usually fuller in body, richer in fruit and flavour, and considered the best of the Beaujolais. In good vintages, these wines can be kept to mature for three to four years.

Not to be forgotten, of course, is Beaujolais Nouveau. This is the first wine of the season and nearly half of the entire production of Beaujolais is sold as Nouveau. These wines are only when bottles, bright purple in colour and have a fresh fruit aroma and flavour. They are best served chilled. They are released worldwide every year on the third Thursday of November, and are meant to be consumed almost immediately as a celebration of the harvest. They are not really suitable for aging, and should be consumed before the following spring.

Alsace Wines 

Alsace is an ancient province in northeast France, bordering Germany and the Rhine River. It is almost separated from the rest of France by the Vosges Mountains, and has been a major battleground in many wars, resulting in its annexation to either Germany or France, back and forth, several times. It was returned to France shortly after the Second World War.

The people of Alsece have been largely resilient to all of this. They live their own lifestyle, speak their own dialect and make excellent wines.

The vineyards, which cover the lower slopes of the Vosges Mountains, are among the most beautiful and picturesque in the world. Equally charming are the small vineyards towns, which exhibit French and German heritage in their cobblestone streets and timber framed houses. Although the towns bear German sounding names, such as Riquewihr and Colmar, they are most definitely French. The citizens speak their own dialect, called Platzdeutsh, amongst themselves. However, French and German are spoken with equal ease.

Their wines are similar mix of both cultures. German varieties seem to dominate, but whereas the Germans might make these into slightly sweet and lightly alcoholic wines, in Alsace they are dry and fuller bodied.

White wines are produced almost exclusively, with very few reds. In general, these wines are dry and between 10% and 13% alcohol. They possess an exceedingly fragrant bouquet, whether they are floral Muscat, peachy Rieslings or spicy Gewurztraminers, and almost all have a crisp, dry finish. Some sweeter wines are produced, and these are labeled “Vendange Tardive,” meaning late harvest.

The wines of Alsace are generally named after the grape varieties they are produced from. This is unique, since only in Alsace is the Appellation d’ Origine given to the grape rather than the place of origin. In turn, a decree was signed in 1955 giving the Alsace wine producers the exclusive right to ship their wines in the tall, slender flute bottle which guarantees the wines’ authenticity.

Vines planted in Alsace are both French and German origin. The principle grape varieties are classified into the following three categories:

  • Noble varieties: Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Muscat and Tokay d’ Alsace (Pinot Gris).
  • Fine Varieties: Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir.  
  • Standard Varieties: Chasselas and Knipperle.

Dubonnet Wines 

The original Dubonnet is a blend of red wine, white wine and mistelle with quinine bark steeped in it. The resulting liquid is then matured in oak. It is similar to vermouth with a slightly softer taste and is not bitter in the finish. White Dubonnet, made entirely from white grapes, is drier and more delicate than the red. Dubonnet Ambre is essentially a blend of the two types.

Vermouth Wines 

Vermouth is a fortified wine that has herbs added to it as a  flavouring. Served as an aperitif, the slightly bitter herbal flavour starts the mouth watering in preparation for the meal to follow.

Dry Vermouth Wines 

This is sometimes referred to as French vermouth. A light white wine is aged for two years in oak casks. The wine is then very lightly sweetened and softened by the addition of  “mistelle” (a blend of unfermented grape juice and brandy) to the proportion of 80% wine 20% mistelle. This leaves approximately 4% sugar.

Flavouring agents are then steeped in the wine. Every house has its own secret blend of botanicals- herbs, plants, fruit, spices which may include nutmeg, coriander seeds, cinnamon, quinine, hyssop, angelica root, wormwood, bitter orange peel, camomile and flower of elder- that flavours the Vermouth. Dry vermouth can be served either straight or on the rocks and is one of the ingredients in a martini.

Sweet Vermouth

Sweet vermouth is sometimes referred to as Italian or red vermouth, although the colour is actually brown. A basic white wine is aged for at least one year in cask then blended with batonicals like dry vermouth. Sugar, alcohol and caramel (for colouring) are added to this and the mixture is left alone for approximately two years in mingle. Despite the high sugar content, sweet vermouth still has a slight bitter finish that is quite refreshing. Leaving out the caramel colouring makes sweet white vermouth. It is slightly less bitter than the brown variety.

St. Raphael Wines 

St. Raphael is an aperitif wine made in a similar style of Dubonnet or vermouth, but again with its own special blend of botanicals. A distinct herbal flavour balances this slightly sweet wine. While it comes in both red and white (gold) versions, both are similarly sweet.

The Loire Valley Wines 

To examine this area properly, it is best to follow along the Loire River from east to west. This is mostly a white wine area, with a distinct tradition of crisp, dry wines that go well with fish and seafood.

Pouilly-sur-Loire is the home of Pouilly Fume. Not to be confused with Pouilly-Fuisse in Burgundy, this is a rich and yet crisp white wine made entirely from the Sauvignon Blanc grape. Rich seafood like lobster, crab and oysters go well with it. 

Across the river on the left bank is Sancerre. The wines are similar in style to Pouilly Fume, and are also made entirely from the Sauvignon Blanc grape. They suit the same foods, but have a more pronounced acidity.

Further west in Vouvray, where Chenin Chenin Blanc, a white grape, is the main variety. Both still and sparkling wines are produced from this, and both are often made slightly sweet. The sparkling wines from traditional producers are frequently made using the champagne method, which is described further on in the sparkling wine section of this book.

Anjou, a large area of the Loire encompassing the Coteaux du Layon, is next down the river. It is best known for its white and rose wines, which are often slightly sweet and are available in still, crackling and sparkling styles. Although most of the wines from this area can be considered light and delicate, some very rich and sweet dessert wines are also produced. Chenin Blanc is the leading white variety, while the red Cabernet Franc grape is often used to make some extremely flavourful and herbaceous red wines.

Muscadet is the last major wine producing area in the Loire before river itself joins the waters of the Atlantic. The Melon du Bourgogne grape, known locally as Muscadet, produces light, very dry and crisp white wine that bears the same name. Muscadet de Sevre-st-Maine is a smaller region, encircled by Muscadet that produces the best wines. “ Sur Lies” on the label means that the wine has been bottled without being racked from the less or sediment, and may sometimes have a very slight yeasty undertone, but definitely a more complex flavour. Traditionally matched with mussels, Muscadet works well with all kinds of seafood from sole to halibut to oysters, especially if it is served with a slice of lemon. It is also an excellent aperitif, served on its own or with hors d’oeuvres.

The Rhone Valley

The Rhone valley wine district lies south of Beaujolais and stretches from Vienne in the north to Avignon in the south. The vineyards are often set on steep, cliff-like hillsides flanking both sides of the Rhone River.

Traditionally, the Rhone has always been known for its full bodied, rich and robust red wines. Of the more than 20 grape varieties grown here, Syrah, Grenache and Cinsault are the most important of the reds. White wines are also produced, from Viogner, Marsanne and Rousanne varieties. This is an area also well known for some fascinating dry roses ranging from light and delicate in style to deep and rich.

Cotes-du-Rhone is the basic Appellation d’Origine for the wines of the Rhone valley. There some other appellations marking smaller defined areas, many of which are regularly available, among which are:

Cote Rotie – “ The Roasted Slope” is an area producing heavy, rich and robust red wines that often need years of aging in order to shed some of their spicy tannin and mellow out. A well made wine from a good producer and a good year can require over 10 years to mature.

Hermitage – Further south, this area is also known for its rich, full bodied wines, both red and white. Crozes Hermitage, whose wines are a bit lighter than their neighbor’s, but are still medium to full bodied, flanks it.

Chateauneuf-du-Pape – Famous and always in demand, this is an area best known for rich and flavourful reds, although whites are also produced. Thirteen different grape varieties can be used in the red, but the two that dominate most blends are Grenache (for its strength) and Syrah (for its peppery nose and tannic backbone.) Two styles appear these days, a younger, lighter style that can mature over a number of years.

Rasteau and Gigondas - Two of the many villages east of the river, these are similar in style to Chateauneuf-du0Pape although often a bit lighter. They are regularly a very good buy.

Travel and Lirac Located to the west of the river, these two villages well with light meats and cheeses, and provides some very refreshing drinking on a warm day.

Generally, the wines from Rhone valley are very versatile, providing styles for almost every taste. Compared to the higher priced red Burgundies and Bordeaux, the wines from the Rhone are often very good value.

Cotes De Provence/Midi Wines 

In the south of France, stretching between the Spanish and Italian borders along the coast of the Mediterranean is the ancient kingdom of Catalonia. Not as well known in the past, the wines from this area have gained attention recently, especially with the interest created by Peter Mayle’s wonderful book, A Year in Provence.

Once better known for strictly commercial blends, the wines from this area are now known for their quality. The majority of grapes grown are red but for the longest time, their best-known wines were pink. Less than ten percent of the wine produced in this area is white.

The climate here has distinct advantages for two reasons. The first, growing grapes. The second, growing grapes organically.

Provence is located at roughly 44 degrees north latitude or parallel to Toronto, but it certainly doesn’t feel like Toronto. The moderating effects of the Mediterranean mean that on a warm spring day when Toronto id having a hard time pushing its way into the low twenties, Nice and Marseilles will be a sunny 29C – 30C.

The sky in this area is famous for its intense cobalt blue colour, while the sun is a piercing white, making it a good place to grow and a considerably busy tourist area.

In the organic production of grapes, another aspect of the climate that aids is the monstrous dry wind known as the Mistral.

The Mistral starts out in Siberia every year around January and heads south. When it hits the Rhone valley it picks up speed just as cold air will when it starts forcing warm air out of its way. By the time this wind hits Provence in the winter it will reach speeds up to 180 kilometers per hour, and it will drop the temperature 20 degrees in as many hours.

Obviously, very few humans can survive this kind of thing out of doors and similarly the vines themselves are quickly stripped of any kind of insect pest. Mildew, which needs dampness and warmth in order to exist, doesn’t even get a good start.

In the summer, this same wind blows hot, dry and just as hard and has very much the same effect.

The vines themselves have a natural tendency to lean with the wind, which gives the added benefit of aiming them south and that much more toward the sun.

The grape varieties grown in Provence are many and varied, but the best wines are made from the same varieties that are found in Bordeaux and the Southern Rhone.

Cotes de Provence produces red, white and rose wines that, until 1977, were sold under the VDQS label. (VDQS strands for Vins Delimites de Qualite Superieure.) This is a system of origin and quality control similar to the Appellation Controlee designation but having somewhat lesser status. Provence now has AOC status.

The regions of Corbieres, Minervios a dRoussillon together make up a huge plain known as the Midi. Large quantities of wine are produced there with reds as the largest portion of the production.

If you can't wait to get to one of these regions, try your hand at making your own wine kit