French Wine Regions – An Overview
There are seven primary wine-producing regions in France: Alsace, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Loire, Provence and the Rhone Valley. These regions, are known for particular grape varietals as dictated by the district's indigenous terroir - the combination of soil characteristics, location, and climate. French law generally requires that AOC wines bear the name of the location that produced the grapes rather than the name of the varietal. This system, instituted in 1936, aims to provide a guarantee of origin, style, and quality. For those accustomed to drinking French wines, and perhaps with the better known regions like Bordeaux , the Rhone , or Burgundy , this does not pose a problem. For the rest of us or with lesser known regions, it is easy to become quite confused. This overview is intended to provide a reference point for these place names, typical varietals of the region, as well as general characteristics of the wines.
French Wine Regions: France is slightly smaller than the state of Texas; nonetheless, the wines of the north and south are as dramatically different as the climate and the landscape. The warm-weather wines of the south tend to be dark, rich blends of as many as nine different red grape varieties. Meanwhile, wines from the north tend to contain a single varietal. Beginning with the Loire and moving clockwise, each region's primary AOCs and grapes will be identified.
The Loire Valley
Best known to tourists as the valley of French chateaux, due to its geographic location on the Atlantic coast and north of Bordeaux, the Loire produces wines from grapes that ripen more slowly than its more southerly cousins. The impact of a longer ripening as well as the Atlantic breezes is that the wines of this region are higher in acids and generally very refreshing. The primary grape varietals grown in this area are Whites : Melon de Bourgogne (for Muscadet), Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay; Reds : Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, and Gamay.
Well-known AOCs : Chinon (Chenin Blanc), Muscadet (Melon de Bourgogne), Pouilly Fumé (Sauvignon Blanc), Sancerre (Sauvignon Blanc – white, Pinot Noir - red), Touraine (Chenin Blanc), and Vouvray (Chenin Blanc). Generally, these AOCs specialize in single varietal wines.
The white wines of this region pair impressively well with shellfish, fish, and seafood.
Obviously, a wine region of legendary proportion – from the standpoint of reputation. The location of Bordeaux on the Atlantic coastline with three significant rivers traversing it sustains a microclimate as well as soil conditions that combine to form an environment well suited to the creation of great wines. Much of Bordeaux's success in producing fine wines is attributed to its terroir - the combination of soil characteristics, location, and climate. In this region, there are the distinctive local soils, beginning with the most famous, the gravels which have given their name to Graves and which are present throughout on the left bank of the Garonne and in the Libourne region (in Pomerol and part of Saint Emilion). These provide ideal soil conditions for vines as they encourage deep root penetration and a well regulated intake of water. Limestone and clay/limestone soils on sites in Saint Emilion, Sauternes and the Cotes also have specific characteristics. Finally, there are areas of molasse sandstone, boulbenes (stoney silt/clay) and recent alluvial deposits. The latter are typical of soils alongside rivers and are known in the Gironde area as palus (from the Latin for 'marsh').
The primary grape varietals of this region are Whites : Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Muscadelle, Sauvignon Gris; Reds : Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot.
Well-known AOCs : Bordeaux (and all it variations – Premieres Cotes de Bordeaux, Bordeaux , Ste Foy Bordeaux), Entre-deux-Mers, Graves , Margaux, Medoc , Pauillac, Pomerol, St. Emilion, St. Estephe, Sauternes. The vast majority of Bordeaux wines are blends. For the reds, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc, sometimes with the addition of Malbec or Petit Verdot. For the whites, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Muscadelle, sometimes with the addition of Sauvignon Gris. If the whites are late harvested (botrytis), they will be similar in style to Sauternes.
The current focus is to differentiate left and right bank AOCs. The two prevailing red wine-producing subregions of Bordeaux are aptly referred to as " Left Bank " and " Right Bank ." The Left Bank has soils with higher gravel content that favor Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. French wines from the Left Bank usually require more time to mature and will age for years. While the Right Bank lends itself to soil with more clay, preferring the Merlot grapes, with their early-ripening characteristics. The Right Bank wines are typically better suited for beginning Bordeaux wine drinkers, as they have lower tannin content, more fruit-forward flavor and are more inviting initially.
From the banks of the Garonne to the valley of the Lot, passing through the Pyrénées and the Gascogne regions, the vineyards of the South-West showcase a wide variety of terroirs and wines. Due to the prominence of their next door neighbor, Bordeaux , and the similarity of soil, climate and location, this area generally features the same varietals and styles of wine as Bordeaux. Despite the range of soils, climates and grape varieties, the wines do seem to have a recognizable style. The reds have a rich, dark color and a certain rusticity, rather hard when young but age well. Typical of this style are the wines of madiran and Cahors with their exceptional robustness. Legend has it that putting a drop of the "black wine of Cahors" to the lips of a dead man would bring him back to life. Cahors is the original home of the great Malbec grape - a brawny, broad-shouldered wine. These wines are among the few that can handle game - venison, boar, etc.
The Well-known AOCs : Bergerac, Cahors (Malbec), Madiran (Tannat), Monbazillac, Montravel, Pecharmant. Cahors is noteworthy because its wines are entirely Malbec. Madiran is among the few in the world to use the Tannat grape.
Languedoc/Rousillon - Provence
These are the areas that border the Mediterranean Sea - Languedoc/Rousillon to the west and Provence to the east.
The Mediterranean climate is a key to the character of the grapes and wines of these regions. Hot and dry, the vines planted here must be quite hardy. The grapes harvested will be very ripe due to the prevailing climate in this region. The impact of the Mediterranean and soil characteristics of the region improves the character of the grapes grown here. Bordering the mediterranean, the Languedoc/Rousillon wine region is the most extensive in France and represents 40% of the total France vineyard area and produces the majority of France's table wines and Vin de Pays. Provence is obviously best known for its rosé – which, unlike its cousins in the current fad for rosés, is recognized for its very pale rose color and supremely light and refreshing flavors and aromas – think of anise, ripe red berries, and lavender. The best known AOC's are Côtes de Provence and Bandol.
Languedoc is a powerhouse of table wine production. Due to its climate, almost anything can be, and is, grown here. From the traditional Provencal grape varietals of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Cinsaut, Clairette, Ugni Blanc, and Viognier, to the very marketable Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir. Significant portions of the region are planted in vines and, due to the Vin de Pays d'Oc umbrella, the winemaking can become quite creative.
The Rhône Valley lies in southeast France ; the Rhône River runs southwards through the Valley, winding its way through vineyards on both banks. The great gastronomic city, Lyon , is directly north of the Valley, and the historic city of Avignon is at its southern end. The region has two distinct parts: the Northern Rhône , with its continental climate and serious red wines such as Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie; and the Southern Rhône , with a warmer Mediterranean climate, renowned reds such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas, and the popular rosé, Tavel. But the vast majority of wines in the Southern Rhône Valley are red Côtes du Rhône wines.
Two major appellations apply to Côtes du Rhône wines: Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône Villages. Côtes du Rhône Villages wines make up about 20 percent of all Côtes du Rhônes and are generally slightly finer and more expensive than Côtes du Rhônes. The individual producer, however, is always more important in determining quality than the appellation.
Most red Côtes du Rhône wines are usually blends of several grape varieties. Grenache is the Southern Rhône 's main red grape. In fact, Côtes du Rhône Villages wines all must have a minimum of 50 percent Grenache, with at least 20 percent Syrah and/or Mourvèdre, while AC Côtes du Rhône wines must contain at least 40 percent Grenache--the exception being those few Côtes du Rhône wines made in the Northern Rhône, which can be up to 100 percent Syrah, the main variety of the Northern Rhône.
Carignan and Cinsault are two other grape varieties allowed in Côtes du Rhône wines, but no more than 30 percent of any varieties other than Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre--considered the three most noble Rhône varieties--are allowed in AC Côtes du Rhônes and no more than 20 percent of any varieties other than the big three are allowed in Côtes du Rhône Villages wines.
What do Côtes du Rhônes have in common? They're all dry, relatively full-bodied (especially those with lots of Syrah in the blend), and are generally smooth and round rather than harsh. They have either fruity, herbal or earthy aromas and flavors, sometimes all three; plum and/or raspberry are the primary fruity aromas. And they're all great values! Côtes du Rhônes are very food-friendly. They pair especially well with stews, roasts, chicken, bean dishes such as cassoulet, and hearty vegetable dishes. The lighter-bodied, less expensive Côtes du Rhônes are perfect with spaghetti, burgers, chili, and pizza.
Beaujolais is a region in southern Burgundy that primarily produces a red wine from the gamay grape. Though gamay is a cousin of the noble pinot noir of the Cote d'Or--where the great reds of Burgundy are made-- Beaujolais has neither the body nor the complexity of the top red Burgundies .
It does, however, produce a fleshy, juicy red wine that is all about the fruit. It is meant to be drunk fresh, slightly chilled and young. It is abundant and inexpensive (anywhere from $8 to $15) and generally slightly lower in alcohol than the more powerful wines made in the north from the pinot noir grape. And best of all, Beaujolais has now had three exceptional vintages in a row, making it easier than ever to pick a good wine from the available offerings.
It is the fresh fruit quality--typically crushed red fruit aromas--that makes Beaujolais work so well at the Thanksgiving table, where the flavors and aromas are at once savory and sweet, often spicy and with lots of things served piping hot from the oven. Beaujolais is versatile, matching well with savory or sweet, standing up nicely to spices and most everything salty.
Beaujolais Villages wines, a step up from simple Beaujolais , must include grapes from at least two of the communes in what is called the Haut-Beaujolais, and the minimum alcohol is 10 percent. From good vintages Beaujolais and Beaujolais Villages are quite tasty and generally a good buy. Beaujolais Villages usually is only pennies more than standard Beaujolais , so it's the better buy when available.
The finest Beaujolais are the Beaujolais crus . These are 10 site-specific wines and will carry the name of the crus on the label: Moulin-a-Vent, Morgon, Fleurie, etc. Beaujolais crus possess more depth and exhibits more personality than either Beaujolais or Beaujolais Villages , and has the distinct advantage of being ageworthy for up to four or five years following the harvest.
The roots of Burgundy are the roots of French history. The Grand Duchy of Burgundy covered much of eastern France , and was dotted with castles and monasteries, centers of power, knowledge and wealth. It was early monks who planted the first vineyards, studied variations of soils and terroir, mapped the Cote d'Or and invented the idea of cru.
After the French Revolution, the monasteries were disbanded, and while some aristocrats managed to hold on to their vineyard properties intact, the vineyards of the common people were divided and subdivided over generations of marriage, intermarriage, and inheritance law. Modern Burgundian growers might own several small plots of vines in many different villages; the lots from each vinified and bottled into separate wines. Whereas a Bordeaux producer might sell one or two wines under his estate name, a Burgundy producer might make ten or more different wines. To give it another spin, the 125 acre Grand Cru vineyard Clos de Vougeot had one owner at the time of the Revolution. Today, it has over 80!
Burgundy has five distinct regions: from north to south they are: Chablis, Cote d'Or (divided into the Cote de Nuits in the south and Cotes de Beaune in the north), Cote Chalonaise, Maconnais and Beaujolais . The Cote d'Or has 28 different wine-producing villages or communes, surrounded by a total of 20,000 acres of vineyards.
Burgundy is known for many expressions of two great varietals: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In addition, there is fruity, lively Gamay from Beaujolais and lemony-tart Aligoté, planted in lesser vineyard sites. The term Domaine is commonly used in Burgundy to refer to a vine-growing and winemaking estate.
In Burgundy, more so than almost any other wine region except perhaps Alsace and Germany, classification of vineyard land depends upon terroir, and more specifically soil. The entire Cote lies on a bedrock of limestone, as opposed to the gravels and granite of the Médoc. Over the centuries, Burgundian winemakers became convinced that there are quantifiable differences in wine quality from one plot of land to another. Thus, in Burgundy one can find a Grand Cru rated vineyard a few meters from a humble village.
Alsace is wedged between the Rhine and Germany to the east and the Vosges Mountains and the rest of France to the west. From its northernmost vineyards near Strasbourg to its southern extremes around the city of Mulhouse , Alsace is a wine region that runs about 70 miles from one tip to the other. Because Alsace is too far north to produce serious red wine, the vast majority of Alsatian wine is white.
Many of its vineyards are steeply sloped--among the steepest in all of France --and the warm, dry climate is perfect for the rich, beautifully structured style of wine that has evolved. The Vosges mountain range blocks the marine influence from the Atlantic and protects Alsace from storms and rain at harvest, allowing the grapes to fully mature before picking in most vintages. Indeed, it is the perception of sweetness that slows Alsatian wines in the United States. But most Alsatian wines are dry or slightly off-dry. An abundance of acidity, however, balances the off-dry wines from the better producers, and consequently they don't display apparent sweetness on the palate.
The primary grape varieties in Alsace are Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. Other white varieties exist, Sylvaner for example, but are difficult to find in the U.S.
All Champagne is sparkling wine. But not all sparkling wine is Champagne . The wine known as Champagne can only come from the region in France of the same name. La Champagne (the region) is located 90 miles northeast of Paris , and in the northernmost wine region in Europe . Of its 84,000 acres, 60,000 (300 individual vineyards) are planted to the varieties that go into Le Champagne (the wine). These include: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. The soil of Champagne is a unique chalk which lies just below the thin, constantly-fertilized top soil. The cool climate is almost marginal for grape growing, even in warmer years, dictating the grapes will always be high in acid--not ideal for still wine--but perfect for sparkling.
Many of the important Champagne houses (producers) are located in the city of Reims , famous for cathedrals as well as Champagne , and the town of Epernay to the south. These houses are famous for their miles of cold, dark, chalky cellars, in which their prized Champagne ages for many years. Unlike other appellations in France , in making a champagne the winemaker is seeking style and not the ultimate expression of the grapes in a particular vineyard. Often champagnes are an assembly of grapes and vintages that are delicately balanced then aged for four years. It is for this reason that many champagnes are NV (non vintage).
Contents © 2006 Sevier Wines LLC