The French have been making wine for centuries and wine has become an integral part of the French culture. It’s a source of national pride and certainly considered standard fare in most households throughout the country.
French wine’s popularity extends well beyond the country’s borders. France has a reputation as one of the best wine-producing countries in the world and is second only to Italy in terms of wine production. In other words, people all over the world love and appreciate it. If you’re new to French wines, we have a quick guide to help you get started.
Main French Wine Regions
France is a country of many wine regions. While some are better-known than others, they each have their own grape varieties, wine styles, and growing conditions. Whether you’re looking to enjoy one of France’s best wines at home or you’re planning a tour of the country, here are some of the most popular regions to investigate.
The largest wine region in terms of production, Bordeaux is situated in southwestern France. It’s also one of the most famous wine-producing regions in the world, known for producing some of the country’s rarest and finest wines.
A majority of wines here are reds, consisting of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends from the Left Bank and Merlot and Cabernet Franc blends from the Right Bank. The region also produces some notable dry whites including Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, as well as Sauternes, a sweet wine made from the same grapes.
Burgundy is best known for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. Both varieties originated in the region, and they go into creating some of the most highly sought-after wines in France, and pretty much everywhere else on the planet. While home to the most appellations in the country, Burgundy produces much less — but still top-quality — wine than Bordeaux.
To the east of Paris sits Champagne, France’s northernmost wine region. It’s the area known for arguably the best of all sparkling wines — Champagne. Wineries may use a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier grapes or any of these varieties on their own.
Part of what sets Champagne apart is the process used to create the region’s bubby namesake wine. The traditional technique, known as méthode Champenoise, is a labor-intensive process involving a second fermentation in the bottle. It’s during that fermentation that the bubbles develop.
Where some regions produce mostly red wines, Alsace produces mainly whites. Located on the border of France and Germany in the foothills of the Rhine Valley, this region makes a variety of fruit-forward, refreshing white and sparkling varieties, including Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer, and Muscat.
The Rhone Valley sits in southeastern France, with the Rhone River running through and dividing it in two. Grapes here include Syrah, Viognier, and Grenache. Northern Rhone is known for its savory, almost peppery, Syrah, while Southern Rhone features blends of Syrah, Grenache (and sometimes) Mouvèdre that are smoky, fruity, and floral such as those from Chateauneuf du Pape. The Rhone is also well known for producing extraordinary Viognier.
The Loire Valley is one of France’s most picturesque regions, featuring gorgeous fairytale-like castles. Its rolling vineyards grow several grape varieties, including Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and Melon de Bourgogne (which make Muscadet wines). While the region produces mainly white wines, it also makes some red wines from Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc grapes.
Great French Wine Pairing Recommendations
While some come close, no other country has mastered the art of pairing wine and food quite like France. The French take the saying “what grows together goes together” to heart, setting glasses of local wine beside plates of terroir-driven meals to create unforgettable and elevated dining experiences.
If you’re planning to cook a French-inspired meal, we’ve got a few pairing recommendations that are well worth trying:
Oysters and Muscadet
The Loire Valley features a lot of oceanic produce, including herring, scallops, sole, and various crustaceans. A local favorite is freshly shucked oysters with a glass of Muscadet. The wine’s acidity, minerality, and citrus notes enhance the delicate flavors of the mollusks, almost like a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Alternatively, you could pour a glass of Chablis to go alongside your oysters.
Goat Cheese and Sauvignon Blanc
There’s something utterly satisfying about pairing wine and cheese, and one of the best combinations has to be goat cheese (chèvre) and a white Bordeaux from Sauvignon Blanc grapes. The fresh, zesty, and herbaceous notes of the wine coax out the pungent and earthy notes of the cheese. Its acidity also cuts through the cheese’s creaminess, cleansing your palate between each delicious bite.
Tarte Flambée and and Riesling
Tarte flambée (also known as flammekueche) is an Alsatian specialty that resembles a pizza. It consists of thin, crispy dough topped with cheese, onions, bacon, and onions. For the perfect complement, look no further than an Alsatian Riesling. The acidity in the full-bodied wine lightens the heartiness of the German-inspired dish, creating a delightful balance.
Boeuf Bourguignon and Pinot Noir
Boeuf bourguignon is a classic dish with robust, savory flavors. It’s the very definition of French comfort food that hails from Burgundy, though perhaps popularized in the U.S. by Julia Child. If you’re looking to enjoy a cozy night in, consider pairing this hearty meat and vegetable stew with a Pinot Noir from the same region. The wine has the weight and acidity to complement the dish. It also matches the flavors of the stew’s secret ingredient — local red wine made predominantly from Pinot Noir grapes.
Tips for Choosing a Great French Wine
If you’re just getting started on your French wine journey, you might not know where to start. One look at a French wine label can confuse even experienced wine enthusiasts. We’ve got a few tips that can hopefully make the process a bit easier:
- Start with a variety you already enjoy. Many grapes that grow in the U.S. come from France. These include varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay. So, if you enjoy a California Chardonnay, dip your toe into your French wine exploration with a French version from Burgundy or Chablis.
- Select a wine that comes from a region renowned for its grapes. The best French wines have their appellations on their labels. Those that feature AOC or AOP can often indicate quality.
- Pay attention to the vintage. A wine’s vintage, or harvesting year, can tell you a lot. That’s because terroir varies from one year to the next. Drought, cooler than average temperatures, excessive rain, and other conditions can all affect the quality of the wine.
- Look for “cru.” While the term “cru” is not used by all regions and its definition can vary regionally as well, when it is used it generally indicates a high-quality wine.
Get to Know French Wine a Little Better
Of course, the best way to get to know a French wine — or any wine, for that matter — is to give it a try. With a little experimentation, you’ll find your favorite regions, your preferred varieties, and some great meals to pair with them. Better yet, once you get a handle on French wine, you’ll be able to share your newfound love with your friends and family.
If you’re looking for a great French wine to try or to pair with a French-inspired meal, visit JJ Buckley Fine Wines today.