French wines have long held high esteem across the wine world. You might even say that these wines are the top tier and set the bar for other countries and wine producers. A lot of this esteem comes from key traits that have been consistent in French wines for centuries.
From its ties to French culture and terroir to its changes through science and advancement, French wine has shown itself to be consistent but innovative — ideal for long-term enjoyment. Read on for a look at why France is considered the home of wine and how that wine maintains its reputation for excellence.
A Short History of French Wine
Wine's history began long before winemaking took shape in France. Vitis vinifera, the wild grape that started it all, is found across Europe and the Near East, but it was first domesticated and fermented into wine in the Caucasus mountains several thousand years ago. Domesticated grape vines spread west to the Near East and greater Mediterranean region, where locals took to the idea immediately.
With the rise of the ancient Greeks and Romans, vineyards and winemaking techniques spread north into Gaul — the area that eventually became France. From here, the native peoples planted more vines and incorporated techniques from the Romans along with their own innovations.
Over time, French monks from the Christian churches took up the reins and brought this wine to even greater heights. They were the first to pay attention to how certain soils, elevations, and climates produced differences in wine. These monks were also key players in identifying vineyards that produced the best results.
Science and the enlightenment brought about new changes. After phylloxera, the French developed their refined system of classification and appellations, furthering the development of fine wines with long-standing terroir and heritage.
What Makes French Wine Different?
You've read about wine's long history in France, but there's more to the story. French wine differs in how it reflects terroir and soil, how the climate influences ripening, how winemakers bring out its nuances, and how winemakers label their products.
Elevation and soil composition has a significant effect on how something grows. Each parcel of land has its own terroir, and this is something that French winemakers have perfected over centuries. This "sense of place" results in a distinct personality for the grapes — and eventually, the wines that come from that land.
France has a cool-to-temperate climate as well, which brings out more nuanced flavors such as brighter fruit and acidity. This is in contrast to many New World wines with sweeter, juicier fruit notes and higher alcohol. Across France, grapes tend to ripen slower and more irregularly, leading to wine with a lighter body and more versatility for food pairing.
Finally, winemakers put so much focus on the terroir that they label their wines that way, too. You won't see French wines with the grape variety. Instead, you'll see the wine appellation, winery, and other terroir-specific details.
Wine and French Culture
To the French, wine is as customary as cheese or baguettes. While wine in France is a source of national pride, it's also simply standard fare in households of all sizes. The French make wine that is both affordable and high quality, so naturally, there's always been a lot of it around.
One distinction is how the French enjoy wine, drinking it alongside their meals. You do see some people enjoying a before-meal glass of wine, but you're more likely to see wine as a casual accompaniment instead.
French Wine Regions and What They Produce
France is broken into hundreds of wine appellations, which all reside within several key wine regions. Each wine region is known for certain styles of wine, varieties, and growing techniques.
The Bordeaux region in southwestern France is primarily known for its exceptional red wine blends from the Left Bank and Right Bank areas, but it also produces key sweet white wines like Sauternes and dry whites from Semillon. This region has significant output for high-quality, highly sought-after wines, making it one of the most expensive wine regions.
Located in the temperate east-central part of France, Burgundy offers a mix of cool and warm climates. The region prduces far less wine than Bordeaux, but the quality — noted by grand cru and premier cru status — is easily on par with its more famous counterpart. Burgundy excels at wines made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, with sought-after wines from regions like Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune, Chablis, and Côte Chalonnaise.
A cooler-climate region in northern France, the Loire Valley is known for its refreshing white wines like Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc. It also produces several reds like Gamay and Cabernet Franc. You'll also find high-quality local wines like Romarantin and Muscadet. Loire Valley wines have higher acidity and a lighter body, making them ideal for many food pairings.
The Champagne region in the northeastern part of France is famous for its exceptional sparkling wines. Most Champagne wine uses Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier, and Pinot Noir, with strict rules on grape percentage and vineyard regulations. The region excels at sparkling wine, with sought-after producers making Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs, and rose Champagne.
Due to its southern location in France, Provence has the longest history for winemaking. This lengthy history also gives the region a certain winemaking prestige that makes it known for its full-flavored rosé wine. Most rosés are blended wines that include Mourvedre grapes, although Grenache and Cinsault grapes are common as well. You'll also see white wine blends and red wine blends, especially in the Bandol and Cassis appellations.
The Rhone Valley is another high-producing wine region, although its warmer yet still temperate climate gives it legendary status for white and red wines at appellations like Hermitage, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and Côte-Rôtie. Here, you'll see varieties like Syrah, Viognier, Marsanne, and Grenache dominate the vineyards.
As you can see, there's a reason that France still has the best reputation for wine. Winemakers follow time-honored techniques and possess a deep love of the local terroir, but they're able to innovate when climates begin to change. If you're searching for the best French wine, JJ Buckley Fine Wines has you covered. Contact us for our expert consultancy services.