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An Introduction to French Wine

It is almost impossible to think of France without visualising the endless vineyards which cover large areas of the countryside. As one of the oldest wine producing nations in the world, the French can trace their wine-making roots back to the 6th century BC, and they show little sign of halting production any time soon.

Enjoy French Wine

Each year it is estimated that 7-8 billion bottles of wine are produced in the country.  The wines vary from light crisp whites to full-bodied reds and encompass a myriad of tastes and aromas in between.

The range of wines on offer is so complex that a number of grading systems have been introduced by the French to both control production and act as guidance to the buyer.  In 1935, the appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) was created to ensure that certain varieties of wine could only be labelled as such if they met rigid standards in quality and production. There are currently over 450 varieties of wine that have AOC classification. AOC wines are usually of a higher quality than those which are not entitled to carry the designation on their label.

The European Union divides wine into two distinct categories, Table Wine and Quality Wine Produced in a Specific Region (QWPSR).  Until the end of 2011, the French further divided these, having two categories for table wine and two for QWPSR:

Table Wines

Vin de Table – Labels for Vin de Table wines were only permitted to show the producer of the wine, and that it came from France, no date was allowed on the bottles, however, many displayed lot numbers which often looked a lot like a date!

Vin de Pays – The labelling on Vin de Pays bottles included the specific region in which the wine was manufactured, such as Vin de Pays d’Oc which came from Languedoc Roussillon. Vin de Pays d’Oc accounted for around 70% of all the Vin de Pays produced in France. Wines categorised as Vin de Pays did not have to meet the stringent requirements of the AOC wines, however, they did have to be made from certain varieties of grape and were subject to tasting and analysis.

QWPSR

Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure (VDQS) –VDQS was the second highest category of French wine, and wines that received this mark were generally AOC wines in waiting.

Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée  (AOC) – In 2005, over 50% of wine produced in France was subject to AOC classification. AOC wines were of the highest quality and had to meet strict geographical and grape variety requirements, only certain wine making methods were allowed in their production.

In 2012, the wine classification system was completely overhauled, and the VDQS category was abolished.  Wines will now be labelled as follows.

Vin de France – Replaces Vin de Table, however, grape variety and region may now be displayed on the label.

Indication Géographique Protégée (IGP) – Is an intermediate category of wine and replaces Vin de Pays.

Appellation d'Origine Protégée (AOP) - Is the highest category and effectively replaces the AOC classification.

Wines which were formerly produced under the VDQS classification have either been moved to the IGP classification or promoted to AOC status.  Wines produced prior to 2012 will not be relabelled, and there will be a significant crossover period where it is possible to find all seven categories on sale.

The wine-making regions of France offer significant variation in the wines they produce.  The differences in soil, rainfall, sunshine and terrain all lend themselves to different varieties of grapes and production methods.  As such, AOC requirements can be very strict regarding which varieties of grapes are grown in which area, and certain wines may only be produced in specific regions of France.

Here is a brief introduction to the major wine regions of France and the wines you can expect to find there.

Alsace

Nestling between the Vosges Mountains and the Rhine, in Eastern France, Alsace is best known for its production of dry white wines.  The region experiences some of the least rainfall in France and has a dry, sunny growing season.  Wines you will commonly find in this area include Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Crémant d'Alsace.

Beaujolais

Beaujolais actually forms a part of the Burgundy region.  The wines from this area are so highly prized, however, that they warrant a mention in their own right.  Beaujolais tends to produce wine from the Gamay grape which is low in tannins.  It is usually a light bodied wine, which is relatively high in acidity.

On the third Thursday in November each year, the latest batch of Beaujolais Nouveau is released for sale.  The grapes to produce the wine are harvested in late August or early September, and the wine is fermented for only a few days to produce the lightest fruitiest version possible.

Bordeaux

Covering around 120,000 hectares, Bordeaux is one of the principal wine growing regions of France.  In an average year, the area will produce roughly 700 million bottles of wine, which range in quality from table wine to some of the finest vintages in the world.  Almost 90% of the wine produced in the region is red, however, sweet white wines may be found as well.

There is an old saying that the best estates in Bordeaux can see the river from their land.  It is certainly true that many of the most notable vineyards are found on the well-drained gravel soil, next to the Gironde River.

Bordeaux is home to some of the most famous and expensive wines in the world.  Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Latour and Château Mouton Rothschild are among a handful of wines which are categorised as Premier Grand Cru, the highest classification of wine in Bordeaux.

Burgundy

The Burgundy region stretches from Auxerre in the north to Lyon in the south.  It is recognised as one of the finest wine producing regions of France, and many familiar varieties may be found in the area.  Both Chablis and Beaujolais are formally a part of the Burgundy region; however, these two areas are more commonly referred to in their own right, rather than simply under the umbrella of Burgundy.

Burgundy is one of the oldest wine producing regions in the world.  Archaeological evidence shows that as long ago as the second century, there was wine production in the area, although it is believed it may predate even that.  Wines commonly found in the area include Pommard, Pinot Noir and Pouilly-Fuissé.

Chablis

Chablis sits at the top of the Burgundy region.  The area primarily grows Chardonnay grapes and the AOC Chablis classification states the wine may contain only this variety. The cool climate means that these are more acidic and less fruity than grapes grown in the south of Burgundy. Wines from the Chablis region are noted for their purity of aroma and their flinty taste. Chablis is home to 7 Grand Cru and 40 Premier Cru vineyards and is one of the leading wine producing regions in France.

Champagne

The Benedictine monk, Dom Perignon, is often attributed as the creator of sparkling wine.  While this is not the case, he was instrumental in making significant improvements to the production and quality of Champagne.

The Champagne region is located in the northeast of France, and EU Law dictates that only wines manufactured in this region may bear the name Champagne.  Champagne is usually made from a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes.  Champagne is often the product of more than one vintage, given that they must age in the bottle for at least 1.5 years; most Champagnes are at least 3 years old.

Jura

The Jura wine region is located between Burgundy and Switzerland.  The cool climate produces some unusual wines, and because of the short growing season, grapes are often not harvested until late October.  The best known wine from Jura is Vin Jaune, which is aged for over 6 years and sold in a distinctive 62cl bottle.

Languedoc-Roussillon

The vineyards of Languedoc-Roussillon, in the South of France, cover an area three times the size of that covered by the vineyards of Bordeaux.  In 2001, wine production for the area was greater than that for the entire United States of America.

Vineyards in Languedoc-Roussillon grow a wide variety of grapes, and the wines created are as varied as the grapes produced. Because of this the region produces red, white and rose wines in abundance. Wines found in the area include Banyuls Grand Cru, which is a fortified wine, Corbières and Faugères.

Loire Valley

The Loire Valley wine region, in central France, stretches from Muscadet on the Atlantic coast to Pouilly –Fume southeast of Orleans.  The region has been producing wine since the 1st century and in the Middle Ages, the English and French prized wines from the Loire Valley more than the wines from Bordeaux.

Wines from this region, especially younger ones, tend to be crisp and fruity.  Varieties found in this area include Muscadet, Chinon, and Vouvray.

Provence

Wine has been made in Provence for over 2,500 years.  Today, Provence produces around 150 million bottles of AOC Rose wine each year.  Wine experts have noted that a good Provencal wine will include hints of lavender, rosemary and thyme drawn from the native plants of the region.  Provence roses tend to be dry, with an acidic zestiness.  The wines Bandol, Cassis, and Coteaux Varois are all produced in this region.

Rhône

Situated in the Rhône River Valley, in the South of France, the Rhône wine-making region is divided into two distinct sub-regions.  The Northern Rhone grows only Syrah red grapes, which have become more commonly known as Shiraz. Whilst many varieties of wine may contain a blend of more than one grape, the locally produced Cornas is only permitted to contain Syrah.  Northern Rhône reds may be identified by their aromas of green olives and smoky bacon.

The Southern Rhône, with its more Mediterranean climate, sometimes struggles with drought, however, with limited irrigation, the crops still flourish, and this enables the region to produce Châteauneuf-du-Pape which is a blend of ten red and nine grape varieties.  Red wines from the left bank tend to be rich and full-bodied, while those from the right tend to be lighter and fruitier.

Savoy

Savoy, or as the French say Savoie, is an Alpine region, the vineyards are located between lakes and mountains and the area is home to a number of grape varieties which struggle to grow anywhere else.  Chignin Bergeron, Mondeuse, and Pinot Noir are all produced in the area.

Whichever area of France you decide to visit, it is well worth taking the time to seek out the area’s best vineyards.  Many offer winery cellar tours where you can taste some of the finest wines produced by the estates.  In addition, many villages and towns have wine tasting rooms where you can often sample wines from a number of local vineyards.

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