Updated: Jan 13, 2020
Today we're going to look at the heavy-hitters of French wine.
If you haven't already read up on the French classification system, it's best to start there.
Let's move counter-clockwise from my majestic city of Lyon and go through the most influential wine regions of France.
Just north of Lyon, Beaujolais is a beautiful French wine region that has variously been extremely popular or completely maligned. This area is famous for Beaujolais Nouveau, a light and simple red wine that is released quickly after harvest, causing much celebration. Beaujolais is also home to finer wines, with different Crus including Morgon, Fleurie, and Brouilly.
This region is 99% red wine made from the Gamay grape, but there’s a tiny amount of Chardonnay produced as well. At best, these wines are deeply fruity, with complexity, richness, and a stellar price tag for the quality.
Burgundy / Bourgogne
North of Beaujolais but South of Champagne is Burgundy, which runs vertically alongside the Saône river. It’s very fancy and expensive, with plenty of Grand Crus and Premier Crus to choose from.
The reds are made from Pinot Noir, arguably the finest Pinot in the world, and the whites are Chardonnay.
Burgundy is made up of various sub-regions. From North to South these are:
Côte d’Ôr (hills of gold, cute, which is made up of Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune)
Burgundy is a small region and doesn’t produce a ton of volume, and it’s been highly prized since at least as far back as the Middle Ages. Ultimately these are incredibly elegant and sophisticated wines that are worth it if you can afford it, and they age very well.
Inexpensive Burgundy tends to not be great value for money, so unless you can get the good stuff, perhaps look towards other regions.
In French it is called Bourgogne, but we call it Burgundy in English.
Nestled in the rain shadow of the Vosges mountains in Northeastern France is the delightfully Germanic region of Alsace. Famous for its aromatic whites and picturesque villages, the top grapes in this French wine region are Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris.
Unlike their German neighbors, the Alsatians are known for dry Rieslings, although they do make exceptional dessert wines too.
This cool, continental climate makes delightful reds from Pinot Noir, which are light and fruit forward.
The other grapes grown here are Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Muscat, and then some random ones like Auxerrois and Sylvaner.
Alsace produces lots of Crémant sparkling wine, and has 51 Grand Cru designated vineyards.
Everybody knows and loves Champagne, the world’s original sparkling wine. This wine region is just East of Paris. Made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.
It is made by the traditional method of producing sparkling wine, whereby the second fermentation happens in the bottle.
Champagne is dominated by large brands, which produce high volumes and are often owned by massive corporations. Unpopular Opinion Alert: I think Champagne is overrated and bad value for money.
Small production Champagne exists and is having a moment, and I suggest you put your money there instead of towards handbag and whisky marketing.
Running from the Atlantic horizontally into the center of France and finishing up South of Paris is the Loire Valley. The Loire Valley is an expansive French wine region that covers a series of sub-regions producing lots of different wines. The most famous wine from this area is probably Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre.
I like to think of the Loire from East to West as NASTY.
Nantais is Muscadet, a super light white that can be slightly salty and slightly fizzy. It’s nice with oysters.
Anjou is known for off-dry Chenin Blanc.
Saumur is famous for its Cabernet Franc reds
Tourraine has a lot going on, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, home to appellations like Vouvray and Chinon.
There’s no Y but it helps me remember the acronym.
The westernmost part of the Loire, where the Y should be, is the Upper Loire, home to Sancerre and other celebrated Sauvignon Blanc vineyards.
Located in Southwest France, Bordeaux is super famous and considered very high end. It’s a huge region that covers a lot of ground and also produces massive volumes of wine, so while there is fancy stuff, there’s also a lot of accessible wine too.
Bisected by the Garonne river which flows in from the Atlantic, the area is divided into the Left Bank (to the East and South of the river), and the Right Bank (to the West and North of the river).
The Left Bank is famous for its strong, rich Cabernet Sauvignon based reds (Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec being the others included in the blend).
The fine wines of the Right Bank are made from just Merlo, and have a softer vibe, though they still pack a punch.
White Bordeaux is made from a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, and is often oaked. It’s peachy and delicious and not very popular right now, so it tends to be pretty good value.
Bordeaux is also home to Sauternes, rightfully considered to be the world’s top dessert wine.
Langedoc-Roussillon is a large, warm climate region in the South of France that wraps around the Eastern half of the French Mediterranean. It’s super diverse and good value.
Historically poor and unappreciated, there are plenty of old vines since people couldn’t afford to replant. There are a lot of grapes, and every type of wine is made here. Red wine, white wine, rosé, sparkling wine, sweet wine.
It’s a very cool region and the wine is extraordinarily good value for money.
The Rhône Valley starts at Lyon and runs via the Rhône river down to the Mediterranean. This is a large wine region, split in two, that starts off skinny at the North and then widens as it goes South.
It gets hot here.
The Northern Rhône is the home of Syrah, powerful, spicy reds from appellations like Côte-Rôtie and Crozes-Hermitage. It’s also famous for Condrieu, a very perfumed white made from the Viognier grape.
The Southern Rhône boasts Chateauneuf-du-Pape, another heavy hitter made up of a blend of 13 different grapes. Most of the red in the South is made from Grenache.
Whites are made from blends of Roussanne and Marsanne, and tend to be floral and aromatic.
There’s lovely rosé here too.
Côtes-du-Rhône is the basic entry level here, and is always a pretty good bet for an inexpensive red.
Why French Wine?
There’s plenty of amazing wine made around the globe, but France is still home to the world’s major grape varieties and is still at the forefront of quality wine production.
More than just Bordeaux and Champagne, French wine regions are worth learning about. There are so many great ones to choose from!