As well as being one of the world’s largest wine producers, France also has a very long-standing reputation for producing many of the world’s greatest wines, especially the distinctive wines from the Bordeaux region and Burgundy from the eponymous region in eastern France.
Many of the most famous Bordeaux vineyards are quite small compared to vineyards in other parts of the world. Within that region many also lie shoulder-to-shoulder and toe-to-toe, yet the wines produced can be quite different in characteristics and personality (and value).
For Bordeaux vineyards, immense importance is given to terroir – meaning the precise geographical position, type of soil (a limestone foundation, giving a well drained soil structure rich in calcium) and variations in the microclimate. All this, added to the harvest quality, the timing of the harvest, how the wine is “made”, how it is stored and bottled and nurtured, all this is a large part of what makes the best Bordeaux wines outstanding and fascinatingly complex.
To the west of the region, nearest to the Atlantic coast, lie the appellations of Margaux, Médoc, Paulliac, and Saint-Julien, to name four of the best known in that region.
Travelling south to the south-west region, we encounter Barsac, Graves, and Sauternes. Move south-east and we find Cadillac Côtes de Bordeaux, Graves de Vayres, Loupiac, Premières Côtes de Bordeaux amongst others. To the east lie the appellations of Saint-Émilion, and Pomerol. Completing our anti-clockwise journey around Bordeaux, in the north of the region lie the appellations of Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux, and Côtes de Bourg.
Of the finest or first growth, we should name:
- Château Lafite-Rothschild, in the appellation Pauillac
- Château Margaux, in the appellation Margaux
- Château Latour, in the appellation Pauillac
- Château Haut-Brion, in the appellation Péssac-Leognan
- Château Mouton Rothschild, in the appellation Pauillac, promoted from second to first growth in 1973
Wines from the Bordeaux region have been prized for centuries and there are references to the shipments of Bordeaux wines to Britain as far back as the 14th century and beyond (see Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, late 1300s).
For our next famous French wine region we travel east to Bourgogne where there are some one hundred vineyards designated as “appellation d’origine contrôlée” (AOC). The Burgundy region runs from Auxerre in the north to Mâcon in the south, or to Lyon in the Beaujolais area which is included as part of Burgundy. Within this region we find the famous names of:
- Côte d’Auxerre (Chablis)
- Côte de Nuits
- Côte de Beaune
- Côte Chalonnaise
The vineyards of Burgundy produce some of the world’s most prized wines, with prices to match. However, as experts have warned many times, prices are an extremely unreliable guide. And yet the Grand Crus from this region inevitably set the benchmark when it comes to market trends, with many of the top Burgundies now increasingly valued as investment wines.
The most esteemed villages or communes are:
We must also mention the superb white Burgundies made from one of the dominant grape varieties in the region, Chardonnay.
There are currently eight Grand Cru vineyards that are justly famous for these impeccable white wines: “Montrachets”-Montrachet, Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet, Bâtard-Montrachet, Chevalier-Montrachet, Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet as well as Charlemagne, Corton-Charlemagne and Le Musigny. These are doubtless the greatest dry white wines in the world.
NICE AND MARSEILLE
Located in the South East of France, Nice and Marseille belong to the French wine-producing region of Provence, the warmest wine region of the country, close to the Mediterranean, which produces mainly rosé and red wine. However the AOC region of Cassis, in Provence, does specialise in white wine production. This region has a rich history of winemaking, with wines made in this region for at least 2,600 years. The main grape variety is Mourvèdre, however Provence makes over 1,000 kinds of wines, often blended with Grenache and Cinsault, Braquet, Calitor, Folle and Tibouren. The major white wine grapes of Provence include the Rhône varieties of Bourboulenc, Clairette, Grenache blanc, Marsanne and Viognier, as well as Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, Semillon Rolle and Ugni blanc. The best vineyards in the Provence region include the Château de Beaucastel, owned by the Perrin brothers, which grows all 13 varieties of grape allowed in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation. The Domaine de Fontavin, set six miles north of Carpentras is also worth a visit. This vineyard is one of the leading producers of the heady, sweet desert wine Muscat des Beaumes de Venise.
Montpellier is the capital of the Languedoc-Roussillon wine making region in southern France. This region is dominated by 740,300 acres of vineyards, and has been an important winemaking centre for several centuries. It is the single biggest wine-producing region in the world, responsible for more than a third of France’s total wine production. As a result of the sheer size of this region, it produces most of France’s cheap bulk wines. Languedoc-Roussillon is a major contributor to Europe’s wine lake – the continuing surplus of wine in the European Union. The region is home to numerous varieties, including Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Traditional Rhône grapes include Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah and Voignier. Roussanne, Vermintino, Grenache blanc and Maccabéo are just some of the varieties that can be found here. Fitou is one of the oldest vineyards in Languedoc-Roussillon, most of these grapes are red and produce a dark, fleshy red wine.
THE LOIRE VALLEY
The Loire Valley is quite a large region, and is often split into three different parts. The Upper Loire includes the Sauvignon Blanc dominated areas of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé and the Middle Loire is dominated by Chenin blanc and Cabernet franc wines which are found in the regions around Touraine and Vouvray. Wines of the Melon de Bourgogne grape dominate the Lower Loire. Historically, the vineyards of the Loire Valley were small, family owned operations, however the 1990’s saw a sharp rise in co-operatives, and now around half of the wines in the Sancerre area is bottled by either co-operatives or wine merchants.
The Rhône wine region is in Southern France, and is the second largest French AOC region in terms of surface area and production. It consists of two smaller regions – Northern Rhône and Southern Rhône. The northern region tends to produce red wines from the Syrah grape, and white wines from the Marsanne, Roussane and Viognier grapes. Southern Rhône specialises in producing an array of red, white and rosé wines, often blended into the renowned Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a mixture of several grapes. The regional temperature variations affect the type of wines grown – the northern Rhône is characterised by a climate with harsh winters but warm summers. Syrah or Shiraz, is the only red grape variety permitted in red AOC wines for this region, it is very popular with consumers and can be used exclusively, whereas other reds must be blended together with the white wine grapes. The south of the region has a more Mediterranean climate with milder winters and hot summers, the Châteauneuf-du-Pape produced in this region can contain up to 19 varieties of wine grapes (ten red and nine white). Many private wineries also produce wines of their own creation including sparkling and fortified wines and single varietals from the Syrah grape.
The geography of this region has defined the character of the wines here – fresh, crisp and white. The region’s wine labels usually bear a white cross on a red background, the flag of both Switzerland and Savoie. Most of the regions wines (around three quarters) are whites due to the cooler climate. Jacquere is the most widely planted white grape, although Altesse or Roussette produces Savoie’s finer wines, specifically under its own Roussette de Savoie and Rossette de Bugey appellations. The standout red wine in this region is Mondeuse, which produces deep coloured, peppery wines that can be quite bitter. Vineyards are located on the steep, sub-alpine slopes of the Combe de Savoie valley – around the villages of Arbin, Montmelian, Chignin, Apremont and Cruet. However unfortunately, as a result of this isolated location and the phylloxera crisis of the 1870s, very little Savoie wine actually makes it onto the international markets.