France has an extremely long, chaotic history with wine with 17 different wine regions and around 450 AOCs. French wine is very diverse in every meaning of the word with countless styles in taste, structure, and culture. The culture embedded in French wine is filled with community, politics, love, and overall, a lifestyle. Started by greek settlers in the 6th century BC; spread and grown by the Romans; perfected for thousands of years by those that we now call the French.
Everyone knows French wine, even if they do not drink or know anything about wine. People collectively refer to most sparkling wine as Champagne, even though it isn’t Champagne nine times out of ten. When people see a color that is not quite red or maroon but something in between, they usually call it Burgundy. The name Bordeaux automatically tends to carry an allure of luxury, status, and quality. Little do many know, that a fairly small portion of sparkling wine is actually Champagne. The color we call Burgundy got its name from the reddish-brownish hue commonly found in red Burgundy wine. Finally, Bordeaux is much more complicated than a name, and there are $8 bottles and $15,000 bottles made in this region. French wine is a beast of a topic, and for some, a hobby, but a beautiful beast at that.
Celtic, Greek, and Roman Gaul – Early history
To understand the history of French wine, you must also understand the history of France. You do not have to be an expert but knowing the basics will help. Their history starts when France did not exist as it does today and was part of a larger territory commonly called Gaul. The Celts were the native inhabitants of the French Gaul around this time period, and they excelled in woodworking, metalworking, and craftsmanship overall. Then with an affinity for art, literature, and wine, it is likely they were making some form of wine on their own.
Those that came next, the Greeks and Phonecians, better developed the viticulture and winemaking in the area. The Greeks worked with the Celts, likely teaching them better techniques and bringing better vines. The Phonecians actually founded Provence, of the oldest regions in France, which we still see today. With the Celts starting the process and the Greeks laying the foundation, the Roman empire built the house, so to say.
When the Romans gained control of France, they regulated it by different regions. They dictated what could be grown where and who could produce wine. Famously, monks were known for producing wine during this time both for religious and commercial purposes. From the first century BC to the sixth century AD, wine production would slowly spread more inland from the coastal regions to set the foundations for many of the regions we know today.
By the 7th century, the Roman Empire was slowly losing its hold and beginning to fall apart. Different Celtic and Germanic groups fought continuously and included groups such as the Franks, Visigoths, Scandanavian Vikings, and others. In what would be known as the Carolingian era, Charlamagne was crowned “King of Franks” by the Pope in the 8th century.
Conflicts and squabbles still ensued in a similar fashion, albeit with a bit more unity, until the beginning of the 19th century. During this time, infamous wars such as the 100 Years War and the 30 Years War took place. Different regions developed over these hundreds of years in different ways and at different paces. Those near ports and rivers such as Bordeaux, Rhone, and the Loire grew much faster than those more isolated such as Burgundy. France’s ups and downs with Great Britain and their relationships with other peoples such as the Dutch greatly affected the wine happenings as well.
With the French Revolution coming to a close and the 19th-century starting, France was in a bit of a chaotic state. Napoleon had eventually taken over as the de facto leader, and the country’s wine quality was struggling. In 1855, Napoleon had Bordeaux wine merchants create a ranking of the different wine AOCs of Bordeaux. They eventually came out with what would be known as the 1855 Classification of Bordeaux. This entailed a ranking of different chateaus as “First-Growths”, “Second-Growths”, and all the way to “Fifth-Growths”. There were five “First-Growths” which included some famous names such as Chateau Lafite, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Haut-Brion, and Chateau Mouton (now Mouton-Rothschild).
The wines of Burgundy, Rhone, and other regions grew in quality and reputation around this time as well. Thanks to viticulture and other scientific advancements such as chaptalization, French wine as a whole grew. This took an unfortunate turn for the worse in the mid-19th century as Phylloxera found its way to France. The country’s vineyards did not begin to recover until the beginning of the 20th century when they brought in grafted vines from Missouri.
While there may have been a glimpse of hope for a second, France’s wine industry would continue to struggle as World War I, World War II, and all sorts of political and economical unrest happened in between. That may have sounded a little too pessimistic, as France, and its wine industry still survived and continued to thrive afterward. The wine continued to grow in quality, and its reputation caught back up to its former glory. Additional AOCs were granted throughout the 20th century, and here we are today.
If you know much about French wine, you know how incredibly complex the individual wine regions can get. If you do not know, you will soon find out. Due to the complexity, we will provide brief overviews of the regions and add more detailed pages for them in the near future. As always, email us questions and dive in.
Bordeaux is one of the few wine regions of the world to have a style of wine named after them. In just about any decent wine shop, there will be bottles from the US, South America, and other places labeled as Bordeaux Blends. Traditionally, Bordeaux allows a handful of red and white grapes to be used in their blends. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot are commonly referred to as the “Noble Grapes” of Bordeaux, and Carmenere is also allowed for red wine. As for the whites, they allow Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle, Colombard, Merlot Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, and Ugni Blanc.
The region is commonly divided between the Left and Right Banks. The two parts are split between the largest Estuary in Europe, the Gironde, and two connecting rivers, the Dordogne and Garonne. The right bank is predominantly Merlot-based, while the left bank is usually Cabernet Sauvignon-based. Up to 60% of the region’s vineyards are filled with Merlot vines and 25% with Cabernet Sauvignon, then the remaining vineyard acreage is divvied up between the other varietals.
Bordeaux red blends can have a range of tastes, aromas, and styles. Some are known for being elegant and delicate, while others can tend towards the more full and chewy side. It is common to find notes of dark fruit, oak, and others. Even the less inexpensive Bordeaux can offer great quality, interesting terroir, and structure.
1855 Classification of Bordeaux
Bordeaux has accumulated five different classification systems since 1855, all of which are still in use today. The first, and arguably most important, is the 1855 Classification of Bordeaux which was commissioned by Napoleon III. Bordeaux wine merchants ranked the different AOCs of Bordeaux based on a variety of factors. This ranking is still fairly controversial as many of those factors were likely based on reputation, sales, and politics.
This included five “Growths” with the “First Growth” being the best. The First Growths includes the likes Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Haut-Brion, Chateau Margaux, and Chateau Latour. All of the First Growths are in the Medoc region except for Chateau Haut-Brion in Graves. Criticisms of this system have been frequent since and led to the creation of other, smaller classification systems.
The Saint-Emilion Classification
Saint-Emillion received recognition as an AOC in the 1930s, but it did not create its own classification system until 1955. As per the rules of its classification, the system is inspected and challenged every 10 years to maintain the standards and quality of Saint-Emilion. They have roughly kept up with this, as there have been six classifications since 1955. The last was in 2012, and the next is coming up in 2022. The classification system’s future is up in the air, as three of the four biggest wine producers have opted out of it in the past year. Things are subject to change as politics press on.
The Saint-Emilion Classification system is set up with Premier Grand Cru Classe A at the top and Premier Grand Cru Classe B right under it. They are usually grouped together under one for simplicity. Until recently, there were four Chateaus in Classe A. These included Chateau Angelus, Chateau Auson, Chateau Chevel Blanc, and Chateau Pavie. Now there is only one, Chateau Pavie, as the first three listed have opted out of the system for various reasons. There are 14 Chateaus in Classe B.
Then, there is the Grand Cru Classe which includes 85 Chateaus and producers. They are noted for their excellent quality and consistency in maintaining the region’s standards. Finally, the Right Bank’s Grand Crus make up the bottom tier and include hundreds of producers.
Other Classification Systems
The other classification systems are confined to specific AOCs within Bordeaux. They were created in some cases to set a baseline for their AOCs and build their reputation, and in others, to rank the different wines produced. While many of these classifications and terms have been used in meaningful, but unofficial capacities for centuries, they have just become official classifications in the past century. They include the 1855 classification of Sauternes and Barsac, The Graves Classification, The Crus Bourgeois du Medoc Classification, and The Crus Artisans Classification.
Bourgogne, more commonly known as Burgundy outside of France, produces only two types of wine – Pinot Noir and Burgundy. Many would argue that they do these two grapes the best. This is only emphasized more by the fact that Burgundy tends to be some of the most expensive and sought-after wines in the world. With around only 74,000 acres of vineyards, you might be surprised at the level that the region is held to.
The official regions of Burgundy are Chablis, the Côte d’Or, Côte Chalonnaise, Mâconnais. They are all fairly different in what wines they produce and the specific styles of the wine. For example, Chablis is famous for elegant, unoaked Chardonnay. In fact, that is the only wine that Chablis produces. On the other hand, Cote d’Or is split into Côte des Nuits (Pinot Noir) and Côte de Beaune (Chardonnay). These two sub-regions together contain over 30 Grand Cru growing plots. Then, Maconnais is known for its great value Burgundy Chardonnay. Finally, Cote Chalonnaise is the only region that specializes in another grape – Aligoté.
Grand Cru – The Grand Crus are considered to be the best of the best in Burgundy. There are 33 total Grand Crus, and they can all be found in the Cote d’Or region. Again, these are some of the most expensive and highly sought-after ones in the world.
Premier Cru – These are the next highest in the Burgundy rankings. They are supposed to be from vineyards with unusually exceptional climates. They are supposed to be from specific vineyards within specific villages.
Villages – These wines come from specific villages in Burgundy. These are typically still delicious wines with great quality but less expensive. They provide an excellent intro to Burgundy wine.
Regional (Bourgogne Rouge/Bourgogne Blanc) – These are the base level Burgundy wines. They are typically inexpensive and easy to drink. These can make “slugging” wines. The grapes can come from anywhere in Burgundy, so it also allows producers to make a variety of styles and to experiment.
Ah, Rhone. This is the best French wine in the world, though many people will disagree with that statement. Rhone has the incredible quality of Bordeaux and Burgundy without as many ridiculous prices. Good, everyday Rhone wine can be found for under $15, and really good Rhone wine can be found for under $30. Of course, wine can get as expensive here as anywhere, but you will get much better value for your money while drinking Rhone. Even the Pope moved the Catholic Church’s headquarters to Avignon in the 13th century, likely so he could be closer to the best wine in Europe.
The Rhone Valley can be found in southern France and has an extremely diverse climate and terror. It is covered by the general AOC, “Cotes du Rhone”. It is commonly split between Northern Rhone and Southern Rhone, where single-varietal Syrah is dominant in the North and Grenache-Syrah-Movoudre (GSM) blends are dominant in the South. While the region allows a whopping 21 grapes to be used, these three are by far the majority.
Cotes du Rhone – This is the general, entry-level Cotes du Rhone. The grapes can be sourced from anywhere in the Rhone Valley, and the only requirements are the 21 allowed grapes and a minimum of 11% alcohol. These are typically very inexpensive and easy to drink, yet still delicious.
Cotes du Rhone Villages
There are 21 “Villages” in the Rhone Valley that were deemed to be of great quality. These grapes can come from any of these villages.
(Specific) Cotes du Rhone Villages
While this may not be an official part of the classification, it is commonly separated for easier understanding and clarification. If the grapes from the wine all came from a specific village, then they can put that village’s name on the label. While the general “Villages” label is a step up, having a more specific location usually means better quality wine. Common Villages to find in most stores include Vinsobres, Sablet, Puyméras, and Visan.
These are the top-tier Rhone wines and where they tend to jump in price. They get this prestigious classification due to a variety of factors such as history, quality, consistency, and unique terroir. There are 17 total crus with 8 in the north and 9 in the south. Some famous crus in the north include Côte-Rôtie, Crozes-Hermitage, and Hermitage. A few in the south include Chateauneuf du Pape, Lirac, Tavel, and Gigondas.
Provence is a fairly small region tucked away in southeastern France with only 49,000 acres of vineyards. The region has an excellent, dry climate with warm days and cool nights; surrounded by the Rhone River and the Mediterranean Sea; and a variety of wild-growing herbs and plants mixed with rough mountains. In the US, Provence is particularly known for their Rosé, though they produce a large variety of different grapes and styles.
There are over 25 different grapes allowed in the region, which are split and even shared among the reds, whites, and rosés. The most common red grapes include Mouvedre, Grenache, Syrah, and Cinsault while the most common white varietals include Roussanne, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Clairette, and Ugni Blanc.
The nine different AOCs of Provence have different variations of allowed grapes and styles. Cotes de Provence is the largest producer and accounts for a whopping 75% of wine production in the region with nearly 90% of that belonging to rosé. Other significant AOCs include Cassis, which is known for white blends made of Marsanne and Clairette. Then there is Bandol, which is known for extremely well made and unique rosés as well as red blends made from Mouvodre and Grenache.
The Loire region is spread across 185,000 acres of vineyards in western and central France. It has a moderate climate and is heavily influenced by the Atlantic Ocean on its western borders and the Loire River and mountains that run through the middle of it. The dominant grapes are Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and Cabernet Franc, and these are broken down between seven regions and 87 appellations. Other grapes such as Pinot Gris, Gamay, Pinot Noir, Malbec, and Muscade are less commonly grown grapes as well.
Anjou, Auvergne, Cremant de Loire, Pays Nantais – Muscadet, Touraine, Upper Loire, and Vendee-Poitou make up the seven regions of the Loire Valley. Overlooked, but great wines to look for here include cabernet franc-based rosés from Anjou, Muscadet wines in Pays Nantais that are comparable to Burgundy Chardonnay; Pinot Noir and Gamay from a handful of these. The big names here, many of which are easy to find at great prices, include Cabernet Franc from Chinon, Chenin Blanc from Vouvray, and Savugonin Blanc from Sancerre.
By reputation, Champagne is just as famous and integrated as Bordeaux. Names such as “Moet” and “Dom Perignon” are familiar to most people in some sense, even if they don’t know what these actually are. Many people commonly refer to sparkling wine in general as Champagne, and while all Champagne is sparkling wine, not all bubbles are Champagne. Matter of fact, most sparkling wine isn’t even Champagne. To legally be considered Champagne, it must come from Champagne, France.
Champagne is in northeast France, just a little way outside of Paris. The three main grapes are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. The entire region is under one AOC, the Champagne AOC, but there are five sub-regions. Montagne de Reims, Cote des Blancs, and Vallee de la Marne are are the three biggest of the five. There are 17 “Grand Cru Villages”, and 9 of them are in Montagne de Reims.
Nestled between Burgundy and Rhone Valley, Beaujolais can be found in southeastern France. The region has an interesting history with political and rebellious beginnings. The region is known for Gamay and hardly allows and uses any other grapes. There are 12 AOCs and more than 95 villages in the region with 10 Crus. The 10 Crus are great at highlighting the versatility and diversity of the many styles of gamey within the region. These range from lighter and more fruit-forward wines to more earthy and full-bodied wines and everything in between.
Alsace is in northeastern France along the French-German border and is centered around the city of Stroudsburg. This could explain why Riesling and Gewurztraminer are two of the biggest varietals produced here alongside Muscat, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc. There are also small amounts of Pinot Noir produced in its usual red form and as rosé.
Alsace is split between two regions with Bas-Rhin in the mountainous northern part and Haut-Rhin in the southern foothills. Alsace wine, particularly the whites, is known for being very perfumey, rich, and soft. This will be the perfect region for white wine lovers that shy away from the dryer whites.
Languedoc-Roussillon is the biggest wine region in the world by total acres under vine with over 740,000 acres growing grapes. It is often overlooked for its more famous neighbors, but the region produces a lot of great quality wine for a great value. Common red varietals include Grenache, Syrah, Mouvedre, and Cabernet Sauvignon, while common white varietals include Piquepoul, Roussanne, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc. Famous regions include Picpoul de Pinet, Corbières, and St. Chinian.
Corsica is a bit of an oddball in French wine regions. The region is a French island between Provence, France, and Tuscany, Italy, but closer to the Italian side. Even by French standards, they have an extremely diverse range of varietals with Italian, French, and Spanish grapes. Their two big grapes are Vermentino and Sangiovese, more commonly known as Rolle and Nielluccio on the island. They also produce Tempranillo, Pinot Noir, and Barbaresco plus over 30 more.
The island’s Mediterranean climate provides the perfect weather for optimal viticulture and grape yields. The entire island is covered by the Vin de Corse AOC and then split into seven smaller AOCs situated around the coastal regions of Corsica. Corsican wines have grown in reputation and quality in the past decades, so they can provide an interesting introduction to an overlooked part of France.
Sud Ouest (South West France)
Sud Ouest, also known as South West, is conveniently located in spouts throughout southwestern France. The region has around 120,000 acres under vine and is surrounded by Bordeaux, Spain, and the Pyrenees Mountains. Some people describe it as “the poor man’s Bordeaux”, though that is not a great description with there being very affordable Bordeaux and very expensive Sud Ouest. In other, more accurate terms, Sud Ouest is often overlooked due to its lack of reputation as a whole, so their wines tend to be better priced and of great quality. Their red and white varietals are a general blend of French whites.
The way that Sud Ouest differs themselves from Bordeaux, though, is that their wine seems to be more focused on specific varietals, particularly in their more well-known regions. For example, in Bergerac, the reds are going to be more akin to Bordeaux. Big, fruit-driven blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Côt (Malbec), while their whites are going to come off as a blend of Provence and Loire with varietals such as Sauvignon Blanc, Ugni Blanc, Semillon, Chenin Blanc, and Muscadelle.
Next, there is Madiran, which is located in Gascony in the southwestern part of southwestern France. This is the dominant Tannat AOC of France, where the only other grapes allowed are Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc in smaller quantities.
Finally, there is Sud Ouest’s pride and joy, Cahors. This is the Malbec region of France, and it has one of the most interesting and reputable histories in French wine. Hundreds and even thousands of years ago, Cahors wine was known as “Black Wine” for its boldness and darkness. The wine was favorited and frequented by the Romans, the Pope, the British monarchy, and even the Russian monarchy. Many people are familiar with the beautiful wine that is Argentinean Malbec, but Cahors puts the grape in a completely different and enjoyable light.