Wines of France
If you’ve been following my WSET Diploma studies in wine, you know we’ve been studying French wine regions since the end of March. During this time, I’ve committed myself to sipping only French wines. Friends and family have had to endure this with me, although I don’t think it’s much of a sacrifice.
The only sacrifice might be them tolerating my constant analysis of the wine we’re imbibing, as I’m sure they’d prefer to just enjoy the wine.
As I was sharing this vast information one evening, I was asked if I could provide a cheat sheet or something like CliffsNotes (do these still exist?). Hmmm? Could I do this?
Well, this is my attempt to sum up France is the most concise way possible.
If you’re a Somm, wine expert or French, you will probably scoff at my overly simplified breakdown of the most popular French wines and thus, I suggest you stop reading now.
However, if you’re someone who is either new to wine or desires to begin exploring French wines but doesn’t know where to start, then this might help you begin your journey.
European wine regions are hard to understand because they often label wines by region rather than grape varietal. For instance, Bourgogne is a region that only produces Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but you won’t find Chardonnay or Pinot noir written on the label, rather it will be labeled Bourgogne or even one of the smaller appellations within Bourgogne (this is like labeling a Napa Valley wine by one of the smaller areas within Napa where the grapes were grown such as Rutherford or Stags Leap).
However, since as Americans we recognize wines by varietals, I’ve chosen to organize this list by varietals and then provide the corresponding region(s) within France to find them.
I think it is always helpful to know price range of these wines so here is how they’ll be classified.
Price is broken into the following categories:
- Inexpensive: under $15
- Mid-priced $15-30
- Expensive $30-$50
- Premium- Over $50
- Super premium- Over $100
After you peruse this, I’d love to hear feedback if you found it helpful or if just confused you more? Please email me or DM Instagram @decantu9
CABERNET SAUVIGNON, MERLOT AND CABERNET FRANC
Bordeaux in Southwest France is home to these varietals, but they are almost always blends of at least two of these varietals.
Here are the common labels you’ll see and what they mean:
Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur: generic appellation that means it is a blend of any combo of these varietals, but often primarily Merlot. These wines are acceptable to good quality at inexpensive and mid-priced ranges.
Many times you’ll hear Bordeaux wines being called Right Bank or Left Bank, but these terms won’t be on a label. Rather they’ll be labeled with the name of the specific appellation on the right or left bank the grapes were grown. Below is a breakdown of those regions and what the different styles will be. Overall, these wines will be good to outstanding in quality and expensive to super premium in price.
Saint-Émilion or Pomerol: regions on the right bank where Merlot is dominant and usually blended with Cabernet Franc.
Médoc and Haut Médoc, Pauillac, Margaux, Saint-Julien or Saint-Estèphe: regions on the left bank that produce wines dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon. Often these wines need a little longer time aging to be approachable.
Graves and Pessac-Léognan: regions a little further south that typically produces red blends of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. These too are still good to very good quality and expensive and higher prices.
The Loire Valley in northern France is also known for growing Cabernet Franc as well as a small amount of Cabernet Sauvignon. Look for labels that say Saumur-Champigny, Bourguiel or Chinon to try the wines from this region that will often be a better value than those from Bordeaux.
Burgundy (Bourgogne) produces some of the best Pinot Noir in the world, and therefore also, some of the most expensive. Here’s a breakdown of this region.
Bourgogne: the most generic appellation that produces wines from grapes grown anywhere in in this region, but typically from what are considered lesser quality sites. These will be mid-priced and good quality. They’re a good place to start exploring this region.
The more specific and smaller the regions, typically the higher the quality and price. The next smaller region after Bourgogne that you might find on labels are Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits.
These even smaller appellations indicate high quality wines—Aloxe-Corton, Chambolle-Musigny. Gevrey-Chambertin, Nuits-Saint-Georges, Pommard, Volnay, Vosne-Romanée. Additionally on these labels you will see either the designation of Grand Cru or Premium Cru. Grand Cru and Premier Cru wines are sold at premium and super-premium prices
Côte Chalonnaise is another region a little further south that also produce high quality wines, but at a better value. Many wine experts believe this is an underrated region that is worth exploring. The label might designate even smaller sub-regions within this area— Mercurey or Givry.
Outside of Burgundy you can find other delicious Pinot Noir usually at better prices that will be identified on the label as Alsace or Sancerre from the Loire Valley.
This one is simple because Rhône is where the best Syrah in France is grown, primarily in Northern Rhône. Typically, the label “Côtes du Rhône” is a blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre so if you want only Syrah look for these labels: Côte Rôtie, Saint-Joseph, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage and Cornas.
GSM BLENDS – GRENACHE, SYRAH AND MOURVÈDRE
Southern Rhône and the south of France is where you’ll find delicious examples of these blends. As mentioned above, Côtes du Rhône is the most common and generic appellation that is a blend of these varietals. These will be good quality wines in the inexpensive to mid-priced range.
A few smaller sub-regions that produce these blends, but use predominantly Grenache are Gigondas, Vacqueyraa, Vinsobres, Rasteau, Cairanne, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Lirac. These will be good to outstanding quality anywhere from mid-priced to premium.
Languedoc in the south of France is also a region where Grenache dominates, along with the Carignan grape. You can find some good value wines here under the Languedoc label, as well as wines labeled Corbières, Minnervois and Saint-Chinian.
Beaujolais is almost exclusively a producer of Gamay. Gamay overall produces a light body, fruity wine that’s perfect for the Pinot Noir lover or white wine drinker seeking a red to try. Here’s a breakdown of this region…
Beaujolais Nouveau: a young, very fruity, light body wine. These are typically inexpensive and acceptable quality wines. You’ll find an abundance of these on grocery store shelves around Thanksgiving, as they are usually released the third Thursday in November.
Beaujolais: These will be better quality than the Nouveau style, but still inexpensive and acceptable quality wines.
Beaujolais Villages: These wines will have a little more complexity while still being light body. Typically mid-priced, good quality wines.
Brouilly, Chiroubles, Fleurie, Moulin-à-Vent and Morgon are higher quality Beaujolais wines that will have more intensity of fruit aromas and slightly more body. These will usually be expensive to premium priced.
While it is grown in a few other places, Bourgogne is where it reigns! Both in the Côte d’Or, as well as in Chablis further north.
Here is a breakdown of the Chardonnay labels in Bourgogne…
Chablis: Chablis only produces Chardonnay. These wines are usually brighter and lighter styles of Chardonnay. Basic Chablis will be good quality at mid-priced to expensive prices. Those designated Premium or Grand Cru are good to outstanding wines at expensive and higher prices.
Bourgogne: the most generic appellation that produces wines from grapes grown anywhere in Bourgogne but typically from what are considered lesser quality sites. These will be mid-priced and good quality. They’re a good place to start exploring this region.
Similar to Pinot Noir from Bourgogne, within these larger areas are much smaller appellation names that will be found on the labels which indicated high quality wines. A few of the most well-known for Chardonnay are Corton, Meursault, Saint-Aubin, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet. Additionally, these labels my also have a designation of Grand Cru or Premium Cru making them priced premium to super-premium.
Mâcon-Villages on a label signifies good value chardonnay.
Pouilly-Fuissé, Saint-Véran and Viré-Clessé are all smaller sub-appellations within the Mâcon-Villages that produce good to very good quality chardonnay in the mid-priced range.
Two primary regions produce Sauvignon Blanc—the Loire Valley and Bordeaux. In Bordeaux, it is usually blended with Sémillon, which creates fuller body wines. These wines will be identified by being labeled Bordeaux Blanc and will be good value wines. Graves is another label to look for and these wines will be good quality at inexpensive to mid-prices wines.
The Loire Valley is where Sauvignon Blanc shines in France. Sancerre is probably the most notable region and wines with this label will be good to outstanding quality in the mid-priced to expensive range.
Pouilly-Fumé is also a region in the Loire Valley that makes good quality Sauvignon Blanc that is typically a little softer and rounder with less fruit intensity than Sancerre.
Many associate Riesling with Germany, but there are several delicious styles, often dry, produced in the Alsace region of France. The important thing to note is if you see “Vendange Tardive” or Sélection de Grains Nobles” on the bottle these indicate it is a sweet wine.
OTHER WHITE WINES OF FRANCE
France produces many other white wines in a variety of styles that are fun wines to add to your repertoire. Here are a few to seek out…
Chenin Blanc is mainly grown in the Loire Valley of France and is produced in dry to sweet styles. Unfortunately, it’s sometimes hard to know what’s in the bottle because there is no sweetness scale or designation on the bottle. In general wines labeled Savennières will be dry and those labeled Vouvray will showcase some level of sweetness.
Picpoul de Pinet: a medium body, high acid wine made which is a simple yet, acceptable wine at inexpensive prices.
Muscadet or Muscadet Sèvre et Maine: light body wines from the Loire Valley made from the Melon grape that are good quality at inexpensive prices.
Gewurztraminer from Alsace will be sweet.
Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc are primarily grown in Alsace and can be sweet or dry. Like Riesling from Alsace, “Vendange Tardive” or Sélection de Grains Nobles” on the bottle these indicate it is a sweet wine.
Marsanne, Rousanne, Viognier, Clairett, Bourboulenc and Grenache Blanc are all primarily grown in the Rhône Valley and southern France. Condrieu is a region in northern Rhône that produces 100% Viognier wine. Otherwise, almost any white wine from Rhône or Southern France will be comprised of one or multiples of these grapes in the wine. There are white wines produced in Châteauneuf-du-Pape but these are not allowed to have Marsanne or Viognier
We can’t neglect to mention rosé because some of the best in the world come from southern France: Look for a label with Provence, Bandol or Tavel.