French Wine 101

Wine has somehow got so associated with France that it is difficult to talk of wine and not about France. France is actually the second largest producer of wine but French wine is still hailed as the finest wine available. While a fair number of good wines hail from France, the country also has its share of ordinary wines with limited outstanding regional, varietal or vintage characteristics.

The French wine industry comprises of elements that are highly varied and of different nature. The French wine quality varies and ranges from exquisite to table wines as well. There are several regions in France and each region produces different types of wines with typical tastes. The quality of French wines is basically defined by the blend and recipe of grapes that are used in producing the particular blend. This is something that is typical of a chateau and no two chateaux will have the same quality, flavor, bouquet and variety of French wine that another has even if they are geographically close. There are various regions that produce low-quality wines due to the kind of grape that they use or due to constant overproduction of the grape quality wherein they are obliged to produce large quantities of cheap wines. However there are other regions like Bordeaux that are known for good quality wines that are in high demand.

There are basically 12 regions in France that produce wine and some of the names are world famous and produce some of the best wines in the world. These recognized wine producing regions are regulated by INAO- Institut National des Appellations d'Origine. The system through which it regulates is Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC), which translates as ‘controlled term of origin.’ The central concept of high quality wine is terroir, which refers to the unique combination of geographical factors associated with a particular vineyard. The concept of terroir is the base of the French wine AOC system that governs winemaking and production in France and has been the model for appellation and wine laws all over the world.

Only the finest wines are classified by AOC. To receive these appellations wines must be produced within specific regions and meet exacting standards of grape variety, quantity of harvest, alcohol content and techniques of vine growing and wine making. Some of the prominent regions are detailed hereunder.

Bordeaux wine, also called claret is the name given to numerous wines of the region surrounding the city of Bordeaux. The region is France’s most important region that makes exquisite French wines. This is primarily a red wine region but dry and white wines from Bordeaux are also available. Some of the best Bordeaux wines come from Médoc (bright, fresh and distinct character), St. Emilon (full bodied and darker colour, sometimes called masculine wines), Sauternes and Barsac (natural sweet wines with fruity and enduring flavour). Sweet wines from the Sauternes region of Bordeaux are considered to be the world’s finest wines. Looking for the vintage of wine is crucial while deciding on the wine since a bad crop or produce of grape in a particular year needs to be avoided. This basically means that one needs to be aware of the lesser harvest years each region has had to be able to choose good French wine. Although strict mandatory labeling is enforced inferior wines are sometimes still sold as Bordeaux wines.

Burgundy is more terroir conscious wine producing region in France and the names of some of the districts are controlled by AOC. Located in Eastern France, Burgundy is known for both red and white wines. The finest Burgundy wines come from Côte d'Or.

Champagne is the coldest of French wine regions and is the site of origin of classic sparkling wine. The term champagne is also applied generically, albeit with restrictions, to effervescent white or rosé wines produced outside France.

Alsace is mainly a white wine region and the region is famous for its varietal labeling. White wine is also produced in the Loire valley, a region that stretches along the Loire River where grape varieties vary all along the river. Rhône valley on the other hand is known for its red wines that traditionally compete with Bordeaux wines.

French laws governing wine production make it mandatory for all this information to be put on the label of a wine bottle. A typical French wine label contains a lot of information for a wine connoisseur. However, to a lay man the information may seem like Greek (or maybe French!). Apart from routine information of quantity and alcohol content fine French wines also display other information that is necessary to identify good wine from imitations.

- The name of the region
- The year in which it was classified
- The name of chateaux that produced it
- The appellation of the wine
- Vintage
- Another appellation of the wine that contains the word reference to appellation d’origine contrôlée
- The producer’s name
- A statement that the wine was bottled at the estate

Although not normally mentioned on the label, varietals along with style play an important role in the basic elements that give French wine its refreshing and tingly taste and make wine a drink that is cherished all over the world. French wines are produced in all styles, red, rosé, white (dry, sweet and semi-sweet), sparkling and fortified. Fortified wines are relatively unknown outside France. Most varieties of grapes are associated with a certain region, for example, Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux and Syrah in Rhône. Although some varieties of grapes are common to one or more regions, the laws governing cultivation are strict. Growing varieties other than the ones associated with a particular region can amount to declassification by AOC.

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About The Author, Scot Jamieson
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