French Wine 101 Cheat Sheet (#Winophiles)



Today I’m continuing the new year back to basics with a look at French wine essentials. 

We kicked off 2020 with a look at Italian wine essentials, and luckily France has a far more manageable number of regions to get to know than Italy. Still, today we’ll cover seven of the most famous major regions to keep things manageable. I will also be updating this page from time to time, as I add new content.

Before we get to know the zone though, let’s cover a few other essential details that will hopefully come in handy when picking out a bottle of French wine. 



LABELING

Naming


In France naming almost always goes by the region (as opposed to in Italy, where it can be by region or grape or a combo, or in the New World where we usually label by grape.) So while the bottle might say “Burgundy,” for example, it’s assumed that the buyer would know that a red wine from this region is made of Pinot Noir, and a white wine is made of Chardonnay.

The Quality Pyramid(s)

There are three tiers in the general French quality pyramid. From the top down they are:
  • AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) – This indicates geographical origin of the wine, and wines must also adhere to certain quality standards and general style to receive the status. This might include grapes, yields, and alcohol level among other things. The Europe-wide equivalent of AOC is AOP (Appellation d'Origine Protégée).
  • VdP (Vin de Pays) – means 'wine of the land'.This category focuses on geographical origin rather than style and tradition, and gives winemakers more freedom than allowed under AOC rules. Its Europe-wide equivalent is IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée).
  • VdF (Vin de France) – is the most basic tier. (It replaced the Vin de Table category in 2010.) It’s the least regulated category, but also the least used. VdF wines can be made from grapes grown anywhere in France, and the labels don’t mention a specific region of origin, and vintage and grape variety may or may not be included.

Beyond this, different regions have different ways of indicating further quality tiers. Many have levels of “crus”, but the ways they’re implemented vary from place to place; for example, rank might be applied by the vineyard, village, château, etc. I’ve done my best to give an overview by region below where applicable.

Beyond this, different regions have different ways of indicating further quality tiers. Many have levels of “crus”, but the ways they’re implemented vary from place to place; for example, rank might be applied by the vineyard, village, château, etc. I’ve done my best to give an overview by region below where applicable. 


See this article on Wine Searcher for additional labeling terms.


KEY REGIONS

Champagne

A selection of Champagnes I've recently enjoyed in different styles: Marc Hebrart Brut Primier Cru, Pierre Gimonnet & Fils Sélection Belles Anées Blanc de Blancs Brut, Dhondt-Grellet Les Terres Fines Blanc de Blancs Premier Cru Extra Brut, Pierre Gerbais L'Audace Brut Nature, Launois Cuvée Reserve Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne.

Let’s kick things off with a festive note and the diva of the sparkling wine world. This diva, however, doesn’t live in the most forgiving of climates. Located about an hour’s train ride from Paris, Champagne is France’s northernmost wine region. so it gets quite cold here. It’s also situated inland, giving it a continental climate. It’s famous for its chalky soils, and the elaborate caves of many big Champagne houses have been carved out of these chalky soils.

Star Grapes:
Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier

Supporting Players: You don’t hear about them that often, but there are actually other grapes allowed in the Champagne blend: Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Petit Meslier and Arbane.

Key Areas:  Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne, Côte des Blancs, Côte de Sézanne, and The Aube. You don’t tend to see these in prominent position on labels as much at the moment, because traditionally producers have blended grapes from many areas. However, there is growing interest in terroir driven Champagne, so it’s possible you might start to see them more often in the future.

Other Imports Factors:
Champagne is made via the traditional method, which means there are two fermentations, and the second fermentation that creates the bubbles occurs in bottle.

Knowing the sweetness scale terms is useful for finding a bottle you like or that suits your purposes:

Brut Nature/ Brut Zero 0-3 g/l RS
Extra Brut 0-6 g/l RS
Brut 0-12 g/l RS
Extra Dry 12-17 g/l RS
Dry 17-32 g/l RS
Demi-Sec 32-50 g/l RS
Doux 50+ g/l RS
 

Extra Credit: Champagne has a couple of still wine appellations: Rosé de Riceys and Coteaux Champenois.

Champagne is always a perfect accompaniment to a cheese plate! Pictured here is a Brut from Henriot.

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Bordeaux

A selection of Bordeaux bottles, mostly from dinner parties. Thanks to all who poured us baller bottles: Top: Ch. Smith Haut Lafitte Pessac-Leognan 2012Ch. Leoville-Las Cases Clos du Marquis Saint-Julien 1996. Bottom: Ch. Kirwan Margaux 2010, Ch. La Graviere Blanc Entre-deux-Mers 2018, Ch. Haut Bergeron L'Ilot de Haut-Bergeron Sauternes 2016.

Bordeaux has pretty much been always been “a thing” thanks to its clutch location as a port on the Atlantic Ocean, so the business of wine has always been as visible here as the craft of wine. International entities are big players in the region, and the en primeur system, which is essentially a futures market, can give the impression that these wines are more like stocks than something to drink. In between all the hullabaloo of the region’s famous châteaux, there are smaller producers making affordable wines as well.

Star Grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc.

Supporting Players: Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Carmenere. White wines from the region are from Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Muscadelle.

Key Areas:
The Gironde estuary begins at the meeting point of the Garonne and Dordogne rivers, which then gives way to the Atlantic Ocean. The bodies of water form the framework for understanding the region, dividing it into its major subregions: the Left Bank (which splits into the Médoc and Graves); the Right Bank (the most famous sub-regions are Pomerol and Saint-Emilion); and Entre-Deux-Mer is the land in between the Garonne and Dordogne rivers. The grapes don’t really change, but they flip in importance depending on where you are. Cabernet Sauvignon is king on the Left Bank and tends to play greater importance in the blends there. Meanwhile, Merlot drives the blends of the Right Bank, often with an assist from Cab Franc. In general the other red grapes, serve as “seasoning” throughout the region. Entre-Deux-Mer is the main area for white wine production, and is the home of the region’s famous dessert wines, such as Sauternes.

Other Important Factors: In Bordeaux it’s all about the château. Cru status is awarded to the winery, rather than to the vineyard or village. Things get a little confusing here too because the different subsections have different cru systems. That said, the classification system is of most particular importance on the Left Bank, where the châteaus were ranked into 5 tiers of growths or crus. Napoleon III created the rankings in 1855 and they haven’t changed much since. There has been only one change to the 1st Growths in all of that time, when Château Mouton Rothschild joined Châteaus Latour, Lafite Rothschild, Magaux, and Haut-Brion after years of petitioning and work.


BdX Blanc has a little more texture than a lot of other styles of Sauvignon Blanc thanks to the other grapes, as well as the winemaking, so it can handle foods with a little more texture as well, like this chicken with gravy and bacon.

Chateau La Graviere Blanc Entre-deux-Mers 2018

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Burgundy

Located south of Champagne, Burgundy has a similarly cold, continental climate. In one sense it’s among the easiest wine regions to get a handle on, as you’re generally talking about two grapes. On the other hand, this is TERROIR central, definitely all caps. Burgundy can frustrate and beguile in equal measure and you can easily spend a lifetime studying it alone.

Star Grapes: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir

Key Areas:
From north to south the major subregions are Chablis, the Côte-d’Or (which is split into the Côte de Nuits and the Côte de Beaune), the Côte Chalonnaise, and the Mâconnais. The most famous vineyards in Burgundy – the Grand Crus – are all located in the Côte-d’Or, but there are good values to be found in the Côte Chalonnaise and the Mâconnais. Chablis kind of marches to the beat of its own drummer in terms of style, which is much leaner and steelier than the rest of the region.

Other Imports Factors: It’s all about the terroir in Burgundy. Their Cru hierarchy is organized around the vineyards, and you usually have many producers making wines from the same vineyard. Each grower might own just a few rows. From the top down their quality pyramid levels are Grand Cru (such as Clos de Vougeot, Corton, and Montrachet), Premier Cru (such as Volnay and Vosne Romanée), village (like Meursault, Morey-Saint-Denis, and Santenay), and regional wines. See this useful guide on Wine Searcher to understanding labels from Burgundy.

Extra Credit: There are always exceptions in wine, even in Burgundy which is so hyper-focused on two grapes. You’ll also find Gamay, Aligoté, and Saint-Bris is an appellation dedicated to wines made from Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris. Pinot and Chard so dominate in the region though, that they’re more like cameo appearances than supporting players.


This Domaine Savary Chablis paired beautifully with Scallops and Brussels Sprouts.

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  Beaujolais

Marcel Lapierre Morgon 2017 and Jean-Louis Dutraive Domaine de la Grand'Cour La Part des Grives Fleurie 2015 . Morgon and Fleurie are two of the Crus of Beaujolais.

Beaujo, as a wine region, is often counted as the southernmost part of Burgundy, but it’s also governmentally a part of the Rhône. Yeah, that’s weird. It’s also known for a different grape than Burgundy, so we’ll go ahead and count it as it’s own thing for our purposes here. The red wines tend to be light to medium bodied and are extremely food friendly.

Star Grape: Gamay

Supporting player:
Chardonnay. If you see a Beaujolais Blanc, Chard would be the grape.

Key Areas: Beaujolais has a few quality tiers. You have the base level regional Beaujolais, and Beaujolais Villages is a step up from that. Then the are the Beaujolais Crus –– 10 villages that have proven their quality over time, and get to have their names appear on the label instead of Beaujolais. They are: Brouilly, Côte de Brouilly, Régnié, Morgon, Chiroubles, Fleurie, Moulin-a-Vent, Chenas, Julienas, and Saint-Amour.

Other Important Factors: Nouveau. The famous harvest wines that are released the third Thursday of every year helped make a name for the region, but they’re not all the region is about. These wines are made using a technique called carbonic-maceration that makes for fresh, fruity, easy drinking wines intended for early consumption. They can be fun, but the Crus also produce elegant, more serious wines. 


Beaujolais Cru is super versatile. Here I paired a bottle of Domaine Lucien Lardy Moulin-a-Vent Les Thorins 2017 with leftover salmon with cauliflower gnocchi and veggies. If you're looking for reds to pair with seafood, Beaujolais are a go-to becasue the tannins tend to not be too intense.

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Rhône


Not going to lie to you, I have a major soft spot of the Rhône. My “epiphany wine,”  was a Chateauneuf-du-Pape and the region is still a favorite. The Rhône Valley follows the Rhône River and is split into major sub-zones – north and south. One of the major factors differentiating the two zones is that the Northern Rhône specializes more specifically on certain grapes, while the Southern Rhône is all about blends.

Northern Rhône

Domaine Vincent Paris Cornas Granit 60 2011, Maison Nicolas Perrin Condrieu 2010, and Domaine Jamet Cote Rotie 2007.
Star Grapes: Syrah – all of the Northern Rhône’s red wines are based on it.  White wines are based on Viognier, Marsanne, and/or Roussanne depending on the appellation.

Key Areas: St. Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage, Cornas, Côte-Rôtie, Condrieu and Château Grillet (both white only), and St. Péray are the 8 crus of the Northern Rhône. There’s not an official hierarchy among these appellations, but for red wines Hermitage, Cornas, and Côte-Rôtie tend to be highly prized, while you’re likely to find more value option in St. Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage.

Extra Credit: In some areas the red wines are co-fermented with a little bit of their white wines, most notably.


Southern Rhône

Famille Perrin Gigondas La Gille 2016 . This bottle is a sample and still waiting to be opened, but the Perrin wines are pretty reliably great buys.

Star Grapes: The Southern Rhône is all about the blends and the star red grapes are Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre, often referred together as “GSM” blends.

Supporting Players:
Quite a few more grapes are allowed in the blends of the region though. Chatauneuf-du-Pape, for example, has a total of 13 permitted grapes.

Key Areas: There are 9 crus in the Southern Rhône that sit at the top of their quality pyramid:
Beaumes de Venise, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Lirac, Rasteau,  Tavel, Vacqueyras, Vinsobres, and Cairanne.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape is the star appellation of the Southern Rhône, followed up by Gigondas and Vacqueras. Appellations like Rasteau and Lirac aren’t as famous, but can present excellent values for that very reason. Côtes-du-Rhône is the regional appellation (technically this can cover the Northern Rhône too, but in practice most are from the south.) Côtes-du-Rhône Villages is a step up in quality, and few villages get to append their name on the label, taking them one my step up the ladder. 


Clos du Joncuas Vacqueyras La Font de Papier


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Alsace

All kinds of Alsace!: Domaine Paul Blanck Pinot Gris 2016, Domaine Weinbach Riesling Clos des Capucins Cuvee Theo, Schoffit Riesling Rangen de Thann Clos Saint-Theobald 2016, and Valentin Zusslin Cremant d'Alsace Brut.

Heading up to northern France again for a moment to Alsace, another of my soft spots. Alsace is on the border with Germany and was historically caught in a tug of war between the two countries. As a result, this area shows a blend of cultural influences from the two as well.  Alsace is also the one region in France that as rule labels by variety.

Star Grapes:
I’d say Riesling is the superstar here, which tends to be made in a dry style here, although sweet styles are definitely also common. Gewurztraminer, Muscat, Pinot Gris, are the other “noble grapes” of the region. Sylvaner gets noble grape status when it comes from Zotzenberg vineyard.

Supporting Players: Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois, and Chardonnay are other important white grapes for the region, and are often included in blends like Edelzwicker. Pinot Noir is the red grapes of the area, but the white wines are bigger stars here.

Other Important Factors: Alsace has two quality tiers – general Alsace and Alsace Grand Cru. Only the noble grapes can be planted in the Grand Cru vineyards, with the exception that Sylvaner is planted in the Grand Cru

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 Loire

Gauthier Pere et Fils Domaine du Bel Air Bourgueil Jour de Soif with a bowl of pasta and zoodles and a super chill night with friends.

We drink a lot of Loire in our house as the region provides great value and a lot of food friendly options. This region follows the Loire River as it moves from east to west toward the Atlantic. As it stretches quite a ways, there are  a lot of climatic differences between its subregions, and with that goes quite a bit of grape diversity.  It also complicates things bit, since each section is distinct. Overall, star grapes include Sauv Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Muscadet, and Cab Franc, but we'll break it down by area.

Here are the sub zones moving from west to east towards the ocean.

Central Vineyards

Thomas-Labaille Sancerre Les Monts Damnes Chavignol 2016 and Domaine Adele Rouzes Quincy 2017 . Two great Sauv Blanc options from the Loire. Sancerre is a classic, but look to lesser known appellations like Quincy for really greta values.

Star Grape: Sauvignon Blanc

Supporting Players: Pinot Noir. The whites are more celebrated but the reds are generally from Pinot.

Key Areas: Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé are the two most famous appellations. Other appellations, like Quincy, as worth exploring for more value options.


Touraine

Domaine Guion Bourgueil Cuvee Domaine. Loire Cab Francs are another great option for when you're looking to pair a red with seafood. We had this one with salmon with salsa verde and hasselback sweet potatoes.


Star Grapes: Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc

Supporting Players: Sauvignon Blanc (which is actually more widely planted than Chenin), Chardonnay,and Pinot Gris among the white wines. Côt (aka Malbec ), Gamay, Pinot Noir,  Grolleau Noir, Pineau d'Aunis, Pinot Meunier, and among the red wines.

Key Areas: Vouvray made of Chenin Blanc. Chinon and Bourgeuil, both Cabernet Franc based.

Jean-Maurice Raffault Chinon Les Galuches 2017 with skirt steak and roasted broccolini.

Anjou


Star Grapes: Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc

Supporting Players: Côt (aka Malbec), Gamay, Cabernet grapes, with a little help from Gamay and Pineau d'Aunis on the red side. Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay among the white wines.

Key Areas: There are several celebrated Chenin Blanc appellations here including Savennières and Côteaux du Layon. Saumur from Cabernet Franc.

  Chateau du Hureau Saumur-Champigny Tuffe 2017 and chicken with roasted radishes and romanesco. Loire Cab Francs are a veggie lover's friend.

Muscadet

Star Grape: Melon de Bourgogne

Key Areas: Muscadet Sèvre et Maine. The wines here reflect their maritime location near the ocean and tend to be lean, crisp, with briny seashell minerality.

Other Important Factors:
Wines labeled sur lie, have been aged on the lees to add a little bit of texture.

This Frères Couillaud Chateau de la Ragotiere Muscadet Sevre-et-Maine Sur Lie Cuvée Amélie (sample) made an amazing pairing with seafood. It was EXCELLENT with mussels and leeks.


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Also Check Out:
2 oz Pours: 16 French Wine Values
Crémants for Going Out and Staying In (Psst! They're Your New All-Purpose Bubblies!) 

A Wine & Cheese Night #MadeinFrance





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The rest of the French Winophiles also got back to wine basics this month. Check out their posts here:



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