Do you need some help understanding French wine regions and labels?
If you’re not a wine expert, buying French may seem a little overwhelming. New World wines – like those from Chile or New Zealand – tend to use the name of the grape variety on the bottle. The most popular of these are often instantly recognisable to many of us: think sauvignon blanc, merlot or Malbec.
By contrast, style conventions in France mean that bottle descriptions usually include the region and producer, rather than the name of the grape. This is because of ‘terroir’, the concept that each wine conveys a unique expression of where it’s from. Lots of factors influence this, including the climate; the weather; the slope, aspect and elevation of the vineyard; the type of soil; how early or late in the season the grapes are harvested; and the influence of the winemaker.
Unfortunately, this type of labelling can leave many of us in the dark about what to expect from a wine.
In this article, we talk through some of the most well-known French wine regions, giving you the inside scoop on what to look for.
Red wine grapes: Pinot noir
White wine grapes: Riesling, pinot gris, gewürztraminer, muscat, pinot blanc
Alsace is a part of France that lies along the German border. Unlike most other French regions, Alsace wines often do state grape variety on the label. The most commonly used varieties here are sometimes called the ‘noble’ grapes: riesling, pinot gris, muscat and gewürztraminer.
Most grapes grown in Alsace are white, although you might see some pinot noir reds. Pinot noir is also used without its skins to make Crémant d’Alsace, a local sparkling wine.
If you think riesling is too sweet for your palate, think again: a dry riesling from Alsace will change your mind for good. Alsatian wine is all about vivid floral, peachy aromas balanced with good acidity; moderately generous alcohol content gives them a rich mouthfeel. Oak ageing is not typical in this region.
Red wine grapes: Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec, cabernet Franc
White wine grapes: Sauvignon blanc, semillon, muscadelle
Wines in Bordeaux are labelled based on the producer and are often a blend of different grapes. Red wines from Bordeaux red are mostly cabernet sauvignon or merlot, although you’ll also find some made from malbec or cabernet Franc. Bordeaux reds often have aromas of blackcurrant and plums, and tend to be medium- to full-bodied with high tannins. Many of these wines can age well over several decades.
Bordeaux is often divided into the Left and Right Banks of the Gironde river. The Left Bank includes the Medoc, Haut Medoc and Graves; wines here are mostly made using cabernet sauvignon grapes. The Right Bank includes St. Emilion and Pomerol, and wine blends here are typically based on merlot.
Between the two branches of the river, a region called Entre Deux Mers is known for white wines made from sauvignon blanc, semillon and muscadelle. These whites have a fresh acidity from zesty citrus notes and are great for summer.
Red wine grapes: Pinot noir, gamay
White wine grapes: Chardonnay
Burgundy wines are labelled according to the specific piece of land where the grapes are grown. The two major grape varieties to remember here are chardonnay and pinot noir.
Chablis is the most northerly part of Burgundy and is famous for crisp, mineral white wines made from chardonnay grapes. Wines here are likely to be fresh and chalky rather than the oaky, aged chardonnays that may spring to mind. Other areas known for great quality chardonnays are the Côte de Beaune, Pouilly-Fuissé and Saint-Véran.
The Côte de Nuits, Givry and Mercurey regions are famous for pinot noir. These wines are full-bodied with typical Burgundy notes of blackcurrant, cherry and red fruit, along with some spice and earthy tones.
Beaujolais is the exception, as reds in this region are made from the gamay grape. These are light-bodied and high in acidity, pairing well with a range of foods.
There are four levels of Burgundy wines:
- Regional wines: these can be made from grapes grown anywhere in Burgundy and are the most budget-friendly of the bunch. They tend to be fresh and light, and are fantastic as an aperitif. On the label, look for “Bourgogne Rouge” (red) or “Bourgogne Blanc (white). Crément de Bourgogne is a sparkling wine in this category.
Understanding French wine regions TIP: These wines are now allowed to include the grape variety on their labels, which might help you in your decision making.
- Village wines: The next step up, these wines are named after the towns nearest to the vineyards. These wines are still fresh and fruity, with little-to-no oak. They include Pouilly-Fuissé, Santenay, Givry and Mercurey.
- Premier Cru wines: These wines are from specially designated vineyard areas within a village — perhaps a slope where the sun hits just right. Premier Crus are considered a little more special than village wines, but are still reasonably affordable.
- Grand Cru wines: These includefamous names like La Tâche and Montrachet and are the wines for which people are willing to pay top dollar. Bold, powerful, complex and made for cellaring, they are the epitome of both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Red (and rosé) wine grapes: Carignan, cinsault, grenache, syrah, mourvèdre
White wine grapes: Grenache blanc, marsanne, roussanne, muscat
Languedoc and Roussillon are two large regions that lie on the coast of the Mediterranean. Most wines produced here are reds and rosés, often blends of carignan, cinsault, grenache, syrah and/or mourvèdre.
Understanding French wine regions TIP: You might know the syrah grape by its other name, shiraz.
Red wines from the AOCs of Côtes du Roussillon, St. Chinian, Minervois and Languedoc are full-bodied and fruit-forward as a result of the warm, sunny climate. White wines might include grenache blanc, picpoul, marsanne, roussanne or muscat, and are often unoaked and zesty.
Roussillon is also known for fortified sweet wines.
Understanding French wines tip: If you see ‘Vin De Pays d’Oc‘ on a label from this region designates a wine that is one step up from table wine, but is made with fewer restrictions than Appellation Contrôlée wines. These wines can often be of excellent quality without the same hefty price tag.
The Loire Valley
Red wine grapes: Cabernet Franc, pineau d’Aunis.
White wine grapes: Sauvignon blanc, melon de Bourgogne, chenin blanc
The valley surrounding the Loire River meanders through several different areas.
The Pays Nantais vineyards sit on the Atlantic coast of Brittany, near the city of Nantes. This region is famous for Muscadet; made from the Melon de Bourgogne grape, this crisp white wine is a flawless match for oysters and other seafood.
Understanding French wine regions TIP: Muscadet is something completely different to Muscat, an aromatic grape that is often used to make off-dry wines. Don’t mix these up when you’re ordering your oysters!
The Central Vineyards of the Loire Valley are known for flinty, mineral sauvignon blancs with aromas of green apple. Sancerre is the most well-known (and, as a result, often the most expensive). For a similar but often more affordable option, look for wines from the adjacent Pouilly-Fumè.
Anjou-Saumur and Touraine produce mostly chenin blanc (a white grape) and cabernet Franc (red). You’ll find chenin blanc wines in every style: dry, sweet, and sparkling. Expect aromas of apple and quince, high acidity and crisp minerality.
If you’re looking for cabernet Franc, check out reds hailing from Chinon and Bourgueil. These have good acidity and freshness, with plenty of red fruit.
Red wine grapes: Mourvèdre
Rosé wine grapes: Grenache, syrah, cinsault, mourvèdre
Provence has a myriad of different soils, climates, altitudes, and historical influences – which is why it’s home to many varieties of grapes.
This region is renowned for dry, fresh rosé wines, often made from a blend of grenache, syrah, cinsault, and mourvèdre. The Bandol region on the coast produces exceptional rosés as well as some fantastic reds made from the mourvèdre grape.
The Rhône Valley
Red wine grapes: Grenache, syrah, mourvèdre, cinsault, carignan
White wine grapes: Grenache blanc, marsanne, roussanne, viognier
You might have heard of Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Hermitage; these famous appellations are found in the Rhône Valley. The Rhône River has its roots in the Alps and flows down through Valence and Avignon, ending in the Mediterranean near Marseille. The valley is generally split into two parts: the Northern and Southern Rhône.
The Northern Rhône is known for reds made from syrah and whites made from viognier.
Understanding French wine regions TIP: If well-known Rhône reds such as Crozes-Hermitage or St. Joseph are too expensive for your budget, try looking for ‘Vin de Pays Collines Rhodaniennes’ on the label: these wines can be much more affordable but still very high in quality.
The Southern Rhône produces fantastic blends. White wines here often combine grenache blanc, marsanne, roussanne and viognier. Red blends are usually “GSM,” which stands for grenache, syrah and mourvèdre. Other grapes make an appearance across the region, too; for example, an amazing 13 grapes are allowed in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Understanding French wine regions TIP: When you see ‘Côtes-du-Rhône’ on the label of a Rhone Valley wine, it’s likely to be a GSM blend.
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