France is without doubt the world’s supreme wine-producing country, unmatched for the finesse, style and sheer diversity of its wines. France’s revered wine regions form a roll of honour beyond compare. The enduring appeal of France’s classic wine styles turns on the peculiarly French – and often controversial – concept of terroir, the belief in wine with a ‘sense of place’, with flavours and textures unique to its location, climate, terrain and soil, for which the grape provides a blank canvas.
While competition from new world wines – consumer-friendly, fruit-forward and labelled by variety (French, naturellement) – is helping to revitalise France’s wine industry, France’s terroir approach is bringing exciting change to new world wine countries too, reaffirming France’s pioneering role in the world of wine.
France and its wines – history and culture
France’s long history of grape-growing dates back to at least the 6th century B.C. when Greeks colonised Massalia (Marseille) and established vines across the entire swathe of southern Gaul (France). However it was the Romans who spread viticulture to the many French regions whose wines we enjoy today. Christianity was vital to the development of viticulture and winemaking, wine having become enshrined within the holy sacrament. Wherever abbeys and monasteries were founded, vineyards soon followed. The monks’ understanding of vineyard husbandry left a lasting legacy of terroir (please see below). As France’s population swelled in the Middle Ages, viticultural productivity was encouraged, and wine consumption became more common (it was in any case safer than water!). The British market and Dutch traders also contributed to France’s reputation for wine. Viticulture in France continued to expand until the late 19th century, when the twin scourges of mildew and then the phylloxera louse decimated France’s vineyards for decades, a disaster compounded by the devastations of two World Wars. However, the second half of the twentieth century saw a renewed interest in the vine and wine. While demand for France’s prestigious wines continues to grow around the world, today much of France’s wine industry is under threat. A serious decline in domestic consumption, together with growing competition from across Europe and ‘New World’ wine countries, present unprecedented challenges to the livelihoods of French wine producers in the 21st century. To retain market share, France must adapt and win new consumers.
France’s vineyards – Terroir and the AOC system
The notion that specific styles of food and wine are linked to specific geographical areas and production methods is age-old. The detailed viticultural approach of Cistercian monks in Burgundy’s vineyards many centuries ago helped promote the concept of ‘terroir’, linking a wine’s unique character directly to the vineyard’s specific qualities. The monks’ observations formed the basis of Burgundy’s complex vineyard quality hierarchy. While in 1855 Napoleon III demanded that Bordeaux’ best wines be classified in a formal hierarchy, it was not until the 1930s that France’s entire wine industry would be given a legal structure with the establishment of the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) system. This far-reaching system of rules and regulations enshrined in law the diverse viticultural and winemaking practices of France’s many wine regions, with the aim of preserving the quality and identity of France’s wine styles and to protect them from fraudulent imitators. The AOC system formed the basis of the EU’s modern-day wine law. The AOC system remains debated as much for its quality benefits as for its restrictions and notorious red tape, however there is no doubt that it has played an enormous role in promoting wine quality standards, not just in France but all over the world.
France’s geography and wine regions, key styles and grape varieties
France’s wine regions are varied in topography, soils and climate, yielding an impressive range of wine styles. Styles tend to have a regional, rather than national, identity, linked to grape varieties prominent in each area as well as production methods enshrined by France’s complex wine laws. While there is insufficient cyberspace to do justice to France’s incredible range of wine regions and styles, principal wine regions are summarized in brief below, with more information available in the dedicated pages.
Alsace is a small wine-producing region in Eastern France producing mainly dry white wines from varieties such as Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer. Despite its relatively northern location, Alsace’s unique topography in the lee of the Vosges mountains makes it one of the driest and sunniest regions in France, yielding powerful, minerally wines with impressive aromatic intensity.
Bordeaux is one France’s two most prestigious wine regions, responsible for some of the world’s most highly-rated wines, from clarets like Château Pétrus in Pomerol to luscious sweet wines like Château d’Yquem from Sauternes. Such cult-status wines fetch astronomical sums on world markets yet represent a tiny proportion of Bordeaux production, which yields around 700 million bottles a year from 13,000 growers tending approximately 120,000 hectares of vines. Red wines are typically blends of grape varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, while whites are blends of Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Muscadelle.
Burgundy is France’s most significant ‘fine wine’ region alongside Bordeaux, though the quantity and style of wines produced are very different. Stretching from Chablis, south-east of Paris, through the famed ‘Côte d’Or’ to the Beaujolais region north of Lyon, Burgundy’s vineyards are a fifth of the size of Bordeaux. Burgundy’s wines are based on single grape varieties Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, (with the exception of Beaujolais, made from Gamay). Due to Burgundy’s complex topography, the notion of terroir carries enormous weight, and vineyards are classified within a quality hierarchy based on factors like location, exposition and soils. The best Grand Cru wines, like those of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, are produced in tiny quantities and highly sought-after.
Champagne is the French wine world’s most effervescent success story. In 2007, the region sold 338 million bottles of Champagne. Sales aside, Champagne’s brand value remains unparalleled in the world of sparkling wine. Highly aspirational, Champagne continues to command high prices around the world.
Languedoc-Roussillon has earned a name for varietal vin de pays wines offering outstanding value for money. France’s largest wine region in terms of surface area under vine, the Languedoc-Roussillon once suffered a reputation for poor quality, ‘rustic’ jug wines. In recent years however, modern techniques and outside investment have injected new energy into this region; wine quality has never been better.
Loire Valley. A large and complex wine region in central and western France, the Loire Valley produces mostly white wines in wide-ranging styles. From the Sauvignon Blanc-based wines of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé to the rich Chenin Blancs of Vouvray and Bonnezeaux, to crisp, dry Atlantic-coast Muscadet, the Loire has much to offer. Also try the elegant, juicy styles made from the red Cabernet Franc grape (Saumur, Saint-Nicolas de Bourgueil) and Pinot Noir (red and rosé Sancerre).
Rhône Valley wines are mostly full-bodied reds made from the Syrah and/or Grenache grape varieties. The most prestigious Rhône Valley winse are made in the AOCs of Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Most Rhône Valley wine is marketed as AOC Côtes du Rhône, which can offer excellent value for money, a warm heart and rich fruit. The Rhône’s most famous white wine is made in tiny quantities in the Condrieu appellation from the perfumed Viognier grape.
French Country. This is not a single region, but a special category dedicated to a number of key French wine regions, to which we are unable to dedicate individual space. This includes several important wine regions including Gascony, Bergerac, and Provence.
FRANCE and its wines – in a nutshell
France produces 7-8 billion bottles of wine a year, more than any other country.
France has a 34% share of the world wine market.
The majority of ‘international’ grape varieties grown around the world come from France
France’s Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC) quality regulation system is the basis of EU wine law.
France’s vineyards were almost wiped out in the 19th century by the diseases mildew and phylloxera.
Little known fact…72% of the French find French wine labels confusing.
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