Located so far northeast in France that it was once a part of Germany, the Alsace region is best known for its distinctively fruity and food-friendly white wines, made most commonly from Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris grapes. The dry, breezy climate makes it a prime area for organic farming, and with each vintage, more and more wineries are following this path. The region’s sparkling wine, Crémant d’Alsace, is increasingly popular among wine connoisseurs.
The most famous wine region in the world, Bordeaux has 7,500 producers making 75 million cases of wine annually. Vineyards on the west side of the Gironde estuary, known as the Left Bank, primarily produce blends with some combination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec. Blends are popular with wineries east of the Gironde, on the Right Bank, but Merlot is the dominant variety. White blends make up around one tenth of Bordeaux’s production.
This part of east-central France was once a sea, which created the limestone soil that gives Burgundy wines their fresh character. The most famous are complex reds made from Pinot Noir and lean, unoaked whites produced from Chardonnay. Fans of the region’s wines are some of the most passionate in the world, which helps explain the stratospheric prices of the top bottles, known as grand cru. Less exclusive bottlings, labelled premier cru, village or regional, are often more affordable.
Famously, only wines grown, harvested and produced in the Champagne region of France can bear that name. Grapes were first planted in the area by the Romans, and Champagne was developed here in the 17th century. This popular sparkling wine varies in sweetness, ranging from very dry (brut nature) to noticeably sweet (doux). Most wines produced in Champagne are a blend of up to four grapes, almost always including Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
The Loire wine region stretches across some 800 kilometres, from the appellation of Sancerre in the east of France to Muscadet in the west. In all of France, this region creates the greatest diversity of wine styles, with more than 4,000 producers turning out a wide variety of whites, including Melon de Bourgogne, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc. The region is also known for its vibrant reds, most often made with Cabernet Franc, Gamay and Pinot Noir.
Second only to Bordeaux in terms of size, the Rhône starts in central France and wends its way almost to the Mediterranean. Home to the legendary wines of Côte Rôtie, Hermitage, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Côtes du Rhône, this is red wine country, with indigenous Syrah dominating in the north and Grenache, often blended with Syrah and Mourvèdre, pre-eminent in the south. Small amounts of white wine based on Viognier and Grenache Blanc are also produced here.
At 50 litres per person per year, the French are the world’s second largest consumers of wine. (Portugal is #1.)
France produces seven to eight billion bottles of wine annually.
France organizes its wine into 360 designated appellations, mostly within the main growing regions, such as Bordeaux.
A chance crossing between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc grapes in Bordeaux in the 17th century led to the creation of what is now the most widely planted and probably best-known grape in the world.
YOU’LL EXPERIENCE: Common flavours include spice and cedar, with dark berry, anise and plum.
TRY IT WITH: Slow-cooked meat dishes, like braised lamb shanks with rosemary or beef stew, as well as burgers and charcoal-grilled portobello mushrooms.
Another famous grape that originated in Bordeaux, Merlot is now France’s most widely planted variety and the third most commonly grown worldwide. It thrives throughout the country but is especially suited to the warmer southwest.
YOU’LL EXPERIENCE: A powerful, dense red with pronounced cherry, licorice and tobacco flavours and aromas.
TRY IT WITH: Bold-flavoured but not especially heavy dishes, like pasta puttanesca or a steak sandwich with caramelized onions.
Very closely associated with Burgundy and Champagne, where it is the most widely planted variety, Pinot Noir is a complex and versatile grape. It makes excellent red wines, subtle rosés and vibrant sparklers and, because its juice is white, even produces Blanc de Noir, a white wine made from red grapes.
YOU’LL EXPERIENCE: Typical examples of Pinot Noir are light-bodied, with strawberry, cherry and earthy tones supported by dried mushroom and warm spice.
TRY IT WITH: Roast salmon with miso, hoisin-glazed duck breast and, of course, beef bourguignon.
The world’s most popular white wine, it’s the prime component of white Burgundy, Chablis, Montrachet and Meursault, and a major player in Champagne.
YOU’LL EXPERIENCE: Fresh pear, hazelnut, pineapple and white flower flavours and aromas.
TRY IT WITH: Creamy leeks with ham, oysters or a classic risotto Milanese are all excellent pairing choices.
Distinctive, crisp Sauvignon Blanc is grown throughout the world, but some classic examples come from the Loire Valley region.
YOU’LL EXPERIENCE: Flinty, herbal aromas that combine with lime zest and honeydew flavours.
TRY IT WITH: This is the wine to pair with roast turkey, Hawaiian-style tuna poke or a simple pan-fried trout.
The specialty of Alsace, French Riesling tends to favour a fresher, drier style than is typical of German or many new world bottlings.
YOU’LL EXPERIENCE: Citrus, honey and apricot flavours, underpinned by floral aromas. Older bottles may also have a pleasant petrol quality.
TRY IT WITH: Southeast Asian dishes, especially those with a bit of heat and/or coconut, as well as smoked fish.