French wine is some of the most expensive wine in the world, but why? Is it that the wine making techniques are better? Is French soil or “terroir” better? Is it because they have been branding their products for centuries? Are there real differences between Old World French wine and New World wine, other than price? Who knows but here we explore the basics of French Wine.
There are only a few main wine regions in France, many of which you probably know:
- Alsace (Pinot Grigio, Gewurztraminer, Riesling)
- Bordeaux (Blends with high percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot)
- Burgogne or Burgundy (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay)
- Beaujolais (Gamay)
- Champagne (Sparkling Wine)
- Cotes du Rhone (Syrah, Grenache Blends)
- Jura, Languedoc (Grenache, Carignan Blends)
- Loire Valley (Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadet or Muscat, Chenin Blanc)
- Provence (Rosé Blends)
- South-West or Sud Ouest (Malbec)
Most people have at least heard of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne. Bordeaux for their delicious blends; Burgundy for their delicious Pinots and Chardonnays; and Champagne for their Sparkling Wine that is so popular that it has a similar name cache to Kleenex but for sparkling wine. Loire Valley has the oldest winery in the world (Château de Goulaine, which has been around since around 1000 AD). By the way, France is not where wine making started but it certainly has been popularized there [Italy has some of the oldest wine regions and probably imported their wine to France but Armenia is where wine is thought to have begun].
When you think of exclusive wines of the world, the First Growth wines are often on the top of everyone’s list. In 1855 an official list of the top wines was created from an exposition in Paris. The best of the best wine was given the designation of Premier Cru. From there the list was refined; in Bordeaux the highest designation for wine was given the designation of Grand Premier Cru, also known as First Growth wineries.
There are only five first-growth wineries in Bordeaux:
- Château Lafite Rothschild
- Château Latour
- Château Margaux
- Château Haut-Brion
- Château Mouton Rothschild
Only Four wineries were included in the original list and that remained the same for 100 years but then in 1973 Mouton Rothschild was added, after a long period of lobbying to be included.
A distinguishing feature of French wine from that of the New World, is its purpose…To be paired with food. French wine is not about tasting experiments to distinguish the wine by itself, as is so often done in the United States. And unlike Napa wineries, French wineries do not have restrictions forbidding them from serving food. In fact, French wineries have some of the best restaurants in the world (on their properties). What French wineries don’t have is tasting rooms. At least not the kind you would find in Napa, for example.
French wine is often made to be held and to be paired with cheese, for this reason (in part) it tends to have more tannins than New World wines. It also tends to have earthier flavors like cigar box, mushroom, forest floor (hahaha, NapaWineClub admits to never tasting forest floor), as well as more acidity.
For the French, and to a lesser degree the entire Old World wine region, wine making is steep in tradition and regulations. The same regulators who decided what was considered Grand Premier Cru, decide the other standards that French wineries must follow. This ultimately manifests in strict standards regarding wine making techniques and designated Terroirs. Terroir is the environment in which a particular wine is produced. It includes the soil, topography, and climate. The French label the Terroirs for each winery using a very regimented protocol. The Terroir is king in France.
All of these high and replicable standards, and the tannins and acidity make French wine different from most of their New World counterparts. This doesn’t necessarily make the wine better , but definitely different. Of course, some people will only drink French wine. Others only Napa wine. And nowadays some New World wine makers try to emulate Old World wine styles. In large part, it depends on how you drink wine and your own personalized palate, what you will ultimately like.
A couple unique varietals found in France are:
Carignan, a medium-bodied, fruit forward, red wine is found in the Mediterranean region of France and Spain. If you like Merlots and Zinfandels you should try this wine, which is making a comeback from being known as pedestrian.
Chenin Blanc is a white wine with high acidity and wide ranging fruit flavors of pear, apple, peach and passion fruit. It can also be made more dry than sweet, like a Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio can.