The Drync.com Wine Blog

10 Minute Guide to French Wine Regions and Varieties

July 17, 2014

French Wine regions and varieties France possesses some of the most diverse selections of any wine producing country. However, keeping most French wine regions and varieties straight can be a daunting task. What drinkers need is a short and sweet, cheat-sheet with the rules and regulations for each region. Here is a guide to give your joie de vivre that certain je ne sais quoi

French Wine Region and Varieties Number 1: Champagne

Oh, Champagne: the land of 1,000 bubbles (well, 49 million really, but who doesn’t love a good Wilson Pickett reference). What makes Champagne arguably the finest sparkling wine in the world, is the care that goes into every bottle. It takes 15 labor-intensive months to make just one bottle of non-vintage (really multi-vintage) Champagne, and 36 months to make a vintage selection.

Varieties: chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot meunier. Despite Champagne’s golden color, it in fact features two red grapes in the blend.

Terms to Know

  • Blanc de Blancs: Champagne based on 100% Chardonnay.
  • Blanc de Noirs: Champagne based purely on red varieties pinot noir or pinot meunier.
  • Grand Cru: Champagne is made with grapes from the Champagne’s finest vineyards.
  • Vintage Champagne: Wine that is made from grapes harvested in a single, spectacular year, as opposed to the typical multi-vintage blend.
  • Prestige Cuvée: (AKA Tête de Cuvée )In each Champagne house there is one top-of-the-line prize blend. Examples include Moet & Chandon’s Dom Perignon and Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagne.
  • Grower Champagne: (AKA Récoltant-Manipulant) Champagne producers that make wine from the vineyards they own. Most big Champagne houses simply purchase grapes off of the growers. Look for RM on the neck of the bottles – these wines are not household names but are worth seeking out.

Fun Fact: Winston Churchill was very flattered when Champagne house, Pol Roger named their Prestige Cuvée “Winston Churchill.” Churchill reciprocated by naming his race horse Pol Roger.

French Wine Region and Varieties Number 2: Alsace

Although Alsace is now technically French, it has gone back and forth between France and Germany for centuries. As such, the wines are varietally labeled, rather than labeled by region (thanks, Alsace, for keeping it simple).

Varieties: This region is best known for its full-bodied, aromatic whites, such as riesling, gewürztraminer, pinot gris, auxerrois blanc, and muscat blanc à petits grains, but Alsace does produce some delicious pinot noir.

Terms to Know:

  • Bas-Rhin The northern portion of Alsace.
  • Haut-Rhin: the southern portion of Alsace.
  • Vendange tardive: This term translates to late harvest – grapes are allowed to ripen on the vine until they begin to get dehydrated The result is a concentrated and rich dessert wine. This is the equivalent of an Auslese ripeness level in German wines.
  • Sélection de Grains Nobles: A wine made from grapes affected by Botrytis Cinera or the noble rot. Grapes effectively turn into raisins on the vine, creating an even more concentrated version of the Vendange Tardive wines.

Fun Fact: Looking for a wine vacation? Check out the Alsace Wine Route, which runs 106 miles north to south, and is dotted with wonderful producers from top to bottom.

French Wine Region and Varieties Number 3: Burgundy

Want to learn a little more about the finer points of terroir? Spend some time in Burgundy. There are hundreds of tiny pocket-sized vineyards each with their own unique micro-climate that make their own unique wines. So yes, there is a difference between Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet.

Varieties: pinot noir and chardonnay (who said learning about French wine was hard?).

Terms to Know:

  • Bourgogne: entry-level, basic everyday Burgundy.
  • Chablis: the northernmost region of Burgundy known for it’s steely whites.
  • Côte d’Or: AKA the Golden Slopes, home to both the Côte de Beaune (known for it’s rich, ripe whites) and the Côte de Nuits (known for it’s silky reds).
  • Hautes-Côtes de Beaune / Hautes-Côtes de Nuits: The suburbs of the Côte d’Or – can offer supreme bang for the buck. Keep in mind, however that can is the operative word – make sure that you have an awesome recommendation or try before you buy.
  • Mâconnais and Côte Chalonnaise: South of the Cote d’Or, these regions boast fleshy golden apple drenched whites, and bright earthy reds. Another great region for value-seekers.

Fun Fact: Duke Phillip the Bold banned the hardy, easy-drinking Gamay grape from the hills of Burgundy in 1395. We now have him to thank for the glories of Cru Beaujolais.

French Wine Region and Varieties Number 4: The Rhone Valley

Although technically one region, the Northern Rhone and Southern Rhone could stand on their own, due to their distinctive styles. The Southern Rhone is known for their blends employing up to 19 varieties at a time, while the Northern Rhone prefer their grapes flying solo or in pairs.Both regions are well-known for full, floral whites, and spicy, earthy, robust reds.

Varieties: Northern Rhone reds are Syrah based, while the whites may be based on Viognier, or a blend of Marsanne and Roussanne. The South is a veritable grab bag of wines, but the names to know are Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre for reds, and  Viognier, Rousanne, Marsanne and Grenache Blanc for whites.

Terms to Know: We wanted to focus on on some of our favorite regions, so we listed a few below.

  • Northern Rhone:
    • Sparkling: Saint-Péray – super-rare methode traditionelle style bubbles.
    • Whites: Saint-Joseph Blanc, Condrieu, Château-Grillet, Crozes-Hermitage, and Hermitage Blanc at their best are full-bodied, perfumey, and minerally delicious.
    • Reds: Côte-Rôtie, Saint-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage, and Cornas all offer expressions of rustic, complex of Syrah – a really cool counterpoint to luscious Aussie Shiraz.
  • Southern Rhone:
    • Sparkling: Clairette de Die, Cremant de Die
    • White: Côtes du Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Costières de Nîmes are full-bodied, luscious and almost waxy. A perfect white for folks who “only” drink red.
    • Rosé: Lirac and Tavel produce some some of the finest rosés in France
    • Red: Côtes du Rhône, Côtes du Rhône Villages (yep, there’s a difference – wines can be made from grapes sourced only from specific villages).  Châteauneuf-du-Pape, is the region’s most prestigious red, but look to Vacqueyras, Gigondas, Vinsobres Lirac, and Costières de Nîmes for some more cost-effective alternatives.

    Fun Facts: Red wines from the Northern Rhone’s Côte Rotie contain Syrah and up to 20% Viognier, a white grape. Costières de Nîmes was in the Languedoc-Roussillon until redrawing of boundary lines  in 2004 made it part of the Rhone.

    French Wine Region and Varieties Number 5: Languedoc-Roussillon

    The Languedoc is known as France’s wine lake, as it is the most prolific wine producing region in the country. As per usual, quantity does not always guarantee quality, so look to specific regions to find some steals rather than selections which are labeled by variety.

    Varieties: At the risk of hyperbole, almost everything is grown in the Languedoc-Roussillon. International varieties like cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay thrive here, as do the Rhone varieties listed above. The most prominent white varieties are chardonnay, chenin blanc, muscat blanc à petits grains; red varieties are grenache, syrah, carignan, cinsault, and mourvedre.

    Terms to Know:

    • Sparkling: Cremant de Limoux, Blanquette de Limoux- delicate Champenoise style bubbles, and a grassy flair
    • Whites: Pic St Loup is the only term you need to know – Rich, lemony and delicious.
    • Reds: Corbières, Faugères, Minervois, Picpoul de Pinet, Saint-Chinian. These appellations all offer a variation on the theme of rich, herbal, spicy reds.

    Fun Facts: The Languedoc-Roussillon produces more wine than any single region in the world. Records of sparkling Blanquette de Limoux pre-date those in Champagne – making it one of the world’s oldest sparkling wines.

    French Region and Varieties Number 6: Bordeaux

    One of the most prolific of France’s wine growing regions, Bordeaux boasts a stupendous range of quality from perfectly delicious every day plonk to auction block blockbusters.

    Varieties: Whereas sauvignon blanc usually flies solo, it is often part of the Bordelaise dynamic duo with semillon (or occasionally trio with muscadelle). For reds this is definitely a team effort: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot, and tiny sprinklings of malbec or carmenère.

    Terms to Know:

    • Left bank vs right bank: these are not appellation as such, but rather a high level distinction of the bifurcation that exists within the Bordeaux region. The left bank is known for Gravel soils (hence it’s most well known region, the Graves) where cabernet sauvignon thrives. The right bank is known for more clay-like soils, which our little blackbird merlot, and cab sauvignon’s genteel baby daddy cabernet franc adore:
    • Left bank appelations: Medoc, Margaux, Saint-Estèphe AOC, Pauillac AOC, Saint-Julien AOC, Margaux AOC
    • Right Bank apellations: Saint-Émilion AOC, Comtesse de Lalande de Pomerol, Pomerol AOC, Lalande-de-Pomerol AOC, Fronsac AOC, Canon-Fronsac AOC, Côtes-de-Blaye AOC, Côtes-de-Bourg
    • Sweet Wines: Sauternes, Loupiac, Cadillac, and Sainte Croix du Mont.

    <Fun Fact: The wines from the graves became world famous during the 1855 World’s Fair which gave us the current ranking system.

    French Wine Region and Varieties Number 7: Loire Valley

    The Loire valley is known for its beautiful chateaus, and deliciously diverse selections: sparkling, white, rosé, red or sticky sweet wine – this region has it all!
    Varieties: The Loire is the original home of sauvignon blanc, it’s floral, delicate aromatic cousin chenin blanc, and at the mouth of the Atlantic, melon de bourgogne (better known as the grape in muscadet). For reds and rosé’s look for bright and fresh, cabernet franc, pinot noir and grolleau.
    Terms to Know:

    • Muscadet: semi-sparkling steely oyster wine.
    • Anjou, Saumur, Vouvray, Jasnieres: All regions where Chenin Blanc rocks!
    • Think that you are a Sauvignon Blanc fan? Then get to know Menetou-Salon, Pouilly-Fumé, Quincy, Reuilly, Sancerre, and Touraine.
    • If you have a sweet tooth than get to know Quarts de Chaume, Bonnezeaux and Coteaux du Layon.

    Fun Fact: The Loire River valley is home to the Loire river – the largest in France.

    Want to learn a little more about our favorite selections from these regions check out our Tour de France of Wine Collection. Anything we missed? Let us know in the comments!

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Amy Ullman Marketing Manager Drync Amy Ullman is the Drync Marketing Manager, a fanatic francophile, and adores alliteration.

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