The Ultimate Guide on French Wines Regions
Wines
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9
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Apr 20, 2021

The Ultimate Guide on French Wines Regions

The Ultimate Guide on French Wines Regions
Julien Mainguy

French and based in Vancouver since 2014, Julien Mainguy is the co-founder of Best of France. Passionate about the cultural difference between Canada and Europe, he is leading numerous projects to create awareness, help people grow, and bring communities together.

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France's wine regions at a glance

It is no secret that wine is an integral part of the French cultural heritage and national psyche. The French have been making their wine for a long time. They were already doing so before the Romans invaded Gaul, that is to say! Legend says that French vintners were hiding the roots of French vines and the most precious bottles as an act of resistance during the German Occupation of France during World War II. France competes with Italy every year to be the world's leading wine producer and is considered the world's top wine country. It has a wealth of terroirs, grape varieties, soils and climates, which gives its wines an extraordinary diversity.

Vineyards of Saint-Emilion, France
Vineyards of Saint-Emilion, France

In 2019, France produced 4.2 billion litres of wine or 17% of the world's production. It is the world's second-largest wine producer behind Italy by volume. Three-fourth of the wines produced are still wines (e.g. non-sparkling), 55% are red, 26% are white, and 19% are rosé. Seventeen of the twenty-two regions produce more than 3,200 wines on an area of 835,805 hectares! France's diverse climate and its variety of locations are ideal for harvesting various grapes that make French wines one of the world's most famous wines. Every year, France and Italy compete for the title of the world's leading wine producer.

The vast majority of French wines will have a name that varies according to where they are produced. It is the principle of the appellation of controlled origin (AOC). There are 307 official wine label names (called AOP or Appellation d'Origine Protégée). Each designation can allow several different types of wine (red, rosé, sparkling, etc.).

From Champagne to the South-West, from Bordeaux to Burgundy, from the Loire Valley to Languedoc, from Alsace to Provence, from Jura to the Rhône Valley - France is famous for its wines, so here are nine of the best wine regions that wine lovers should visit.

Alsace

Alsace's region is an eastern French wine-growing region situated on the lower eastern slopes of the Vosges mountains, in the Rhine valley between Strasbourg and Mulhouse. Viticulture (the cultivation and harvesting of grapes) has a long tradition in Alsace: old documents show that in the year 900 AD, there were more than 160 villages in whose surroundings wine was grown. The semi-continental climate of the eastbound Vosges slopes with high summer temperatures, low rainfall and cold winters allow a slow and long ripening of the grapes, suitable for solid aromas and great finesse.

City view of Strasbourg over the canal
City view of Strasbourg over the canal

Historically, Alsace has alternated between German and French control over the centuries and reflects those cultures' richness. The wine culture here is steeped in a Germanic tradition, producing mostly dry or fruity white wines. The region has only 10% red wine (Pinot Noir). Apart from the noble tweaker, which is a blended wine of two or more grape varieties, almost all Alsatian wines are produced only from one grape variety. The most popular wines (white) produced in Alsace being Riesling, Sylvaner and the very fruity Gewürztraminer, but also Pinot Gris (also Tokay Pinot Gris), Muscat (from Muscat and Nutmeg-Ottonel), Pinot (or Kleiner, from Auxerrois, Pinot noir vinified as white wine and Pinot Gris), and Chasselas.

The Alsatian Wine Route is divided into only three AOC areas, and a visit to this region is a must for those who want to discover Alsace in its entirety. Over one hundred twenty typical Alsatian villages and fortified towns offer picturesque charm, medieval castles and adorable half-timbered houses nestled in a hilly landscape decorated with vineyards.

Bordeaux

Together with Champagne and Burgundy, Bordeaux is one of the three cornerstones of French viticulture and is a must-visit for every wine lover. Wine connoisseurs or not – the Bordeaux wine and the Bordeaux region of Aquitaine is pretty much familiar to everyone and is one of the three most famous French wine-producing regions. The different Bordeaux wines are distinguished according to the region of origin. Bordeaux is the wine's general name, and Bordelais is the region – so the wine is called Bordeaux Bordelais. The Bordeaux vineyard region covers an area stretching some 100 km both north-south and east-west and is centred around the port city of Bordeaux, along the estuary of the Gironde. The historic wine exporting tradition helped Bordeaux to develop far stronger commercial links in the ensuing centuries, firmly establishing Bordeaux wines.

A vineyard with red grapes just before harvest
A vineyard with red grapes just before harvest

Here, especially red wine lovers, get their money's worth. The white Bordeaux is, unfortunately, almost extinct. The region produces some of the best and rarest wines in France and even the whole world, made from many different grape varieties, most notably Merlot and Cabernet. The moderate oceanic climate, stabilized by the river, combined with the soil of clay, limestone, gravel and sand, produces particularly complex and elegant wines. Bordeaux is the perfect destination for aesthetes, whether they are wine connoisseurs or not. The city of wine – an exciting destination for connoisseurs – with history, culture and world-class wine bars, and its surroundings offer various activities. Margaux, Medoc, Saint-Estéphe, St. Emilion and Pomerol are among the most famous wine-growing areas of the famous Bordeaux.

Bourgogne or Burgundy

A historic vineyard, one of the oldest in France, created in the Middle Ages by monks, then the Dukes of Burgundy, is rich in estates often modest in appearance but of great prestige. The Burgundy region's vineyards cover a narrow strip of land close to the Burgundian Capital, Dijon and its other hub, Beaune. This French province is as diverse as its wine offering. Both red and white wine in the region is and remains one of the leaders of French wines. Did you know that some of the best white Burgundies are more expensive than their big red brothers?

A young vineyard in Burgundy
A young vineyard in Burgundy

Burgundy is also the quintessence of the notion of terroirs, called here climates, of extreme diversity (more than 600) and at the origin of the immense variety of Burgundy wines. If the Burgundy climate, generally semi-continental with nuances due to the reliefs and streams' presence, it is the soils that give their unique character to the many Burgundy wines. The best Burgundy wines are the reds, especially the Pinot noir, the Melon de Bourgogne. The best of which can keep for a good 20 to 30 years. However, Burgundy also produces some top quality, though not too distinctive, whites, like Chardonnay and Sauvignon wines.

Burgundy is composed of a complicated hierarchy of appellations (including the famous Grands Crus and Premiers Crus) and numerous communal and regional AOCs. It is primary to recognize the six major regions of Burgundy. The Chablisian. The most northerly vineyard and best known for its outstanding white wines.

Beaujolais and Lyonnais

Beaujolais is a region north of Lyon. From here come probably the best Burgundy wines in France. Is it perhaps due to the nutritious granite and clay deposits in the soil of the region? The vines seem to feel very comfortable here, anyway. They grow grapes that are later transformed into a uniquely fruity and light wine.

In 10 municipalities in the region, around 50 million wine bottles are traditionally produced here every year! Saint-Amour, Fleurie, Chénas, Moulin-a-Vent and Brouilly are just a few of the districts where the famous Vin de Bourgogne and its more modern version, the so-called "crus," are produced.

City view of Lyon over the Saône
City view of Lyon over the Saône

Champagne

East of Paris is the historical province of La Champagne known for Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir, but above all, the king of sparkling wines bears its name: Champagne. Synonymous with celebration, Champagne symbolizes French elegance all over the world. Its name is protected by a controlled appellation of origin whose regulation required several centuries of gestation. Even if, in popular culture, this prestigious name is used to designate any sparkling wine, good lovers know full well that "only Champagne is champagne"!

Inside view of the Reims Cathedrale rose windows.
Inside view of the Reims Cathedrale rose windows

The soil of lime, peat and sand makes the wine varieties so unique. Only 17 municipalities in this wine-growing region have the honour of bringing these elite wines to the market. Its manufacturing method, the famous bottled refermentation, raises this wine's quality to an unparalleled level. But let's not neglect to mention the importance of the unique Champagne cellars, dug directly in the sandstone, and the big houses' ancestral know-how. The top Champagne is an art in itself, and you should have tried it once.

Champagne glassed getting filled with Champagne
Champagne glassed getting filled with Champagne

Jura

This relatively small wine-growing area with 280 wineries, nestled in a mountain range in eastern France near Switzerland, is unknown and is possibly the most underrated of French white wines. The vineyard covers about 1,900 hectares, and the total production is close to 75,000 hectolitres. For Jura wines, the longer the storage time, the more enjoyable the glass of wine. The grape varieties are very original. The best and most distinctive of Jura whites are made from the "Savagnin" grape variety, which is found only in this region and gives the wine a delicious sherry-like taste. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Savagnin and Poulsard are diligently produced in the region of Cétes du Jura, Chateau-Chalon, Arbois and l'Etoile. The most prestigious appellation for Vin Jaune is Château Chalon. This wine is made from late-harvested grapes and then left to mature in casks for at least six years.

Vin jaune (Yellow wine) from Jura
Vin jaune (Yellow wine) from Jura

Languedoc-Roussillon

In the Languedoc-Roussillon region, vineyards extend as far as the eye can see. The wines here are unique in taste due to their direct location on the Mediterranean coast. The area extends from Leucate in the west to Nîmes to the Camargue in the east and covers the foothills of the Cévennes to the gates of Carcassonne. The Languedoc-Roussillon vineyard covers four departments: Aude, Gard, Hérault and Pyrénées-Orientales, over an area of ​​42,800 hectares. This region produces over 1,800,000 hectoliters per year, much of which makes table wines and local wines. In addition to a few selected red wines, the region is mainly known for various white wines. From Limoux and Minervois to Corbiéres and Fitou, you will find excellent Mourvédre, Carignan, Clairette, Malvoisie and Marsanne.

The sparkling wine region of Limoux (AOC) is reputedly the oldest sparkling wine in France and is said to have been the original inspiration for Champagne! Legend says that it was a Benedictine monk, Dom Pérignon (rings any bell?), who introduced the Limoux method of producing sparkling wine to the monks in the Champagne region. True or not, the area of Limoux was already producing sparkling wines in the 1540s, half a century before the technique was established in Champagne.

Vallée de la Loire or Val de Loire

The Loire Valley, also called the valley of kings due to the sheer abundance of castles, is equally famous for its vineyards. If you are a lover of white wine, the Loire represents a true paradise! It is the third-largest wine region in France and has the longest "route des vignobles" in France at 800 km. Wine-growing fields line up along the Loire river banks and accompany it on its journey from Lyon to Nantes. The valley, called The Vallée de la Loire, is divided into four principal wine-growing regions, highlighting a particular grape variety: The Nantes region. Stuck on the Atlantic is the most easterly area with its white grape variety, most known as Le Melon de Bourgogne (or Muscadet) and Anjou-Saumur. At the center of the other two is the famous Chenin blanc's territory (Vouvray, Montlouis-Sur-Loire) with white grapes and Cabernet Franc (Chinon, Bourgueil) with red grapes. The Haute-Loire, the most easterly area is the terroir of the prestigious Sauvignon Blanc. There are legendary appellations there, such as Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé.

Wine house in Loire Valley, France
Wine house in Loire Valley, France

Provence

When you think of the Provence, you automatically think of rosé wine. The vast Provencal vineyard extends over nearly 200 km long, from east to west, from Nice to the south of Avignon, and over 60 km wide between the Alpilles and the Mediterranean. Because of the Mediterranean climate of this wine-growing region of Provence, the fruits of various red and white wines thrive here. The typical rosé wine is considered a relatively youthful wine in France. It dominates a large proportion of the Provence vineyards, the most famous Côtes de Provence and Côteaux d'Aix. In contrast to red wine, the rosé wine is not stored for very long and preferably drunk chilled. The region's classics brands are the Bandol, Barbarouy, Folle Noir, Carignan among the red wines and the Bourboulenc, Chardonnay, Pascal Blanc, and Sémillon among the white wines.

Small French village over a rock - Gordes, France
Small French village over a rock - Gordes, France

Vallée du Rhône or Rhône

One of the oldest vineyards and the second-largest wine region in France after Bordeaux runs for over 200 kilometres down the Rhone valley from the south of Lyon to the Camargue. The Romans recognized this area's potential between Vienne and Avignon in the south of Lyon more than two millennia ago. Unique red and white wines are the medium multi-climate results on the gravel slopes of the Rhone Valley. There are two large but very unique sectors: the northern Rhône valley and the southern Rhône valley. Côtes du Rhone wines are Mediterranean wines, dry wines in the three colours, naturally sweet wines and sparkling wines. In the majority, red wines long assimilated to the "p'tite côte," this fine counter wine that a short vatting made light and not very tannic, which are today among the most remarkable in France (côte-rôtie, hermitage, Chateauneuf Pope. Generic Côtes du Rhône wines are often at the cheaper end of the "appellation contrôlée" or AOP range. Primarily red, rosé and a few rare whites; natural sweet wines; some sparkling wines (saint-péray).

Rhône Valley map - France (lefigaro.fr)
Rhône Valley map - France (lefigaro.fr)


Please note that these wine regions mentioned above are just the most famous and principal wine regions. If you need more guidance to buy your wine, check our online guide or visit our store. Let us know what you think of this article by leaving comments below.