This month the French Winophiles are diving into a French Wine 101. It’s timely as we all enter our comments to the government in opposition to proposed 100% European wine tariffs. (If you have not heard about this, I’ll post some links at the bottom for more information.) We have done a bit of writing on French wines and you will find links to those pieces. Many of these pieces were written in conjunction with the French #Winophiles, which means there is the extra bonus, of each of those pieces having links to other articles written by the rest of the #Winophiles! If you are interested in French wine, you will have plenty of reading available!
French Wine 101
I’m here to rally for French wine. If you are new to wine, French wine can be a bit overwhelming so let’s start at the beginning.
Old World vs New World
To be sure, when we say “Old World” in reference to wines, we think first of French wines. But what does “Old World” mean? From a scholastic point of view: Old world wines are dominated by terroir, they are defined by place. Typically these wines are more restrained and elegant. New World wines, on the other hand tend to be reflective of the winemaker’s style and are often more fruit forward and bold.
That is a really broad definition of the differences, and doesn’t always hold true, but when people say “Old World” and “New World” this is what they are thinking.
French wine names
In France, wines are named for the region they come from, not by the variety of grape as we do in the new world. This takes us back to that idea of “terroir” which is a sense of place, with soil, and climate. So rather than speaking about Chardonnay in France, you would speak of Chablis or White Burgundy. Both of those wines are made with Chardonnay, but the wine is named for the region.
When we think of Bordeaux, we think of age worthy reds. These are typically Cabernet or Merlot based, depending on which bank of the river the region sits. And you will notice that I said “based”. These wines are blends of the different varieties of grapes that grow best in this region.
There is one exception to this. In Alsace, the white wine region on the German border in the North East of France, wines are often labeled with the variety. This comes from the German culture and this area throughout the ages, has bounced back and forth between French and German control.
Without going too deep into the wine labels (that’s a rabbit hole best saved for another day), let’s talk about some of the most well known French Wine Regions, and I’ll give you a translation for what varieties you will see from each.
French Wine regions
I love maps. It gives you a better sense of the geography and influences on a region. I could dive into the climates and soils in each of these regions (I do love to get geeky on these things), but this is French Wine 101! So let’s put together some dots for you, on what varieties you will find in each of these regions and what you might want to eat with each of these wines!
Loire Valley – Val de Loire
This is white wine country! You will find a bit of red, but the white wines are likely to be the ones you have heard of.
On the West end of the Loire Valley closest to the Atlantic Ocean. Melon de Bourgogne, which you will hear called Muscadet, is most prevalent here. This is a dry white wine that pairs really well with seafood. You will get citrus, and green apple and pear along with a lovely note of salinity. Go for shellfish with this wine
Moving east Chenin Blanc begins to shine. Vouvray and Saviennières are well known Chenin Blancs from the regions of Touraine and Anjou-Saumur respectively. The two can be very different. Vouvray can be made from dry to semi-sweet to sweet, and you will find you need to do a bit of research to determine which sweetness level you are getting. Saviennières has been called the “most cerebral wine in the world”. These wines have depth of flavor, great acidity and minerality.
Sauvignon Blanc, is mainly found in the Upper Loire, the area furthest east and inland. Here you hear of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. These wines are crisp and high acid. Pair them with fish or poultry. With cheeses these are wonderful with goat cheese or other creamy cheeses (think brie).
Not to be overlooked is Cabernet Franc which in this region is the primary red wine. Chinon or Bourgueil in the Touraine region produce elegant Cab Francs. These wines can be slightly spicy with raspberry and violet notes and are a favorite at Parisian Bistros.
Well you know what Champagne is! This region and it’s soil and climate produce some of the world’s finest sparkling wines primarily from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier.
These wines, while often looked at a just for celebrations or just with the hors d’oeuvres at the top of the meal actually are perfect during a meal. The bubbles and acidity clean your palate making every bite taste as amazing as the first.
There are plenty of classic pairings, but try potato chips, buttered popcorn or fried chicken! The bubbles and acid with the fat and salt are heaven.
- Where are the Women in Champagne?
- Farmer Fizz? An Exploration of Grower Champagne with the French #Winophiles
- Champagne – a history beyond the bubbles
This region sits on the German border and as I mentioned earlier has bounced back and forth between French and German control. The names and architecture here reflect that mixed heritage and the wines do as well.
These bright aromatic white wines are perfect to keep your nose in all day or dab behind your ears. But…if you must move on to drinking them, pair them with fish, aromatic cheeses, schnitzle, salads…there are so many great pairings. These are also wines known for pairing well with spicy foods like Thai! You will find riesling, pinot gris, muscadet and gewurztraminer lead the pack on varieties.
- A Palette of Pinots – The Hues of Alsace
- Crémant d’Alsace perfect for a country picnic (maybe in the living room)
There are a few other varieties including Pinot Noir, but you are less likely to run into them.
This is Chardonnay land, but not those big buttery California Chardonnays that your Aunt might drink. These are sharp and bright with great mineral quality! Pair with fish or chicken, oysters or other shellfish, mushrooms or cheese (think goat cheese or Comté). The sharp acid makes this great with creme sauces.
Chablis, above, is in Burgundy sitting 80 miles northwest of the rest of Burgundy. Burgundy is known for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
The Côte de Nuits is the Northern part of the Côte d’Or and is the region that Pinot Noir calls home. It ventures further afield, but this is it’s homeland and you will find some of the most expensive Pinot Noirs on the planet, hail from here.
Pinot Noir is perfect for red wine with fish. It is the go to wine to pair with salmon. Many Pinot Noirs also have earthy notes and pair beautifully with mushrooms.
The Côte de Beaune is dominated by Chardonnay. These are likely to be aged in oak. They will be richer and more buttery than those lean Chardonnays from Chablis, but they are still dry. Try this wine with pasta, chicken, risotto, shellfish or salt water fish and with cheeses like gruyere.
There is more to the region, the Côte Chalonnais and the Mâconnais, but we will leave those for another day.
Just south of Burgundy you find Beaujolais. This is a wine you will know better by the region name than by the grape, Gamay, that it is made from. Beaujolais Nouveau is the first wine released each year on the third Thursday in November. These early release wines are fresh and fruity, but the region does have other Gamay’s that are meant to be deeper and more age worthy.
Beaujolais Nouveau will be fruit forward and downright perky! Sometimes you will hear people say that they smell bubblegum or bananas in addition to raspberries and cranberry.
Aged Beaujolais might have notes of forest floor, mushroom, violet, tart cherry and smoke.
These are lighter wines and can pair across the spectrum from salmon to barbeque. Visit the Beaujolais site for a great graphic to assist with pairings for all the varied wines from this region.
The Rhone Valley
I am a lover of Rhônes. Guaranteed…many of mine come from the Rhône Rangers that you find in California, and many of which were brought from Chateauneuf-de-Pape in the Southern Rhône.
The region is broken into the Northern and Southern Rhône. The Northern Rhône is the land of Syrah and Viognier and typically very pure and expensive versions of these.
The Côte Rotie is known for some of the most amazing Syrah on the planet. I’ve heard it described as bacon and violets. Which sounds pretty amazing to me.
Condrieu is well known for 100% Viognier. This white wine is full bodied and round with notes of apricot, pear and almonds.
There are other appellations like Crozes Hermitage above and Cornas, there is more to explore here, if you have the budget.
The Southern Rhone is warmer as it heads down the Rhone river to the Mediterranean and you will find blends of multiple varieties. The famous Chateauneuf-du-Pape is here with blends of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre and more. Wines here lean toward blends.
Red Rhône Blends
These will have berry notes (think raspberry and black berry) baking spice, and maybe some garrigue (think underbrush), lavender, dried herbs. The more Mourvedre, the more likely you will have meaty notes to the wine.
These go well with mediterranean foods, like olives and red peppers, and herbs like rosemary or sage (or herbs de Provençe).
White Rhône Blends
Marsanne, Roussanne & Viognier make up the body of most white wines in this area. These blends are medium bodied and have notes of beeswax (I love that), as well as moderate citrus, like a meyer lemon, then stone fruits like peach and apricot.
Pair them with richer dishes with white meat (chicken or fish or even pork) and perhaps with fruits that are stewed or roasted. Dried apricots are a definite must on a cheese plate with these wines.
- Lirac – Castles, Keeps, Wolves & Divas in the Southern Rhône
- Pairing a movie day with a wine from Lirac
- Fall, Thanksgiving and the flavors of Rasteau
If you have heard of any region in France other than Champagne, it will be Bordeaux. This is the region that Napa Valley wants to be. It is the big daddy of French wine with bottles that can be very pricey and many that need considerable aging. When people pull out dusty bottles from their wine cellar, typically they are Bordeaux wines.
Left Bank Reds (Cabernet Sauvignon based)
Red wines here are classified by which bank of the river the vineyards sit on. Left bank wines are west of the river in Médoc and Graves. The reds here are Cabernet Sauvignon based.
Right Bank Reds (Merlot driven)
The Right bank wines are on the other side of the river in the Libournais. These wines are Merlot driven. The Entre-deux-mers, the area in the middle between the two, has much more fertile soil producing less concentrated (but more affordable) wines.
The bold reds of Bordeaux are perfect with rich meaty dishes, like a big steak.
Sweet wines of Sauternes
Down in Graves you find the region of Sauternes. These are my friend Corinne’s favorite wines. These are sweet wines made from grapes with “Noble rot”. The botrytis fungus takes hold of the grape and dries them out considerably. They are pressed into tiny amounts of wine that when fermented becomes sweet and delicious. These are wines to pair with bleu cheese or with desserts.
- Côtes de Bordeaux pairings through Blaye, Cadillac & Castillon
- A Loire rosé, a Bordeaux from Pommerol and…..cheese
This is Rosê country, more than 1/2 the output of wine from this region is rosé. The mistral wind that whips down from the mountains keeping the vines in this Mediterannean region dry and free from disease. The landscape is dotted with lavender fields. It’s pretty dreamy.
In addition to those delicate ballet slipper pink rosés you will find Bandol, which is a rich red wine from Mourvedre.
Pair pink with pink. It’s delicious and pretty. Smoked salmon, ham, prosciutto, crab, lobster….you get the picture.
Yes…these wines are great in the summer. Their high acid and bright flavors are perfect to help you cool down on a hot day. But don’t overlook them at other times.
Is there more to French Wine? Why yes…so much more, there is the island of Corsica, the black wines of Cahors, Picpoul de Pinet from Languedoc-Rousillon…and then there are the wines that I have yet to discover!
Oh and did I mention Crémant? That would be sparkling wine from any region outside of Champagne! You want bubbles and value? It’s your go to!
Dive deep into the links and the links in the links and take a little vacay to France sans airfare!
- Picpoul from Pinet and California with a seaside pairing
- Exploring the Grand Terroir of Gérard Bertrand with Tautavel and La Clape
More from the Winophiles!
There are so many ways to dive into French Wine, I have only scratched the surface. Why not check out the other #Winophiles and their approaches to the subject! You can join us for the conversation on Twitter on Saturday Morning January 18th (8 am PST, 11 am EST) by following the hashtag #Winophiles!
- Pierre and Cynthia at Traveling Wine Profs share “Exploring French Wine on a tight budget at Trader Joe’s”
- Camilla at Culinary Adventures with Cam shares “Deciphering French Wine Labels”
- Wendy at A Day in the Life on the Farm shares “Mediterranean Shrimp with a Corsican Wine”
- Jill at L’Occasion shares “Your Ticket To French Wine Is Actually A Map“
- Nicole at Somm’s Table shares “French Wine 101 Cheat Sheet”
- Pinny at Chinese Food and Wine Pairings shares “Learn about Wines from the Bourgueil AOC While Eating Pork Tongue Head Cheese + Napa Cabbage Salad”
- Linda at My Full Wine Glass shares “One Name to Get You Started on French wine”
- Jane at Always Ravenous shares “Discover French Wine: Where to Start”
- Gwen at Wine Predator shares two:
- “Introduce a Friend to French Wine 1: Chateauneuf – du – Pape and Cassoulet”
- “Introduce a Friend to French Wine 2: Loire’s Amirault in Nicholas Bourgeil”
- Susannah at Avvinare adds “Start Your French Wine Study With Beaujolais ”
- Terri at Our Good Life shares “Newcomers Guide to French Wine: The Burgundies”
- Jeff at Food Wine Click! shares “French Wine 101: Taste for Yourself”
Remember I said I would include more about those potential tariffs.
- US Considers 100% Tariffs on European Wine The drinks business
- US floats prospect of 100% tariffs on all EU Wine Decanter
- With Threat of 100 Percent Tariffs on EU Wines and Spirits, Fears Loom Large SevenFiftyDaily
Robin Renken is a wine writer and Certified Specialist of Wine. She and her husband Michael travel to wine regions interviewing vineyard owners and winemakers and learning the stories behind the glass.
When not traveling they indulge in cooking and pairing wines with food at home in Las Vegas.