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France - Birthplace of Wine

Any discussion of wine must include the role of the French in evolving wine making whether from the early influence of Christian monks to the establishment of the world's dominant wine quality codification scheme.   No single country has had more influence on the wine industry than France.  The country remains amongst the largest producer, consumer, and exporter of wine.  The French influence pervades New World wines as well and there is more than an even chance that wine from Chile or Argentina comes from a winery with French ownership.

History


Wine was introduced to France by the Greeks and Romans who established outposts in the southeast of France in the sixth century BC. As the Romans spread through what was then Gaul, they planted vineyards throughout much of the region.  With the final collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century AD, winemaking was continued by the Christian monasteries, growing grapes and producing wine for both sacramental purposes and perhaps more importantly, to make money!  Best known among the orders were the Benedictine and Cistercian, who amassed considerable holding in the Burgundy and Champagne regions.  More recent events of in the history of winemaking in France include the outbreak of Phylloxera, which nearly completely wiped out the grape and in the 1920's the introduction of the Appellation Controlee system of quality ranking which has become the standard for virtually all quality ranking systems around the world.

Major Regions

Understanding the organization and nomenclature around wine growing regions in France is a lot like trying to master Mandarin.  There are overlapping regional areas and quality classifications.  Below is a diagram that shows the relationship and number of sub regions in each of three major categories (Vin de Table, Vin de Pays (van duh pey-ee), and Appellation Controlee).



When added all together, there are over 500 named sub-regions used to identify French wine.  Why does this matter?  Well under most AOC rules, French wine is identified by the name of the appellation, and will not include the grape variety.  Yup, you got it; you essentially have to know that a Puligny Montrachet is the name of an appellation that requires wines to be made from Chardonnay grapes.  Vin de Pays wines however can include the grape variety although this is not always done, and Vin de Pay sub regions have similar requirements as to the grape variety.  To make things more difficult, as of October, 2011, the 153 Vin de Pay designations were consolidated into 75.  It's unknown how long the new designations will take to start appearing on labels!

In addition to the regional naming scheme, some individual regions have further classifications most notably Bordeaux.  In Bordeaux individual Chateau (wineries / producers) are given rating of quality with names such as Premier Cru, or Grand Cru Classe.  But I don't want to lose you just yet, so we'll talk more about those classifications under the individual regions.

But don't give up!  There are a few basics that will get you at least part of the way toward understanding French wines enough to order one or better understand a label.  There are eight generally recognized wine regions, and there is a predominant (although not exclusive) style and grape variety or varieties associated with each region.  Many wine stores will organize their French wines using these regions.

 

Bordeaux – Red blends (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc) comprise 89% of the wine from Bordeaux and are your best guess.  A small amount of sweet and dry white wine is also produced (Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon).

Loire Valley – The Loire Valley is tough to generalize – best ask the waiter, sommelier, or wine shop manager.  Styles range from white wines, the most common grape varieties Sauvignon Blanc, Melon de Bourgogne (Muscadet) and Chenin Blanc (Vouvray) to Medium bodied Cabernet Franc, to several sparkling varieties.

Champagne – Champagne (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier) what more needs to be said?

Alsace – Alsace is the one French wine region that allows the grape variety to be used on the label so that's a big help.  Most all wines from the region are white; the most common are Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Gris.  A delightful sparkling wine known as Cremant d'Alsace is also produced using the Methode Champenoise.

Burgundy – Burgundy is divided into five major regions.  From north to south are Chablis (primary grape variety Chardonnay), Cote d'Or; further divided into Cote de Nuits (Pinot Noir) and Cote de Beaune (Chardonnay), Cote Chalonnaise (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay), Maconnais (Chardonnay) and Beaujolais (best known for Beaujolais Nouveau, a light early drinking red wine made from the Gamay grape).

Rhone Valley – The Rhone Valley, south from Burgundy is known primarily for reds, Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, and Cinsault are the most common although a few whites, most notable Viognier are produced in the Northern Rhone Valley.

Provence – South and east of the Rhone Valley, this historical wine producing region runs the gamut of grape varieties. 

Languedoc Roussillon – Historically the high volume lower quality region of France, Languedoc Roussillon produces over 50 million cases of wine annually.  Fortunately, because of the wine variety of grapes and number of producers, labeling frequently includes the grape varietal.

Grape Varieties

France is home to the majority of grape varieties that comprise the “International Varieties” now grown around the world.  There are a few grape varieties that remain indigenous to France; however, their production levels are miniscule.
White grapes in order of acres planted

• Ugni Blanc (Trebbiano)
• Chardonnay
• Sauvignon Blanc
• Melon de Bourgogne (Muscadet is the Appellation) , frequently referred to simply as “Melon”
• Semillon
• Muscat
• Chenin Blanc

Red Grapes in order of acres planted

• Merlot
• Grenache
• Syrah
• Carignan
• Cabernet Sauvignon
• Cabernet Franc
• Gamay
• Pinot Noir
• Cinsaut
• Pinot Meunier
• Mourvedre

Grape Growing in France

For a relatively small country, France has a wide range of climactic conditions.  Southern France enjoys a warm sunny Mediterranean climate, and at the other extreme, in the northeast of France home to Alsace, frigid cold blasts are not uncommon and vineyards are planted on southeast and southwest facing slopes to ensure adequate sunshine.   Wine regions that enjoy the warming influence of the Mediterranean Sea are from west to east, the Languedoc-Roussillon, Southern Rhone Valley and Provence.  The long growing season and warm temperatures enable this region to produce nearly half of the wine made in France, yet by most measures the quality wines are produced in the more northern regions.

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·  Cote de Nuits
·  Languedoc-Roussillon - The French Riviera
·  Provence
·  Beaujolais Nouveau - The Thanksgiving wine
·  Burgundy (Bourgogne)
·  Champagne "Come quickly ! I'm tasting stars!"
·  Bordeaux - Best in the World?
·  Alsace - Planet of the Apes?


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