Most wine drinkers today are accustomed to “glugging wines”, which taste fine on their own without food. Many French wines are predominantly food wines, to be enjoyed over long lunches or dinners with family and friends. If your French red isn’t cutting the mustard, try it with red meat and it will taste completely different.
Raisin the Stakes
France has a long wine history, with tradition playing a large part in determining the quality. To some extent French wine makers have been able to rest on their laurels somewhat, riding on their reputation. With the quality and range of wines from the New World increasing vastly, French wine makers have been given a run for their money in recent years. Tradition still plays a massive part in French wine production but increasingly wine makers are producing wines more accessible to the modern wine drinker. Even the wine labels are becoming easier to understand.
Touring through France
Getting to grips with the French wine regions is like exploring your way through different countries. Each region has its own identity, climate, style, grape-types and wine-laws. In some areas wines can be drunk young, without food, in others wines need to be aged, sometimes for years and need to accompany a meal.
This iconic French wine region produces some of the most expensive and prestigious wine in the world. The climate and soil on the West Coast of France are perfect for producing fine classic reds designed for aging, sweet dessert wines and full-bodied whites.
Left versus Right
It’s hard to tell which grapes are in a Bordeaux wine because it isn’t written on the bottle. Instead the wine is named for the Chateau owning the vineyard, and then the area it’s made in. The general rule is if the wine comes from the left bank of Bordeaux, between the Atlantic and the Garonne and Gironde rivers, it’s most likely to be made from Cabernet Sauvignon with a lower proportion of the other reds. Left bank Bordeaux wines are tannic, typically need aging and include such famous areas as Pauillac, Sainte Julien and Margaux.
Wines made on the right bank of the rivers Garonne and Dordogne are mostly made from Merlot, with a smaller proportion of the Cabernets. Wines are generally softer, fruitier and easier to drink young than left bank wines. Wines from Pomerol and Saint Emilion are right bank wines.
Whites are mostly made from Semillon and Sauvignon, and mainly come from the Entre Deux Mers region between the Dordogne and Gironde rivers.
The Sweet South
Bordeaux is also home to the great sweet wine, Sauternes. Made using grapes affected by Noble rot, developed under blankets of river mists in the South of Bordeaux, these lush sweet wines can set you back a pretty penny. If you want to try cheaper alternatives, try the sweet wines from across the river from Sauternes and Sainte Croix du Mont.
Finding the Bargains
Bordeaux wines can be pricey. To find the best value for quality then try wines from the less well-known makers, they may not have the cache of the big names but they will be striving for quality to compete with the reputations of the big boys. Also look for wines from the Bordeaux satellite regions just south east of the Bordeaux region. Wines from Bergerac, Cotes de Duras and Buzet will contain the same grapes as Bordeaux wines but won’t have the hefty price tag.
Although wines of the Rhône region in the East can command high prices they do not have the same prestige as Bordeaux varieties, so there are many bargains to be found.
The Spicy North
This is a narrow mountainous region with vineyards grown on steep slopes. Grapes often have to be picked by hand which drives prices up. The only red grape allowed here is Syrah, which in Côte Rôtie in the very north can be blended with a little Viognier to make smooth but rich spicy wines. Look out for New World Shiraz Viognier blends for great alternatives to these delicious but very pricey wines. White grapes allowed in the Northern Rhône are Marsanne, Rousanne and Viognier. The best Viogniers come from Chateau Grillet and Condrieu. To find value from the Northern Rhône, try wines from the flatter areas such as Crozes Hermitage and Sainte Joseph where hand harvesting is less common.
The Fruity South
Wines from the Southern Rhône, including most Côtes du Rhône wines are mostly Grenache based, so they’ll be softer and fruitier than their Northern counterparts. The most famous Southern Rhône wine is Châteauneuf du Pape, which can be a blend of up to 13 grape varieties. In practice only three or four are generally used however. Although Châteauneuf du Pape is very high priced, some great cheaper alternatives can be found from the surrounding areas. Try wines labelled Côte du Rhône Villages for decent value.
- In the Rhône, especially in Châteauneuf, vineyards are covered in large round flat white stones called pudding stones. These are great at storing heat and help keep the vineyard warm at night. These help the grapes gain added ripeness.
Fans of Burgundian wines believe they are some of the most sensual wines in the world. They are certainly among the highest priced. The area of Burgundy is also known as the Bourgogne.
Chardonnay is the main grape for white wine in Burgundy and produces a range of different styles. Look to Chablis in the North for crisp clean wines, minerally from the fossil-rich Kimmeridgian clay they are grown on. Even though Chablis is considered to be in Burgundy, and is made from Chardonnay, it is very different in style from White Burgundy.
Also made from Chardonnay, White Burgundy is oak aged. It is also dry but is full of rich creamy honeyed flavours. The highest priced whites will be those from the prestigious areas around the Côte de Beaune such as Meursault and Puligny Montrachet. For better value try wines from Côte Chalonnaise, these will be softer in style but also cheaper in price. For even better value try Bourgogne Blancs. Made in the same style as the big boys, but with no fancy name attached so you’ll be getting real value for money.
Pinot Noir is the red grape of Northern Burgundy and makes wines whose reputation and cost can be sky high, especially from the Côte D’Or. Wines from the northern Côte D’Or, the Côte de Nuit, are full bodied fruity and long-lived, and wines from the southern part, the Côte de Beaune, are lighter in style. If you don’t want to shell out for the Grand Cru wines, like a Gevrey Chambertin, or a Vosne Romanee, then try reds called Côte de Nuits Villages. Wines from the surrounding areas outside the famous areas are called Bourgogne Hauts-Cotes de Nuits. Both of these are much friendlier in price.
Right in the south of Burgundy you’ll find the lovely region of Beaujolais. Gamay is the great grape of this area and it makes light fruity easy-drinking French wines at a variety of qualities and prices.
This is the world’s most famous sparkling wine region and sets a standard for other areas. The way the wines are made is called the Champagne or traditional method and wines have a second fermentation in the bottle to create bubbles and to add the characteristic honeyed toasty notes. Some Champagne can be uber-expensive and way out of the price range of mere mortals. So for value for money, steer clear of the big names and explore the wines of smaller makers. Also try non-vintage champagnes, marked NV or sparking wines made in the traditional method from outside the Champagne region. These will be called Cremants and are excellent value for money.
- Top Champagne houses are buying up large swathes of Sussex and Kent as a way to ensure against Global Warming.
- Most people drink Champagne as an aperitif but with food it can be an immensely rewarding experience. It is a quality wine first and foremost, as well as being a celebration aide.
The gorgeous Loire Valley in the West of France is mostly home to White and Rosé wines. These French wines don’t command the high prices of other regions and they are mostly made for drinking straight away. You can pick up some delicious Vin De Pays wines from this region relatively inexpensively.
Sancerre and Pouilly Fume in the Loire are France’s most prestigious Sauvignon wine areas. For cheaper alternatives look for Sauvignon from the Touraine region of this area. Chenin Blanc from Touraine, Vouvray and Anjou Saumur regions can also be very pricey but again, steer clear of the big names and you’ll bag the bargains.
The Romance of Rosé
Like you’d expect from a region, which is also known as “The Garden of France”, you can find some beautiful Rosé wines in the Loire. Cabernet D’Anjou Rosés are medium sweet and made from Grolleau, and can be expensive. For better value to these high priced wines, try Rosé D’Anjou, or even Rosé de Loire, made from Cabernet, Pinot Noir and Gamay.
A Fishy Treat
Way over in the West of the Loire, by the Atlantic Ocean, is a region famous for fishing, the Nantais. The main wine here is Muscadet, also called Melon Blanc and it is a natural, and perfect partner to fish and seafood.
- Try Sancerre and Goats cheese for a match made in heaven.
- Pinot Noir grown in the Sancerre region makes Rose and Red Sancerre. These are always high priced wines.
- Try sparkling wines from the Loire made in the Traditional Method. Called Cremant de Loire, these wines are mostly made from Chenin Blanc and are a great value, great tasting alternative to Champagne.
The mountainous region of Alsace on the Eastern border is different from any other region in France. A territory that has been passed back and forth between France and Germany several times in its history, the cooler climate means the wines are far more Germanic in style than typical French wines. Mostly white grapes are grown here, with dry aromatic Riesling, spicy Gewürztraminer and sweeter but well-balanced Pinot Gris all being produced in the classic Alsatian style. If you are looking for something new, try the whites of the Alsace.
- Sweeter but highly acidic wines such as the Pinot Gris and the spiciness of the Gewürztraminer can also be very good matches to spicy foods.
South of France
The south of France is famous for its mild Mediterranean climate, and grapes enjoy the warmer weather too. Stretching out along the coast of the Mediterranean the regions of Provence, Languedoc, and Roussillon do not have the same sort of stature as Bordeaux, Burgundy, or the Rhone, but they make some excellent French wine.
Provence is Rosé Country, making many different styles over all price ranges, the most expensive of which is Coteaux d’Aix en Provence. Try the Vin De Pays Rosé for good alternatives to the higher priced stuff.
Lovely Languedoc – Roussillon
In Languedoc-Roussillon you’ll find quality wines in Corbieres, Minervois and Coteaux du Languedoc. These are dark rich fruity wines made from Carignan, Grenache, Mourvedre, and Syrah or blends of these. These wines are mostly good value for the quality and well worth tasting through if you think French reds are inaccessible to the modern wine drinker.
In the Languedoc they grow the same grapes as in the Southern Rhône. Try Vin de Pays de Bouches du Rhône, and Vin de Pays de Vaucluse for some great cheaper Rhône alternatives.
Value Vin de Pays
The south of France is Vin de Pays country. Mostly called Vin de Pays d’Oc, these wines can be a blend of any grape, and although they must past taste tests, makers are free to do what they want with the wines. This means they have the space to play with wine, to blend varietals which they may not be able to elsewhere, to experiment and to get the most out of their art. Some of the most innovative French wines are Vin de Pays from this region, and makers can sometimes charge high prices for these wines due to their excellent quality. Having said this there is still plenty of value to be had from the South of France.