FRANCE HAS more land under vine than any other country bar Spain, competes with Italy each year for the title of world’s largest producer, is the world’s top fine wine exporter, its prime source of oak for barrels and its most important exporter of vine nursery material. France is wine.
Around 100 varieties are grown on a commercial scale with the most-planted cultivars being Merlot, Carignan (the villain behind Europe’s infamous ‘wine lake’), Grenache, Ugni Blanc (used mostly for brandy), Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc. The trend is for increasing dominance of “international” varieties (i.e. the ones everyone knows).
France’s wine hierarchy is built around its much-imitated Appellation Contrôlée (AOP) system, which dates from the 1930s. This fairly rigid structure emphasizes regionality, as opposed to grape variety, but, while it guarantees provenance, it doesn’t necessarily assure quality. Some consider the system to be overly restrictive but, to its credit, it does help to protect tradition and diversity in a globalised world.
Below the appellations sit two tiers that are far more lightly regulated: Indication Géographique Protégée (IGP), previously known as Vin de Pays – good-value, market friendly bottles that make up a third of production; and Vin de France, which was created only in 2009 as a new classification for wines without any address more specific than ‘France’. A clear attempt to fight back against marauding New World brands, it represents an important simplification of the French wine offer.
A quick overview of France has to start with Bordeaux, the wine world’s most illustrious region and France’s largest wine-growing area (home to 10,000 growers). Its products go from everyday, entry-level stuff right up to weepingly-expensive collector and investment items (e.g. Château Latour 2009: currently €1,800 per bottle). Nine-in-ten bottles are red, made primarily from blends of Merlot and Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc.
Burgundy’s 100 appellations (which technically include Chablis and Beaujolais) vinify just one-quarter as much as Bordeaux churns out, but its wines are equally prized, sometimes more so. With very few exceptions, red Burgundy is pure Pinot Noir and white Burgundy is pure Chardonnay.
Champagne is France’s largest appellation and one of the world’s strongest brands (not just in wine). Synonymous with celebration and excess, it is unique in that its wines are mostly non-vintage, or blended from multiple years. Winston Churchill famously claimed that he could not live without it: ‘In victory I deserve it; in defeat I need it.’
The Rhône wine region, which is split in two, runs from Lyon to the Rhône delta on the Mediterranean coast. The north is more exalted, but contributes just 5% to the region’s crush. Reds are usually straight Syrah, while whites are crafted from Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne. The flatter, hotter south, which is responsible for most Côtes du Rhône and all Côtes du Rhône Villages, is more of a workhorse region, although it does include the famous Châteauneuf du Pape appellation.
Moving on to Alsace, a region that is not as popular with consumers as it is with wine trade and press. This mostly-white region is located in a rain shadow between the Vosges mountains and the German border and, atypically for France, its wines are labelled by grape with five varieties – Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Muscat and Pinot Blanc – making up the bulk of production.
Meandering inland from the central Atlantic coast then is ‘France’s garden’, the Loire valley, an extensive, multifaceted region that features many different grapes and wines in all styles, including fashionable-again Muscadet, Chenin-based Vouvray and Touraine Sauvignon. The star of the region is undoubtedly flinty, minerally Sancerre though, with Pouilly-Fumé a close second.
Finally, Languedoc-Roussillon, formerly disparaged, is now one of wine world’s most exciting regions, offering options at all price points and from a wide palette of local and imported grapes. Crus and wines to watch out for include La Clape, Pic-Saint-Loup, Picpoul de Pinet and Minervois.
So many wines, so little time!