I am a Francophile of sorts. I adore all things French – wine, cuisine, and haut couture, in that order. My distinct pleasure is to introduce you to my first adoration on the list, the wine regions of France. Welcome to Vin de Francais 101. Bonjour, mon amis, et a votre sante! as we journey throughout France to “experience” why She is the undisputed mistress of wine.
The wine world has a love-hate relationship with the French. France produces more fine wine than any other country. Wine is rooted into its culture and has affected – and influenced – the world. Why is this so? It’s not just that the French are passionate; it’s about geography. France receives the benefits of two climate-affecting bodies of water: the Atlantic on the west and the Mediterranean to the south. This helps to create varied wine regions with long growing seasons that allow grapes to ripen fully. Qualities only a winemaker could love.
What sets each wine region apart? Terroir, of course. It is not only a quintessentially French concept; it is what creates distinctive wine styles from each region. Terroir is what Mother Earth gives to the grapes all on her own. Temperature, rainfall, sunlight, altitude and soil composition are all-natural gifts unique to each vineyard. As a result, the character and quality of each wine reflects the terroir from which it came and contributes the many wine styles of France.
Regarding quality, in France, you must earn your way to the top. The French control, define, and classify their wines. Appellation Controlee or AC wines is Frances’s official category for its highest-ranking wines. Geographical origins, varietal make-up, and production methods are regulated. Vins Delimites de Qualite Superieure or VDQS wines are judged up to the AC standard with less stringent regulations on yields and grape varieties. Vins de Pays or “country wines” are often from areas larger than the AC zones where non-traditional varieties and higher yields are permitted. Vins de Table wines are simple and can be produced anywhere in France with no restriction to grape variety or yields.
All that being said, I’ve experienced France’s passion toward the grape. Several years ago, my husband and I visited Burgundy. We started north in Chablis and meandered south to Gevrey-Chambertin, Nuits St. George, among others along the Cote d’Or. We had no appointments, no schedule. People can say what they want about the French and their aversion to friendliness, but we were warmly welcomed and lived vicariously through their stories. We hung out in Beaune, the heart of Burgundy, for a couple of days then headed south to Pommard and Meursault. At last we made our pilgrimage to “Le Montrachet.” This site produces a single vineyard chardonnay beyond epic proportion. I stood under the centuries old archway that was erect in the vineyard. It was like touching the holy grail of wine religion.
So after my epiphany of sorts, it is easy to see why the rest of the wine world tries to emulate France. In my tenure as a wine consultant, wine suppliers would boast about how their California Cabernet Sauvignon was made in the Bordeaux style. Or how their new world Chardonnay or Pinot Noir has a likeness to Burgundy. I have had the pleasure to sell wine for Jess Jackson’s portfolio. He imported a French winemaker to make high-end Bordeaux blends. The wines had French names and each one was a different blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. Depending on the formula, each wine represented the qualities of St. Emilion, Pauillac, or Pomerol (small, distinctive wine regions in Bordeaux whose red wines are glamorous and opulent.). The French wine wannabes were wonderfully delicious, highly rated, quite expensive, and extremely allocated. It was most definitely California royalty versus Bordeaux royalty. But, in the end, French is French.
Many producers outside of Champagne, France would love to put “Champagne” on their sparkling wine labels because champagne exudes such class, elegance, and celebration. But unless your grapes are from the Champagne region of France, then the term “sparkling wine” must suffice.
Much wine speak is French-derived. Vitis vinifera are European grape varietals now planted all over the world because they give good wine. Veraison is the moment when grapes change from their hard, green state to their softened grape of color. Blanc de Blanc champagne refers to a style of sparkling wine made from chardonnay grapes. Meritage is a trademarked name for American wines made from a blend of grape varieties in the image of Medoc and Graves located in Bordeaux. This trademark is only available to American wineries that join an association and uphold the distinction of using Meritage on their wine label. Red wines are made exclusively from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot grapes. White wines are made from Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Muscadelle. Production is limited to no more than 25,000 cases a year.
Heck, France has been an international role model to more than the wine world. What about connoisseur, restaurateur, vinaigrette, bon appetit, resume, soiree, café au lait, deja, vu, hors d’oeuvre, voila!, encore, or ballet? We use these words as if we invented them. And let us not forget the “ginormous,” copper-clad, enrobed French woman with the big torch, on Liberty Island in New York Harbor that welcomes all. We can thank the French for much. I am obliged to them for their wine. Join me next time when, together, we’ll begin to navigate the myriad of wine regions, some known, and some less known. And from my first vignette to my last, I hope that when you think of wine, you are inspired, influenced, and sipping something French. Perhaps it will make you a Francophile of sorts, too. So until our next rendezvous, get your wine passports ready because we’re off to Alsace. Viva la France!