Have you been interested in French wine and maybe bought a bottle here and there and had no idea what you were drinking except it was either red, white, or pink? Or have you shied away from French wine because you can’t understand the labels? It’s totally ok (you’re not alone) because if you’re not a wine pro who understands the grapes and the regions, how would you know? Even if you spoke French it doesn’t really matter because most French wines do not list the grape or grapes on their labels. Only until recent years have a few been adding them on their labels for the export market, and I think that’s a great thing for US Retailers.
Let’s break down the major regions and what those grapes are.
Yes, Champagne is the actual region in France and not a term used for all sparkling wines. A wine can only be labeled Champagne if it’s from that region (ok, there’s one or two California producers that have Champagne listed on their labels, but they were grandfathered in before a law was passed in France). So when you’re sipping Champagne, grapes are going to be either/and Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and/or, Pinot Meunier. There are sub regions in Champagne and are on the bottle. For example with the label here from Domaine Jean-Vesselle, the wine comes from the region of Bouzy.
I always say Burgundy (Bourgogne) is the most complicated wine region with the easiest grapes to know what’s in your glass. Let’s start with the simple, if it’s white it is Chardonnay with the exception of Aligoté, however the latter will be labeled as Aligoté. If it’s red, it is Pinot Noir. The grape Gamay is allowed to be planted in parts of Burgundy, but you rarely see it on its own in the region (Beaujolais is the region for 100% Gamay wines). Some producers do blend a little bit of it with Pinot for their basic red Burgundies and are typically labeled as, “Passetoutgrain.” Now for the complicated, the sub regions and appellations. There are 6 sub regions if you include Beaujolais and then there are about 100 appellations, or AOC’s, as the French classify them. AOC stands for Appellation d’origine Contrôlée. Wines are classified from Bourgogne to Village designate to 1er Cru to Grand Cru. Grand Cru being the highest designate by the Government.
Bordeaux is a major city in France as well as one of the most important wine regions on the planet. Bordeaux is basically split in half, known as the right bank and the left bank. I like to refer to it as such; the right bank are generally the affordable wines and often wines that are approachable young, while the left bank are wines that are for the high rollers in life. They are very expensive and are often way too tannic to drink young. Within both banks there are AOC’s and those are listed on the labels, so once you learn the AOC’s, you will know whether the wine is from the right or left bank. In case you’re wondering, the Gironde River that flows through the region is what separates the banks. The grapes aren’t too complicated, the white wines are mostly Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, and sometimes Muscadelle (especially with the sweet wines). The red grapes are Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and sometimes Malbec. The right bank is planted mostly to Merlot and Cabernet Franc where as the left bank Cabernet Sauvignon reigns King. Probably why I have more of an affinity for the right bank, they’re simply more charming to me.
I find the Loire to be such a fun region in France, lots of fantastic and diverse styles of white wines. There are red wines and the grapes are mostly Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir. The Loire is divided into 4 regions and each has sub regions. Starting from the left we begin in Pays Nantais, home to the region of Muscadet. Touted as the best oyster wine, the grape in Muscadet is Melon de Bourgogne. Incredibly affordable wines that pair with so much more than oysters. Anjou-Samur is the next region and Chenin Blanc is the major white grape in the region. A little Cabernet d’Anjou is used for rosé’s, and Cabernet Franc for reds. Another region with very affordable wines. Samur is the next region and again you will find Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc. Samur is popular for sparkling wines. Touraine is next and is home to my favorite red wine region in the Loire; Chinon. Cabernet Franc rules the vineyards for reds and outside of Chinon, Chenin Blanc is the white grape. You will find in the region of Vouvray that Chenin Blanc can be dry (sec), medium-dry (demi-sec), sweet (moelleux), or sparkling. They will be designated on the bottle. Lastly is the Upper Loire region and home to the most famous region in the Loire; Sancerre. For whites the wines throughout the Upper Loire are Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir for the reds. Due to it’s popularity, most tend to overlook Pouilly-Fumé, which fetches lower prices and certainly not quality.
The Rhône is divided into two regions, the Northern Rhône and the Southern Rhône and both with sub regions within them. The easiest to remember grape wise is the Northern; whites are Viognier and reds are Syrah. Here you will find how different Syrah can taste depending on which region you buy from. The Southern Rhône is a bit more complex in terms of learning all the grapes, however to keep it simple, the most dominant grape for reds is Grenache. All Southern Rhône wines are blends. Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Cinsault are widely planted and there are about 13 other red varietals that can be planted in the region. I wish whites from the Southern Rhône were more popular because they are absolutely delicious and make for a great winter white wine. Several grapes are planted, but you’ll mostly encounter Grenache Blanc, Viognier, and Roussanne. Whites are also mostly blends.
Alsace is the northernmost region in France and during war times had changed to Germany owned, but has always maintained French roots. Germanic grapes are grown in Alsace and whites are generally the most popular. Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Sylvaner round out the whites and are actually labeled on the wines! Pinot Noir is what you’ll find for a red wine and also labeled. Alsatian Pinot can be very affordable and fun!
The largest region in the south of France and full of diverse sub-regions with some of the most affordable wines from all of France. Mostly what’s planted throughout the regions are red grapes and the wines are mostly blends. The grapes of the Southern Rhône (we pro’s refer to them as “Rhône Varietals”) are what is planted throughout in terms of both whites and reds. However here is where you will also find the white grape, Muscat, which has grown in popularity.
Most know Provence for the quaffable and affordable rosés that flood restaurants and retailers in early Spring. Rosés are made in so many regions throughout the world, but Provence just seems to be that go-to region for finding a wine that usually won’t upset you. The grapes planted in Provence are mostly Southern Rhône red varietals and the wines are primarily blends. The region of Bandol produces the most sought after in all the region for the serious drinker. Here you can find Mourvèdre rosé at it’s best. If I need to plug a producer, Château de Pibarnon, is likely my fave. I’ve had 10 year old rosé from this producer that is a stunning when stored properly.
Tucked away along some of France’s most rugged terrain is a little region called, Jura. It has become the Sommelier’s secret for outstanding Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that has similar soils to Burgundy, yet not fetching the price tag. Chardonnay dominates here and is sometimes blended with Savagnin, however Savagnin can also be found as a solo grape. Alongside Pinot Noir, another red grape known as Poulsard, is planted. Both are very aromatic and a pleasure to drink.
The mountainous region of Savoie is tucked alongside the Swiss border and produces mostly white wine from the Jacquère grape. Chasselas is the other white planted and I tend to think it’s a nice alternative to Chardonnay. Gamay and Mondeuse make up the red grapes planted, although a little trickier to find in some export markets.
There’s something so romantic about island wine and here you’ll find a version of Sangiovese planted called, “Nielluccio.” Merlot and Grenache Noir are also used for red wines and Vermentino for whites. Corsican Vermentino and Nielluccio are wildly popular because they’re just damn delicious.