WHILE French wine is already a category well within itself, an understanding of the regions from which the various types are produced can give the drinker a deeper insight into the wine. Within every bottle, after all, is not just fermented grape juice, but the history of the land and its people.
Castles, castles, castles. The kings of the house of Valois longed for the rich gardens near the Loire river and built rich chateaux here, in the French Renaissance style. As a retreat from their duties at court, they also served as homes to France’s most important courtesans, such as Diane de Poitiers. From here come wines made of chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc, muscadet, and cabernet and franc. Sparkling wine is also produced here (cremant), making it the second-largest producer of sparkling wine in France.
There can be no discussion of French wines without the Bordeaux Region, located in southwest France. It is here that Emperor Napoleon III ordered the classification of Bordeaux Wines for the Exposition Universelle de Paris in 1855, giving us the classifications of Premiers Crus, and the like (the grands-crus of Burgundy will be inspired by the classification). Just 20 years later, the age-old vines of Bordeaux were damaged by blight, and native vines had to be grafted upon American rootstock. The largest wine growing area in France, it boasts of blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec.
A region as rich in history as it is in wine (wine produced here gave us the name of a color), Burgundy was once an independent region that could rival the court of France, ruled by the Dukes of Burgundy. After a series of traumatic wars, it was annexed by France in the 15th century. Burgundy has its own wine classifications, inspired by the Classification of 1855. This gave rise to the term grands-crus and premier crus. Pinot noir and Gamay dominate the red wine market, while Chardonnay dominates the white wine market. Some of the world’s most expensive brands are to be found here.
Located in Southeastern France, the land of Provence has been cultivated for wine as far back as the Roman occupation. Rosé wines are dominant here, with the scents of herbs and aromatics such as lavender and rosemary (also grown widely in the region) present within the bottles. The primary grape here is mourvedre.
The Rhone wine region, running along the banks of the Rhone river, is famous for wines with the Cote du Rhone AOC (a certification granted by the government to give naming rights for products only from a specific region), made with grapes from syrah for the reds, and usually marsanne and roussanne for the whites. Another AOC from this region is the earthy Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
Its history within the Austrian-dominated Holy Roman Empire gave Alsace a flavor uniquely French and German. The land’s story is one of frequent struggle between France and Germany, being annexed by the Germans from the French in the Franco-Prussian War, and then back to the French in the First World War, and then occupied by the Germans in the next World War. German-style wines such as Rieslings and Geurtzraminers can be found here, with those varieties dominating the scene. — JLG