For many people, French wine is some of the best in the world. France is all about quality and quantity: it produces about one-sixth of the wine in the world, making it the top-ranking wine country.
Reading French labels
French wine labels show the region but usually not the grape variety, partly because many regions blend grapes. However, different regions concentrate on particular grapes, so you can guess what it contains.
France has a strict system for classifying wines and this information is also shown on labels so consumers can identify the quality wine:
AOP (appellation d'origine protegee): this wine is from a specific region where there are certain wine making rules. This signifies the best quality.
IGP (Indication Geographique Protegee) or VDP (Vin De Pays): This is wine from a larger area with fewer regulations than AOP.
Vin de France: These are hit and miss quality wines.
AOC or Appellation d'origine contrôlée is also an AOP
Regions of France
There are 12 wine growing regions in France. One of the smallest is Alsace in the northeast. Alsace was part of Germany at various times during its history and it produces mostly white, off-dry wines often made from Gewurztraminer and Riesling. The biggest producing single region is Languedoc-Rousillon in the southwest. Here it is hot and dry, and these vineyards are amoungst the world's most productive. There are some great-value wines from this region.
Bordeaux region is possible the most famous single winemaking region in the world, focusing on fine red wines, sometimes called Claret. Bordeaux is situated in southwest France around the Gironde estuary, adjoining the Atlantic. The Dordogne and the Garonne Rivers feed this estuary.
The Wine areas
Bordeaux is divided into several AOC areas, which can be grouped into two main divisions:
Right bank: Grown to the north of the Dordogne River, the key AOCs are Pomerol and St Emilion. Right Bank wines have a lot of Merlot in them, making them smooth with subtle tannins but with bold style.
Left Bank: Grown to the south of Gironde and Garonne, the Left Bank can be subdivided into Medoc to the north and Graves to the south, just below Bordeaux city. Medox AOCs include St Estephe, Pauillac, St Julien and Margaux. Graves AOCs include Pessac-Leognan, where famous reds such as Haut-Brion are made, and Sauternes, where world-famous sweet-white Semillon wines are produced.
The bordeaux wine region has numerous laws that help to regulate its wine production or to make things difficult, depending on your point of view. Bordeaux is the most classified wine region in the world. Mostly based on the Bordeaux Cru Classe' of 1855, which is a fiver-tier grading of the 62 top chateau, this system is still partly in place today but with some modifications. The best-quality wines from 150 years ago are still among the finest today, making them ludicrously expensive.
Tips for Bordeaux bargains
Meet the neighbour: Chateaux situated near cru classes often have very similar terroir and winemaking standards, so instead of St Estephe or St Julien, opt for Moulis or Listrac.
Superior wines: Many cheaper Bordeaux wines are labelled 'Appelation Bordeaux Controllee' but others are labelled 'Appelation Bordeaux-Superieur Controllee. The 'Superieur' part is important as it denotes that there might be slightly higher alcohol present and signifies that they are aged for at least 12 months before sale. This means that the wine might be better quality for the price.
Watch the cru: Crus Simply means 'growth' and not the best. 'Grand cru' on its own is meaningless, so choose grand cru classe' for a classified wine. Cru bourgeois wines are often delicious and good-value Medoc wines that passed a recognised quality test.
Alcohol levels: Higher alcohol usually indicates better quality grapes in Bordeaux. Look for wine 12.5 to 13.9 per cent.
Chateau bottled: Wine bottled by the winemakers that produce it often denotes better quality than wine bottled elsewhere.
Burgundy, or Bourgogne, is a region of the east-central France on a par with Bordeaux for fantastic wines. The best are highly prized and very expensive. The 100 different appellations of Burgundy wines are classified by a different system from Bordeaux wines. The top one per cent are Grand Cru and incredibly expensive. The next 10 per cent are Premier Cru, which are also of high quality but slightly more affordable. Village wine are next down the pecking order and can be fresh and fruity with some complexity. The final category is regional wine, which can be light and lively.
There are five growing areas of Burgundy:
Chablis: This region produces zesty, pure and crisp Chardonnays.
Cote de Nuits: Classic full-bodied, long-lasting Pinot Noir is made here.
Cote de Beaunes: Here, rich Chardonnays and plummy Pinot Noirs are produced.
Cote Challonais: This region produces oaky Chardonnays and rustic Pinot Noirs.
Maconnais: Herby, citrus and honeysuckly Chardonnays are made here.
For good value burgundies, seek out village wines from different appellations, especially the slightly more affordable Challonais area.
Beaujolais, just south of Burgundy, makes light, acidic low tannin red wines from the Gamay grape. They range in style, from youthful, yeasty Beaujolais Nouveau wines sold very soon after being made; to long-lasting reds with great complexity. The top grade is Beaujolais cru wines from areas in the heart of the region but Beaujolais villages and Beaujolais Superieur from around the cru area, are far better value.
This region takes its name from the Rhone River and can be divided into north and south. The north enjoys steep hills, hot summers and mild winters, wheras the south has shallow slopes, baking-hot summers and mild winters. In the north, red wines are made from Syrah blended with white grapes; in the south reds are a blend of Grenache with other red grapes. The top reds are from cru vineyards in the north such as Cote Rotie, Hermitage and St Joseph, and in the south from AOCs such as Cote de Rhone villages, Vacqueyras and Chateauneuf-du-pape.
Champagne is a wine synonymous with luxury living, whether it is the swigging enjoyment of celebrities or the traditional toasts at weddings and other celebrations. This wine is made in a small northeastern region of France not far from Paris. It has a cool climate, producing highly acidic wines suitable for turning into a fizzy drink prized for its long-lasting bubbles.
The Champagne method
Champagne is made in a very distinct way. After the fermentation process that any wine would go through in a vat or barrel, Champagne is then bottled up with a mix of sugar and yeast for a second fermentation. It has a strong metal cap to stop carbon dioxide blowing off the top. It is left to age for nine months to five years (for vintage champagne) to soak up that yeasty, biscuity flavour for which it is famous. The wine is then rotated and tipped gradually to collect the sediment in the neck, which is then flash frozen to make a plug that pops out when the bottle is opened. The liquid level is topped up and the sweetness adjusted, from brut (which is dry) to doux (which is sweet) before the champagne is resealed with a cork and wire cage to keep it in place prior to drinking.
Varieties of Champagne
The famous houses of Reims and Epernay own about 10% of the regions vinyards but they buy grapes from around 19,000 growers. Termed grower champagnes, some produce their own wine - sometimes via coorperatives.
The top champagne houses produce a range of wines, the best of which are one-year-old vinages, whereas non-vintage Champagnes contain wines from many years. Cuvee Champagnes are blends from different growers - in practice, most champagnes are blends, even if they are vintage. The wines can be blanc de blancs, made solely from Chardonnay grapes which give the Champagne a creamy taste or blanc de noirs, made from dark-skinned grapes, which have a vigorous, fruity taste.
It all depends what is meant by good value - top vintage Champagne from a great year could cost from 80e-100e. A premium price is charged for the great expertise behind the selection of a harmonious blend from vineyards with highest quality grapes. The producers name and expensive advertising campaigns is included in the cost. Vintage wines of lesser houses, such as Ruinart, can offer better value, but vintage grower Champagnes can be best value of all. For example, try the bold, oaked, creamy grower Champagnes from Montagne de Reims region of northeast Champagne, such as Pascal de Redon and David Leclapart .
There are several French alternatives to Champagne, too. These include wines made in the Loire region in northwest France, including sparkling Vouvray and Montlouis, made from Chenin Blanc grapes, which smell of acacia, apple and carnation.