Wines of France

Fleur-de-Lis

If any country is associated with wine, it would be France. France is famous throughout the world for producing the finest, most sophisticated wines. French wines are the standard that all other wines are inevitably compared against. From the classy and sophisticated wines of the Bordeaux Chateaus, to the delicate and sensuous country wines of Burgundy, to the classical bubbly of Champagne, France, more than any other country, defines what we know of as wine.

The French AOC System

The French wine regulatory system is renowned throughout the world as being the oldest, most established, and comprehensive set of wine regulations in existence. The French take their wines seriously. The system is known as Appellation Controlee and is often abbreviated AOC, for Appellation d'Origin Controlee. On the label, the geographic place of origin is typically written between the A and the C, so a wine from Bordeaux would say "Appellation Bordeaux Controlee" on the label.

The AOC mark guarantees that the wine comes from the named place, and is made in accordance with the winemaking styles and methods that are traditional of that place (it also regulates many mundane details that are not interesting to the consumer except for the impact on quality, such as maximum yield per acre, residual sugar level, blend proportions, and more). When you find an AOC Saint-Emilion, you are assured that the wine is exactly what you can expect from the Saint-Emilion region. If you know the wine regions of France, there is no additional guesswork required - the AOC designation will tell you exactly what to expect.

The complexities of the AOC system and the numerous regions and sub-regions (and the wines they produce) is probably the single largest, most intimidating, and most difficult thing a beginning wine drinker will encounter. It has been the subject of many large books. For more information, see the individual regions of France.

Wines that do not comply with AOC regulations are usually designated Vin de Pays or Vin de Pays d'Oc. Some of these wines are decent, but are either not made in accordance with traditional methods, or come from places not traditionally known for high-quality wine (such as Languedoc-Roussillon). An even lower grade, Vin de Table exists, but never escapes the country.

The Regions of France

France is so large and produces such a diverse array of wine that most writers, myself included, choose to handle it as several separate subregions.

Bordeaux

Bordeaux is in the western part of France, on the banks of the Gironde river. It is renowned throughout the world for fine, rich red wine that commands a small fortune on the market. This is where the famous Chateaus are located. Bordeaux wines can actually be affordable, and they are bold, sophisticated, serious wines. They also make fine sweet dessert wines.

Learn about Bordeaux wines.

Burgundy (Bourgogne)

Burgundy lies a few hours southeast of Paris, and is famous for making complex, sensuous red wines. Unlike the large stately Chateaus of the Bordeaux region, most of the Burgundy producers are very small, with very limited production, making the hunt for the elusive perfect wine all the more challenging.

Learn about Burgundy wines.

Beaujolais

Immediately south of Burgundy lies Beaujolais, where the most fun red wine in the world is made. It's light, it's fruity, it's chillable, and it's inexpensive. Casual enough for picnics and parties, but complex enough to please any wine snob.

Learn about Beaujolais wines.

Loire Valley

Southwest of Paris, the Loire Valley features historic castles and good wine. Most famous are the Vouvray and Sancerre white wines, made from Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc, respectively. Superb on their own or with food.

Learn about Loire Valley wines

Provence, Cahors, Rhone

Provence is an area of France that you should go to on vacation. They produce acceptable rose wine.

Cahors is a little-known region in southwest France that produces wines vaguely reminiscent of Bordeaux from Auxerrois, which everyone else calls Malbec, and Merlot. Since nobody knows it exists, prices are lower than they should be.

The Rhone produces red wines from several varietals that are currently in vogue, including Syrah and Grenache. These tend to be very reasonably priced and have a lively, spicy fruity flavor. Many good bargains can be found here.

White La Vielle Ferme, "Grenache Blanc/Roussanne/Ugni Blanc" Cotes du Luberon Blanc 2001 (AOC Cotes du Luberon)
2003 Peach, grass, and citrus flavors, with very smooth texture. Simple.
$8 / bottle
White Domaine de la Pigeade, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise 1999 (AOC Muscat de Beaumes de Venise)
28 February 2004 Sweet melon and peach juice with a fair tang. Not at all cloying.
$13 / 375ml
White Domaine de Coyeux, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise 2001 (AOC Muscat de Beaumes de Venise)
20 June 2007 Sweet and heady melon, nectar, and spicy honey.
$14 / 375ml
Red Domaine de Fenquillet "Terres Blanches" Beaumes de Venise (red) 2004 (AOC Beaumes de Venise)
18 April 2010 Rich and soft fruit with firm tannins. Competent but surprisingly unspirited.
$17 / bottle
Red Domaine Forca-Real 2006 (AOC Cotes du Roussillon Villages)
13 July 2010 Rich fruity raisins and peppers with powerful tannins. Heady.
$12 / bottle
Red Clos La Coutale, Cahors 1999 (AOC Cahors)
10 April 2002 Soft, fruity, fairly astringent and tannic. Light pepper flavors with some earthiness and a long finish. Similar to Saint-Emilion.
$13 / bottle
Rose Canto Perdrix, Tavel 2006 (AOC Tavel)
1 November 2008 Bright berry and cherry notes with moderate tartness and a hint of tannin. Rather heady for a rose (13.5% alc).
$17 / bottle
Rose Domaine Jean Bagnis, "L'Estandon" Cotes de Provence 2000 (AOC Cotes de Provence)
10 April 2002 Grape/oak impression with a touch of spice and a medium/long finish. Fun pineapple/strawberry flavor. Surprisingly good for rose.
$8 / bottle
Red Ogier, "Heritages" Cotes du Rhone 2007 (AOC Codes du Rhone)
12 March 2011 Bold and spicy fruit with big and bloody tannins. Grape stems and tea leaves on the finish. Very lively mouthfeel.
$11 / bottle
Red Grandes Serres, "La Cour des Papes" Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2007 (AOC Chateauneuf-du-Pape)
26 September 2011 Smooth dark cherries and raspberries. Spicy and lively on the tongue, with hints of tobacco and vanilla. Racy and exciting. Very tight and closed at first but opens wonderfully.
$40 / bottle
Red Chateau Saint-Roch, Cotes du Rhone 2004 (AOC Cotes du Rhone)
14 July 2010 Rich plums and raisins, with lots of berry. Bright, fruity, and fun.
$13 / bottle
Red Domaine d'Andezon, Cotes du Rhone 2000 (AOC Cotes du Rhone)
10 April 2002 Exuberantly lively fruit, very grapey, no oak. Longish finish with jammy fruit texture. Less spicy than expected for syrah (100%), stylistically reminiscent of Beaujolais.
$?? / bottle
Red Domaine Brusset, "Boudale" Cotes du Ventoux 2001 (AOC Cotes du Ventoux)
2003 Soft and very juicy fruit with slight spice. Crisp and lively on the tongue. Very quaffable, accessible, and fun.
$10 / bottle
Red Louis Bernard, Cotes du Rhone Villages 2003 (AOC Cotes du Rhone Villages)
21 October 2004 Deep jammy plums and blackberry. Very tannic, with smoky tones.
$10 / bottle
Red Moillard, "Les Violettes" Cotes du Rhone 2001 (AOC Cotes du Rhone)
2003 Very spicy, extremely dry, with some hickory, plum, and cinnamon flavors. Bulky and food-like.
$8 / bottle
Red Les Garrigues, Cotes du Rhone 2000 (AOC Cotes du Rhone)
10 April 2002 Very fruity impression that gives way to spice. Some oak, wood, and leather flavors are present. Medium body, medium finish. Very young and lively, with good balance.
$8 / bottle
Red Domaine du Trapadis, Cotes du Rhone 2000 (AOC Cotes du Rhone)
2003 Plain round fruit, stemmy grape, with a dry finish. Rather simple.
$14 / bottle

Alsace

Alsace is a region that France and Germany like to trade periodically; currently France controls Alsace. Unlike the rest of France, wines in Alsace are named by the varietal. Most of the production is white wine, a mix of French and German varietals. There is only one AOC region - everything is AOC Alsace.

White Abarbanel, Riesling 2004 (AOC Alsace)
10 August 2007 Dry with strong fragrant flower flavors. Clean.
$21 / bottle
White Hugel, "Cuvee Les Amours" Pinot Blanc 2000 (AOC Alsace)
13 February 2002 Dry, very bold grape, some citrus flavors, very long finish. Extremely bold and very impressive.
$12 / bottle
White Trimbach, Gewurztraminer 1999 (AOC Alsace)
13 February 2002 Medium, very complex fruit, with many flavors - apple, pineapple, melon, lychee, with pronounced spicy flavor and herbal/floral aftertaste. Good.
$15 / bottle
Abarbanel, Cremant d'Alsace Brut NV (AOC Cremant d'Alsace)
17 May 2008 Herbal and tropical nose with bright citrus flavors. Crisp, minimal yeast flavors, and fine bubbles.
$21 / bottle

Champagne

The legendary Champagne region is where real Champagne comes from.

Piper-Heidsieck, Champagne Brut NV
14 February 2011 Powerful apples and white grapes. Bracingly crisp, minimal yeast, and surprisingly heady.
$35 / bottle
Veuve Clicqout Ponsardin NV
9 August 2010 Steely and restrained, with mellow fruit and an apple-yeast flavor. Very aloof.
$50 / bottle
Mumm, Carte Classique Extra Dry NV (Riems, Champagne)
1 May 2002 More delicate, wine-like flavor. Extremely lively cherry and strawberry fruit flavor, balanced acid, and bread-like yeast. Excellent mouth feel. Superior.
$44 / bottle
Moet & Chandon, White Star NV (Riems, Champagne)
31 December 2003 Very sharp and tart, with clean fruit and a touch of yeast.
$30 / bottle

Vin de Pays

The AOC rules do not apply to Vin de Pays wine, and most of this wine is of lesser quality. In an interesting twist, great effort has been made to develop the Languedoc-Roussillon region (near the Mediterranean) to produce high quality varietal wine for the export market in the Californian style.

Much Vin de Pays is marked Vin de Pays d'Oc. This means that it is Vin de Pays that comes from the Languedoc-Roussillon region in the south of France, encompassing over 700,000 acres, a third of France's vineyards (the entire United States has only about 400,000 acres devoted to wine grapes). They make varietal wines of varying quality in the New World style, and are marketed aggressively for export. Some parts of Languedoc-Roussillon have recently gained AOC status (Coteaux de Languedoc, Minervois, Corbieres), and there is a general push in the region towards higher quality.

The prices for Vin de Pays d'Oc are typically excellent, and it is worth searching for reliable brands for inexpensive varietal table wine.

Red Abarbanel "Aude Valley Estate" Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 (Vin de Pays de l'Aude)
26 April 2008 Dark and smoky, with abundant wood, tobacco, and potpourri. Average tannins and medium-full body.
$14 / bottle
White Fortant, Kosher Chardonnay 2006 (Vin de Pays d'Oc)
20 May 2011 Plump mouthfeel, crisp citrus and slate with hints of exotic pears. Fatty finish.
$9 / bottle
White Fortant, Kosher Chardonnay 2003 (Vin de Pays d'Oc)
21 March 2008 Plump and very buttery, surprisingly fat for light wood. Otherwise unremarkable.
$10 / bottle
White Abarbanel, Aude Valley Estate Chardonnay 2003 (Vin de Pays de l'Aude)
26 February 2008 Bright tropical fruit and green apples, slightly buttery mouthfeel. Minimal wood. Extremely crisp and refreshing, very pure flavors, pleasant.
$16 / bottle
White L'Orval, Chardonnay 2001 (Languedoc-Roussillon)
2003 Simplistic, clean fruit, with a light buttery texture. Very pale. No noticable oak. Chablis-style but much lighter.
$5.50 / bottle
White Novellum, Chardonnay Reserve Cuvee 2000 (Languedoc-Roussillon)
10 April 2002 Crisp fruit, very smooth texture, good pear/apple flavor with a light pear/melon impression and medium/short finish. Light oak.
$10 / bottle
Red Domaine Sainte Eugenie, "Le Clos Millesime" 2008 (Vin de Pays de Hauterne)
21 February 2011 Dark fruit with strong, almost bitter tannins. Spicy wood finish. Bell peppers and grape stems as it evolves.
$12 / bottle
Red Fortant, Kosher Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 (Vin de Pays d'Oc)
14 July 2011 Dark blackcurrants and spicy bell peppers with hints of tobacco and cigar smoke. Very tannic and heady finish. Unsubtle yet sophisticated.
$9 / bottle
Red Red Bicyclette, Syrah 2009 (Vin de Pays d'Oc)
13 September 2011 Juicy red cherry and raspberry fruit with firm tannins. Slightly hot. Minimal wood.
$10 / bottle
Red Fortant de France, Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 (Languedoc-Roussillon)
2002 Strong, peppery smoked wood, tar, and plump berry flavor. Lightly astringent.
$6 / bottle
Red Maison Nicolas, "Reserve" Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 (Languedoc-Roussillon)
2003 Forward and slightly drying, with heavy smoke and blackcurrants. Thins quickly. Still very quaffable.
$6 / bottle

Vin de Table de France

White Rene Junot, Dry White Table Wine NV Chenin Blanc/Sauvignon Blanc/Chardonnay 50/30/20
8 November 2004 Bloated, with a overly creamy mouthfeel. Very light grape and melon flavors; not very crisp.
$4 / bottle
Red Rene Junot, Dry Red Table Wine NV Syrah/Grenache/Carignan 20/40/40
2004 Thin, flat, and one-dimensional simple fruit. Almost watery.
$4 / bottle
Sparkling Francois Montand, Blanc de Blancs Brut NV (France)
13 April 2008 Apples and light grape over wet bread. Muddled flavors, lots of bite.
$8 / bottle