French Wine 101
“Wine makes every meal an occasion, every table more elegant, every day more civilized.”
― Andre Simon
Some 7–8 billion bottles of wine are produced in France each year. Yes, that’s right, billion. So what makes French wine so lovable (and so sellable)?
Well the French handle wines a bit differently. Many bottles you find in the States come with labels like, “Cabernet Sauvignon,” or “Merlot.” While you’re right to think that these are French words, this labeling system is distinctly American. French bottles are usually labeled according to their “terroir,” or the location in which the grapes were grown and the wine was made (with the exception of Alsatian wines).
In many ways, terroir is really just a fancy way of saying “locally produced.” A region’s wines represent local flavors like the American South prides themselves on fried chicken and the north east cooks up a killer chowdah.
This particular custom has created some high demand for certain regions’ production, and so many regions have opted to protect the integrity of their wine though the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) system (now called, “Appellation d’Origine Protégée” (AOP) as of 2012).
The AOP is simply a way of saying the wine was confirmed to be produced in the area it says it was, with the grapes it should use, and according to the preparation conditions specified by French law. Think of it like a giant LEGIT stamp on your bottle. Now if only we could do that for real New England clam chowder!
The Six Big Regions For French Wine
For an in-depth look at each region, click on its name to read my regional guides. Otherwise, here’s a quick tour of main six wine regions in France:
The BUBBLY wines.
By law these beauties rest in caves under the streets of Épernay and Reims for months until they’re mature enough to be called Champagne. Champagnes can be “light and elegant” or “powerful and yeasty.”
The northern region of France is famous for its tangy, tart sauvignon blanc grapes. That’s exactly what you’ll find in a Sancarre or Pouilly-Fumé, the two most popular and common wines in this region.
Cheap treat: A Loire Valley Muscadet is a great table wine that appears on many French bistro lists.
These are the GERMANIC whites.
Grapes called Riesling or even Gewürztraminer. Bone dry with subtle complexity.
Cheap treat: Alsace Pinot Blanc. It’s yummy, cheap, and refreshing for when you just want to go low-key.
The BIG, bold wines.
Cheap treat: Côtes du Rhône. A great table wine in red, white, or rosé.
The expensive, earthy CLASSICS.
This is what the world’s great Pinot Noir and Chardonnay varietals aspire to be. You can taste a bit of the earth in every oak-aged glass.
These are the CHÂTEUX wines.
Merlot or Cab Sav dominant blends in the red family. Sémillon (sem-ee-YOHN) blended Sauvignon Blanc in the whites.
How To Pair Wine With Your Food
“I cook with wine, sometimes I even add it to the food.”
― W.C. Fields
Wine pairing is more of an art than a science – it’s best to taste a bunch of things and find what you like and dislike. But to give you a sort of head-start, here are pairings that are almost always winners:
The Guaranteed Winners
Sauternes (dessert wine from Bordeaux) + Bleu Cheese – Another “sweet loves salty” example.
Chardonnay + Fatty Fish (Scallops, Lobster) or Chicken, Brie – Buttery loves buttery and a good, oaky Burgundy chardonnay will pair well with fatty fish or buttery cheese.
Sauvignon Blanc + Tart/ Acidic (dressings/ sauces, shrimp, acidic pork, oysters) – Acid loves acid, so a nice and tart sauvignon blanc-based white will love a tart vinaigrette.
Pinot Noir + Earthy (Mushrooms or Truffles, Fatty Fish (Salmon) and Duck) – earthy mushrooms or truffles will bring out the almost soil-y taste in that amazing Burgundy Pinot.
Red/White Burgundy + Gamey Poultry (Turkey, Pheasant, and Quail) – The earthiness in these wines will also resonate in gamey meat.
Rieslings, Gewürztraminers + Spicy (asian or indian) – The sweet and dry flavors in Riesling and Gewürzt will cut through the spicy flavors in a hot Asian dish.
Cabernet Sauvignon based Bordeaux + Red Meat (lamb) – the classic Cab pairing is intensified with a rich Bordeaux variety.
Rhône Valley Wines + Smoked Meats or Gamey Poultry (ex. smoked duck)
There are somethings you just don’t do. Like pasta with maple syrup. These are some of the others:
Never pair Cabernet Sauvignon & Caviar
Never pair Merlot-based Wines & Artichokes (go for whites with artichokes, brussel sprouts, green beans and chard).
So you don’t speak French, but can you speak French wine?
It’s easier than you think. Here are the main phrases you’ll see on a bottle (most everything else will the name of a location or appellation):
Mis en bouteille … “Bottled.” Usually to describe the bottling location of the wine.
Cuvée … “Tank.” Refers to the batch or tank of wine that your bottle comes from.
Grand cru … “Top Rank.” Refers to wines from the premier vineyards in the region. A step above premier cru.
Premier cru … “1st Rank.” Refers to wines from some of the better vineyards in the region.
Lieu-dit … “named.” Refers to a named vineyard. Usually to describe individual vineyards below Grand cru status.
Selection de grains nobles … “noble rot” wine, usually produced in the Alsace region. Very sweet due to the rot in the grapes.
Vendange tardive … “late harvest.” Usually refers to wines that come from grapes harvested late in the season.
Vin de pays … “country wine.” Slightly above vin de table on the AOC scale.
Vin de table … “table wine.” The lowest classification for the AOC.
How to Pick Out Good French Wine
As we’ve talked about before, here in the states, your best best when picking out a quick bottle of wine is to look on the label for the importer.