We must confess - we’ve been looking forward to writing this blog for some time now… because when people think of red wine, they more often than not immediately associate it with France. For good reason though, France is one of the largest producers of wine in the world, with vineyards covering close to a million hectares of land - the French produce around 8 million bottles a year, which is about 20% of global production. Oh là là!
Wine has been around for thousands of years in the countries surrounding the Mediterranean, but France has made it an integral part of their culture, considering winemaking as an art for over 2,000 years.
So what makes French wines so special, and why is it so culturally important?
The prestige of the place
You may notice that when wines are produced in France, they tend to put the place on the label instead of the name of the grape (the common way of labelling wine in almost every other country). French producers do this for a number of reasons including regulation, but in essence it all stems from the idea of terroir (terr-wah), which literally translates to ‘territory’. When winemakers speak about terroir, they're not just talking about the place a wine comes from, but a variety of things that influence the vine. This includes the type of soil it's grown in, the slope and elevation of the vineyard, as well as climate and the season’s weather. This small differentiation accounts for some of the confusion out there about French wines - not to mention there’s so much of it to choose from!
Although it's normally unwise to generalise, you may find that French wines tend to focus less on fruit flavours than wines from newer regions such as New Zealand, Australia and the US, among others. French wines tend to be described as earthy or mineral— meaning they taste a little like dirt, chalk, or even moss. But in a good way, of course!
All common styles of wine – red, rosé, white (dry, semi-sweet and sweet), sparkling and fortified – are produced in France. With most of these styles, French production ranges from cheap and simple versions to some of the world's most famous and expensive wines.
In many respects, French wines have more of a regional than a national identity, further to the terrior described above. There’s more to this, though: the different grape varieties, production methods and even different classification systems across the French provinces means that there’s a distinction on the style, due to big differences in how wine is produced - all according to where it’s from. Like all wines, quality levels and prices hugely vary, with some wines meant for immediate drinking and others intended for long-term cellaring.
Some of the major French wine regions include:
But wait, there’s more to it than just regions...
Somewhat confusingly, within French regions are special wine-growing areas called appellations - what you’ll see on the label as AOC/AOP, which stands for the French standard called appellation d'origine contrôlée/protégée. This is the legally defined and protected area where a particular wine can be produced - think of how Champagne must be produced within the Champagne region and of course, pass a number of other criteria in order to be labelled and exported as the French Champagne people all over the world have come to know and love.
Legislation concerning the way vineyards are identified can be confusing, and are so particular they even specify the font size on a wine’s label! The general rule of thumb is that if you’re drinking a wine labelled AOC or AOP, all it means is that the wine you’re drinking will be produced in a consistent and traditional manner with ingredients from specifically classified producers in designated geographical areas. Phew!
If a wine isn’t AOC or AOP, all that means is that it’s a wine which falls outside of the designated regions, and is often easier to understand as they tend to be labelled by grape varietal. If it’s not an AOC/AOP wine, it would instead be labelled Vin de France - literally, wine of France.
If you’re unsure of which wine to choose, remember that AOC or AOP-designated wines are by law strictly produced to guidelines, and therefore relatively predictable. So, if you know you like a Bordeaux for example, it’ll be a relatively safe bet picking a similar drop.
The one thing most French wines have in common is that most styles have developed as wines meant to accompany food, be it a quick baguette, a simple bistro meal, or a multi-course degustation. As French tradition dictates serving wine with food, wines have rarely been intended for consumption as ‘bar’ wines for drinking on their own, unlike some other regions around the world.
Many French grape varieties now planted throughout the world, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir - so the history of wine in France is significant. This is why it’s such a big part of French culture, where buying a bottle is a ceremony and tasting is an art.
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