What do French wine labels mean? How do classification systems work? What are the main French wine regions?
This week we’re diving into French wine regions! First we’ll go through the basic classifications of French wines. Then, we’ll cover the different regions, how they’re different, and what makes them oh-so special.
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French Wine Labels
When it comes to French wine, it’s all about location, location, location! French wines are classified and labeled based on the location of the vineyards. This means that whatever village, commune or region they come from, that’s how they get their name.
If you’re someone who loves Pinot Noir or Syrah, you probably won’t see your favorite grapes on French wine labels. Unfortunately, French wine labels almost never list their grape variety. As for tiers of quality, to make things fun for everyone, each region has its own classification system!
What Is AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée)?
Appellation is the word for the legally defined geographical area that identifies the origin of a wine. It is also used for other things like cheese and meat.
An essential thing to understand is that these are protected names, and the AOC system works to guarantee a certain level of quality. It’s the same as AOP (replace “control” with “protected”), which you also see floating around.
If you want to put “Bordeaux” or “Sancerre” on your label, you have to meet some of the AOC’s specific requirements.
- The producer must make the wine from vines within a certain geographical area.
- You can’t use any grape, either. The AOC requires that you only use specific grapes.
- There are rules to winemaking, and to be considered “Bordeaux” or “Sancerre,” the AOC requires that producers follow only certain rules of winemaking.
It’s pretty restrictive, but the value of the wine is closely tied with the value of the place name, which is why they are controlled. This means that no one outside of the limits set by the AOC can use these titles.
So, how are these boundaries defined? What decides an AOC? Well that comes down to terroir.
What is Terroir?
Terroir is a French word that has been adopted throughout the global wine industry. Often it gets simplified to just refer to the soil, but terroir is a small word with a much bigger meaning.
Terroir does mean vineyard geology, but it can also mean:
- the slope of the land
- the hill that provides shelter from rain
- the tree that shades a certain parcel of vines
- the foggy mornings
Terroir is a very broad idea composed of the very specific elements that create a complete and unique environment.
Terroir is about the vineyard and its grapes, and is the foundational idea behind organizing wine classifications on geographical origin.
Regions, Communes, and Crus
So now we understand appellations and terroir, how does that translate to an actual label? What is that label telling you?
It’s important to understand that there are appellations within appellations: think of it like a Russian nesting doll.
A whole region has an appellation. For example, Côtes du Rhône, which defines a very large geographical area. Within the Côtes du Rhône lie smaller communes, which are also appellations, such as Gigondas. Normally that’s where it ends, but in some cases even a single vineyard has its own appellation, as happens with some Grand Crus in Burgundy.
What’s a Cru? It depends on where you are. Not all regions use this word, and some regions use them to further delineate quality levels. Mostly they are used in Bordeaux and Burgundy, but mean different things in each.
IGP and VDF (Indication d’Origine Protégée and Vin de France)
What if you make wine outside of those defined areas? What if you don’t follow all the rules to have the appellation label? Outside of AOCs, there are two other broad classifications.
Indication d’Origine Protégée (IGP) are bigger regions than the broadest AOC regions and have looser restrictions.
Vin de France (VDF) can be put on any French wine, and will often have the grape on the label too, which is helpful. It’s important to understand that there are appellations within appellations: think of it like a Russian nesting doll.
What is a Good French Wine?
Ultimately, this brings us to a sort of classification pyramid.
At the base is VDF, followed by IGP, then there’s regional AOCs, topped with commune AOCs, with defined Cru AOCs at the top depending upon the region. there’s lots of great value to be found in both of these “bottom tier” classifications!
The whole system is based on the idea that if you choose the labels according to this pyramid, you should be able to trust the level of quality you’re getting.
This is kind of the case, if you only engage in the upper levels, but is misleading when it comes to the base of the pyramid.
There are plenty of great VDFs and IGPs made by winemakers with vines outside of the boundaries of appellations. Many of these winemakers want to work with grapes that aren’t allowed, or who want to try different winemaking techniques.
I think there’s lots of great value to be found in both of these “bottom tier” classifications!
The Heavy Hitters: Major French Wine Regions
Without further ado, and for no particular reason, let’s move counter-clockwise from my majestic city of Lyon and go through the most influential wine regions of France.
Just north of Lyon, Beaujolais is a beautiful French wine region that has variously been extremely popular or completely maligned. This area is famous for Beaujolais Nouveau, a light and simple red wine that is released quickly after harvest, causing much celebration. Beaujolais is also home to finer wines, with different Crus including Morgon, Fleurie, and Brouilly.
This region is 99% red wine made from the Gamay grape, but there’s a tiny amount of Chardonnay produced as well. At best, these wines are deeply fruity, with complexity, richness, and a stellar price tag for the quality.
Burgundy / Bourgogne
North of Beaujolais but South of Champagne is Burgundy, which runs vertically alongside the Saône river. It’s very fancy and expensive, with plenty of Grand Crus and Premier Crus to choose from. The reds are made from Pinot Noir, arguably the finest Pinot in the world, and the whites are Chardonnay.
Burgundy is made up of various sub-regions. From North to South these are:
- Côte d’Ôr (hills of gold, cute, which is made up of Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune)
- Côte Chalonnaise
Burgundy is a small region and doesn’t produce a ton of volume, and it’s been highly prized since at least as far back as the Middle Ages. Ultimately these are incredibly elegant and sophisticated wines that are worth it if you can afford it, and they age very well.
Inexpensive Burgundy tends to not be great value for money, so unless you can get the good stuff, perhaps look towards other regions.
In French it is called Bourgogne, but we call it Burgundy in English.
Nestled in the rain shadow of the Vosges mountains in Northeastern France is the delightfully Germanic region of Alsace. Famous for its delicious whites, the top grapes in this French wine region are Riesling and Gewurztraminer. Unlike their German neighbors, the Alsatians mostly produce dry Rieslings, although they do make exceptional dessert wines too. This cool, continental climate also makes delightful reds from Pinot Noir, which are light and fruit forward.
Everybody knows and loves Champagne, the world’s original sparkling wine. This wine region is just East of Paris. Made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.
It is made by the traditional method of producing sparkling wine, whereby the second fermentation happens in the bottle.
Champagne is dominated by large brands, which produce high volumes and are often owned by massive corporations. Unpopular Opinion Alert: I think Champagne is overrated and bad value for money.
Small production Champagne exists and is having a moment, and I suggest you put your money there instead of towards handbag and whisky marketing.
Running from the Atlantic horizontally into the center of France and finishing up South of Paris is the Loire Valley. The Loire Valley is an expansive French wine region that covers a series of sub-regions producing lots of different wines. The most famous wine from this area is probably Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre.
I like to think of the Loire from East to West as NASTY.
- Nantais is Muscadet, a super light white that can be slightly salty and slightly fizzy. It’s nice with oysters.
- Anjou is known for off-dry Chenin Blanc.
- Saumur is famous for its Cabernet Franc reds
- Tourraine has a lot going on, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, home to appellations like Vouvray and Chinon.
There’s no Y but it helps me remember the acronym. The westernmost part of the Loire, where the Y should be, is the Upper Loire, home to Sancerre and other celebrated Sauvignon Blanc vineyards.
Located in Southwest France, Bordeaux is super famous and considered very high end. It’s a huge region that covers a lot of ground and also produces massive volumes of wine, so while there is fancy stuff, there’s also a lot of accessible wine too.
Bisected by the Garonne river which flows in from the Atlantic, the area is divided into the Left Bank (to the East and South of the river), and the Right Bank (to the West and North of the river).
The Left Bank is famous for its strong, rich Cabernet Sauvignon based reds (Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec being the others included in the blend).
The fine wines of the Right Bank are made from just Merlot, and have a softer vibe, though they still pack a punch.
White Bordeaux is made from a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, and is often oaked. It’s peachy and delicious and not very popular right now, so it tends to be pretty good value.
Bordeaux is also home to Sauternes, rightfully considered to be the world’s top dessert wine.
Langedoc-Roussillon is a large, warm climate region in the South of France that wraps around the Eastern half of the French Mediterranean. It’s super diverse and good value.
Historically poor and unappreciated, there are plenty of old vines since people couldn’t afford to replant. There are a lot of grapes, and every type of wine is made here. Red wine, white wine, rosé, sparkling wine, sweet wine.
It’s a very cool region and the wine is extraordinarily good value for money.
The Rhône Valley starts at Lyon and runs via the Rhône river down to the Mediterranean. This is a large wine region, split in two, that starts off skinny at the North and then widens as it goes South.
It gets hot here.
The Northern Rhône is the home of Syrah, powerful, spicy reds from appellations like Côte-Rôtie and Crozes-Hermitage. It’s also famous for Condrieu, a very perfumed white made from the Viognier grape.
The Southern Rhône boasts Chateauneuf-du-Pape, another heavy hitter made up of a blend of 13 different grapes. Most of the red in the South is made from Grenache.
Whites are made from blends of Roussanne and Marsanne, and tend to be floral and aromatic.
There’s lovely rosé here too.
Côtes-du-Rhône is the basic entry level here, and is always a pretty good bet for an inexpensive red.
Why French Wine?
There’s plenty of amazing wine made around the globe, but France is still home to the world’s major grape varieties and is still at the forefront of quality wine production. More than just Bordeaux and Champagne, French wine regions are worth learning about. There are so many great ones to choose from!