The French Do Things Differently: An Overview
C’est quoi French Wine?
All right, I know what you’re all thinking.
France isn’t that big a place, but it has so much wine! Where are you going to start? What on earth are you going to say? You’re not even a sommelier!
Well I may as well start with an overview, or as we’d say in French, a vue d’ensemble. Yah. France isn't huge but it is diverse - and it’s not all as influencer friendly as my photo might suggest.
I was big on the fromage at that shoot. But that’s not the point.
More or less, France is divided into 11 major wine regions. I borrowed below a handy map from Wine Folly (un grand merci!), but here’s a comprehensive list, based on the way the French define themselves and not just how other institutions do. And because I’m me, I’m also assigning them easy-to-remember personalities, in case pneumonic devices are helpful where pronunciation fails you:
ALSACE: YOUR HALF-GERMAN COUSIN
BEAUJOLAIS: NOT JUST NOUVEAU
BORDEAUX : THE BIG KAHUNA
BURGUNDY : UNRIVALED JE NE SAIS QUOI
CHAMPAGNE: BRB, DRINKING THE STARS
LANGUEDOC : THE GIRL NEXT DOOR AND MORE
LOIRE VALLEY: BEYOND THE ROYALS
PROVENCE : ROSE ALL DAY, BEBE
RHONE : SASSAFRASS IN A BOTTLE
ROUSSILLON: GRENACHE, GRENACHE, GRENACHE
SAVOIE: HIPSTER WINES YOU NEED IN YOUR LIFE
SUD OUEST : O.G. MALBEC
Now you’re probably full of more questions. “But Katie, don’t you have a favorite?” Don’t make me choose between my children. While I can’t say I’ve tasted every wine from every region, I’ve tasted wine from all of them, and they all have excellent things to offer. My goal is go through as many of the appellations in each region as possible so you learn the most you can from me before you go touristing throughout France. (Don’t worry, travel tips are forthcoming, too.)
Ok you’re also probably asking, “Katie, why aren’t you focusing on the brands we know? Dom Pérignon? Veuve Clicquot? Château Margaux? Les Dauphins? Mouton Cadet? Whispering Angel?” Brands are great. But French wine is driven by terroir and individual, independent vineyards.
TLDR; This is not Napa, people.
Large investors and entrepreneurs started American wine, so brand names are everything. This is not the case in France. French wine is an indelible part of French culture and French food, invented thousands of years ago as an alternative to unsafe drinking water. Before the 70s, wine was not a luxury product in France the way it is now. People drank the wine at dinner, at lunch, on a date, at a wedding, at a birthday – basically any time. And while the French were able to travel between regions, (because, you know, they actually invest in public transportation) they mostly just drank the stuff from the region where they lived, which is why every place in France has a distinct wine culture and associated terroir.
Still with me?
Let’s just talk for a minute about grapes. The U.S. likes labeling wines with only the grape name, because we don’t really have terroir designations. So if you’re American and you’re reading this, you probably know your major grapes, right? Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, maybe a little Malbec?
Fun Fact: there’s a pretty good chance all your favorite grapes are French.
Sacre bleu, the Francophilia is real in the wine world, right? The majority of the most well-known grape varieties in the world (and the most grown for that matter) are known as the Noble Grapes, and you guessed it, they’re all French. That’s mostly ‘cause the French created the idea of Noble Grapes and they already knew their grapes were better so they figured “Why not start our reputation for being stuck up early?” And here were are. (I’m half-kidding, Frenchies reading this. I love y’all.)
But there’s actually 30+ number of grape varieties grown in France. I’ll list ‘em all in a separate post, but here are some of the ones you’ll recognize:
o Sauvignon Blanc
o Cabernet Sauvignon
o Pinot Noir
o Cabernet Franc
So now you’re probably asking “Well why don’t they label their wines with the grape names?” The answer is like your relationship status when you’ve just started seeing someone and you think it’s gonna be great, but you’re both seeing other people and he takes a week to text you back, and then your work schedule is so crazy you can’t see him half as often as you’d like.
AKA: It’s complicated.
Some regions do a lot of blending, and sometimes every vineyard in the region does a different blend so you can’t just blanket it with something similar to “Bordeaux Blend”. Some regions only use one grape. Some regions only use two grapes. Sometimes an appellation within the region only means the use of one grape, so it wouldn’t make sense to use a grape name and a region because everyone in France already knows what the region’s wines are made from. Take Chablis. Chablis = Chardonnay. Fin. So you wouldn’t put “Chardonnay from Chablis” on the bottle. It’s Chablis. Ergo, Chardonnay.
And this is where our story begins, friends.
I once asked my very American little sister what her favorite wine was. Her response was “Cabernet Sauvignon”.
I balked. “Ok, but from where? By which wine producer?”
“IDK, just know I only like Cab Sauv.”
In many ways, she inspired me to start this blog, because the world of wine is more than just one grape or one place (thanks, Emily). And you shouldn’t let the fact that you didn’t spend 15 years studying a different language and culture keep you from exploring the best its terroir has to offer. But yeah, it’s compliqué as I said.
Questions about this post? Or anything else? Let me know! Think I’m a snob? Did I get the facts wrong? Honestly, tell me. I want to make sure French wine is approachable for everyone.
Until then, à la prochaine! [Translation: see you next time!]