The wine regions of France are simply magnifique.
Every winery in France has its own thing going for it. And as you can imagine, there are literally thousands – so many, that your little tasting trip around the French wine regions would take almost 8 years, keeping up a tidy schedule of one new wine per day. Better start planning then…
Alors, before we start, let’s get something straight about French wine talk: why are French wine bottles labelled by place and not by the type of grape? It all filters down to a little something les Français call terroir. Meaning, it’s the place and not the plant that works magic. It could be the soil, the weather, the slope, and many other kinds of environmental voo-doo; either way, the French swear by it.
One final tip on selecting and budgeting for your wines: the more specific the area of origin (e.g. vineyard, village, region), the fancier the class.
Bordeaux – Classic Reds
Let’s start with one of the French wine regions that no one can turn down: Bordeaux, land of the indulgent red and the Dordogne and Garonne rivers. You’ll find concoctions of down-to-earth Merlot, juicy Malbec, light Cabernet Franc, dark Cabernet Sauvignon, and herbal Petit Verdot here. The blends are beautiful.
STAY IN: Bordeaux, obviously. Who can resist a coastal city? Watch out for the majestic Place de la Bourse, with its magical “Miroir d’Eau”.
Loire Valley – Smooth Whites
The Atlantic French wine region of Muscadet conjures up delicate, dry white wines. They taste even better when the lees (dead yeast) are left to sit in the wine after it has been fermented. Honestly, dead yeast works miracles: the wine’s texture is much creamier. If you’re looking for that extra touch, keep an eye out for the phrase “sur lie” on the label.
STAY IN: Nantes, a typically beautiful city with a very unusual character. See Daniel Buren’s luminous Rings at night and remember that the world’s first public transport buses were set in motion here.
Alsace – Germanic Whites
Great teamwork, guys. The Franco-German region of Alsace is a bit of a hybrid, and sits right on top of the Rhine and the borders of Germany and Switzerland.
So think dry twists on usually sweet German classics, such Riesling and Gewurztraminer. Alsatian Pinot Gris and Muscat (yep, not the Muscadet you just read about) wines are citrusy and peachy.
STAY IN: Strasbourg, for its colourful, timbered houses, and the home of the European Parliament.
Burgundy – Unbeatable
Burgundy is the champ of French wine regions. The whites and reds of Bourgogne (the French for Burgundy) are considered to be the best in world. And more than any other of the wine regions of France, terroir is key, down to the individual vineyard. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes are taken to a whole new level.
Why does it taste so good? Fossils and limestone. A couple of hundred million years ago, Burgundy’s soils were under an ocean teeming with creatures, and over time the coral, shells, algae and faeces were squeezed and ground down into the layer of limestone that feeds the Burgundian wine regions today, leaving a hint of minerals on your tongue. Yummy.
STAY IN: Dijon, home of mustard, an enchanting covered market and fabulous architecture (a catalogue from Renaissance to Gothic). This is a great autumn destination, thanks to the Dijon International Gastronomy Fair in November!
Champagne – Bien sûr!
Of course we have to give Champagne a mention. The first thing that any wine snob worth their salt will tell you is that it’s not real Champagne unless it actually comes from the French wine region of Champagne (terroir!).
The rules stay strict in Champagne as well – after centuries of experiments, the law now specifies where vineyards are allowed to grow certain grapes.
Why is it so expensive? The cooler climates in this northern French wine region make life tough for growers, and then on top of that, they use the old traditional method (often globally called the Champagne method). The wine is fermented twice: in stage two, yeast and sugar are added, and the lees have to rest in the bottle for anything between two to three years.
During this time, riddling takes place: the bottles are placed neck first in A-board-shaped racks, and these racks are slowly lowered over time to make the bottles more and more vertical, until finally the yeast particles slide into the neck. The necks are then frozen, the caps are released, and WHOOSH! Out pops the yeast and in goes a little bit of sugar.
STAY IN: Reims, the spiritual capital of bubbly, and take a day trip to Épernay so that Moët & Chandon explain their price tags on an in-depth cellar tour. Or stay in the medieval town of Troyes, home of the guy who gave us the Arthurian romance, Chrétien de Troyes.
Provence – Summery Rosés
There are a thousand reasons to visit Provence, one of which is its rosé. Provence is the grandmother of French wine regions, considering wines have been made here since the Romans.
Their traditions have been honed and handed down to some more recent wine enthusiasts: Brangelina. Their Miraval vineyard, bought in 2008 and run by a family of local wine-making heroes, produced rosés that could have won Oscars; hopefully the split won’t cut Miraval’s winning streak.
STAY IN: More than any other region, Provence has options. There’s Cézanne’s Aix-en-Provence or the former Popes’ HQ, Avignon, which are close to lavender and sunflower fields. For olives, bigger cities and soap, go south: Marseille, Cannes and Nice are all on the Mediterranean coast.
If your main requirement is an airport, make Marseille your base.
Sacré bleu! French Wine Regions are Bountiful
And not just in the juice of the gods: as you can tell from our roll call (a mere selection, let me tell you), the wine regions of France are overflowing with natural beauty, culture, and royal glamour. Nothing for it but to take a big old road trip: allons-y!