Wines of France

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France Bordeaux Saint-Emilion Gamme des vins from Vignobles Denis Barraud


The art of winemaking was introduced to Gaul by the Romans who spread the culture of the vine and the art of winemaking throughout the country. In the Middle Ages, vineyards developed around monasteries as the monks needed wine to celebrate Mass and generate income. Large-scale wine production sprang up around the seaports to facilitate exportation to other countries and the wine regions of Bordeaux, Bourgogne (Burgundy), Rhône, Champagne, and Languedoc have provided role models for the art of winemaking worldwide. Today in France, there are over two million acres (800,000 hectares) of vineyards and between 7 to 8 billion bottles of wine are produced every year. France has traditionally been the largest consumer of its own wines, however, wine consumption has been dropping for 40 years. During the decade of the 1990s, per capita consumption dropped by nearly 20 percent.

In the mid 1800's, phylloxera aphids were accidentally brought to Europe from the USA and consequently ate through the roots of European grapevines destroying thousands of kilometers of vineyards in France alone. After discovery of the cause of the blight, root stocks that were resistant to phylloxera were brought from California and original french cuttings grafted onto them.


France grape vines
There are two main concepts to better-understanding quality French wines which are the idea of terroir and the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) system. Terroir refers to the unique combination of natural (and human-influenced) factors associated with any particular vineyard, group of vineyards, or even vines belonging to a specific appellation (geographic area). These include things such as soil, underlying rock, altitude, slope of a hill or terrain, orientation toward the sun, and microclimate elements like rain, winds, humidity, and temperature variations. No two vineyards, not even in the same area, have exactly the same terroir. Terroir wines reflect their place of origin, which are carefully specified on the bottle labels, usually in terms of which appellation the wine comes from. The appellation, which is a geographical indication, determines specifically which grape varieties and winemaking practices are allowed in each of France's several hundred geographically defined areas. These rules must be followed by all producers who wish to use an AOC designation for their wines.

Quality Levels

French law divides wine into four categories, two falling under the European Union's Table Wine category and two falling under the EU Quality Wine Produced in a Specific Region designation:

Table wine

1) Vin de Table- Indicates only the producer, the designation, and that it is from France. About 40 to 50 percent of the wine produced in France falls under the table wine category and the labels do not have to mention the area of origin. They are usually consumed within three years and degrade upon aging.

2) Vin de Pays- indicates that it came from a specific area within France, for example, Vin de Pays d'Oc from Languedoc-Roussillon. There are about 150 different Vin de Pays appellations in France for each area of origin. Vintners (winemakers) must use specific grape varieties suggested by a "Conseil Interprofessionnel" and regulations are less restrictive than for AOC wines. For instance, these wines can list the grape varieties used on the label while AOC wines cannot.

Quality Wine Produced in a Specific Region

3) Vin Délimité de Qualité Superieure (VDQS) - Less strict than AOC and less common.

4) Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) - Wine from a particular area with many other restrictions, including grape varieties and wine-producing techniques. Today, there are about 450 different wine appellations in France, but only 15 percent of all French wines benefit from having AOC designations.

Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC)

Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) or "controlled term of origin" is a certification granted to certain French products such as wines, cheeses, and butters by the governmental Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO). With wine, vintners must choose whether to display their Premier Cru status or their AOC classification, but not both. The INAO dictates that AOC products will be produced in a consistent and traditional manner with ingredients from specifically classified producers in designated geographical areas.

Bordeaux Wine Styles and Classification

Bordeaux wine is any wine produced in the Bordeaux region of France. This region lies in the area around the city of Bordeaux within the Gironde department in the Aquitaine region. Over 700 million bottles of Bordeaux wine are produced every year, ranging from large quantities of ordinary table wine to some of the most expensive and prestigious wines in the world. Most Bordeaux wine is red, but the region also produces sweet white wines, dry white, Rosé, and sparkling wines such as Crémant de Bordeaux. The region is naturally divided by the Garonne and Dordogne rivers into a left bank area (city of Bordeaux) and a right bank area (city of Libourne). The left bank of the Garonne river is subdivided into the Médoc area downstream and the Graves area upstream of the city of Bordeaux and the five First Growths are situated here. The right bank of the Garonne river is subdivided into the Saint-Emilion and Pomerol areas. The 57 Bordeaux appellations and the wine-styles they represent are usually categorized into six main families, four red and two white, based on the subregions. The vast majority of Bordeaux wine is red, with red wine production out numbering white wine production six to one.

Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur

These are the somewhat basic red Bordeaux wines which are produced all over the region and represent the least-expensive Bordeaux. Some are sold by wine merchants under commercial brand names rather than as classical châteaux wines. These tend to be fruity, with a marginal influence of oak in comparison to "classical" Bordeaux, and produced in a style meant to be drank young.

Côtes de Bordeaux

Eight appellations are located in the hilly outskirts of the region, and produce wines where the blend is usually dominated by Merlot. These wines tend to be intermediate between basic red Bordeaux and the more famous appellations of the left and right bank in both style and quality. However, since none of Bordeaux's better-known appellations are situated in Côtes de Bordeaux, prices tend to be moderate and there is no official classification here.

Libourne (Right Bank)

Around the city of Libourne, there are ten appellations that produce wines dominated by Merlot with very little Cabernet Sauvignon, the two most famous being Saint Emilion and Pomerol. These wines often have much fruitiness, softer tannins, and are long-lived and Saint-Emilion has an official classification.

Graves and Médoc (Left Bank)

North and south of the city of Bordeaux, the most classical Bordeaux wines are produced and are dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, but with a significant portion of Merlot. These wines are concentrated, tannic, long-lived and most of them meant to be cellared before drinking. Bordeaux grands crus classés are subdivided into five categories called Premiers grands crus classés (1st Great Growths), Deuxièmes grands crus classés (2nd GG), Troisièmes grands crus classés (3rd GG), Quatrièmes grands crus classés (4th GG), and Cinquièmes grands crus classés (5th GG). The famous five First Great Growths situated here are Château Lafite-Rothschild, Château Latour, and Château Mouton-Rothschild in Pauillac, Château Margaux in Margaux, and Château Haut-Brion in Pessac-Legonan (Graves). There are official classifications for both Médoc and Graves and Graves, which is southeast of the Médoc, includes the sub-regions of Pessac-Léognan, Sauternes and Barsac.

Dry white wines

Dry white wines are made throughout this region from a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, with those from Graves being the most well-known and the only subregion with a classification for dry white wines. The better versions tend to have a significant oak influence.

Sweet white wines

In several locations and appellations throughout the region, sweet white wine is made from Semillon, Savignon Blanc, and Muscadelle grapes affected by noble rot. The best-known of these appellations is Sauternes, which has an official classification and where some of the world's most famous sweet wines are produced. There are also appellations neighbouring Sauternes, on both sides of the Garonne river.

Bordeaux Grape Varieties

Red Bordeaux wine is made from Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot, the latter three being used only in small quantities for blending. All red Bordeaux is a blend of these grapes.

White Bordeaux is made from Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle with the first being the dominant grape. Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Merlot Blanc, Ondenc, and Mauzac varieties are also permitted.

Red Bordeaux Grapes

Cabernet Franc
Cabernet Sauvignon
Carmenere (in small quantities)
Malbec (sometimes)
Petit Verdot
France grape vines

White Bordeaux Grapes

Sauvignon Blanc
Ugni Blanc
Merlot Blanc
A Bordeaux wine label will include information common to all AOC French wines which are the producer, vintage, and appellation.

Bourgogne Wine Styles and Classification

From about year 900 until the French Revolution, the vineyards of Bourgogne were owned by the Church. After the revolution, the vineyards were broken up and sold to the workers who had tended them. King Charles VI stated in an edict from 1415 that Wines which are called Bourgogne can only be produced above the Pont de Sens (bridge of Sens), a city north of Chablis. He divided the wine into two categories: High-Bourgogne and Low-Bourgogne. Newer rules have determined the appellations in Burgundy. Territories composed of small crops called "climats" make up the appellations such as Beaune, Chablis, Nuits, Meursault, Pouilly-Fuissé. Every where in Bourgogne the varieties used are strictly ruled.

Bourgogne is very much a terroir-oriented region in France and considerable attention is paid to the area of origin, and in which of the region's 400 types of soil the wine's grapes are grown. As opposed to Bordeaux, where classifications are producer-driven and awarded to individual chateaux for quality, Bourgogne classifications are geographically-focused. A specific vineyard or appellation will have a certain classification, regardless of the wine's producer. This is reflected on the wine's labels where appellations are most prominent and producer's names may appear at the bottom and be less noticeable.

The east-facing slope of the Côte d'Or is home to some of the greatest names of Bourgogne wine, such as Gevrey-Chambertin, Clos de Vougeot, Meursault and Montrachet. The northern half, the Côte de Nuits produces red wine almost exclusively. The Côte de Beaune, around the town of Beaune in the south, produces a mix of white wine and red wine. The Côte d'Or vignobles (vineyards) include 31 of the wine region's 33 Grands Crus. The Route des Grands Crus (Route Nationale 74) runs along the foot of the ridge and meanders in and out of small medieval villages, past ancient châteaux, and through prolific vineyards. Villages include from north to south:

Côte de Nuits

Fixin- Gevrey-Chambertin
Nuits-Saint-Georges (Marsannay-la-Côte)

Côte de Beaune

France Bourgogne Beaune vineyard

The four main Bourgogne classifications are, in descending order of quality: Grand Crus, Premier Crus, Village or commune, and AOC Bourgogne.
  • Grand Cru are wines produced from the small number of the best vineyard sites in the Cote d'Or. Grand Cru wines make up two percent of the production and need to be aged a minimum of five to seven years and the best examples can be kept for more than 15 years. There are only 33 vineyards that are classified as Grand Cru wines and they will only list the name of the vineyard as the appellation on the wine label.
  • Premier Cru make up about 600 vineyards and are produced from specific vineyards that are considered to be of high quality, but not as well regarded as the Grand Cru. These wines need to be aged three to five years and the best wines can keep for much longer. Premier Cru wine labels will usually list both the name of the village of origin and the status of the vineyard as the appellation, and then the name of the individual vineyard.
  • Village wines can be a blend of grapes from somewhat lesser vineyards within the boundaries of an individual village, or from one individual but non-classified vineyard. Wines from each different village are considered to have their own specific qualities and characteristics. Village wines make up 36% of production.
  • AOC Bourgogne classification refers to wines that can be sourced or blended from anywhere in the Burgundy region. These wines make up the rest of production and can be consumed up to 3 years after the vintage date. Appellations between basic Bourgogne and individual Village wines are also found such as "Macon-Villages" or "Cote de Beaune-Villages" can come from a wide but still defined area which may include several individual villages.

Bourgogne Grape Varieties

For the red grapes, all production in the Cote d'Or is focused on the Pinot noir grape while the Gamay grape is grown in Beaujolais. In the Cote de Nuits region, 90 percent of the production are red grapes.

For the white grapes, Chardonnay is the most common. Another grape found in the region is Aligoté, which mostly produces cheaper wines which are higher in acidity. Aligoté from Burgundy is the wine traditionally used for the Kir drink, where it is mixed with blackcurrant liqueur. Sauvignon Blanc is also grown in the Saint Bris apellation. Chablis, Macon wines and the Cote d'Or whites are all produced from 100% Chardonnay grapes.

Bottle Shapes

Bordeaux wine bottle
Bourgogne wine bottle
Rhône wine bottle
Alsace wine bottle
Champagne wine bottle
Port wine bottle

Bottle Label Guide

Wine label

Grower or producer-made wines may be identified by the terms Mis en bouteille au domaine, Mis au domaine, or Mis en bouteille à la propriété.

How Wine is made

French oak wine barrels
Winemaking, also called vinification, is the process of wine production, from the selection of grapes to the bottling of finished wine. Wine production can be classified into two categories: still wine production (without carbonation) and sparkling wine production (with carbonation). The science of wine and winemaking is known as oenology.

Red wine is made from the must (pulp) of red or black grapes that undergo fermentation together with the grape skins, while white wine is usually made by fermenting juice pressed from white grapes without the skins. Rosé wines are made from red grapes where the juice is allowed to stay in contact with the dark skins long enough to pick up a pinkish color, but little of the tannins contained in the skins.

  • Grapes are usually harvested from the vineyard in the autumn in the northern hemisphere from early September until the beginning of November. They are either harvested mechanically or by hand and the decision to harvest is typically made by the winemaker and determined by the level of sugar (Brix), acid (TA or Titratable Acidity- tartaric acid equivalents), and pH of the grapes.
  • After the harvest, the grapes (red or white) are lightly crushed to allow the sugars in the juices to mix with the grape skins, called bloom.
  • Red wine gets its character from the tannins in the grape skins and stems, but winemakers usually de-stem before proceeding to the pressing stage. White wines and some lighter reds, like Beaujolais, that do not benefit from ageing, may be macerated or steeped in tanks for several hours to increase their aroma and flavor.
  • Red and white grapes then go to a press where the whites are lightly-pressed (free-run) and the reds are firmly-pressed to produce a vin de press which has alot of tannins that may be blended back into the product later as needed. Presses act by positioning the grape skins or whole grape clusters between a rigid surface and a moveable surface and slowly decrease the volume between the two surfaces. In traditional and smaller-scale wine making, the harvested grapes are sometimes crushed by trampling them barefoot or by the use of small-scale crushers.
  • Next, the juice goes to fermentation vats where cultured-yeasts and sometimes temperature-controlled tanks are used to control fermentation for consistent-tasting wine. During this primary fermentation period, which may take from one to two weeks, the yeasts convert most of the sugars in the grape juice into ethanol (alcohol). After the primary fermentation, the liquid is transferred to vessels for the secondary fermentation. Here, the remaining sugars are slowly converted into alcohol and the wine becomes clear.
    France Champagne region vineyard
    Gelatin has been used in winemaking for centuries and is recognized as a traditional method for wine fining, or clarifying. Generally no gelatin remains in the wine because it reacts with the wine components, as it clarifies, and forms a sediment which is removed by filtration prior to bottling.
  • The most common preservative used in winemaking is sulfur dioxide or sulfite which is added to help preserve the wine and prevent unwanted fermentation in the bottle. Another useful preservative is potassium sorbate. Sulfites do not cause headaches and there are normally other reasons why people get a headache from wine consumption depending on the individual.
  • Wines which may be drunk early are sometimes filtered directly into their bottles, but better wines are aged in barrels, often made of oak which imparts a "smoky" or wooden quality characteristic of red Bordeaux wines. The time from harvest to drinking can vary from a few months for Beaujolais nouveau wines to over twenty years for top wines. Normally, only about ten percent of all red and five percent of white wines will taste better after five years than it will after just one year.
  • With sparkling wines such as Champagne, an additional fermentation takes place inside the bottle, trapping carbon dioxide and creating the characteristic bubbles. Sweet wines are made by ensuring that some residual sugar remains after fermentation is completed. This can be done by harvesting late, freezing the grapes to concentrate the sugar, or adding a substance to kill the remaining yeast before fermentation is completed. Only sparkling wines from the Champagne-Ardenne region of France may be called champagne and the quality (and perhaps price) is determined by the amount of care it receives during production, bottling, and storage.

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