Ask any winemaker around the world and they will most likely tell you that among their main references and inspirations are iconic wines from Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, the Loire or the Rhône. France, with its rich, if turbulent, winemaking history, has set standards of quality (and quantity!) for all modern wine-producing countries.
It remains, with its diversity and unique focus on terroir, an inspiration and treasure cove for wine lovers, no matter how geeky or hedonistic they might be.
Viticulture in France dates back to 600 BC, when Greek immigrants from Anatolia founded Massalia (Marseille). Although vines had probably already been introduced by the Etruscans, it wasn’t until then that vine growing was firmly established. It would become, alongside olive and fig trees, a crop of great commercial importance, especially under Roman rule, with the wines of Massalia, albeit cheap and rough, Provincia (Provence) and Narbo (Narbonne) traded across the Mediterranean.
For the Mediterranean settlers, vines, olive oil and figs were inextricably linked crops, and they did not consider expanding further north. But the habitants of Gaul were known to consume large quantities of Italian wine and were motivated, namely after Caesar’s conquest, to start growing their own grapes. The wines from Vienna (modern day Vienne, in the Rhône Valley) soon gained reputation across the empire, opening new possibilities, both from a territorial and quality perspective, to winemaking in the whole of the French territory.
The need to expand trading routes north, along navigable rivers, catalysed the expansion of viticulture to Gaillac, followed by Burgundy and Bordeaux. Even if harvests were more unpredictable and disease pressure considerable, the demand for wine was such that the investment and risk made economic sense.
The Celts of Gaul, seen by the Romans as unreasonable drunks, were soon producing wines whose quality surpassed the Italian imports.
Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, Gaul was successively taken over by multiple Germanic invaders. The Visigoths, the Burgundians, and the Franks established kingdoms in Gaul with wine becoming a status symbols for the different courts in power. At the same time, with the expansion of Christianism, churches and spiritual leaders also contributed to a significant increase in demand for good wine. The vineyards owned by Monasteries and Cathedrals – explored either directly or leased to lay farmers – would play a central role in the development of some of France’s most important wines regions, such as Burgundy or the Loire.
In the Middle Ages, wine was already France’s main export produce; it was then that key regions, styles and terms became part of the wine lover’s jargon. The English predilection for ‘Claret’ emerged as Bordeaux became England’s main supplier following a period under British rule. River-lining regions such as Gascony and Loire affirmed their place in export markets due to their privileged trading location, while the sought-after but landlocked Burgundian wines were mostly traded locally.
The social and political turmoil of the French Revolution, in the 18th century, had little impact in wine production and trade.
On the other hand, the development of alternative routes and means of transportation allowed other, more remote, regions to flourish – the Côtes d’Auvergne and the Moselle being two good examples.
But a series of viticultural catastrophes in the second half of the 19th century, would eventually cause dramatic changes to the French (and European) wine industry. Three fungal diseases and one louse, all brought along with plant material imported from North America, would devastate large areas of vineyards and demand deep changes in viticultural practices. Oidium (powdery mildew), black rot, downy mildew and phylloxera, ravaged some of the most important and more established wine reigons in Frnace, creating commercial chaos. It was the opportunity for other wineproducing countries (namely Spain and Italy), to affirm their stance in export markets and somewhat challenge France’s hegemony.
The first half of the 20th century was again a challenging period for the European wine industry as a whole.
The two World Wars destroyed crops, markets and took labour away from the land. It was only in the 1950s that a much-needed reorganisation of the French wine industry took hold. Since then, there have been efforts to consolidate and harmonise the Appellation System, uproot the hybrid varieties planted following phylloxera and cope with the so-called Crise Viticole, a catchall term for different threats to industry’s future: contraction of export markets, reduction in alcohol consumption, plummeting prices/litre and the threat of fierce competitors both in Europe and the New World.
The beginning of the 21st century has seen significant efforts to consolidate the image and brand of the different wine regions, bringing a new focus on terroir and indigenous varieties. The importance of the ‘natural wine movement’ has, along with the enduring power of Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy, reaffirmed France as a pioneering and iconic wine producing nation.
Geography and Climate
Vines grow across almost all of France, with the exception of the south-eastern Alpine slopes, the northwest along the English Channel and north Atlantic coast, and most of the Massif Central, the high plateau that dominates the country´s central area. Other than these, all regions have suitable, if sometimes challenging, conditions for grapes to ripen fully.
The Languedoc-Roussillon, Southern Rhône and Provence are dominated by an ideal Mediterranean climate, with long hot summers and mild winters. Low rainfall means disease pressure is rather low which has allowed organic and biodynamic practices to flourish.
The continental climate of Burgundy, Alsace and Champagne can cause significant hazards and sharp vintage variation, but these are also the framework of the fascination and uniqueness of the regions’ wines.
In the southwest and west, notably in Bordeaux, high latitudes are balanced by the moderating influence of the Atlantic’s Gulf Stream, which prevents temperature extremes and draught.
France’s diverse geology also plays an important role in the country’s viticulture. The different soil types, along with specific microclimates, exposures, and altitudes, are the basis of the concept of ‘terroir’ which the French have developed to perfection. The ability to couple soils with specific grapes has been key to the adaptability to certain, rougher, climatic conditions and to the outstanding quality of wines in less likely locations. The chalky soils of the high latitude, frost-prone vineyards of Champagne is the perfect example.
France is home to a large number of indigenous varieties. Although much less than, for example, in Italy, Portugal or Spain, there is still a wealth of grapes specific to each French region and particularly expressive of the local terroirs. Yet these were, until recently, somewhat neglected in favour of the so-called International Varieties which, much thanks to France’s hegemony in fine wine markets, the country has been blamed to propagate to quasi uniquity. Many of these are now very much brands in their own right (‘Chardonnay’, ‘Cabernet Sauvignon’, ‘Pinot Noir’, etc..) used to make single-varietal wines around the world.
In France, on the other hands, many of these grapes are synonym of their appellations of origin and not stated on labels at all. Burgundy has become a placeholder for the world’s best Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Sancerre the epitome of European Sauvignon Blanc.
There has been, however, since the late 20th century, growing interest in and awareness of the need to once again invest, understand and promote the varieties that are specific and more historically connected to each region. The trend towards lower intervention and more terroir-led wines has helped this trend with a new generation of consumers, in France and abroad, increasingly eager to explore unique varieties and lesser-known regions. Have you ever tried a Poulsard from Jura? Or a Jacquère from Savoie? Or a Loire Valley Romoratin?
Most planted Red Varieties:
- Merlot – Along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot, Merlot is one of the primary grapes used in Bordeaux, and it is the most widely planted grape in the region. Also prominent in Bergerac, Cahors and Languedoc-Roussillon.
- Grenache – the variety most associated with the wines of Southern France. Widely planted in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas and Vacqueyras, where it makes some of the Southern Rhône’s most renowned wines. Today Grenache is mainly planted in the Languedoc-Roussillon where it is often blended with Carignan, Cinsault, Syrah and Mourvèdre. Grenache is the main grape used to produce Tavel and Lirac rosés and plays an important role in Provence pinks as well.
- Syrah – the queen variety of the Rhône; it is the only red grape in the Northern Rhône and a key component of southern blends. Also widely planted in Languedoc-Roussillon.
- Carignan – mostly found in in the Languedoc regions of Aude, Gard, and Hérault where it is often used to produce Vin de pays and blended with Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Syrah.
- Cabernet Sauvignon – intimately connected with Bordeaux, where 60% of all plantings in France can be found. Also planted across Southern France and in the Loire.
Most planted White Varieties:
- Ugni Blanc – Italian grape, commonly known as Trebbiano. In France it is mostly grown for distillation into brandy and can be found along the Provençal coast, in the Gironde and the Charente.
- Chardonnay – indigenous to Burgundy and, along with Pinot Noir, one of the region’s leading varieties. It is the only permitted grape in Chablis and one of three noble Champagne varieties. Burgundy (including Chablis) and Champagne account for three fifths of all Chardonnay plantings in France, but it can also be found in the Languedoc, Alsace, Ardèche, Jura, Savoie, and the Loire Valley.
- Sauvignon Blanc – indigenous to Bordeaux where it is grown to produce dry (especially in Entre-Deux-Mers, Graves and Pessac-Léognan) and sweet wine (in Sauternes). Also one of the Loire Valley’s most important varieties, producing the wines of the region’s most continental appellations (Pouilly Fumé, Sancerre, and Sauvignon de Touraine).
Classification & Labelling
The French classification system, originally named Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) and later changed to Appellation d’Origine Protegée (AOP) in response to reforms imposed by the European Union, is a certification of origin that not only sets geographic delimitations but also viticultural and winemaking standards. It has been used as a framework to many systems used elsewhere in the world.
While the AOP system aims to encompass all the region-specific classification levels (such as Bordeaux’s property-based ranking or Burgundy’s site-specific Cru system), the structure is not fully harmonised and is still object of much criticism. Many winemakers believe it stifles innovation and does not guarantee quality, namely for catch-all appellations such as Champagne or Bordeaux AOC.
AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) – Wine came from a specific regulated region which can be a large (such as Bordeaux) or more specific area (Listrac-Médoc–within Bordeaux). Each region has its own rules for allowed grapes, growing conditions and quality standards. It indicates geographical origin, quality and often also the style of a wine. It is within this level that higher tier classifications specific to each region (such as Cru, Grand Cru, Premier Cru, Cru Classé, etc) will be found. AOC is equivalent to PDO – Protected Designation of Origin.
IGP (Indication Geographique Protégée) or VDP (Vin de Pays) – A larger area, less regulated than an AOP. The term Vin de Pays was the term used before the European-wide reform after which it was replaced with IGP (the same as PGI – Protected Geographical Indication)). But the former can still be seen on labels.
Vin de France – The most basic labelling term for French wines. Wines with “Vin de France” can be from anywhere in France or be a blend from multiple regions.