Guide to French wine. Part one: a world of vin

Hot on the heels of our guide to French liqueurs comes our next major blog series about French wine. This 8-part guide looks at the 7 main wine-producing regions in France before taking a snapshot of some of the country’s lesser known tipples.

A wine guide to a country that produces over 12.2 million hectolitres of wine a year and boasts almost 3,000 different types of vin is something of a challenge. But over the next few months, we’ll be taking a guided tour round the principal regions to get to the bottom of what’s in their wine bottles. Their taste, the most famous brands, the best vintage years and how to pair the wine for a foodie experience made in heaven.

Like our hotel barge cruises, we’ll be crisscrossing the country to discover wine secrets in Alsace, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Languedoc, the Loire Valley and the Rhône Valley. Our last stop will take a whirlwind visit from Lorraine to Jura and on to Corsica as we reveal those French wines that should be on your must-try list.

French wine facts

French wine

  • Grapevines cover 750,000 hectares in France – that’s the equivalent of 1 million rugby pitches.
  • France is the world’s top exporter of wine.
  • Wine is the country’s second most important export after aeronautical engineering.
  • There are some 10,000 wine cellars in France, visited by over 10 million tourists.
  • Just 16% of French people drink wine every day.
  • In 1975, the French drank on average 100 litres of wine each a year. In 2016, consumption had dropped to less than 42 litres a year.
  • The most expensive bottle of French wine ever was a 1947 Cheval-Blanc from Bordeaux sold at auction for £192,000 in 2010.

(Facts from Vin et Société 2016).

Characteristics of French wine

French wine facts vineyardGrapes grow practically everywhere in France. In fact, there are wine-producing areas throughout the entire country apart from the north coast. Planted among the 750,000 hectares of vineyards are around 200 varieties of grapes. Some are household names such as Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir while others such as Melon de Bourgogne and Mourvèdre aren’t quite as familiar.

The all-important terroir

More than the variety of grape, French wine is about the terroir. This term describes the soil conditions, climate and altitude – all fundamental factors in the ultimate bouquet and taste of the wine. The terroir part of the label on the bottle tells you where the wine is from.

All about crus

Along with terroir, cru also tells you a lot about a French wine. Meaning ‘growth’ (from the French croître to grow), a cru tells you where and how a wine has been produced. The term refers to a particular vineyard and wine producer, and indicates quality wine.

Grand cru – wines don’t come better than grand cru. It designates the highest quality vineyard and wine production in a region, particularly in Burgundy and Alsace. Invented in 1855 for the Universal Exhibition in Paris as a way of distinguishing Burgundy wines, the term is now synonymous with a truly bon vin.

Premier cru – this term denotes a wine not quite as prestigious as a grand cru, but just a notch below. So, expect a good wine from a bottle with premier cru on the label.

Cru bourgeois – this label was introduced in 1920 used for wines not included in the other crus listings. While cru bourgeois wines aren’t quite in the same league, the label guarantees quality at usually a much lower price.

Types of French wine

French wine Under the umbrella of the Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC) system, called Appellation d’Origine Protegée (AOP) in Europe, France classifies its many wines into three types. This division helps protect the best wines from unregulated competition and gives the consumer a helping hand by clearly denoting quality levels.

Unlike terroir, AOP doesn’t tell you anything about the region or the type of wine (red, white, rosé or sparkling); but it does reveal the quality of the wine. And to do this, it divides wine into three categories:

Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC)

The AOC label denotes the best possible classification for a wine. Originally invented in 1923 to safeguard the Chateauneuf du Pape label, AOC is now the most highly sought-after category. Some 364 French wines have AOC status and to maintain it, they must fulfil strictly regulated conditions on production method and volumes.

Indication Géographique Protégée (IGP)

Further down the classification table, IGP wines represent around 15% of French wines. The IGP label has replaced the vins du pays category for the best everyday wines. Unlike AOCs, the IGP label clearly denotes a specific geographical area.

Vin de table

Needing no introduction, this label says it all. Table wine aspires to little more than to provide a cheap glass of plonk or a touch of alcohol in your boeuf bourguignon.

More information about French wine

French wine

Visit French Wine offers comprehensive information on wine tourism from wine cellar visits to top tips from master sommeliers.

For a detailed map of French wine regions with information on terroirs and vineyards, get a copy of Vins de France. Regional maps with even more detail are also available.

But the proof lies in the drinking

French wineFrench Waterways hotel barge cruises always include French wines. Some devote whole weeks to its homage, to the delight of wine aficionados from all corners of the earth. Spending a whole week, learning from the domain owners themselves is a huge treat. Whether it’s cruising through a particular wine region to sample the best local labels or tasting top French wines as you dine in style on board, hotel barging takes the world of vin to the next level. Book your cruise now. Here’s to votre santé!

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This is the first in an 8-part guide looks at the 7 main wine-producing regions in France before taking a snapshot of some of the country’s lesser known tipples. A wine guide to a country that produces over 12.2 million hectolitres of wine a year and boasts almost 3,000 different types of vin is something of a challenge.

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