Of all countries in the world with the ability to strongly influence all others, especially in terms of wine production, France is undoubtedly that nation. The secret of its wine success is largely dictated by the attention the French have historically paid to quality of viticulture and wine making techniques.
The first evidence of the ancient French wine tradition dates back to 600 B.C.E. around the period when the Greeks found Massalia (present-day Marseille). The real development of French oenology and viticulture truly began with the arrival of the Romans at the end of the second century B.C.E.
As early as the sixth century, viticulture was already well rooted and widespread, almost all over the territory, mainly thanks to the monks who cultivated the vine in their monasteries as necessary to produce wine for the liturgies.
Although French wine producers have always pursued the highest quality standards, the basic principles underlying the French quality control system are due to the work done in 1923 by Baron Le Roy. This influential and important wine producer of Châteauneuf-du-Pape adopted strict rules for the production of his wines, including the definition of the geographical area, the varieties of grapes allowed, the cultivation and pruning methods and the minimum alcohol content. In 1935 he created the INAO (National Institute of Appellations of Origin), the organization responsible for defining, establishing and strengthening production regulations of the individual appellations (AOCs).
From a climatic point of view, France can be divided into 3 main parts:
1) The north, characterized by a continental climate, with cold winters and rainy autumns producing mainly whites with excellent acidity;
2) The south, where climate is typically Mediterranean, grapes reach full maturity and full bodied wines are produced; and
3) The western area, where the influence of the Atlantic Ocean results in a typically maritime climate, humid and rainy, tempered by the Gulf air currents where the wines tend to be extremely well balanced and suited to aging.
The famous Champagne region, a sparkling wine lovers’ paradise, is located in the north not too far from Paris. Here wines are produced with the Méthode Champenoise from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier in different proportions depending on the manufacturer choice.
Other than being among the most famous wine regions, Bordeaux is also the largest of France. The area, located on the Atlantic coast, enjoys a temperate climate thanks to the proximity of the ocean and the Gironde estuary. Bordeaux counts more than 50 AOC, including the prestigious Médoc, St Julien, Margaux and Saint-Émilion and produces mainly reds obtained from what’s called the Bordeaux blend (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, in different proportions depending on the area). There is also plenty of white wine made from Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc, and amazing sweet wines (Sauternes).
The only region comparable to Bordeaux, in terms of fame, is Burgundy, where winemakers produce refined wines. Burgundy is divided into five main areas: Chablis, Côte d’Or, Côte Chalonnaise, Mâconnais and Beaujolais. The production is almost equally divided between whites, produced with Chardonnay or Aligoté grapes and reds made with Pinot Noir or Gamay.
Loire & Rhone Valleys
The Loire Valley and Rhone Valley are maybe slightly less popular, but both produce excellent quality wines. The former, extending from the Atlantic Ocean up to the hinterland, is the undisputed home of French Sauvignon Blanc. The latter is mainly focused on the production of full bodied red wines predominantly made from Syrah grapes.
Among the other important wine regions are:
• Alsace, at the border with Germany, producing elegant and delicate white wines from Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat;
• Jura and Savoie, located east of Burgundy, focusing on local varieties and traditional productions such as the oxidized Vin Jaune;
• Languedoc and Roussillon, located on the southern Mediterranean coast of France offering amazing sweet wines and excellent value reds and whites; and
• Provence and Corsica, both benefiting from a Mediterranean climate and primarily famous for its refreshing rosé wines.