Needing little by way of introduction among wine lovers, France is without a doubt home to some of the most famous – and most expensive – wines in the world. Its reputation is well-earned: grape cultivation in France is said to date back to the time of the Greeks. French wines tend to bear the name of the region, village or winery, rather than grape variety, so a little geography can come in handy when exploring its oenological heritage. Additionally, more prestigious wines will feature the letters AOC or PDO on their label, denoting a protected origin; a step down from these but above common-or-garden table wines are labelled IGP wines or ‘Vin de pays’.
What are the most famous French wines? A strong contender for the most famous wine-growing region in France is Champagne in the north-east, thanks to the eponymous sparkling white wine that has been produced there for centuries. Beware of extrapolating the name to any other kind of sparkling wine – strict rules govern the production of Champagne and it is a highly coveted designation. You probably already know many of the bigger names in the sector: Dom Pérignon, Cristal and Laurent Perrier are exported worldwide. It is perhaps less commonly known however that France also produces many delicious and original ‘non-Champagne’ sparkling wines that are well worth a look. Try a ‘Crémant d’Alsace’, ‘Crémant de Bourgogne’ or ‘Vouvray Brut’ for example, and be pleasantly surprised – not just by the price tag!
Another immensely famous French wine region is of course Bordeaux, in the south-west – birthplace of around 500 million bottles of wine annually! This area is particularly rich in the production of the prestigious trio of French red wine grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Bordeaux wines are ranked according to the ‘cru’ system, with Château Mouton Rothschild and Château Latour among only five names to feature in the exclusive ‘Premier Cru’ designation. Bordeaux is also home to two highly valued botrytis wines – Sauternes and Barsac – produced by allowing a specific fungus to attack the white grapes (commonly Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc) when they are still on the vine. Whilst that may not sound particularly appealing, the effect of this controlled decay on the wine is magical, resulting in concentrated sugars and rich flavors of honey, candied fruit and even cotton candy.
What about French white wines? Some of the most well-known French whites are Chablis, Chenin Blanc, and Sauvignon Blanc. Chablis is better known in the US as Chardonnay, although the terms are not entirely interchangeable. Whilst all Chablis wines are made exclusively from Chardonnay grapes, unlike their American counterparts these French whites are not generally aged in oak barrels. They tend to display greater acidity and less full-on fruitiness than new world Chardonnays, with their characteristic buttery notes. Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc are two more successful French white wine exports, now widely produced in the US and beyond.
Why not pick a grape variety and compare a French bottle with its New World expression, to see if you can spot the family resemblance?
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