French Wine Regions

Viognier wine, french wine regions

What are the French Wine Regions?

France supplies more quality and varied wine to the world wine market than any other country. Even if you’ve never tasted some of the most expensive varieties, names of French wine regions probably ring a bell. Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Provence have become synonymous with world-class wine. But what are these French wine regions? Here’s a quick guide to all you need to know about French wine and the historic regions they hail from. Pack your bags (and a glass) for a trip into the French wine regions!

How are French wine regions categorized?

France is washed by the Atlantic and caressed by the Mediterranean, making a unique climate extremely conducive to viticulture. The French  wine regions are rich in calcaire (that is, limestone) and boasts more of it than any other country in the world.

France not only has world-class vineyards. She knows how to classify her fruits, some would argue to an unwieldy fault.

France defines, classifies, and controls its wines more than any other country. France has always been proud of its wines, and French wine regions have cherished their own sacred varieties and traditions for hundreds of years. But appellations restricting the use of geographical names to wines made in a precisely specified area is a more recent phenomena. Three appellations now exist categorizing different French wine regions.

AOC

  • Appellation d’Origine Controlee (or AC for short) is the oldest and most esteemed of all French appellations. About half of French wine belong to this category.

VDQS

  • Next in line are the AC wines in-waiting, VDQS (Vins Delimites de Qualite Superieure). These wines represent a tiny fraction of total French wines.

Vin d Pays

  • The second largest appellation is Vin de Pays, the “country wines.” This appellation was instituted relatively recently in response to to the stifling criteria of AC and VDQS. There are plenty of fantastic French wines that are produced outside of particular French wine regions, or lack the stringent pedigree or tradition requisite of AC/VDQS wines. Thousands of truly tantalizing country wines were thus relegated to the frowned upon Vin de Table category, or lowly table wines. VDP fixed that, giving orphaned country wines an elevated designation and a shot on the world market.

Making sense of the bottle

French wine bottles usually contain all the information you need to distinguish region, type, appellation, and quality. Here’s the lingo common on bottles from all French wine regions.

Quality Designations

  • Appellation d’Origine Controlee (d’Origine, AC)
    • The geographical origin, variety, and production of these wines are tightly controlled and regulated. These wines are generally the best French wines (and most expensive).
  • VDQS
    • AC in grooming
  • Vin de Pays
    • These country wines hail from areas larger than AC zones, and may utilize non-traditional variants and higher yields.
  • Vin de Table
    • Basic table wine of no specified geographic French wine region, variety, or vintage.

Common terms

  • Blanc: white
  • Cave: a cooperative (coop) winery
  • Château: a wine estate or farm, usually located in Bordeaux
  • Coteaux de and/or Côtes de: hillsides
  • Cru: a specified superior plot of land
  • Cru classé: a cru of noteworthy classification
  • Domaine: a vineyard holding, usually in reference to Burgundy
  • Grand cru: in Burgundy, a distinguished vineyard
  • Méthod classique or méthode traditionnelle: sparkling wine made made with the same method used to make champagne
  • Mis (en bouteille) au château/domaine/á la propriété: estate wine made by the same holding that grew the grapes; “in-house” wine.
  • Négociant: a wine/grape merchant
  • Premier Cru: referring to a growth below a Grand Cru (Burgundy) or one of the top four château in the region (Médoc, specifically).
  • Propriétaire-récoltant: a vine grower who owns his/her own vines.
  • Récoltant: a vine grower, or (outside France) a winemaker.
  • Récolte: vintage
  • Rosé: pink
  • Rouge: red
  • Supérieur: slightly higher in alcohol than average wine
  • Vieilles vignes: older wines which, supposedly, produce denser wine.
  • Vigneron: vine grower
  • Villages: a suffix referring to specific communities (or parishes) within an appellation.
  • Vin: wine
  • Viticulteur: wine grower

 

French Wine Regions

Chablis wine Burgundy French wine regions

View of the town of Chablis, Burgundy

Burgundy

Burgundy elicits rich and rustic overtones in stride with its food. Burgundy is the land of long meals, the belly of France, if you will. Burgundy is considered the northernmost region in France to produce noteworthy red wine. Burgundy’s vineyards cover a strip of lands running southeast along the slopes from the region’s capital Dijon, but Beaune is the heart of Burgundy viticulture. Of course, the region is widely stratified in terms of varieties, quality, and quantity. The best Burgundy wines are reds, which often age 20 to 30 years with better taste to show for it. For all of Burgundy’s illustrious wine, though, it is rather unpredictable, making it a challenge to pinpoint a consistent vintage or variety. Even within the same vineyard, wines change drastically per season and hand. For this reason, Burgundy wine is often bought in barrel and mixed with large quantities of a more consistent wine.

Pinot noir grape wine French wine regions

Principal grape varieties

Important wine regions

  • Côte d’Or. Comprised of Côte de Beaune to the south and Côte de Nuits to the north, Côte d’Or is the birthplace of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir

Appellations

  • Chablis Grand and Premier Cru
  • Chablis
  • Bourgogne Vézelay
  • Côte de Nuits
  • Hautes-Côtes de Nuits
  • Côte de Beaune
  • Hautes-Côtes de Beaune
  • Côte de Chalonnaise
  • Bourgogne Côtes du Couchois
  • Pouilly-Fuissé
  • Mâcon-Villages
  • Mâcon
  • Beaujolais-Villages
  • Beaujolais

Burgundy wines to try

champagne wine france French wine regions

Champagne

Champagne wine must do more than sparkle. It must hail from the strictly controlled French wine region that bears its name in northeast France.

Champagne is the northernmost wine region in France. Unlike other fine French wines, champagne is blended. Because the quality of the champagne depends on wine blend and skill of the blenders, champagnes are ranked by producers, not necessarily appellations.

Champagne by no means holds the title as the world’s best sparkling wine. But the best champagne contains a freshness, richness, delicacy, and sass no other sparkling wine has achieved.

Champagne’s fertile soil and ideal climate is located 90 miles northeast of Paris. Here, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay grapes are grown and transformed in a blithering array of dark, white, and rosé champagnes.

All champagnes are a blended wine. This blending, called cuvée, is the chief difference between champagne brands and quality. The flavor and body of a champagne is completely contingent on how the young cuvée is prepared. Another key differentiation between brands is how long a vintage is left on the lees of a second fermentation in bottle. As per the general rule, the longer the better. All bubbling wines bearing a Champagne appellation must age at least 15 months to be considered non-vintage and three years to be considered vintage.

Principal grape varieties

  • Pinot Noir
  • Pinot Meunier
  • Chardonnay

What’s on the bottle?

Common champagne terms:

  • Blanc de blancs: Chardonnay champagne
  • Blanc de noirs: champagne made solely of dark-skinned grapes
  • Cuvée: a blend
  • Non-vintage (NV): Champagne with made with wines from more than one year
  • Vintage: Champagne made with wine from a single year
  • Réserve: basically a useless marketing term
  • NM: a bottler code (négociant-manipulant) for a champagne maker who deals in grapes
  • RM: a bottler code (récoltant-manipulant) for growers that make their own wine
  • CM: a bottler code (coopérative de manipulation) for a co-op
  • RC: a bottler code (récoltant-coopérateur) for growers that sell wine made by a co-op
  • MA: a bottler code (marque d’acheteur) indicating a grape buyer’s own brand

Sweetness levels

  • Extra brut: bone dry
  • Brut: dry
  • Sec: somewhat dry
  • Demi-sec: medium-sweet
  • Doux: sweet

Champagnes to try

Bourdeaux wine French wine regions

Bordeaux sunset

Bordeaux

If Burgundy is the stomach of French viticulture, Bordeaux is the head. Bordeaux wines are cerebral, expressing a characteristic nuance and complexity renowned the world over.

Bordeaux’s fame is in part owed to its access to the ocean, which opened the region’s quality wines to the world. As early as the 1100s, Bordeaux was the principal wine export to England. Bordeaux has since built on its long and sorted history exporting wine, which cemented its reputation as the worldwide face of fine French wine.

Bordeaux wine hails from a dizzying complex of châteaus found in countless regions and sub-regions. To make matters more confusing, many of these geographical sub-units have their own special appellations. But make no mistake: it’s all characteristically Bordeaux.

Bordeaux is the largest wine region in the world, and unequivocally one of the most famous. Here, red wines outnumber whites nearly eight to one. Bordeaux glories in its archetypal blends of Cabernet and Merlot, rare and dulcet golden Sauternes, and several exceptional dry white wines.

But just because it’s a Bordeaux doesn’t mean it’s world-class wine. The region is just too big to declare a ubiquitous standard of quality, and often times, the straight Bordeaux label doesn’t live up to its legendary reputation. Depending on the region and year, an otherwise excellent Bordeaux may be uninspiring compared to a California red.

To remediate the problem, the region was allotted a Vin de Pays appellation to distinguish between wines that were still excellent but not up to par with AC Bordeaux. Therefore, if you want an excellent Bordeaux, make sure it’s labeled Vin de Pays or AC.

Bordeaux is sliced into three distinctive wine regions, with the Garonne and Dordogne rivers the principal demarcations.

Merlot grape wine French wine regions

Merlot grape

Principal grape varieties

  • Merlot
  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Cabernet Franc
  • Sémillon
  • Sauvignon Blanc
  • Muscadelle

Appellations

  • Haut-Médoc
  • St-Émilion
  • Médoc
  • Pomerol
  • St-Émilion Satellites
  • Fronsac and Canon-Fronsac
  • Bordeaux Haut-Benauge, Entre-Deux-Mers Haut-Benauge
  • Côtes de Castilion
  • Lalande-de-Pomerol
  • Côtes de Francs
  • Blaye, Côtes de Blaye, and Premières Côtes de Blaye
  • Bourg, Côtes de Bourg, Bourgeais
  • Premières Côtes de Bordeaux
  • Graves de Vayres
  • Ste-Foy-Bordeaux
  • Côtes de Bordeaux-St-Macaire
  • Pessac-Léognan
  • Graves
  • Cérons
  • Sauternes, Barsac
  • Loupiac
  • Ste-Croix-du-Mont
  • Entre-Deux-Mers

Bordeaux wines to try

 

Southwest France wines French wine regions

source: WIkimedia Commons

Southwest

The Southwest of France grows the nation’s most varied collection of native wine grapes, many of which are assigned their own peculiar appellation. Regional wines such as Cahors, Marcillac, and Fronton are household names. The Cahors region produces some of the richest reds in all of France, and Bergerac produces several excellent whites, including strong aperitifs. Wines grown in this region are split about half AC and half VDQS. A large Vin de Pays designation (Côtes de Gascogne) has been created in the center of the region. Southwestern wines typically contain more rustic regional spice than more well-known French regions.

Principal grape varieties

  • Côte (aka Malbec)
  • Fer Servadou
  • Mauzac
  • Duras
  • Len de l’El
  • Muscadelle
  • Négrette
  • Sauvignon Blanc
  • Syrah
  • Ondenc

AC appellations

  • Béarn
  • Buzet
  • Cahors
  • Côtes de Duras
  • Côtes de Marmandais
  • Fronton
  • Gaillac
  • Irouléguy
  • Jurançon
  • Madiran et Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh

VDQS appellations

  • Côtes de Brulhois
  • Côtes de St-Mont
  • Vins de Lavilledieu
  • Tursan
  • Coteaux du Quercy
  • St-Sardos

Vin de Pays

  • Côtes de Gascogne

Southwestern wines to try

Loire Valley France French wine regions

The Château de Chambord. Source: Wikipedia

Loire Valley and Muscadet

While Loire produces several excellent whites and reds, few are ranked among the best of French wines. But that doesn’t mean Loire and Muscadet should be overlooked.

It’s a mystery that wines hailing from the Loire and Muscadet regions aren’t more fully enjoyed outside of France. These wines are the unfortunate and unnecessary casualties of the modern wine drinker’s obsession with phenotypically strong and weighty wines.

Well over half of Loire and Muscadet wines are white, clearly divided between the dry wines of the east (Sancerre and Pouilly) and Muscadet in the west.

Muscadet wine rose to popularity in the seventies. This affordable wine is balanced, very dry, slightly salty, and firm, a perfect pairing with fresh seafood from the Atlantic where it gets its flavor.

It’s hard to extract a consistent harvest from wines grown as far north as the Loire Valley. Hence, sparkling wine, easily masking inconsistency, is an important wine here.

Melon de bourgogne Loire Valley France, French wine regions

source: Wikimedia Commons

Principal grape varieties

  • Melon de Bourgogne
  • Gros Plant Nantais/Folle Blanche
  • Cabernet Franc
  • Chenin Blanc
  • Sauvignon Blanc
  • Pinot Noir

Appellations

  • Pays Nantais AC
    • Muscadet
    • Muscadet Sèvere-et-Maine
    • Muscadet Coteaux de la Loire
    • Muscadet Côtes de Grandlieu
  • Pays Nantais VDQS
    • Coteaux d’Ancenis
    • Fiefs Vendéens
    • Gros Plant du Pays Nantais
  • Anjou-Saumur AC
    • Quarts-de-Chaume
    • Bonnezeaux
    • Savennières
    • Coteaux de l’Aubance and Anjou-Villages-Brissac
    • Anjou Coteaux de la Loire
    • Anjou Villages
    • Coteaux du Layon
    • Saumur
    • Saumur-Champigny
    • Coteaux de Saumur
  • Touraine AC
    • Bourgueil, St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, and Chinon
    • Vouvray and Montlouis-sur-Loire
    • Touraine Noble-Joué
  • Upper Loire AC
    • Coteaux du Loir and Jasnières
    • Coteaux du Vendômois
    • Cheverny and Cour-Cheverny
    • Reuilly and Quincy
    • Sancerre, Pouilly-sur-Loire, and Pouilly Fumé
    • Menetou-Salon
    • Coteaux du Giennois
  • Upper Loire VDQS
    • Valençay
    • Orléans
    • Orléans-Cléry

Loire/Muscadet wines to try

Alsace wine, French wine regions

Country roads through remote Alsace vineyards. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Alsace

Alsace wines reflect the stylistic and cultural merger of the border region they hail from. Sitting along the eastern slopes of the Vosges mountains along France’s eastern frontier, Alsace makes German wines in the French fashion. Alsace produces primarily dry and fruity wines like Germanic Riesling and Gewurztraminer, but takes it up a notch. Traditionally, Alsace wine took a bolder approach to German wines, fermenting every ounce of sugar from otherwise light and sweet wines across the Rhine. The trends, however, are starting to flip, with Alsace wine getting sweeter and German wines trending stronger and bolder.

Alsace wine is all about fruit and no oak. In Alsace, you’ll find the French take on quintessential German wines like Riesling, Sylvaner, Muscat, Pinots Blanc, Gris, Noir, and Gewurztraminer, the later being the perfect introduction to the taste of Alsace.

Appellations aren’t used the same way in Alsace as in the rest of France. In Alsace, all wines simply belong to the Alsace appellation, with the next elements listed being grape variety and often the individual vineyard.

Principal grape varieties

  • Pinot Blanc
  • Riesling
  • Gewurztraminer
  • Pinot Gris
  • Sylvaner
  • Pinot Noir

Noteworthy Grand Cru vineyards:

  • Steinklotz
  • Engelberg
  • Altenberg de Bergbieten
  • Altenberg de Wolxheim
  • Bruderthal
  • Kirchberg de Barr
  • Zotzenberg
  • Kastleberg
  • Wiebelsberg
  • Moenchberg
  • Muenchberg
  • Winzenberg
  • Frankstein
  • Praeletenberg
  • Ollwiller
  • Rangen

Alsace wines to try

Rhone wine French wine regions

Châteauneuf-du-Pape Castle and vineyard in the Rhone region of southeastern France. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Rhone

Rhone wines are predominantly robust, substantial reds. The Rhone is home of savory Syrahs. Rhone wines in general range from intensely concentrated and tannic and purply in youth to to simple yet potent light colored reds. When matured, they offer depth and harmony on par with those of Bordeaux.

The Rhone is split into north and south. While the entire Rhone region is best known for its reds, north and south have their favorite varieties, as well as unique climates and production styles. Côtes du Rhône is the most common appellation for both north and southern Rhone.

Principal grape varieties (Northern Rhone)

  • Syrah
  • Viogner

Principal grape varities (Southern Rhone)

  • Grenache Noir
  • Syrah
  • Carignan
  • Cinsault
  • Mourvèdre

Appellations (Northern Rhone)

  • Côte-Rôtie
  • Château-Grillet
  • Condrieu
  • Condrieu/St-Joseph
  • St-Joseph
  • Hermitage
  • Crozes-Hermitage
  • Cornas
  • St-Péray
  • Coteaux du Tricastin

Appellations (Southern Rhone)

  • Châteauneuf-du-Pape
  • Clairette de Bellegarde
  • Costières de Nîmes
  • Côtes du Rhône-Villages
  • Côtes du Ventoux
  • Côtes du Vivarais
  • Gigondas
  • Lirac
  • Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise
  • Beaumes-de-Venise
  • Rasteau
  • Tavel
  • Vacqueyras
  • Vinsobres

Rhone wines to try

Languedoc-Roussillon wines French wine regions

Old vines in the Corbières AOC wine region. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Languedoc-Roussillon

Languedoc-Roussillon is France’s link to warmer, Mediterranean locales. This regions sprawls across the coastal plains west of the Rhone. The Languedoic’s eastern domain is more influenced by the far-reaching winds of the distant Atlantic and possess the characters of Rhone and even Bordeaux wines. Western Languedoc’s most important appellation, Minervois, consists overwhelmingly of rich and full-bodied red wines, with a minority of regional rosé.

To the east, Languedoc slopes gently toward greater Mediterranean influence. This region, long known for bland and ordinary wines, is becoming widely renown for wines of rustic French character and attractive prices. Wines from the Languedoc appellation are the most important and most eclectic throughout the region.

Of all the French wine regions, Languedoc is the largest producer of French wine in terms of volume. Many of these wines are fairly ordinary Vins de Pays, with an increasing number of AC wines taking root.

Roussillon is perhaps unfairly dangled as a suffix to Languedoc. Roussillon is as different in culture from Languedoc as it is in viticulture. Here, regional dialects resemble deep Spanish influences. France’s first grapes ripen in Roussillon. These early Grenache harvests are used to create Rousillon’s famous Vins Doux Naturels (VDN), of which 90 percent of France’s supply come from Roussillon. Northern Roussillon produces exciting reds and dry, minerally whites.

Principal grape varieties (Languedoc)

  • Carigan
  • Grenache Noir
  • Cinsault
  • Syrah
  • Merlot
  • Cabernet Sauvignon

Principal grape varieties (Roussillon)

  • Carigan
  • Grenache Noir
  • Maccabeau
  • Syrah
  • Grenache Blanc
  • Muscat
  • Grenache Gris
  • Mourvèdre
  • Lladoner Pelut
  • Cinsault
  • Rolle
  • Marsanne
  • Roussanne
  • Malvoisie du Rousillon

Appellations (Languedoc)

  • Cabardès
  • Clairette de Languedoc
  • Corbières
  • Corbières-Boutenac
  • Corbières subregion
  • Languedoc
  • Malepère
  • Faugères
  • Fitou
  • Limoux
  • Minervois
  • Minervois-La Livinière
  • Muscat de Frontignan
  • Muscat de Lunel
  • Muscat de Mireval
  • Muscat de St-Jean de Minervois
  • Rivesaltes
  • St-Chinian

Appellations (Rousillon)

  • Banyuls, Collioure
  • Côtes du Rousillon Les-Aspres
  • Côtes du Rousillon
  • Côtes du Rousillon-Villages
  • Maury
  • Riversaltes, Muscat de Rivesaltes

Languedoc-Rousillon wines to try

Provence France, French wine regions

Lacoste, Provence. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Provence

Provence is just as synonymous with French wine as Bordeaux. The region is famous for rosé, historically strong on body and alcohol but low on flavor. But no more!

Provence winemakers are taking care to infuse a gentle perfume and crisp dryness into modern rosé. Modern Provence rosé are a perfect companion for the garlic and olive oil that dominate the region’s cuisine. In addition to the classic and ever-evolving rosé, Provence is kicking out some stellar reds, too.

By far the most important appellation here is the iconic Côtes de Provence, seen on many a supermarket bottle of rosé. Provence is home to a bewildering assortment of grape varieties, some of which aren’t known to grow anywhere else on earth (such as Tibouren and Calitor).

Principal grape varieties

  • Grenache
  • Cinsault
  • Carignan
  • Mourvèdre
  • Syrah
  • Cabernet Sauvignon

Appellations

  • Bandol
  • Les Baux-de-Provence
  • Bellet
  • Cassis
  • Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence
  • Coteaux Varois
  • Côtes du Luberon
  • Côtes de Provence
  • Côtes de Provence-Fréjus
  • Côtes de Provence-Ste-Victoire
  • Palette
Provence rose wine French wine regions

source: Wikimedia Commons

Provence wines to try

Sartene, Corsica, French wine regions

Sartene, Corsica. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Corsica

This French outpost is often overlooked among the giants of inland French wine regions. Corsica wine has long been enjoyed by island residents alone, often consumed with no more reverence than it deserves. Most wine exported from the island are unexceptional Vins de Pays, but a significant portion of Corsica’s wine is gaining worldwide recognition as hardy, fruit-forward, unaged reds.

Principal grape varieties

  • Nielluccio
  • Merlot
  • Vermentio
  • Grenache Noir
  • Sciaccerello

Appellations

  • Vin de Corse
  • Vin de Corse-Coteaux du Cap Corse/Muscat du Cap Corse
  • Vin de Corse-Calvi
  • Vin de Corse-Sartène
  • Vin de Corse-Figari
  • Vin de Corse-Porto-Vecchio
  • Ajaccio
  • Patrimonio/Muscat du Cap Corse

Corsica wines to try

Jura france French wine regions

Jura limestone fountain and vineyards. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Jura

Jura is a diminutive enclave of vines nestled in France’s eastern hills. Jura was devastated by phylloxera in the late 1800s, and has never quite recovered. But its wines are still varied and completely original to the region. Jura’s principal appellations hold particular interest for students of wine-food pairing.

Jura’s soil is made for the Burgundy grapes – Pinot Noir, and lots of Chardonnay. Jura is also home to some fascinating regional variations, such as the late-ripening Savagnin, which when mixed with Chardonnay creates a rigorous white table wine with notes of hazelnut. Jura’s signature white wine, Vin Jaune, is an expensive sherry-like aperitif also made from Savagnin. Jura is predominantly white wine country, but a selection of light reds, rosé, and sparkling wines are also produced in the region.

Chardonnay French wine regions

Principal grape varieties

  • Chardonnay
  • Pinot Noir
  • Savagnin
  • Poulsard
  • Trousseau

Appellations

  • AC Arbois
  • AC Château-Chalon
  • AC l’Etoile

Some Jura wines to try

Savoie French wine regions

The alpine monolith overshadows everything in Savoie – even viticulture. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Savoie

Savoie is alpine country. Mountains dominate every aspect of life in Savoie, including viticulture. Cultivatable lands are at a premium here, and essentially all Savoie wines belong to the appellation Vin de Savoie.

Most Savoie wines are white, with the occasional red or rosé. Savoie’s whites are clean, light, and fresh like the mountain air they breath.

Principal grape varieties

  • Jacquère
  • Gamay
  • Altesse
  • Chasselas
  • Mondeuse

Appellations

  • AC Vin de Savoie
  • AC Crépy
  • AC Seyssel
  • VDQS Bugey
  • Crue of Savoie
  • Cru of Rousette de Savoie
  • Cru of Bugey

Savoie wines to try

 

Vins de Pays

Vins de Pays is a recent category in French viticulture, but a wildly successful one. A Vin de Pays, or country wine, is understood to be a superior table wine. They are the humblest of wines able to receive the distinguished French privilege of geographical context, which is indicated on the label. Vins de Pays regions are chosen deliberately to prevent confusion (or competition) with AC or VDQS appellations. Unlike “nobler” designations, Vins de Pays allow more grape varieties, higher yields, no minimum age, and less geographical restriction. But they’re delightful and rich nonetheless.

Vin de Pays now accounts for over a third of all French wines, saving countless quality wines from the lowly Vin de Table category. Vins de Pays hail from primarily from the southeast and southwest, as well as Corsair. About 70 percent of all Vins de Pays are red.