Quick guide to French Wines & Wine Regions

One reason why many American wine drinkers shun or avoid French wines is that the labels can be confusing and hard to understand. Most of us know basically that a Chardonnay is different from a Sauvignon Blanc and have a sense of what those differences are and more importantly when we’re wine shopping, we know what those differences mean for the flavor of the wine and which one we prefer. But what’s the how about Sancerre VS Chablis or Bordeaux VS Cotes du Rhone?

Here’s a quick primer to the five of the main French wine regions and the types of wines you’ll find there.

Champagne

Champagne

First off, if it doesn’t come from the Champagne region of France, it’s just “Sparkling Wine.” Only sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France can be called Champagne. Even within France, if it doesn’t come from the Champagne region it’s called Cremant de XXXX (the name of the region that it’s made in). Champagne is usually made from a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes and is always sparkling. So all sparkling wines aren’t Champagne, but all Champagnes are sparkling wines.

Bordeaux (reds) grapes

Bordeaux (reds)

If you like bolder style wines with backbone and solid tannic structure like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, then Bordeaux is the region for you. In general European wines are less fruit forward than New World wines as they are always meant to be consumed along with food and not served as cocktail beverages. For Bordeaux this means they’ll have a drier, earthier taste than most California Cabs at similar price points, but this doesn’t mean they’re lacking in fruit flavors, they’re just the main focus as they typically are. Bordeaux wines are typically blends, with either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot as the main component and lesser amounts of the three other allowed grapes (Cabernet Franc, Malbec, & Petit Verdot) used flesh out the blend. To narrow things down a little further, it helps to know a little French geography. The Gironde river divides the region, with wines coming from town on the right side (known as Right Bank wines) being Merlot based and Left Bank wines typically being Cabernet Sauvignon bases.
Left Bank regions to look for: Medoc, Haut-Medoc, St Julien, Margaux and Pauillac.
Right Bank regions to look for: Pomerol, Saint-Emillion, Fronsac, Cotes de Castillon

Bordeaux grapes

Bordeaux (White)

A lot of folks automatically think red wine when they hear Bordeaux, but they make some fantastic white wines there too. Again, the wines are typically blends, with Sauvignon Blanc often the main component with Semillon often making up a significant portion of the blend. Lesser amounts of Muscadelle, Colombard and Ugni Blanc will also often be included in the blend. Barrel aged versions of Bordeaux Blanc that have high amounts of Semillon (often from the Pessac-Leognan district) can be rich, creamy, fairly full bodied and often expensive. These wonderful wines are delicious but usually harder to fine than the crisper, fruity, minerally and easier to find wines from the rest of the region, especially those from Entre-deux-Mers.

burgundy wines

Burgundy (Red)

Red Burgundy is dominated by Pinot Noir, and yes it is necessary to say Red Burgundy as opposed to just Burgundy because White Burgundy is a thing too. Again, Burgundy is a place, a region, and a both red and white grapes/wines are grown in the region. Gamay has a stronghold in the Beaujolais district of Burgundy, but as stated above, Pinot Noir is king of red grapes in the region. The most basic wines from the region will be labeled simply Bourgogne or Bourgogne Rouge with higher end wines listing the village or sub-region they come from. Some of the ones to look out for: Pommard, Vougeot, Nuits St George, Vosne Romanee, & Gevrey Chambertin.

chablis white burgundy

Burgundy (White)

Yes, Burgundy (with a capital B) isn’t a color, but a region of France that produces some of the world’s best, and most famous white wines. Chablis, Pouilly-Fuisse, Meursault, Montrachet and Macon are all part of the Burgundy region and the wines made there are Chardonnay. The Aligote grape is grown throughout the Burgundy region and makes some fantastic wines worth trying, but these will state that they are made from Aligote and not Chardonnay on the front label. If it comes from a named village or just says Bourgogne Blanc, it’s going to be Chardonnay.

Rhone (Cotes du Rhone) map

Rhone (Cotes du Rhone)

The Rhone River Valley is home to many styles of fantastic and often very affordable wines that are usually blends. Red Rhone wines are usually Syrah or Grenache based with Syrah taking the lead in northern vineyards and Grenache often the main component in the south. Mourvedre, Carignan, Cinsault, and Petit Sirah are some of the other red grapes that grow in the region and are used to lesser or greater degree in the wines. The wines are typically medium bodied with bright red fruit flavors complimented by notes baking spices and dried herbs.
The white wines of the region are also often blends with Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc being the most prevalent components in many blends although it isn’t unusual to see 100% varietal wines produced here, especially bottlings meant for the export market.

Loire Valley France map

Loire Valley

White wines are the most famous exports from this region, but they do make some wonderful reds that are worth seeking out. Sancerre from Sauvignon Blanc and Vouvray made from Chenin Blanc are the two most well known sub-regions within the Loire Valley but there are a few others worth looking for and getting to know. Pouilly-Fume (not to be confused with Pouilly-Fuisse made from Chardonnay) is Sauvignon Blanc, as are Touraine and Menetou-Salon.
Looking for other Chenin Blancs from Loire? Try: Anjou, Savennières or Saumur.
Muscadet is one of the most underrated Loire Valley white wines. Probably because most people see the “Musc” part and automatically assume that it is the same as or similar to Muscato. IT IS NOT! Muscadet is made from the Melone de Bourgogne varietal and is actually the most produced style of white wine in the Valley. Coming from the north western part of the region, Muscadet is most often lees aged and labeled as Muscadet Sur Lie. This crisp and refreshing wine has a noted briny quality with makes it one of the best wines for seafood and shellfish, especially oysters.