French wine is often seen as the pinnacle of poshness and inaccessibility. So much that a large part of the market has moved on to New World alternatives, that make everything much simpler.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are basic rules of thumb that you can apply and you’ll be already more knowledgeable than most pundits and also than most French people who pretend to know wine just because they are French (but know f all in reality).
2 basic things to know:
- Key French wine regions
- Key grapes for each region
Most English people will walk into a wine shop and state the grape first, or when they look at a restaurant menu, will also choose on grapes. But the problem is French wine doesn’t go by grape, it goes by “appellation” or region. Know these regions and the door will open up to some amazing wine, not just the ones with the grape in the name.
The good news is that the key French wine regions can be counted on one hand. They are:
- Rhone Valley
- Loire Valley
There are of course other regions which you’ll hear about (e.g. Alsace, Jura, Savoie, Provence, South-West), or that you obviously know about (e.g Champagne) but leave them out of your brain for now to keep things simple.
To clarify, asking a sommelier for a “Red Burgundy” without stating the grape is totally fine, and in fact doing the opposite will sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about.
Now you just need to know which grapes go with which regions.
The good thing is that most French wine regions (the “appellations”) have set rules as to which grapes can be grown and used to grant wines with the region’s name.
- Mostly a red wine region, with the exception of some white wines. The best known of these is Sauternes, a sweet wine normally married with foie gras, but that also goes well with cured meat starters or deserts. White grapes in Bordeaux are Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, two grapes that are very complementary.
- Reds is what Bordeaux is most renowned for. They are either dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon or by Merlot, typically with a blend of the two plus Cabernet Franc. More Cabernet Sauvignon will give a stronger full-bodied wine (e.g. areas South of the Dordogne like St-Estèphe), while a blend leaning on more Merlot will make it slightly lighter (e.g. areas North of the Dordogne like St-Émilion).
- Produces both reds and whites, amazing each in their own ways.
- Reds are mostly Pinot Noir, with the exception of the Beaujolais appellation which is Gamay-dominated. But if you want a Beaujolais in a restaurant, call it a Beaujolais, not a Burgundy – Burgundy refers typically more to the Pinot Noir led appellations, like Pommard, Mercurey, Nuits-St-Georges, etc.
- Whites are mostly Chardonnay. Wines like Chablis or Montrachet are great examples. You may also see the Bourgogne Aligoté which is a cheaper type of white, with more acidity. Focus on the Chardonnay – you’ll enjoy that most.
- Rhone Valley
- Produces both reds and whites. This region tends to blend multiple grapes and as such is a bit more complex to grasp.
- Reds are dominated by Grenache and Syrah, but in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, you can find up to 13 grape varieties in one bottle. But it’s fairly easy to split it North and South:
- North Rhone wines such as Crozes-Hermitage and St-Joseph are Syrah-led and produce therefore full-bodied dark red wines that go well with any sauce-based meat meal.
- South Rhone is either Syrah-led or Grenache-led, the former akin to its Northern counterpart, while the latter will be fruitier.
- Whites are dominated by several grapes, so just ignore it. That’s for when you pass beginner stage.
- Loire Valley
- This area is known for its history, castles and underground limestone caves, and for some quite famous appellations. It produces both reds and whites, and can be compartmentalized rather simply.
- Reds are led by the amazing Chinon, a Cabernet-Franc-based wine. Whenever you want a high quality Loire Valley red, go straight for the Chinon. Other reds are less worthy of a mention like Anjou or Saumur, which can be Cabernet Franc, Grolleau or Gamay.
- The Loire Valley has many famous whites, and they can be split in 3 lots:
- Sauvignon-Blanc-led whites like Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. The Sauvignon Blanc is sometimes called the “Fumé blanc” or smoked white, which refers to its smoky, gun flint flavor. These wines go extremely well with fish especially salmon.
- Chenin-Blanc-led whites are from the Vouvray and Touraine areas, though Sauvignon Blanc is also used.
- Muscadet is the last region worthy of a mention and produces whites based on the Melon.
- All Loire Valley whites normally go well with seafood, due to the higher levels of acidity they show based on the region’s northern position, the grapes used, and the limestone terroir.
- This region produces a third of France’s wine output, so not to be ignored for its quantity, although quality can be hit and miss.
- The region is as varied as it is large, but whites often use Chardonnay, and reds use Grenache and Syrah.
- It is worth trying out reds from Corbières and Minervois, and also red desert wine Banyuls.
- In the white department, the Blanquette-de-Limoux may be a good alternative to Champagne as it uses the same traditional production method albeit with a different grape – Mauzac – but at a third of the price. Also worth trying a good old Muscat wine, a fortified white that can go well as an aperitif or to accompany deserts.
That’s it. You can now bullshit your way through a French wine list!
To help you, we’ve produced the following cheat table which you may want to keep in your wallet to impress your next date when you run through that telephone-book-size wine list.