My friend Victor sent me a picture over WhatsApp the other day. He had found a three year old ticket I sent to him when we both worked together in the restaurant industry. It read “1x Btl Verdicchio – Ignore, French C*nt”.
Victor is a typical stereotype of a Frenchman; arrogant yet charming, stubborn but in an endearing way, he even wears a scarf and a beret. No, seriously… last year we were walking around Spitalfields Market in East London and he was wearing a scarf and beret, with a bag of wine in one hand, a bag of smelly cheese in the other and he was eating the top of the baguette that was poking out of the top. The only thing that was missing was the necklace of garlic. His flatmate Joe just stopped in the middle of the street and shouted “OH MY GOD! DO YOU REALISE HOW FUCKING FRENCH YOU LOOK?!?!” Victor simply looked down, saw what he was wearing and just smirked.
Anyway, the whole point of me saying this is we always gave him shit for being French like it was a bad thing. Little did I know that three weeks later I would end up moving to France and absolutely falling in love with it.
Honestly, I’ve lived in numerous cities in a number of countries but France is the only place other than Yorkshire than I’ve ever felt truly at home. There’s long been a rivalry between the English and the French, however I will always sincerely listen to a French person when they talk about wine. Wine is steeped in so much heritage in France that it is more of an identity of a place than a beverage. I learned so much and went to so many wine producing regions when I was living there but to be honest I only scratched the surface!
However, I thought it would be a good idea to give you a brief and informal guide to French wine, popular grape varieties, the main appellations and cool places to visit.
Located more or less in central France and about a three and a half hour drive southeast from Paris, Burgundy is a wine lover’s wet dream.
Producing phenomenal Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, it is regarded as one of, if not, the best wine region in the world. Put it this way; wine from Burgundy is even expensive in France! When I was first exposed to Burgundy wine I was working at Merchant’s Tavern in Shoreditch, East London, and it was actually that experience which got me serious about wine. My first taste of Chassagne Montrachet more or less changed my life, as it gave me an appreciation for just how good wine can be.
The two main grapes produced in Burgundy are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, also a small number of vineyards produce Aligoté which is widely used in making a Kir apéritif (white wine and crème de cassis – tastes like Ribena). Like most areas of France, the wine is characterised by village and the most famous areas are Beaune, Meursault, Chassagne Montrachet, Puligny Montrachet, Pommard, Savigny lès Beaune, Givry, Clos de Vougeot and St Aubin.
The best thing about these places is that you can cycle through all the vines. Last year I took a bike from Beaune centre to Chassagne Montrachet and it was the most beautiful journey ever.
Alsace has such an interesting history and is just an amazing place in general. Situated in eastern France, right next to Germany; Alsace has this cross between French and German culture, and to be honest it has changed hands between France and Germany on a number of occasions so it’s not surprising that the area is a mash of the two countries.
I know this is a wine blog but go to Strasbourg for the beer, there are so many cool pubs to go to. It’s an amazing city; the youth culture being perfectly balanced with historic gems (the cathedral in Strasbourg is just breathtaking). Back to the wine though.
An amazing thing to do is to drive down the ‘Route de Vin’, a very long road through the vines, with villages surrounding it, full of wine producers. Another great thing about Alsace is that it is easy to identify which grapes are in which wines because they label their wines by grape variety, rather than by appellation.
The seven major grape varieties in Alsace are… Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sylvaner and Muscat. It’s a cool climate region so produces some incredible perfumed white wines, Pinot Noir is the only major red wine produced there. The bottles in Alsace are narrow and tall, in Germanic style, which is another example of the collision of cultures and goes even further to show Alsace as the wine region of France that bucks the trend of typical French wine.
Situated in the west of the country, the Loire region has the River Loire running through it and produces some amazing wine.
You will have most likely heard of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, both of these wines are made with Sauvignon Blanc. I also love Sauvignon de Touraine. It’s a Sauvignon Blanc from the Tours area of the Loire region and it makes these amazing, crisp Sauvignon Blancs, bursting with bitter fruit flavours like grapefruit. It’s also normally a fraction of the price of the aforementioned two big guns.I got a bottle of Sauvignon de Touraine for £6 from Aldi in February and it was really quite decent.
Another major wine coming out of Loire is Muscadet (my mum’s favourite wine). Muscadet is the most widely produced wine in Loire and that means it is normally a bit cheaper in the shops. I was at a high-end vintners in Sheffield earlier this year and got an exquisite bottle of Muscadet for a tenner (£10 for the benefit of our non-British readers). Made with the Melon de Bourgogne grape, Muscadet normally is a medium to dry white wine that has a slight saltiness to it, there are subtle neutral fruit aromas which in my opinion make it easy to pair with an array of foods because there aren’t too many overpowering characteristics in it.
The Loire region is one of the most exciting regions in France as it hosts an array of different wine varieties and styles. One of my favourites is Vouvray. I have a bit of a sweet tooth and Vouvray produces phenomenal off dry Chenin Blancs. One year that bucked the Vouvray trend was 2011; they had an odd season and had to harvest several weeks earlier than usual to save the crop. So, many Vouvrays that year were a lot drier than in previous & subsequent years.
The Loire region also produces red wine with pockets of places producing Pinot Noir, Gamay and Cabernet Franc. If you visit the Loire Valley then be sure to take a trip into Vendée and go to La Rochelle, a beautiful seaside town. I’d also recommend going north, into Brittany, and trying some fucking incredible cidre. It is such a good part of France.
Bordeaux is just south of the Loire region and makes incredible reds. It probably rivals Burgundy as the most famous wine region in the world. It is the largest producing region in France and boasts big names like St Emilion, Claret, Graves, Haut-Médoc and Pomerol.
The main three grapes varieties used in red Bordeaux are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The region is so big and there are so many producers that it does run the risk of not just producing amazing wines, but also producing terrible wines too. Don’t let that put you off though, there are plenty of amazing wines being produced throughout the whole region.
Bordeaux also produces Sauterne, an outstanding dessert wine. Bordeaux city is widely regarded as one of the best places to visit/live in the world so I would highly recommend going there and making your own mind up.
How could I forget champagne?! Such an amazing place, producing such amazing wine.
Champagne goes through a second fermentation to make it sparkling and it is synonymous with parties and celebrations. The region itself is breathtaking and there’s so much to do. I’d recommend going to the city of Reims initially and then to the ‘big dog’ Champagne caves, i.e. Taittinger, Lanson and Veuve Cliquot. This gives you a good idea of the history and the buildings themselves are breathtaking.
Taittinger’s cave dates back to Roman times and have actually been awarded UNESCO world heritage site status. The village of Hautvillers is a must. If you read my previous post about affordable Champagne you will recall that Hautvilliers is the birthplace of Dom Perignon, you can walk around the village and go to numerous small Champagne houses and do tastings, most of them are free so you could literally go around all day and get nice and tipsy for free, however I challenge you to have a tasting and not buy a couple of bottles from each place. At around €15 per standard non-vintage bottle, it is such a bargain so you will find it incredibly hard to not stock up!
So there it is. A brief guide to French wine. I won’t even pretend I know everything about it, and I am still learning new things. However I hope this helps you find your way around some of the bigger and more well known wine regions in France. The best way to learn is to visit the places and get a feel for them. However, another good way to learn is by drinking. It’s the best education!