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France

French Wines

For many France is the place of birth of (good) wines.  While that is not so France has acquired (over hundreds of years) a reputation for producing the world's greatest wines.  French wine making history started at about 600 BC when the Greek colonized the valley of the Rhone and other areas along the Mediterranean coast where they founded the city of Marseille (then called Massalia).  They introduced vines and winemaking techniques.  By the time the Romans replaced the Greek as rulers (about 150 BC) wines from France were exported to many regions of the Roman Empire.

Today France is the world's largest producer of wines, making an unsurpassed variety, from simple table wines to some of the greatest wines on earth.  Other newly emerged wine producing nations have challenged its dominant position.  As a result, French wine makers have been working hard to reinvent themselves yet without giving up traditional values.  Making the best wine to match food is still their principal objective rather than pleasing ever changing marketing trends.

Wines are produced almost everywhere in France, except along the northern coast areas.  They are produced in hundreds of different regions and areas, each derived from its specific regional or local "terroir."  For the French believe that it is the "terroir" which provides each wine with its authenticity, specific taste and quality.  In this context "terroir" has a wider meaning than "soil." Terroir comprises micro-climatic conditions as well as other viti- and viniculture aspects such as the grape varieties permitted, the yield and many other considerations.  "Terroir" thus becomes a combination of natural elements and standards as imposed and regulated by INAO, the French regulatory authority.

Between 7 to 8 billion bottles of wines are produced annually in France.  There are 12 main regions and hundreds of sub-regions and areas.  There are over 100,000 vine growers but only about one-fifth of them produce and sell their own wines, the remaining four-fifth either deliver their grapes to the local co-operative or sell the wine they produced to negotiants (merchants).  Many of the grape varieties grown worldwide such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Carmenere, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah/Shiraz and others are of French origin.  The growing of vines and the production of wines is strictly regulated by INAO, the French regulatory authority.  The national regulation concerning the classification of wines was up-dated recently.  Four grades exist currently but from 2012 only three grades will remain, namely Table wines, Country wines and wines of controlled origin also called AOC and from 2012 AOP wines.
 
While these regulations apply nationally, French wines are essentially known for and identified by their regional character.  The vast numbers of different wines and the differences in quality among them, even within the same Appellation (area), have created the desire and need to grade wines regionally.  Some of the main growing areas have thus developed regional classification systems such as Alsace, Bordeaux, Bourgogne and Champagne.  The Medoc classification has existed since 1855 and is well established and known internationally, others are of more recent origin.  In other regions there may not exist a classification system yet there are always some estates, which over time, have acquired a reputation for excellence and are knwon to those well informed.  

Regions

Alsace - Bourgogne - Bourgogne Chablis - Champagne - Languedoc-Roussillon - Loire - Provence - Rhone - Sud-Ouest - Sud-Ouest Bergerac

Alsace back to list

The Alsace wine region is situated on the French side of the river Rhine and, as the Black Forest on the opposite site, is located in the so-called "Rhine rift valley". The vineyards are situated along a long and narrow strip on the slopes of the Vosges mountain range with the Rhine River on the others side.
 
The Rhine flows here in a north to south direction. Most vineyards are situated at heights between 150 and 450 meters and many have either southwest or southeast exposure. The vines are protected from cold winds and rain by the Vosges mountain range. Like its counterpart Baden on the other side of the Rhine River the climate is rather dry and warm and the soil composition is quite varied due to its position at a geological fault.
 
About 90 % of the wines produced are white and made mainly from Riesling-, Gewürztraminer-, Sylvaner- and Muscat grapes. Few red wines, mainly from Pinot Noir grapes, are produced. Vines are grown on about 15,000 hectares. The annual production amounts to about 150 million bottles. Most wines are dry but fruity and semi-sweet wines (in the German style) are also produced. Wines are traditionally bottled in "Rhine wine bottles" also called "Flutes d'Alsace."
 
Practically all Alsace wines fall under one of the three applicable AOC/AOP regulations as no "Vin de Pays" (Country wine) designation exists for the region. Given its Germanic history and influence the grape variety is stated prominently on the label rather than a regional, local or vineyard appellation as is standard in all other French regions. While other regions in France have a number of regional or local appellations "Alsace" is the only appellation for the region.


The three "appellations" for Alsace wines are:

  • Alsace AOC/AOP,
  • Alsace Grand Cru AOC/AOP
  • Cremant d'Alsace AOC/AOP

 
Wines made under the "Alsace Grand Cru" appellation must be made from Riesling, Muscat, Pinot Gris or Gewürztraminer and the vineyard name must be stated on the label.
 
The wines can be "Vendange tardive" (Late Harvest) or "Selection de Grain Nobles" (Noble rot) wines, which, in style, are similar to German Auslese and Beerenaulese wines.

Bourgogne back to list

Bourgogne produces only 3% of French wines but ranks itself "Primus inter pares" (1st among equals) when it comes to the quality of its wines especially so, of course, in regards to Bordeaux. It is in Burgundy that the trust in the authenticity of "terroir" is the most highly expressed. Of all appellations in France one-fifth of them are granted in Burgundy i.e. there are 100 appellations in Burgundy out of less than 500 for the whole of France. In Burgundy 29,000 hectares are planted with vines which accounts for 3,3% out of a total of about 880,000 hectares of vineyards France.
 
There are 33 Grands Crus-, 44 Villages-, and 23 Regional appellations. The 562 Premier Cru "climats" designations (out of 635) are part of the 44 Villages appellations; they are not appellation per se. Thus, instead of more than 600 appellations in Burgundy as some claim there are "only" 100, though still a lot for a fairly small area. Chablis and Beaujolais, two areas that produce wines which are quite different from typical Burgundy wines, are nonetheless part of the Burgundy region, even though they have their own appellations.
 
About 190 million bottles of wine are produced each year of which about 1,5% are Grands Crus (60% red and 40% white), about 10% are Premiers Crus (45% red and 55% white), about 37% are Villages appellation wines (26% red and 74% white) and about 52% are regional appellation wines (32% red, 51% white, 2% rose and 15% are sparkling wines). Maximum yields a hectare differ and depend upon the appellation; they are 35 hectolitres/hectare for Grands Crus and 90 hl/ha for sparkling wines. There exist about 4,000 domaines (estates), the average vineyard size of which is much smaller than in Bordeaux. The climate is "temperate oceanic with continental influences" meaning it is rather cold during the winter; spring is pleasant with some seasonal rain while the summer is rather hot. The soil is mostly composed of clay,  marl and limestone, which is naturally rich in organic matter, and as such, is well suited to produce high quality wines.
 
As with many regions of Europe vine growing in Burgundy started with the Romans. It existed already during the 1st century AD; however, the first written document in this regard dates from the year 312. It is during the High and Later Middle Ages (10th to 15th century) that wines from Burgundy acquired their reputation. Most of them were produced in monasteries. Wars were incessant during the period, only religious property was, at least to some extend, protected. And, it was only in monasteries that learning took place and the acquired knowledge was transferred to the next generation. Many of today's vineyards (climats) were developed during these times. They include such famous names as "Clos de Beze", "Clos de Tart", "Clos de Vougeot" and many others. The term "Clos" meaning "walled vineyard" was established at that time. It was the monks of the Cistercians order who first noticed that certain vineyards regularly produced higher quality wines. They eventually named these sites. In turn this created the belief, still prevailing today, in the authenticity of "terroir". Already in 1395 the Duc of Burgundy issued a regulation, which established strict guidelines as to the production of quality wines in Burgundy. Among others it stipulated that only Pinot Noir grapes were to be used for making red wines. The rule has been upheld ever since.
 
While the total area of Burgundy is not so large the region is rather long, stretching for over 250 km from Chablis in the north to the Maconnais in the south. Six sub-regions exist: Chablis, Cote de Nuits, Cote de Beaune, Cote Chalonnaise, Maconnais and Beaujolais. Only Pinot Noir and Gamay are permitted for the production of red wines (Gamay only for Beaujolais wines) and only Chardonnay and Aligote for white wines (Aligote only for Bourgogne Aligote, Vins Mousseux and Cremant de Bourgogne). For Grands Crus wines the mention "Grand Cru" and the name of the vineyard (climat) are stated on the label e.g. Grand Cru "Chambertin". For Premiers Crus wines the mention Premier Cru followed by the name of the Village and the name of the "climat" are stated e.g. Chablis Premier Cru "Fourchaume". In case the wine is a blend of several "climats" of the same village no vineyard name (climat) is stated. For villages appellations only the village name is stated e.g. "Pouilly Fuisse". In case of regional appellation wines one of the following six regional appellations may be stated depending upon the wine: Bourgogne, Bourgogne Grand-Ordinaire, Bourgogne Passe Tout Grains, Bourgogne Aligote, Bourgogne Mousseux or Cremant de Bourgogne. There exist also three more restrictive regional appellations: Cote de Nuits Villages, Cote de Beaune Villages and Macon.

 

Bourgogne Chablis back to list


Champagne back to list

The Champagne region is located in the northeast of France, about 150km from Paris and close to the northernmost parallel beyond which vine growing is not possible. The resulting cool climate produces grapes with a high degree of acidity, which, while not welcome for still wines, is ideal for producing high quality sparkling wines. Belemnite chalk and clay constitute the area's soil and are the reason for Champagne's unique qualities. Its composition allows for good drainage and permits the accumulation of heat during the day, releasing it during the night. The soil is said to be the reason for the lightness and finesse of Champagne. The word "Champagne" now stands for the world's most famous sparkling wine but it took some time before it became so. Comprising about 34,000 hectares the region was defined within the departments of Marne (about 67%), L'Aube (about 23%), L'Aisne (about 9%, Haute-Marne and Seine et Marne (about 1% for both) in 1927. The area comprises 319 villages; the cities of Reims and Epernay are the commercial centres. Given the fact that all the land permitted for the production of Champagne is now completely planted with vines and the increasing worldwide demand for Champagne, INAO (the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine) decided to extend the Champagne area (most probably to 357 villages) from 2015. Currently about 15,000 vine growers produce 90% of the grapes in the area. About 5,000 produce Champagne while the other 10,000 sell their grapes to the "Champagner houses". These (often very large) companies dominate the market, grow about 10% of all grapes and produce about two-thirds of all Champagne. In 2010 about 350 million bottles of Champagne were produced.

Vines were planted in the area since Roman times but the wines acquired their reputation only from the 9th century when French kings started to be crowned in Reims. Being the king's preferred wine (not yet Champagne) helped to establish the region as the leading wine of its times. Burgundy fiercely disputed this dominance and the dispute lasted for a long time. It ended only after growers in Champagne abandoned the production of still red wines in favour of a completely new type of wine, "Champagne", but that was much later. Dom Perignon, a Benedictine monk is credited with inventing Champagne. In fact, he was assigned to ensure that no fizz developed in the bottles of wines his monastery was producing because for a long time these bubbles were considered a default. But he developed the methods to produce and bottle sparkling wines. For, effervescence in wine is part of the wine making process since ever and had been noted already in Greek and Roman times. But why it happened was not understood until 1662 when the British scientist Christopher Merret proved that wine could be made to produce bubbles when sugar was added to start a second fermentation. That was six years before Dom Perignon started work at the Abbey de Hautvillers. The Champagne region though was perfectly suited to develop this "new wine". Winters set in very early interrupting the fermentation, which then restarted in spring when the temperature increased, creating what may be called a natural 2nd fermentation. The process came to be called "methode rurale". Initially all Champagne was made this way. The "methode champenoise" (a second fermentation after yeast and sugar was added to the wine in the bottle) was not used until the 19th century, almost 200 years after its discovery.

Champagne is the only appellation that does not have to state its AOC/AOP appellation on the label. Most Champagne are a blend of wines from two or three grape varieties, a blend of wines from different areas and a blend of different vintages. Most are non-vintage. Contrary to the idea of "terroir" in other regions the aim of "Champagne houses" is to maintain the continuity of taste and style for their brands rather than suffer variations due to the vintage or areas from where they procure the grapes. Three kinds of grape varieties produce practically all Champagne: the red varieties Pinot Noir (about 39%) and Pinot Meunier (about 32%) and the white variety Chardonnay (about 29%). Even though they are red grape varieties, Pinot Noir and Meunier are mostly made into white wines. They provide the structure and backbone while Chardonnay provides acidity and finesse. Four other grape varieties namely Arbanne, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris are permitted to be grown for historical reasons, but they have almost disappeared. Seventeen Grands Crus and 43 Premiers Crus exist but few Champagne bear these classifications. Single vineyard Champagne also exists, but are even rarer. Most Champagne is white but rose exist and so does vintage Champagne, made in good years. Vintage Champagne must be at least 3 years old before being sold; non-vintage Champagne must be aged for at least 18 months. The designation "Blanc de Blancs" stands for Champagne made from white grapes (Chardonnay), while "Blanc de Noirs" means white Champagne made from red grapes (Pinot and/or Meunier). Most Champagne are "Brut", with less than 12 grams of sugar/litre. Designations such as "Extra Brut" and "Brut Sauvage or Brut Naturel" mean a higher level of dryness, designations such as "Extra Dry", "Dry", "Demi Sec" or "Doux" indicate a higher degree of sweetness. Little known to most, some still wines, red, white or rose, the descendants of those who fought for primacy with the wines from Burgundy, are still produced as "Coteaux Champenois AOC/AOP".

Languedoc-Roussillon back to list

As the double name suggests Languedoc and Roussillon were originally two separate entities.  Both were combined into one administrative region in 1982. The areas are quite different, culturally and geographically. Languedoc is, by far, the larger part of the (double) region, its vineyards are mainly located along coastal plains and its culture has been French since 1228 when it became part of France. Roussillon was acquired by France in the seventeenth century from Spain and its Spanish and Catalan heritage is still evident today. Its vineyards are located in the valleys and foothills of the Pyrenees mountain range. The region stretches from Provence to the Spanish border. About 290.000 hectares are planted with vines. This makes it the biggest single wine-producing region in the world. It produces about 1/3 of all the wines made in France.   

As in Provence vines were first planted in Languedoc by the Ancient Greek, about 600 BC. Until the early 19th century Languedoc was known for the quality of its wines. That changed when, during the industrial revolution, large volumes of cheap wines where required to satisfy the needs of the masses and later when the phylloxera epidemic hit the region hard from the middle of the 19th century. To cater to the new market and revive its wine business Languedoc replanted its vineyards with highly productive grape varieties such as Alicante Bouchet, Aramon and Carignan which also had the advantage of resisting better the phylloxera louse. The era of the “gros-rouge” (cheap ordinary red wine) was born. This lasted until the years 1970 ~ 1980 when the market for these wines disappeared, slowly at first and then faster and faster. The change also created serious economic difficulties for the region and its people for, as today, the majority of the estates are small and family owned. The overproduction created what became known as the “European wine lake”. It took many years and heavy investments to resolve the situation. It also so prompted many of the growers to refocus once again on producing high quality wines, just as their ancestors did. While it took many years to change the economic situation, many more years were needed to re-build the image of the region as again, a producer of quality wines. Re-naming the region in 2012 Languedoc instead of Coteaux de Languedoc is meant to certify its new found identity. For too long the old name was associated with cheap, mass produced wines.

The climate is evidently “Mediterranean” and very similar to the southern Rhone and Provence. Summers are hot and dry with drought a danger in some years. Rain falls essentially during the winter. Since 2007 the complete non-irrigation rule was slightly relaxed and permits now limited irrigation in years of severe drought. Soil compositions vary, of course, but the majority of soils are composed of chalk, limestone and gravel and mainly alluvial soils nearer to the coast.

The region has 31 appellations and a large number of Vin de Pays (now called IGP Indication Geographique Protegee). Among the appellations the best known are Languedoc AOP,  (previously  Coteaux de Languedoc), Corbieres AOP, Faugeres AOP, Minervois AOP and Saint-Chinian AOP. Varietal wines, for long not permitted in France except for Alsace wines, have become very popular for Languedoc wines. Most of them are sold under the IGP denomination but some AOP varietal wines are also made. Today about 2.100.000.000 bottles are produced annually, that is down by almost 50 % from the average of about 3.900.000.000 bottles of mass produced, gros-rouge wines. Many grape varieties are grown in the region. Among the red wine varieties the major ones are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah, Carignan, Cinsault and Picpoul noir. White wines are mostly made from Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Chenin Blanc, Mauzac, Muscat Blanc a Petit Grains, Muscat of Alexandria, Roussanne, Marsanne, Bourboulence, Grenache Blanc and Clairette Blanche.

The region is also well known to produce Vin Doux Naturels (white) wines. These are naturally sweet wines to which brandy is added. This stops the fermentation leaving the residual sugar in the wine. The wines have an alcohol level of 16 ~17 %. Cremant de Limoux is another speciality of the region. This sparkling wine is made using the traditional method (methode champenoise). Cremant de Limoux sparkling wines must be aged for at least 12 month on the lees (yeast) before being released.

Loire back to list

Although the Loire Valley is France’s second or third largest wine producing area with about 75,000 hectares planted with vines, the large wine region is not well-known under its regional name. The reason is that the long, slow moving river flows through many geologically and climatically diverse areas the wines of which are often very different from each other. This lack of a unifying “terroir” and climate makes it difficult to promote the region as a whole. It results that many Loire wines are better-known by their appellation and historical area names than their regional name. And yet, the Loire Valley is not only very important for the French wine industry (about four million liters of wine are produced) but also has a long and illustrious history. In the High Middle Ages, the Loire wines were more liked in France and England than Bordeaux wines.  Most Loire Valley wines are produced and bottled by small, family owned estates, however in some larger areas such as Sancerre and Muscadet many wines are produced by co- operatives or merchants.

With a length of 1,012 km the Loire is France’s longest river. The valley is often called “The Garden of France”. It is said that more than 1,000 chateaux have been built in the valley. While they were feudal strongholds in medieval times and aristocratic summer residences in later centuries many of them are now privately owned. The Loire River rises in the Cevennes Mountain in the south-central Rhone-Alpes region of France. It flows north and later west into the Atlantic Ocean. It was the main trading and cultural exchange route with the Mediterranean coast when the coast was colonized by the Greek (600 BC) and later the Romans (150 BC). Vine growing in the valley was started by the Romans during the first century AD.  

The Loire Valley is made up of three sections, the Upper Loire (mainly Sauvignon Blanc), the Middle Loire (mainly Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc) and the Lower Loire (mainly Muscadet and Chardonnay) and several sub regions Anjou, Chinon, Muscadet, Pouilly Fume, Sancerre, Saumur, Vouvray and 87 appellations. After the Champagne the Loire is France’s second largest sparkling wine producing area, which is called “Cremant de Loire”. The majority of the Loire wines are dry white wines from Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Melon de Bourgogne (Muscadet) grapes. Red wines from Cabernet Franc grapes are also produced and so are rose and sweet white wines. The Loire River is located on the borderline where vine growing is possible. As such the vintage influences the quality of the wine more than in southern areas. For these reasons Loire wines are rarely barrel aged; malolactic fermentation is also rare. The climate in most areas is continental which means marked seasonal differences i.e. cold winters and warm to hot summers and with frost and hail a hazard during the spring.

While the Loire wines further to the south (Cotes d’Auvergne, Cotes Roanaisses and others) are part of the large Upper Loire region for most the region starts with Pouilly-Fume and Sancerre wines. Sauvignon Blanc is the major variety planted. Small quantities of Pinot Noir (the area once belonged to Burgundy) and Chasselas are also grown. The limestone and flint soil around the towns of Pouilly-sur-Loire, (where the Pouilly-Fume is produced), Sancerre and Valencay is said to be the reason for the smoky gunflint note of the area’s Sauvignon Blanc wines which also display the gooseberry and grapefruit flavours so typical of the grape variety. Pouilly-Fume wines are said to be the richer, more perfumed wines of the area. Wines named Pouilly or Pouilly-sur-Loire are often made from Chasselas and not the Cabernet Sauvignon. Contrary to the all-white wines from Pouilly-sur-Loire Sancerre produces white-, red- and rose wines yet the large majority are Sauvignon Blanc (white) wines. Sancerre Sauvignon blanc wines are said to be racier, more concentrated and fuller bodied than other wines from the region.  

The Touraine region starts the Middle Loire section from Cheverny to Haut-Poitou. Two sub-areas exist, the one around Montlouis, Vouvray and Touraine and the other around Chinon and Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, all well-known to Loire wine lovers. A large diversity of different white-, red and rose wines are made in the Montlouis, Vouvray and Touraine area. The majority of white wines are Chenin Blanc and most red wines are Cabernet Franc but Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Gamay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Pinot d’Aunis and Pinot Noir are also grown. The white wines are produced in a large variety of styles from bone dry to very sweet noble rot wines. The soil in the area is mostly tuffeau (a limestone variety) which provide a good drainage. Mostly red wines from Cabernet Franc are grown here. Chinon red wines are known for their soft and fruity style. While the Cabernet Franc wines from Bourgueil are firm, tannic, spicy and of a deep red colour the majority of red wines from the area are lightly colored reds and are best served fresh (not cold). Most of these wines are made from Gamay grapes,   

The Saumur-Anjou region is another part of the Middle Loire section. Saumur is the 3rd largest sparkling wine producing area in France (after Champagne and Alsace). To produce it the Chenin Blanc grape variety is used instead of the traditional three Champagne varieties. Red wines from Cabernet Franc are also produced and which is similar in style to the Touraine region Bourgueil wines. The Anjou region is mainly known for the fruity and soft Rose d’Anjou wines and the red Cabernet d Anjou although white wines under the name Anjou Blanc are also made. The Chenin Blanc variety has been planted in the area since the year 845, then named Pineau de la Loire.

The Pays Nantais region which starts right after Anjou and ends on the Atlantic Coast makes up the Lower Loire section. The climate and geological conditions are quite different from the Middle and Upper Loire. The proximity of the Atlantic Ocean influences the climate. Winters are mild and summers are humid and warm, rarely hot, and rainy. Yet occasionally harsh winters exist. Most of the top soil in the Lower Loire is made up of clay, gravel and sand while the sub-soils consist of  schist, granite, volcanic rock or gneiss. All these soil types drain well, which is important to produce good quality wines. Here mainly the Melon de Bourgogne white wine grape variety is grown to produce the Muscadet for which the area is famous. The hardy and early ripening variety was introduced to the area in the 17th century. The neutral flavour, bone dry Muscadet has become “the wine” to accompany seafood, oysters and the like. Four appellations exist, the most well-known of which is the Muscadet Sevre & Maine s/Lie meaning that the wine, before bottling, was kept for a long time on the yeast cells (sur Lie) which ensures a creamier taste and fuller body mouthfeel with more texture. A peculiarity is that, by law, the wine must not exceed 12% of alcohol.

Provence back to list

Wines have been produced in Provence for over 2.600 years. The Romans gave the name to the area at about 150 BC when they occupied it, after taking over from the Greek who previously (from about 600 BC) had ruled the region and created the city of Massalia (Marseille). The area was the Romans first colony outside Italy so they called it “Our Province”. When the Romans took charge the wines from Provence were already highly esteemed around the Mediterranean region. They became an important export commodity for the Roman Empire.

The climate in the region is perfectly Mediterranean i.e. mild winters with warm to hot summers and with little rain; few vineyards are located more than about 50 km from the sea. The region receives twice the sunshine necessary to ripen the grapes but is also exposed to the famous mistral winds which can be violent a times. The soil conditions in Provence are quite varied, the main ones are limestone, shale, schist, quartz, clay and sandstone. About 170 million bottles of wine, of which about 2/3 are rose, are produced annually in Provence, grown on about 27.000 hectares. Mourvedre is the main red wine grape variety, the others are Cinsault, Grenache, Syrah and Tibouren. Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah have become more important while the plantings of Carignan have decreased. White wines are produced mainly from Bourboulenc, Clairette, Grenache blanc, Marsanne and Vigonier and to a much lesser extend from Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, Semillon, Rolle and Ugni blanc. The hot, dry summers generally provide ideal harvest conditions while the strong and cool mistral winds make it difficult for vine diseases to develop, ensuring very healthy grapes throughout most years.  

Provence has 12 appellations namely: Baux de Provence, Bellet, Cassis, Coteaux d’Aix-en- Provence, Coteaux Varois-en-Provence, Cotes de Provence, Cotes de Provence Frejus, Cotes de Provence La Londe, Cotes de Provence Pierrefeu, Cotes de Provence Sainte Victoire, Palette and Bandol. Provence has also classified a number of estates granting them the status of “Crus Classes”. The ranking is based on an evaluation of the estate’s history and reputation as well as the wines and vineyard’s quality. This is similar to Bordeaux but unlike in others regions of France where the “terroir” is classified, not an estate.

Cotes de Provence AOP
is the largest area in the Provence region comprising 85 villages. The area produces about 75 % of all regional wines, about 80 % is rose wine, about 15 % is red wine and about 5 % is white wine. While many estates continue to produce wines in the traditional ways there are now many younger generation wine-makers who experiment with new methods such  as temperature controlled fermentation and other ways to improve the qualities of their wines. 

Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence AOP
is the 2nd largest area comprised of 50 villages. Here the majority of the wines produced are red (about 2/3), followed by rose (about 30 %) and whites (about 5 %). The share of wines containing Cabernet Sauvignon has increased in recent years but remains small, in any case the variety must not surpass 20 % of the blend in any wine. The area of Baux-de-Provence which is part of the larger area was granted AOP status in 1995. The wines of this small place are known for the very hot climate in which they grow, the valley is called the “Valley of Hell”.

The wines of Bandol and Cassis AOP are recognized as standing out from the vast majority of Provence wines. The Bandol area is located on the coast not far from the city of Toulon. The prevailing soil is made up of silica sand and limestone. The soil and warm climate on the coast provide ideal conditions for the late ripening Mouvedre grape variety to produce excellent wines. Bandol is the only area in France where the Mourvedre variety is the dominant one. At least 50 % of the grape variety must be part of the blend in red and rose Bandol AOP wines. However,  most are made with a much higher degree of it. Red wines (which make up almost 3/4 of the area’s production) must be aged for at least 18 months in oak. The better ones need often to be aged for much longer (8 years or more) to attain their prime. Rose wines from the area are said to have more structure and are fuller bodied than those from other areas. Mechanical harvesting is not permitted under the AOP rules. Given the soil conditions the yields in the area are very low, in fact often among the lowest in France. The wines from Cassis (which is located close to Marseilles) stand out for another reason. Over 3/4 of its wines are white. Here the prevalent soil is limestone which enables the production of high quality dry white wines. Cassis white wines are full bodied yet with a low acidity and are, as a result, well suited to the local seafood based cuisine. Being so much appreciated locally few of the wines are sold outside the area.

The Coteaux Varois is the 3rd largest area in the Provence region and is located between the largest area (Cotes de Provence) and the 2nd largest area (Coteaux-d’Aix-en-Provence). The area is sheltered by the Sainte-Baume mountain ridge (height about 1100 meters) which tempers the climate resulting in cooler growing conditions and a longer growing season in some parts of the area. The normal harvesting season for Provence wines is early September but in some cooler areas the grapes are often harvested much later, sometimes as late as November. The area passed from the Vin de Pays status to the VDQS status and finally was granted the AOP status in 1993. About 2/3 of the wines are rose, about 1/3 are red, very few white wines are produced. All the main Provence red wine grape varieties are grown in the area.

Rhone back to list

At an altitude of about 2,100 meters the Rhone Glacier in the Swiss Alps is the birthplace of the Rhone River. From there it flows into the Lake Geneva before entering France. The word “Rhone” derives from the Latin word “Rhodanos” which itself derives from an ancient Greek word and which in turn is a phonetic rendering of the Celtic word for “Great River”. The river was the main trade and cultural route for Greeks (from about 800 BC) and Romans (from about 150 BC) connecting the Mediterranean Sea with the interior of Gaul (France) and eastern parts of Europe. After 290 km in Switzerland and 522 km in France it flows into the Mediterranean Sea in the Carmargue delta and divides into the “Grand Rhone” and the “Petit Rhone”.

The vine growing tradition in the area dates back to about 600 BC when the Greek colonized the valley of the Rhone and other areas along the Mediterranean coast where they founded the city of Marseille (called Massalia) and introduced vine-growing and wine-making techniques. Around 150 BC the Romans replaced the Greeks as rulers of the regions. For both the wines grown in the region were very important and were exported to many regions under their control. However, after the Romans left (about 400~500 AD) interest in the wines of the region declined considerably. That changed again in the 13th century when the Pope moved to Avignon and which resulted in a vastly expanded production. The name of “Cotes du Rhone” was given to the area in the 16th century for purely administrative reasons with the casks containing the wines required to be marked CDR. While the size of the administrative region named Cotes du Rhone has expanded over time to incorporate neighbouring areas the name has remained the same.

The Rhone region which stretches for a total length of 200 km starts at Saint-Cyr-sur-Rhone in the north and ends in Avignon in the south. It is divided into two sub-regions. Both are  conveniently separated by a 40 km wide stretch of land between the towns of Valance and Montelimar where no vines are grown. The regions produce very different wines.

  1. The climate in the northern part (Cotes du Rhone septentrional) from Vienne to Valence is Continental i.e. with cold winters and warm summers often cooled by the Mistral winds. The vines grow on steep granite slopes and have to be harvested manually. Here the Syrah is the only grape variety permitted for red wines. Blending of white and red wines is permitted (except for Cornas wines) but is not often practiced. Red wines from the northern Rhone are full bodied, made for ageing and can last for a very long time. Famous white wines are made from the Viognier or Marsanne or Roussane grape varieties with the most famous one coming from Condrieu.
  2. The climate of the southern part (Cotes du Rhone meridional) from Montelimar to Avignon is Mediterranean i.e. with gentle, sunny winters and sunny, hot and often dry summers. While the soil conditions in the northern part are essentially identical they vary  considerably in the southern part where sandstone, limestone, alluvia, loess and quartzite shingle are the dominant soil types among others. A special feature of the region is the prevalence of large pebbles around the bases of the vines which collect the heat during the day and dispense warmth during the night. Compared to the few grape varieties grown in the northern part many different varieties are planted in the south i.e. up to 18 varieties are permitted to produce the famous Chateauneuf- du-Pape wine .For red wines the main ones are Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah, Carignan and Cinsault. Red wines from the southern Rhone vary considerably in quality and style. Most are medium to full bodied wines with a fruity touch and are meant to be drunk within about 5 years, except, of course, for the “Grands Crus” (not so named) from Chateauneuf-du-Pape and other denominations which are full bodied and will last and improve over many years. For white wines the main grape varieties are Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Bourboulenc.


While there are considerable differences in the qualities of the wines produced in the region  there exist no “Grand Cru”, “Cru Classee” or other classification (like in Bordeaux or Burgundy). Only the official French AOP (Appelation d'Origine Protégés) classifications apply as they do    to all French wines. Each Appellation defines the respective vine growing conditions such as the grape varieties permitted, the max. yield a hectare, the wine making techniques and many other stipulations. For Rhone Valley wines the following conditions apply:

  • Cru: There are 16 appellations which only state the name of the cru on the label and not the mention “Cotes du Rhone”. Cru wines are the most famous wines of the region. They are: Beaumes de Venise, Château-Grillet, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Condrieu, Cornas, Côte-Rôtie, Crozes –Hermitage, Gigondas, Hermitage, Lirac, Rasteau, Saint Joseph, Saint Péray, Tavel, Vacqueyras and Vinsobres. Sometimes individual vineyards are stated on the label but this does imply a higher ranking. Such a ranking, however, shows in different market prices. 
  • Cotes du Rhone-Villages (with the village name): Wines from 18 villages are part of this group i.e. Cairanne, Chusclan, Gadagne, Laudun, Massif d'Uchaux, Plan de Dieu, Puyméras, Roaix, Rochegude, Rousset-les-Vignes, Sablet, Saint Gervais, Saint Maurice, Saint-Pantaléon-les-Vignes, Séguret, Signargues, Valréas and Visan.
  • Cotes du Rhone-Villages (without the village name): This group consists of 95 villages.
  • Cotes-du Rhone: All wines of the region may use this (the lowest) classification including the ones with a higher classification. However, for some villages this is the only appellation they are allowed to use. 


With about 450 million bottles produced annually the Rhone Valley is the 2nd largest wine producing region in France. Vines are grown on about 70.000 hectares (170.000 acres) by about 8,000 to 10,000 vintners. The dominant grape varieties for red wines are Grenache (about 55 %), Syrah (about 15 %), Carignan (about 15 %) and Mourvedre (about 5 %), for white wines they are Clairette (about 35 %), Grenache blanc (about 20 %) and Ugni blanc (about 20 %). About 77 % are red wines, 8 % are rose wines and about 5 % are dry white wines. Sweet white wines are also produced. About 15 % of the French wines are wines from the Rhone Valley.

 

 

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Although the region is comprised of many well-known historical wine producing areas it is not well-known by its name. That is so because this, rather large region, situated inland and south of Bordeaux and which continues until it reaches the Pyrenees mountains, is made up of a number of heterogeneous appellation “islands”. Rather than being marketed under their regional name the wines are sold named after their area’s appellation. While the region is large only about 16.000 hectares are planted with vines. Vine growing dates back to Roman times and was established here long before the people of Bordeaux even thought about it. When Bordeaux eventually started to produce wines its growers and traders did everything in their power to block the trade of these “High Country” wines (as the region was then known) in the port city of Bordeaux through which the wines had to be shipped before reaching their established markets.

Classical Bordeaux style wines are produced in most parts of the region, in fact a number of the world’s greatest grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc are said to have originated in the south-west region. Further to the south a diverse range of native varieties are grown making the region a treasure-house of (now) rare varieties which produce authentic and characterful wines. Many of them date from the time when the Romans started growing vines on the lush hills of this beautiful and diverse region.

The region comprises 22 appellations and a number of Vin de Pays designations. In most areas a “maritime climate” prevails (as in the Bordeaux region) with warm (but not hot) summers and cool (but not cold) winters and with rain evenly dispersed throughout the year. In more inland areas a “continental climate” with drier and hotter summers and colder winters prevails. Soil conditions vary with clay, sand and gravel in most areas and more stony soils on the foothills of the Pyrenees mountain range.

About 30 different grape varieties are grown in the region. Many are classic Bordeaux varieties. In other areas authentic and distinctive wines are made from historical varieties such as Fer Servadou, Len de l’EI, Duras, Tannat, Negrette, Gros- and Petit Manseng and Abouriou.   

Bergerac and Cahors are the best known areas within this region. Bergerac is located close to Bordeaux. The area comprises about 10.000 hectares planted with vines and consists of 13 appellations. Like Bordeaux it is situated in the Aquitaine region and was, until the 20th century, part of the greater Bordeaux (wine) area. However, that was changed for political and economic reasons and meant that the area had to establish a new identity in the market. The majority of the wines produced are red Merlot wines made in the traditional Bordeaux style while white wines are mostly made from the Semillon variety. Monbazillac, a sweet white wine affected by the “noble rot” is the most famous wine of the area and which competes with similar wines from Sauternes. The wine is made from Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle grape varieties. Since 1993 only manual harvesting in several tries (picking only fully ripe and botrytized grapes) is permitted. The appellation consists of about 2.000 hectares.   

Vines have been grown by the Romans in the Cahors area since the year 50 BC. The area consists of about 4.200 hectares planted mainly with Malbec (locally known as Cot or Auxerois) and which must make up at least 70 % of the wines, as well as the Merlot and Tannat varieties. Cahors’ “black wines” so named because of their dark red colour have been famous for centuries. In fact though there exist two styles of Cahor wines: The famous “black” wines made from grapes mostly grown on limestone plateau soils which are (very) tannic when young and need to be aged for 5 ~ 10 years and the rounder, fruitier and more approachable wines grown on gravelly slope soils. Vintners have thus a choice, some make their wines entirely from Malbec grapes, others add a large percentage (max. 30 %) of the tannic Tannat grape variety while others are happier with a blend of Malbec and Merlot or a blend of all 3 varieties (but 70 % of the wine must be from Malbec grapes). Cahors AOP wines can only be made from these 3 grape varieties. Cahors is the only region in France where the Malbec variety is dominant. The grape is thin-skinned and needs more sun and heat to mature than e.g. Cabernet Sauvignon. The Cahor area, being situated more inland and to the south, provides excellent climatic conditions with high summer temperatures and a long ripening season which permits the production of rich, concentrated wines. The now famous “Argentinean” Malbec variety which produces fruitier wines with a velvety texture is derived from a different clone with smaller berries and tighter, smaller clusters than the historical clones now existing in France.

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