The Beginner's Guide to Drinking French Wine

| © Maja Petric/Unsplash
Anya Schukin

There is a certain mystique surrounding French wine. Long regarded (by the French) as the best in the world, it can also feel somewhat inaccessible, the wines obscure and the labelling opaque. But fear not! We’ve broken it down, from regions to labels, terroir to taste. So if you’re a beginner, a buyer, or just want to impress your friends, we give you the short and sweet guide to drinking French wine!

Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée/Protégée

French wine is subject to one of the strictest quality control systems in the world. The highest quality classification is Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée or Protégée, which is government-regulated and indicates that the wine was created under strict conditions (using specific grapes, in a designated area, and adhering to traditional methods). This designation is awarded rarely, and generally indicates a top quality product. AOC/AOP labels are applied to a variety of food items, including cheeses; for wine this is marked directly on the label and includes a bright green tag on top of the cork.

© Roland Tanglao/Flickr

Common wines and wine producing regions

Bordeaux

This is one of the largest wine-producing regions in the country, (home to 10,000 producers!) and the wines here are typically medium-bodied and fruity reds. A cheap Bordeaux is often a solid bet, but more upscale bottles can cost several thousand euros!

Look out for: Médoc, Pauillac, Saint Émilion, Pomerol

Burgundy (Bourgogne)

Expensive and highly-prized, a good bottle of Burgundy is tricky to find but often subtle, complex and extremely rewarding. Wines here are usually soft, earthy and medium-bodied. These wines age well, and some can be kept for 20 or 30 years.

Look out for: Cote d’Or, Beaujolais (drink it young), Chablis

Loire Valley

Spanning over 1000 kilometers along the river Loire, this is one of the most diverse wine-growing regions in France (most vineyards here are family-owned) and is home to 87 appellations. The Loire is famous for producing every kind of wine, but its fresh and airy whites are particularly special. It’s also the second-greatest sparkling wine producer behind Champagne!

Look out for: Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, Chenin Blanc, Chinon

Rhône

Located in south-eastern France, this region is known for robust and spicy reds. You can often pick up a delicious bottle of Rhône for a song.

Look out for: Côtes du Rhône, Hermitage, Côte Rotie, Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Alsace

This northerly borderland is very famous of its white wines, which are a mix of French and German grapes (reflecting the region’s Franco-German heritage). Wines produced here tend to be drier, crispier and more mineral than their German cousins, which are known for their rich sweetness.

Look out for: Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Muscat

Languedoc-Roussillon

This warm region sits on the Mediterranean coast, and produces full-bodied, fruity reds and rosés.

Look out for: Corbières, Limoux (France’s oldest sparkling wine)

Provence

This sun-drenched, lavender-cloaked land is famous for its refreshing rosés.

Look out for: Côtes de Provence, Côteaux d’Aix

Champagne

World-renowned for its sparkling wines, which date back as early as the 12th century. The double-fermentation method can be attributed to the region’s northerly climate: the first fermentation would be halted by cold winter temperatures, but the thaw of spring would galvanize a second fermentation and a subsequent release of carbon dioxide… hence the bubbles! Today’s process, however, is a little different.

Only wines made in the Champagne region can be labeled champagne, making the name synonymous with quality but also priciness. Sparkling wines produced elsewhere are called crémant, and are often delicious and substantially cheaper.

Terroir

The terroir refers to the wine’s place of origin (each with its unique climate, topography, soil, altitude, and local traditions), that gives each wine its distinct character. As a country France is carved out into regions (such as the Loire), which are then broken down into smaller sub-regions (such as Sancerre), which are dotted by villages, which in turn are home to chateaux or wine estates. Generally, the smaller and more specific the terroir on the label, the better the wine.

Les Vignes

Cru: Premier Cru, Grand Cru, Grand Vin and Réserve

French wine labels will also indicate cru, meaning growth—this refers to the vineyard, estate or village where the wine was produced. The line between terroir and cru can feel a bit blurry, but here’s a good way of thinking about it: terroir is where a wine is grown, cru is how a wine is handled (nature vs. nurture). Estates that consistently craft quality wine have a higher cru designation,so there’s some useful information to be gleaned here.

Grand Cru: this vineyard has been designated the highest quality vineyard in the region.

Premier Cru: less prestigious than Grand Cru, but still considered a top vineyard in the area.

Grand Vin: what the winery considers their best wine.

Réserve: this term is unregulated, so don’t let it fool you into thinking it means quality!

© michael clarke stuff / © jean-louis Zimmermann / © Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux / Flickr

Mis en Bouteille

This refers to where the wine was bottled, which also tells you were they got the grapes.

Mis en Bouteille au Château / à la propriété / au domaine—the wine is made from the grapes specific to the vineyard, property or local terroir.

By contrast, négociants (wine merchants) will source grapes and wine from a variety of locations across the region, and bottle them elsewhere. Again the rule of thumb with French wine is: the more specific the location, the better the quality.

For those who want to go a little deeper, here is an excellent vintage chart for French wine.

French Wine

Score great deals at the wine salons

Paris hosts numerous wine fairs, including the Salon Nature et Vins, La Revue du Vin de France, and le Grand Tasting. For the simple cost of entry, visitors gain access to wine tasting events, have direct access to the producers (and their wisdom), and are able to purchase delicious regional wines directly and at a low cost. It’s also an extremely fun way of spending a day (take it from us—three hours is not enough)!

Trust your taste

Recent studies suggest that even wine connoisseurs don’t know what they’re talking about. Academics, critics, judges, journalists, sommeliers and other “experts” are all beholden to their own personal sense of taste. These sages can only guide you so far—when it comes to what you should drink, follow your own senses. Try a lot of different things and don’t worry too much about the details, just drink what you enjoy! After all… it’s all grape juice in the end!

Wine Tasting

Finally, remember this: the classifications explained above are not quality guarantees, but instead indications of potential. The finest of wines can be made in the humblest of cellars.

landscape with balloons floating in the air

KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?

Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.

Winter Sale Offers on Our Trips

Incredible Savings

X
Edit article