France is known worldwide for its superior wines, which are categorized by various regions. Each area has a distinct climate, growing conditions, and soil that make its wines unique, plus each wine has strict guidelines and standards it must meet in order to be classified as being from a particular region. Here are the ones you need to know about — and visit when you get the chance.
The region of Bordeaux produces some of the most celebrated wine in France. Located in the southwest of France, the region is centered in the city of Bordeaux, but the vineyards are in the broader area called the Gironde department, which is bordered by the Garonne River and Dordogne River. Covering over 300,000 acres, it’s the largest wine-producing area in France. The region is further broken down into four specific sub-regions: Saint Emilion, Pomerol, Medoc, and Graves.
Although the region produces over 700 million barrels annually — and prodigious amounts of table wine — Bordeaux also puts out some of the most expensive and finest vintages in the world.
One of the most important factors that contributes to the quality of the wine is the limestone found in the soil that produces calcium and the irrigation the vineyards receive from the Garonne and Dordogne Rivers.
The rich red Bordeaux wines are made with a variety of grapes including cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, malbec, and petite verdot, which contribute to the over 400 kinds of wines that are made.
White wines from Bordeaux are primarily blended with 80 percent Semillon grapes, which are thin-skinned and golden in color, and 20 percent sauvignon blanc, a green grape, which derives its name from wild white.
Some of the top wines from Bordeaux include Chateau Lafitte, Chateau Haut-Brion, Chateau Latour, and Chateau Margaux, which fetch some of the highest prices in the world.
If you don’t want to splurge for a $58,000 bottle of Chateau Lafitte, more affordable Bordeaux wines that are imported to the U. S., which are recommended by wine experts and are under $50 a bottle, include Chateau la Pirouette-Cru Bourgeois, Chateau Saint-Sulpice Bordeaux 2018, Clarendale Bordeaux 2015, and Chateau Ducasse Bordeaux Blanc 2019.
The most famous French wine in the world, Champagne is in a class by itself. The eponymous label that’s been the gold standard of sparkling wine has existed since the Middle Ages. A monk named Dom Perignon, was the father of what we now call Champagne (and the famous Champagne house), and in 1668, he started to invent new ways of fermenting wine to produce bubbles.
Located in northeastern France, just 45 minutes by train from Paris and two-hours by car, the Champagne region is easily accessible for a day or overnight trip. The region includes five main sub-villages where the vineyards are located: Aube, Cote des Blancs, Cote de Sezanne, Montagne de Reims, and Vallee de la Marne. The two main cities are Reims and Epernay.
There are strict universal laws regarding the labeling of Champagne, which must come from the borders of the specified region. The alternative sparkling wine in France is Cremant, which usually costs 30 to 50 percent less than Champagne.
Besides the making of the wine, Champagne has historical significance in France, and it’s a UNESCO Heritage site. The Reims Cathedral from the 13th century is one of the finest examples of gothic architecture, and Joan of Arc traveled through the area on one of her pilgrimages.
Champagne at the major brands is stored in deep, vast caves that are temperature controlled and hold hundreds of thousands of bottles at one time. Each brand has a particular method followed to the letter in how long they store the Champagne for, and the bottles are turned at set times.
Moet and Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Ruinart, Pommery, and Mumm are top brands of Champagne, and all of them are open to the public for tours and tastings. Epernay and Reims are where the headquarters of these Champagne houses are located.
Rose wines have had a tremendous resurgence in recent years. Gone is their reputation of being an overly sweet, cheap wine sold in supermarkets and the new rose wines coming out of France are sophisticated and dry with just enough fruitiness. The strong demand for rose has now made it more popular than white wine, and the prices are more reasonable with most bottles priced at under $20.
The Provence region in the south of France specializes in making some of the best rose in France. Since Provence has a Mediterranean climate and rich soil, it is ideal for growing the grapes. The color of Provence rose wine ranges from a pale blush, which is drier, to a rosy pink, which is fruitier in flavor. A wide range of grapes is used in rose, including pinot noir, syrah, grenache, and zinfandel varieties. Sparkling rose is made with a combination of red and white grapes.
Rose has a low alcohol content, so it’s easy to drink and is most popular in late spring and summer. It should be served well chilled.
Reputable Provence rose brands are Miraval, Chateau des Bertrands, Chateau Vannieres, Chateau Vignelaure, Maison Saint Aix, and Hecht and Bannier.
The Loire Valley, 125 miles south of Paris, is best known for the hundreds of massive stone chateaux built for the royalty and aristocracy of France from the 1400s to the 1700s. Winemaking has also had a long history in the region, beginning in the first century, and in the late Middle Ages, the finest wines in France came from the Loire.
About two-thirds the size of the Bordeaux wine region, the Loire has 185,000 acres with an extensive terrain for growing grapes. With its cooler climate and vulnerable weather patterns, the vintages can vary dramatically from harvest to harvest.
The vineyards are located in three areas: the Upper Loire, which produces mostly Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume wines; the Middle Loire, which focuses on the chenin blanc and cabernet franc varieties; and the Lower Loire, which is close to the Atlantic Ocean.
Included in these three categories are the separate towns such as Sancerre and Pouilly-sur-Loire, which produce the popular varieties of crisp white wine; the Anjou-Saumur, which turns out white and rose wines and the inexpensive, cremant sparkling wine; Vouvray and Touraine, which are known for red wines, especially Gamay; Chinon, which produces an excellent cabernet; and Muscadet, which is near the city of Nantes and produces white wine made with Melon de Bourgogne grapes.
Loire wines are generally known for their high acidity, which accounts for a crisp, fresh flavor.
Burgundy in eastern France has a hilly terrain and is close to the Saone River. It’s best known for red wine made with pinot noir grapes and white wine made from chardonnay grapes. Chablis and Beaujolais wines also come from Burgundy.
Wine production in Burgundy is traced back to the second century, and monks and monasteries were the earliest winemakers here.
Similar to Bordeaux, Burgundy yields some of the best and most expensive wines in France. The region is known for its highly regarded Gran Cru wine, which only makes up 2 percent of the wine production of Burgundy and is usually aged a minimum of five to seven years. The next status in terms of quality is Premiere Cru, which is aged three to five years.
The five villages of Burgundy each have a specialty: Chablis is known for Chablis; Cote de Nuits for Pinot Noir, Maconnais (where Macon wine comes from) is known for its superior chardonnay; Cote Chalonnaise, for Pinot Noir and cremant sparkling wine; and Cote de Beaune, best known for Chardonnay.
The Alsace region in eastern France borders Germany, and in World War II it was occupied and considered part of Germany. Alsace is the least known wine region and is sometimes overlooked, but nonetheless, it excels in white wine, especially Riesling. Most of what Alsace produces is sweet and dessert white wines and cater more to the German palate, which is different from the French. Surrounded by the Vosges mountain range and the Rhine River, the grapes are planted in narrow rows on the lower slopes of the mountains. The flavor of the wines tends to be fruity and floral and the grape varieties include Muscat, Riesling, pinot gris, pinot noir, and auxerrois blanc.
Top Alsace wines include Willm Cremant d’Alsace Prestige Cremant (sparkling wine), Maison Zeyssolff Reserve Riesling, Leon Beyer Alsace Grand Cru Pfersigberg Riesling, Mure Domaine de Clos St-Landelin Grand Cru Vorbourg, and Zind-Humbrecht Gewurztraminer Alsace Grand Cru Goldert.
Domaine Ballot-Millot, Domaine Chandon de Briailles, Jean- Philippe Fichet, and Benjamin Leroux are some of the top-rated wine companies that produce reasonably priced bottles that are sold in the U.S.
For more on vineyards, wineries, and wine regions, see our roundup of best international wine regions according to a wine lover, plus all of our wine content here.