Despite a labeling system that is often confusing to many outside of France, French wine still gives the greatest pleasure of any wine producing region. The style of French wine echoes that of the French themselves—elegant, well-dressed, showing an appreciation for the good things of life but never to excess. French wines go best with food, never overpowering either in flavor or in alcohol, always well-mannered, often beautiful.
The fact that, today, the quality of even the least expensive French wine has improved impressively, means that there is a whole new range of wines open to wine drinkers.
All these qualities make it worthwhile to spend some time to get to know French wine and to appreciate its many facets. The country produces all styles of wine, from the cool wines of the Loire Valley, the stylish whites of Alsace, through the classics of Bordeaux and Burgundy, to the more powerful, muscular offerings of the Rhone, to the warm wines of Languedoc and Roussillon, suffused with sun. And unique in their northern fastnesses are the great Champagnes.
In a world of international brands, where origin doesn’t matter, France offers an alternative ethos. There is much talk of terroir, of the place and the culture from which a wine comes. It makes every wine different, makes many of them special. There is no homogeneity here.
France is an ordered country, and despite the seeming chaos of French wine, there is order in the system. Wines come from places, and these places are designated appellations. An appellation—appellation controlee on a wine label—is not a guarantee of quality. It is a guarantee of origin, and a guarantee that the wine has been made following certain rules specifying grape varieties, soil, planting, yields, and winemaking. The wine has also passed a sensory test which approves its style and its typicity for the appellation.
There are nearly 280 appellations in France, ranging from the huge—Bordeaux appellation, or Champagne—to the tiny, single-vineyard appellations of Coulée de Serrant in the Loire and Romanée-Conti in Burgundy. There are regional appellations, there are district appellations, and there are appellations which cover only one commune.
A good example of this hierarchy is in Burgundy. The main appellation of the region is plain and simple: red and white, Bourgogne Rouge or Bourgogne Blanc. Climbing up the hierarchy are district appellations such as Chablis, for white wines, Mâcon for white and red wines, Côte de Beaune for reds, and so on.
Rising again in quality while the area of the appellation gets smaller are village appellations: Vougeot, Auxey-Duresse, Pommard, Nuits-St-Georges. In these villages, certain superior vineyards are designated premier cru—and you will find the name of the vineyard on the label. At the top of the quality heap are the single vineyard appellations, the Grand Cru: Clos de Vougeot being perhaps the most famous.
There is one other category of wine which is in some ways the most interesting and exciting: Vin de Pays. These are the everyday, ready-to-drink wines which offer some of the best values in the world. The labels, unlike appellation wines, will show grape varieties. Coming generally from the warm south of France, the wines will be warm, ripe, and fruity. The best known example is Vin de Pays d’Oc.
Having established some of the ground rules for French wine, let’s examine the fascinations of the different regions in more detail.
By far the largest, the most important, and one of the best, both for great wines and for bargains, is Bordeaux. Great reds from the great chateaux are what make the headlines, but Bordeaux is so big, that there is plenty of choice. Appellation with the name Côtes in the title are always worth seeking out, as are the white wines (yes, Bordeaux makes whites, both dry and sweet). And the general level of quality has improved dramatically. The reds are fruity, but never over-alcoholic, always with a layer of tannin which makes them great food wines. The whites are fresh, the best with wood flavors to give complexity. They may all be called “chateau this”, “chateau that”, but that’s simply a way of saying that many Bordeaux wines come from one individual property.
Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc are the main red grapes; Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon for the whites. But most Bordeaux is not a single varietal wine—it is more often a blend, which makes these wines more than the sum of their individual parts.
Burgundy is the other big French wine. It is a fifth the size of the Bordeaux region, and produces correspondingly more expensive wines, with fewer bargains, and more disappointments. The best way to buy Burgundy is to follow the best producers, and reliable reviews from buying guides or wine magazines. If you take that advice, the most seductive wines (red from Pinot Noir, white from Chardonnay, always 100 percent) are in your glass. It’s not just chance that the Burgundy bottle has rounded sides, the Bordeaux bottle has straight: Burgundy appeals to the senses, Bordeaux to the intellect.
Much larger in scale than Burgundy is the Rhône valley. From the alcoholic and powerful highs of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, through the dense elegance of the Syrah wines of appellations like Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage, this is red wine country. Rich and generous, these wines appeal to wine drinkers used to California reds. And, just like Bordeaux, there is also great value to be found in this region: wines labelled Côtes du Rhône. If they have a village name attached (Rasteau and Seguret are among the best), they will be that much better even if more expensive.
Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the Rhône are the best known wine regions of France except for Champagne. This sparkling wine from the chalk slopes east of Paris is France’s best answer to a global brand. It is the drink of celebration, of success, and the best way to drown sorrows. And, unlike the still French wines, which have been successfully copied around the world, Champagne remains inimitable, despite thousands of attempts. The combination of cool climate, chalk soil and—there’s no other word for it—terroir are just so special.
As a complete contrast, there are the hot, sun-drenched vineyards of the south. Languedoc and Roussillon don’t just produce tanker loads of inexpensive wine. Some areas such as Corbières, Minervois, Coteaux du Languedoc, Côtes de Roussillon offer a magic mix of great value, history, and some fascinating herbal and fruity flavors.
After these greats, come the Loire and Alsace regions, which produce some of the greatest and most fascinating wines in France. Bordeaux and the Rhône are known for reds, Burgundy for reds and whites. The two cool climate areas of Loire and Alsace are where the whites shine. Discover more about the Loire in our piece, Decode the Wines of the Loire Valley
Alsace is unique in France in that producers are allowed to put the grape variety on the label of an appellation wine. It is also unique in that the grapes are a mix of German and French: Riesling and Gewurztraminer, Muscat and Pinot Gris. These are not light wines, but they have a fruitiness and a richness that is quite different from the German models just across the Rhine river. At the top of this list are the Alsace Grand Cru vineyards, single vineyards which can produce astonishing quality and longevity.
The Loire is a complete mix. Every style of wine can be found along its six hundred mile length. The greatest styles are the Sauvignon Blanc of Sancerre and Pouilly Fume, the models for Sauvignon Blanc around the world. And the Chenin Blancs of the central Loire—the sweet wines of Vouvray and Anjou—have a poise and acidity which allows them to age for decades, yet be fresh when young. The dry Chenins of Savennières are the purest expression of their granite soil to be found anywhere. Finally to complete the mix are the reds of Chinon and Bourgueil and the fresh, easy whites of Muscadet.
It’s obvious from this brief list that France has variety, in profusion perhaps, but it does mean that there is never a dull moment when reaching for a bottle of French wine. If your wish is to have the same, safe bottle of wine every day, then non-European brands are the better option.
German wine labels can be intimidating: long foreign words and ornate gothic script are enough to make many consumers head for a different section of the wine shop. But once you understand how German wine terms function, you will see that German wine labels are among the most descriptive out there.
Like any wine label, you’ll find the name of the producer, the vintage, the region, and sometimes the name of the grape on a German wine label, it is just a matter of knowing what to look for.
In addition to the grape-growing region (see below), most labels will show the names of the town and the vineyard in large type, such as Graacher Himmelreich (the town of Graach, Himmelreich vineyard). In much smaller type will be the terms Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete (often just Qualitätswein, or QbA), indicating a “quality wine,” or Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP), denoting a quality wine picked at designated minimum ripeness levels that vary by grape variety and growing region. These ripeness levels will be indicated on the label as follows:
Kabinett: The least ripe of the prädikat levels, and typically the lightest of a grower’s offerings. With their low alcohol levels and touch of sweetness, these wines make ideal picnic quaffs and mouth-watering apéritifs. Most often consumed in their youth, they can last for ten years or more.
Spätlese: Literally, “late picked.” These grapes are generally only late-picked with respect to those grapes that go into Kabinett or QbA wines. If vinified dry (an increasingly popular style), they can still seem less than optimally ripe. Traditionally made, with some residual sugar left in, they are extremely food friendly. Try them with anything from Asian food to baked ham and roast fowl. Most should be consumed before age twenty.
Auslese: Made from select bunches of grapes left on the vine until they achieve high sugar readings, these wines often carry a hint or more of botrytis. While some are sweet enough to serve with simple fruit desserts, others are best sipped alone. With age, some of the sugar seems to melt away, yielding wines that can ably partner with roast pork or goose. Thirty-year-old auslesen can smell heavenly, but sometimes fall flat on the palate. Enjoy them on release for their luscious sweet fruit, or cellar for ten to twenty years.
Beerenauslese: “Berry select” wines are harvested berry by berry, taking only botrytis-affected fruit. While auslesen are usually sweet, this level of ripeness elevates the wine to the dessert-only category. Hold up to fifty years.
Trockenbeerenauslese: These “dried berry select” wines are made from individually harvested, shriveled grapes that have been heavily affected by botrytis. Profoundly sweet and honeyed, their over-the-top viscosity and sweetness can turn off some tasters, while others revel in the complex aromas and flavors.
Eiswein: Made from frozen grapes that are at least equivalent in sugar levels to beerenauslese, but which produce wines with much racier levels of acidity. The intense sugars and acids enable these wines to easily endure for decades.
Aside from the ripeness levels denoted by the German wine term QmP system, you can expect to see the terms trocken and halbtrocken on some labels (their use is optional). Trocken, or dry, may be used on wines with fewer than 9g/L residual sugar (less than 0.9 percent); halbtrocken (half-dry) refers to wines with between 9 and 18g/L. Given the allowable ranges, these wines may be truly dry or verging on sweet, depending on acid-sugar balance.
In an effort to simplify German wine information, a few relatively new terms have cropped up that supplement, replace, or partially replace the traditional labeling system. Erstes Gewächs wines, or “first growths,” come only from designated sites in the Rheingau.
Classic wines must be “harmoniously dry” and must omit references to specific villages or vineyards. Selection wines bear a single-vineyard designation on the label and must be dry. Like anything in the wine world, the German wine dictionary is ever-evolving.
Most of the classic German wine regions are closely identified with river valleys, the slopes of which provide the proper exposition for ripening grapes at this northern latitude. Virtually all of Germany’s best wines come from the Riesling grape, but there are several exceptions, like the fine Gewürztraminers from Fitz-Ritter in the Pfalz and Valckenberg in Rheinhessen and the exquisite Rieslaners and Scheurebes from Müller-Catoir in the Pfalz.
Mosel-Saar-Ruwer: The coolest of the German growing regions, and home to Germany’s crispest, raciest, and most delicate Rieslings. Green apples, floral notes, and citrus are all likely descriptors, but the best wines also display fine mineral notes that express their slate-driven terroirs.
Rheingau: Steep slate slopes and slightly warmer temperatures than found in the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer yield powerful, sturdy wines, with ripe fruit flavors underscored by deep minerality.
Rheinhessen: Source for much of Germany’s production, quality here can vary from generic liebfraumilch to fine single-estate wines.
Nahe: This small side valley is the only rival to the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer for elegance and finesse, with Rieslings that balance lightness of body with mineral-based tensile strength.
Pfalz: One of Germany’s warmest winegrowing regions, with a great diversity of soils, microclimates, and grape varieties. Dry styles, whether made from Riesling or other white grapes are more common here, and show better balance than those from cooler regions. Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) is also more successful here than elsewhere.
Wines from other Germany winegrowing regions, such as the Ahr, Baden, Franken and Württemberg are infrequently seen in the United States.
In ancient times, the Italian peninsula was commonly referred to as enotria, or “land of wine,” because of its rich diversity of grape varieties and many acres dedicated to cultivated vines. In more ways than one, Italy became a gigantic nursery and a commercial hub fortuitously positioned at the heart of the Mediterranean for what would become western civilization’s first “globally” traded product: wine.
Italy’s prominence in the global wine industry has in no way diminished despite millennia of history. The sun-drenched North-South peninsula that extends from the thirty-sixth to the forty-sixth parallel embodies pockets of geographical, geological, and climatic perfection between the Upper Adige and the island of Pantelleria for the production of quality wine. Italian tradition is so closely grafted to the vine that the good cheer and easy attitudes associated with wine culture are mirrored in the nation’s temperament.
Despite Italy’s long affinity with vitis vinifera, the Italian wine industry has experienced an invigorating rebirth over the past three decades that truly sets it apart from other European wine nations. American baby boomers may still recall watery Valpolicella or Chianti Classico in hay-wrapped flasks at neighborhood New York eateries, or the generic “white” and “red” wines of Sicily’s Corvo. Wines like those cemented Italy’s reputation as a quantity (as opposed to quality, like in France) producer of wines sold at attractive prices. But as Italy gained confidence during the prosperous post-war years in the areas of design, fashion, and gastronomy, it demonstrated renewed attention to wine. Thanks to a small band of primarily Tuscan vintners, Italy launched itself with aggressive determination onto the world stage as a producer of some of the best wines ever produced anywhere: Amarone, Barolo, Bunello di Montalcino, and Passito di Pantelleria. Italian wine information and experiences now sit amongst the most coveted wine regions of the world.
Like a happy epidemic, modern viticulture and enological techniques swept across the Italian peninsula throughout the 1980s and 1990s: Vertical shoot positioning and bilateral cordon trellising in vineyards; stainless steel, temperature-controlled fermentation, and barrique wood aging in wineries. As profits soared, producers reinvested in technology, personnel, and high-priced consultants and a modern Italian wine revolution had suddenly taken place.
As it stands, Italy is the world’s second largest producer of wine after France. Each year, one in fifty Italians is involved with the grape harvest. And like France, Italy has adopted a rigorous controlled appellation system that imposes strict controls with regulations governing vineyard quality, yields per acre, and aging practices among other things. There are over three hundred DOC (Denominazioni di Origine Controllata) and DOCG (Denominazioni di Origine Controllata e Garantita) wines today and the classifications increase to over five hundred when IGT (Indicazioni Geografica Tipica) wines are factored in. Thanks to this system, Italy’s fifty thousand wineries enjoy a competitive advantage when it comes to the production and sales of quality wines. These Italian wine terms allow consumers to understand various levels of designation so they can make informed buying decisions.
Interestingly, there is a second wine revolution underway that promises to unlock potential uniquely associated with Italy. It is the re-evaluation and celebration of Italy’s rich patrimony of “indigenous” grapes. (Because some varieties actually originated outside Italy, producers often refer to them as “traditional” varieties instead.) These are grapes—like Nero d’Avola, Fiano, Sagrantino, and Teroldego—that only modern enotria can offer to world consumers. As a result, a rapidly increasing number of vintners from Italy’s twenty winemaking regions are banking on “traditional” varieties to distinguish themselves in a market dominated by “international” varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay.
The Italian Alps butt against the long expanses of the Po River plains leaving tiny pockets and microclimates along the foot of the mountains that are each linked to their own special wine. Starting in northwestern Piedmont, Nebbiolo grapes form two tall pillars of Italy’s wine legacy: Barolo and Barbaresco, named in the French tradition after the hilltop hamlets where the wines were born. Like in Burgundy, the exclusivity of these wines has a lot to do with winemakers’ battle against nature and the wine’s extraordinary ability to age. Rare vintages like the stellar 1985 or 1990 Barolos are the darlings of serious wine collectors.
Further east, in the Veneto region, vintners follow an ancient formula in which wine is made from raisins dried on straw mats. With its higher concentration and alcohol, silky Amarone is Italy’s most distinctive wine and can command record prices for new-releases. The Veneto, Trentino, Alto Adige, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia are celebrated for their white wines—such as the phenomenally successful Pinot Grigio. Italy’s best sparkling wine is made in Trentino and the Franciacorta area of Lombardy (known as the “Champagne of Italy”) under strict regulation with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes.
With its cypress-crested hills and beautiful stone farmhouses, Tuscany is the pin-up queen of Italian enology. The region’s iconic dreamscape has helped promote the image of Italian wine abroad unlike no other. Within Tuscany’s borders is a treasure-trove of excellent wines: Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, San Gimignano whites, Bolgheri and Maremma reds. Italy’s wine revolution started here when storied producers like Piero Antinori worked outside appellation regulations to make wines blended with international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon. These wines are known as SuperTuscans and are considered par with the top crus of Bordeaux and California.
Central Italy delivers many more exciting wines such as Sagrantino from the Umbrian town of Montefalco, dense and dark Montepulciano from Abruzzo, and white Verdicchio from Le Marche.
The regions of southern Italy, and the island of Sicily in particular, are regarded as Italy’s enological frontier: Relaxed regulation and increased experimentation promise a bright future for vintners and investors alike. In many ways, Italy’s south is a “new world” wine region locked within the confines of an “old world” wine reality. This unique duality has many betting on its enological promise.
Campania boasts wonderful whites such as Fiano and Greco di Tufo that embody crisp, mineral characteristics from volcanic soils. Its red is Taurasi (“the Barolo of the south”) made from Aglianico. That same grape makes Basilicata’s much-hyped Aglianico del Vulture. Puglia, the “heel” of the boot of Italy, was mostly a producer of bulk wine, but holds it own today among nascent wine regions with its powerhouse Primitivo and Negroamaro grapes.
Sicily has shown keen marketing savvy in bringing media attention to its native grapes like Nero d’Avola (red) and Grillo (a white once used in the production of fortified wine Marsala) and has done a great job of promoting the Italian south in general. Some of Europe’s most sensuous dessert wines come from Sicily’s satellite islands, like the honey-rich Passito di Pantelleria. The Mediterranean’s other big island, Sardinia, is steadily working on its Cannonau and Vermentino grapes to raise the bar on quality there.
As you taste through various regions of Italy you will come to understand the Italian wine dictionary and what makes each region and indigenous grape variety, so special.