Northern France - The Refined Wine Country
France is one of the world's greatest winemaking countries and is home to many beloved wine regions. It has a long history of making wine and as a result, each of France's regions has developed a unique wine identity. It's a vast subject, so we'll break things down to take a deeper look at what France has to offer. You'll find amazing value as well as some of the most expensive wines in existence produced in la belle France. Here are your need-to-know regions of the North.
This small region has gone back and forth between France and Germany over the course of several hundred years, and the influence of each nation is imprinted on Alsace's approach to life, in particular, their food and wine. You'll find a mix of German and French grapes in Alsace, including varieties that aren't found anywhere else in France like Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. A warm sunny climate and diverse soils help put a stamp on Alsace's terroir. The climate is ideal for viticulture, thanks to protection offered by the Vosges Mountains to the west. Since the 1970s, there's been a move towards sustainable winemaking; today there are over 100 organic or biodynamic wineries. There are only three appellation categories of wine in Alsace: one for wines from a single grape variety, one for Grand Cru wines, and one for sparkling.
Red, white, rose, still, sparkling, even sweet wine. They make it all in the Loire Valley aka the “garden of France.” This is one of France's largest wine regions. There are four major subregions in the Loire. Each is home to constellations of appellations which specialise in specific wine styles.
To the west, there's the Pays Nantais, which is known for Muscadet, a light white wine commonly made on the wine's lees for more body (aka 'sur Lie'). Head slightly inland and you'll hit Anjou-Saumur which is a hub of the white grape Chenin Blanc (both dry and sweet styles), fruity roses and savoury reds made from Cabernet Franc with a dash of Cabernet Sauvignon, and lovely traditional method sparkling wines. These bubblies are a very good value alternative to Champagne. There are also some phenomenal dessert wines made in appellations like Bonnezeaux and Quarts de Chaume. Then on to the large Touraine subregion in which Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc again reign supreme. This is where you'll find premium Touraine appellations like Chinon and Vouvray. Finally, the Central Vineyards round off the Loire Valley. This is where you'll find glorious, world-leading Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume, as well as some tasty Pinot Noir.
Home to superlative Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Burgundy (or Bourgogne in French) comfortably grabs a leading spot on the list of the world's best wines. The region is divided into four areas, Chablis, Côte d'Or, Côte Chalonnaise, and Mâconnais. The climate in much of Burgundy is quite cool and frost and hail can be an issue during the early part of the season. Classifications are based on quality. Grand Cru sits at the top of the quality pyramid, followed by Premier Cru, Village, and Bourgogne regional. Both Grand and Premier Cru classifications are based on the particular vineyard. Burgundy produces phenomenally terroir-driven wines, particularly at the Grand Cru level. For this reason, Burgundy is a pinnacle of winemaking. For great value look at the white and red wines from the southerly regions of Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnais. Riper and richer Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines that tend to be better for drinking young and not to cellar as long as their northerly Burgundy neighbours from the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune that comprise the Côte d'Or.
Famous for being home to the Gamay grape, Beaujolais sits just to the south of Burgundy but right above the Northern Rhône. Although the climate is still fairly cool, it does get a little bit warmer here. This extra touch of warmth means deliciously fruity, vibrant wines. Don't think of Beaujolais as the annual Nouveau launch in November, there are ten Crus villages in Beaujolais recognised for making superior barrel aged Gamay wines. On a price basis these are arguably much better value than premium Burgundy wines. PS: you can also enjoy a bit of Beaujolais chilled on a hot summer's day.
And of course, no list would be complete without Champagne. A must for celebrations but also good for adding a touch of class (or sense of occasion) to the everyday. Far to the north, this region makes racy, complex, bubbly that we can't get enough of. Chalky soils help create that crisp minerality we love in a good quality Champagne. Champagne is typically a blend of 3 grapes - Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. However phrases like Blanc de Blanc (100% Chardonnay) and Blanc de Noir (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier only) pop up as the Champenoise offer new wines to the global market.
Once again we encounter Grand and Premier Crus, but based on villages rather than individual sites. Grower Champagne is the buzz word of the moment - Champagne made by families and individual wineries not the large brands. Here you find some great quality Champagnes without the sprinkling of marketing budget on the price tag.
France has so many wine regions to discover that it's worthwhile spending a little time trying each to get to them know better, and what wine styles and varieties you might enjoy. With a healthy mix of great value and ultra-premium wines, the northern half of France is a brilliant place to start your French wine exploration.