Your Guide to Southern France's Need to Know Wine Regions
In the southern half of France, temperatures creep up as Mediterranean influences and hours upon hours of sun allow grapes to get perfectly ripe on the vine. Compared to the northern part of the country, the wines are fruity and juicy but still have plenty of the classic terroir of their respective regions. You'll also come across more blends as opposed to single variety wines. Several wine regions represent the southern half of France, each known for a local style and selection of grape varieties. While the wines of many of northern France's wine regions are contenders for the cellar, by and large in the south, these wines are ready to enjoy from the word go. Naturally, some make strong candidates for ageing as well. We are talking about France, after all!
These are delicious, food-friendly wines that you should get to know, especially if you're a fan of opening up a bottle midweek.
Along with Burgundy, Bordeaux ranks as one of France's most exemplary wine regions. To understand Bordeaux, it's easiest to break it down into its two halves, the Left Bank and Right Bank. Although you'll see overlap in the grapes planted in both 'Banks', the final blends do have notable differences.
The Left Bank is largely made up of gravelly soils, which Cabernet Sauvignon thrives in. This grape is the backbone of most Left Bank red blends, from the northerly Medoc down to Graves, south of the city of Bordeaux. The Medoc is the hub of fine Bordeaux. This is where you'll come across the likes of the grand cru classes estates, like Lafite, Mouton, and Latour. South of the Medoc, Graves makes stellar reds and wonderful whites. In the case of white wine, they're made from Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. Finer examples tend to spend a bit of time in oak.
Meanwhile, the Right Bank consists of more clay-based soils. Merlot is the star here and the wines are consequentially plusher, lusher, and full of red fruit flavours. Pomerol and Saint Emilion are the two main appellations and produce the crème de la crème of Right Bank wines. For great value, look north up the Gironde river to the regions of Blaye Cotes de Bordeaux and Cotes de Bourg for some lovely Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc wines.
Bordeaux is also home to the legendary sweet dessert wines of Sauternes, made from grapes affected by noble rot. The result is a honeyed wine that's delicious with strong cheeses, fruit desserts, or the decadent foie gras.
South West France
Spreading out south from Bordeaux towards the Spanish border, South West France represents a mosaic of grape varieties, styles, and regions. Just down the road from Bordeaux, Bergerac makes similar wines from the same grape varieties as Bordeaux. That said, Bergerac's wines are better suited for enjoying during the week.
To the south and east of Bergerac, Cahors is one of the highlights of Southwest France and is the only major outpost for Malbec in the country. These are different than the Malbecs you might know coming out of Argentina. They are earthy, more rustic but still plenty delicious. Cahors blends Malbec with Tannat, a rather tannic grape. The result is wines with a pleasant structure that are brilliant with meats of any sort. On the topic of Tannat, this grape is also the main variety of Madiran, further south again from Cahors. There are also a few dessert wine appellations which make a similar style to Sauternes but at a much lower price. If you're a fan of Sauternes or dessert wines in general, look for Monbazillac which uses the same grapes.
Like Bordeaux, the simple way to differentiate between the styles of wine made in the Rhône is to think of it in terms of two halves.
The Northern Rhône is largely about single variety wine while the Southern Rhône is dominated by blends. While the Rhône in general benefits from warm Mediterranean influences, the Northern Rhône's climate is slightly cooler and more continental, which is why so much vineyard space here is dedicated to Syrah. Mourvedre and Grenache, both common in the Southern Rhône, don't quite ripen up in the Northern Rhône. The major, age-worthy red wine regions here include Cornas, Côte-Rotie, and Hermitage, but you can find phenomenal value in St. Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage.
Down in the south, we're looking at blended wines. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the star and can include up to fifteen different grape varieties. It can be red or white. Since these wines tend to be a little pricey, satellite regions like Gigondas offer excellent value. The same is true of the Côtes de Rhône Villages wines. There are a number of villages which can append their name to the Côtes de Rhône appellation which make for affordable, everyday wines of top quality.
France's largest wine region stretches across the southern part of the country on the Mediterranean coast. Because of its size, for a long time the quality of wine in the Languedoc-Roussillon was highly variable. Today, it's worth taking note of these wines; the Languedoc-Roussillon is now home to brilliant blends often available at a great value. If you fancy something to drink at an occasion dinner, there are plenty of high-end producers scattered across the region as well. Right along the Mediterranean, spanning from the Spanish border to the boundaries of the Southern Rhône and Provence, the Languedoc-Roussillon has dozens upon dozens of appellations, many of which produce exciting blends in every style. Look out for fantastic reds based on the South France standard GSM blend, in addition to Carignan.
It may be famous for rosés but you'll find wines of every colour in sunny Provence. Many wine lovers consider the pretty pink rosés of Provence to be some of the best around. Once again we see blends cropping up. Made from a wide range of grapes, the rosés of Provence come in every shade of pink along the spectrum, but the ultra pale hue is the prevailing style. Elegant, high in acid, dry yet fruity, Provence is the perfect answer when you're trying to decide what wine to drink.
The southern half of France is full of endless appellations which offer wines of every colour, style, and price range. These are rich, bold wines that are brilliant with a wide array of cuisines but are equally well-suited to savouring with like-minded wine-loving friends.