French wine - a beginners guide to the tradition and wine classifications in France

The French have been producing and enjoying wine since the 6th century BC, so while it seems an impossible task to do ‘an introduction’ to French wines – we will humbly try.

In a typical year in France, between 7 and 8 billion bottles of wine are produced from over 800,000 hectares of vineyards. This makes France second only to Spain in terms of vineyard surface. In terms of wine production the country competes with Italy for the first spot.

In France you will find all styles of wine – red, rose, white, sparkling and fortified. You will also find them in every price range.

Looking back at history and up until today, France has by far been the most dominant and authoritative country in the wine world. And naturally, French wine plays an incredibly important role in French culture, pride and identity. Of course wine has also been very influential on French cuisine.

There are more well-known grape varieties and wine making practices in France than anywhere else in the world. Here you’ll find every grape from Syrah to Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay to Pinot Noir.

The winemaking regions themselves are famous and chances are if you have an interest in France you have heard of most of them like Bordeaux, Burgundy or Champagne. There is a reason for most people knowing these local regions (whether you are a wine connoisseur or not) – French winemaking is world famous, and the style and local traits of the best French wines have long been a measurement that winemakers in other countries live by. And in turn their reputation spreads throughout the world.

French winemakers are strictly controlled by laws for winemaking and wine production. Passed in 1935, this quality control system (one of the strictest in the world) has set high standards that are being governed by a powerful board, Institut National des Appellations d’Origine – INAO. There are two central concepts to this quality control – the ‘terroir’ notion and the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) system. Terroir wines reflect where the wine comes from and the natural factors (such as soil, altitude, slope or humidity) – no two vineyards therefore ever have exactly the same terroir. The appellation system tells you which grape variety and making practices the winemakers use and abide by.

Wondering what the “Vin de Table” or “Vin de Pays” on your bottle means? Vin de Table is a wine that only tells you who the producer is and verifies it is from France. Vin de Pays tells you exactly which region in France your wine is from, for example “Vin de Pays de Côtes de Gascogne – signifying the wine is from Gascony.

There are around seven really primary wine regions in France: Alsace, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Loire, Provence and the Rhone Valley. These seven have very specific grape varieties and are very distinct, indigenous terroir.