The most obvious guide to the quality of wine is its classification. It can be quite tricky to get your head around, especially if like most people you find enjoyment in simply drinking the wine. In 2012 the system used to classify French wines changed and made it easier for growers to provide information on vintage and grape variety.
At the lowest level is now vin de France, suitable for everyday drinking, replacing the old vin de table. Then there’s Indication Géographique Protégée (IGP), a new intermediate category indicating quaffable fare. IGP replaces the old Vin de Pays category. The highest category; AOP – appellation d’origine protégée, takes the place of the old AOC classification. Within this category a number of exceptional wines qualify for the superior labels of Premier Cru or Grand Cru.
Within each wine region there’s enormous diversity, with differences generated by the type of grape grown (there are over sixty varieties), the individual skill of the vigneron (producer) and something the French refer to as terroir, an almost untranslatable term meaning the combination of soil, lie of the land and climate.
Burgundy’s luscious reds and crisp white wines can be truly sublime. The best wines come from the Côte de Nuits, which produces Burgundy’s headiest reds, made from the richly fruity Pinot Noir grape, and the Côte de Beaune, which yields the region’s great white burgundy, made from the buttery Chardonnay grape. To the south, the Côte Chalonnaise and the Mâconnais also produce good-quality whites, while further south still the Beaujolais region is famous for its light, fruity reds. Out on its own, further north, is the Chablis region, known for its wonderfully fresh, flinty whites.
The Bordeaux wine-producing region, three times the size of Burgundy, produces a huge quantity of very fine, medium-bodied reds, delicious sweet whites, notably Sauternes, and dry whites of varying quality. The best-known area is the Médoc, known for its long-lived, rich reds, including such legendary names as Margaux and Lafitte, which are made from a blend of wines, chiefly the blackcurranty Cabernet Sauvignon. Graves produces the best of the area’s dry white wines, while St-Emilion, where the Merlot grape thrives, yields warmer, fruitier wines.
Champagne’s status as the luxury celebration drink goes back to a time when it was used to anoint French kings, and at its best is an extraordinarily complex and rich sparkling wine. This far north – Champagne is just an hour from Paris – where good weather cannot be relied on year in year out, the only way to achieve consistent quality is by blending the produce of different vineyards and vintages. The leading Champagne houses, known as maisons, such as Bollinger and Moët et Chandon, blend up to sixty different wines and allow them to age for some years before selling. Needless to say, they produce the best and most expensive champagnes; those of smaller growers are more variable in quality.
The Loire’s wines tend to be rather overlooked, probably because their hallmark is subtlety and elegance rather than intensity and punch. Sauvignon Blanc is the dominant white grape variety, as manifested in the dry, fragrant Sancerre and the smoky Pouilly-Fumé, arguably the region’s finest whites. Steely Muscadet, made from the hardy Melon de Bourgogne grape, is not to everyone’s taste, but the best (try Sèvre-et-Maine) make a great accompaniment to seafood. The region’s top reds include the light, aromatic Chinon and Bourgueil.
The Rhône is best known for its warm, flavoursome reds such as the blackberry-scented Hermitages, the peppery Gigondas and most famously of all the rich, spicy Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
The Languedoc is one of the largest vine-growing regions in the world, although the emphasis in recent years has been moving towards quality over quantity. There are so many different grape varieties grown here that the vineyards are often described as a “patchwork”, and consequently many producers here make creative blends rather than single variety wines. Look out for the heady, full-bodied reds from Faugères, Fitou and Collioure, or pick up a bottle of Blanquette de Limoux, the region’s economical answer to Champagne.