Wine Tasting in France - An Overview

Living in San Francisco as I do means that I spend a fair amount of time up in our own fabulous wine country (Napa & Sonoma counties), so of course when I went to France this summer I wanted to do my own investigations of their wine areas.  I didn't get everywhere, but I did get a good overview of how their "old world" wineries differ from our "new world" ones.  

Some things are the same obviously - vineyards are universally pretty, wines are all produced in more or less the same process, and aged often in barrels - but there is a LOT that is different.  For one, going tasting over in France is VERY different from tasting in the US!  There are no party buses taking groups of drunk young people around.  It is really serious business, and purchases are often expected after a tasting.  As a tourist, you can often get away with the excuse of "oh, it won't fit in my luggage", but it seemed to me that nearly always they expected you to be tasting in order to choose a bottle for that night's meal (for example). Appointments are good & often necessary, though not always - that depends a bit on the prestige of the winery in question.  Instead of great big bars set up to serve 20-30 guests at a time, most wineries you visit will be small working farms - or gorgeous historic chateaux where they have a small tasting room.  Tours of the vineyards aren't as common, while caves are much more common over there (and FASCINATING - you can tell the era they're from by the shape of the arches!).  Another huge difference is the amount of regulations every winemaker has to deal with, and the variety of those regulations from region to region.  Unlike the California wineries who often produce 10-20 varietals sourced from grapes from all over the county - most French winemakers produce just a few wines - sometimes just two! - and usually from the plot of land they own.  So the differences from wine to wine are much more subtle and nuanced, but that you do have a more consistent characteristic from all the wines of a region.  Now- take that advice with a grain of salt- I do not claim to be a true wine expert who can really speak to the intricacies of flavor profiles; I just love the stuff!  

Now, wine is made pretty much everywhere in France, but I wanted to give you a quick overview of the major regions you may want to visit.  I'll go into detail on them in subsequent posts, but for now here are the basics for you:

  • Bordeaux - This is the most famous region, and it is huge (by far the largest producer). It is pretty coastal, so mostly flat, until you head west where you start to get some hills.  Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon & blends rule the day here (hence the term: "Bordeaux blend"), though there are SOME whites (mostly Sauvignon blanc or Semillon) produced in the more southern end.  This region is HIGHLY regulated, but if a "chateau" was named to the famous classification in 1855 they keep that designation (Premier cru classe, for example) FOREVER, no matter what the quality might be now.  Seriously.  This region is a bit more corporate-driven (there are even some foreign owners - gasp!), and some would say "less snobby" than their main rival of Burgundy (but don't say that in Burgundy).  Here it's all about the chateau name - think Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateaux Margaux, Chateau Haut-Brion, etc. 
    • Home base: Bordeaux for an amazing, cosmopolitan city; St. Emilion for a picturesque tiny village "in the vines"
  • Burgundy - This is the most prestigious region (but don't tell Bordeaux that) - "the wine of Kings".  It is also really large and mostly hilly, but it only produces about 1/4 the wine that Bordeaux does.  Sub regions like Macon and Beaujolais reach to the south - though Burgundians would shudder to include Beaujolais in their region - and it even contains Chablis in the NW.   Soil is the king here - specific plots of land are named, and producers can have 2 rows in that plot, with different owners for the rows all around. That makes the wine maker incredibly important, so the family name is big, though the wines are named for their locations (Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, Gevrey-Chambertin, etc...), rather than the "chateau" like in Bordeaux.  The grapes planted are Chardonnay & Pinot Noir, nearly exclusively.  This region is also HIGHLY regulated (like Bordeaux), though their classification is not historical, it is, again, based on location.  If something is a Grand Cru, it's because it's from a plot of land designated as a Grand Cru, based on the soil characteristics.
    • Home base: Lyon for a large cosmopolitan city (at the southern end, more in Beaujolais), or Beaune - village in the heart of the vines.
  • Provence - I'm actually using this term for a catch-all for several sub regions. The Rhone Valley is the largest of these (which is still only about half the production of Bordeaux).  Rose all day, rich red blends, and complex to sweet whites - it has a large variety, and it offers a bit more freedom from regulation for the wine makers than the other two biggies.  Wine is not always the biggest attraction here (the region offers SO MUCH - history, art, lavender fields, quaint markets, etc...), but there is a LOT for the wine lover to visit as well - from historic Chateauneuf-du-Pape, to hilltop village wineries along the Cotes du Rhone, to cliff-side vines overlooking the Mediterranean.
    • Home base: You can't go wrong with either Avignon or Aix-en-Provence, depending on what was more important to you.
  • Champagne - obviously the world-wide home of sparkling wines.  I've NEVER actually been as an adult!!!  (I visited the great cathedral in Rheims on a school trip back in the day...)  From what I understand, it is highly regulated - obviously - and I know it is chock full of fabulous, very historical chateaux.  A lot of people actually do this as a day trip from Paris, which with only an hour train ride out there makes it quite easy, but for me - I know my next trip will include an overnight.
    • Home base: Rheims (the larger town with the amazing cathedral) or Epernay (smaller village)
  • Loire Valley - So, this is a HUGE region (the third largest producer of wines), but obviously not as well known or developed for tourists visiting wineries.  Tours are almost all chateaux focused, for obvious reasons - they're amazing! - but there are some little hidden gems that make it worth mentioning, I think.  The east side is known for white wines (Sancerre!  Vouvray!), while the western side for reds (Cabernet franc, mostly). Again, this region luckily has a bit more freedom from regulation, so you do get a bit more variety. Apologies for the lack of photos of vines - I remember driving that day and getting hopelessly lost in the vast array of fields outside Vouvray trying to find this one particular vineyard, so most of my pics are of the caves we did manage to visit! 
    • Home base: Chinon or Amboise, or best yet- a chateau out in the countryside!

Now, there are of course others wine regions, namely Languedoc/Roussillon in the south (mostly reds), and of course Alsace in the far east (crisp whites).  But the above are the most visited and largest producers of wine, so I thought I'd leave the focus there.  To summarize, wine is a BIG deal in France (obviously).  Many of the river cruises in France often have wine themes, especially the Bordeaux & Provence-Burgundy itineraries, but you you don't often really get into the "heart" of the regions.  Driving is a great way to dig in and find lots of hidden gems, but for the un-educated (or those that don't speak French), it can definitely be intimidating and potentially overwhelming.  Private or small group tours are a good idea (biking is great!) - but most of the major centers have a centrally located wine-museum or similar which can help you get started as well.  Regardless of how you visit, I hope this post inspires you to check out some of the creme de la creme of old world wines!