A beginner’s guide to understanding French wines

Want a sneak peek into the dauntingly vast world of French wines? It is true that it would take an eternity for one to decode every aspect of French wines. However, not knowing anything about wines while sipping them is like entering an art gallery with a blindfold. There’s nothing intimidating about “les vins français” (French wines). France.fr presents to you a quick guide to embark on this fascinating journey through the wine country!

Knowing “terroir” and “climat”

France produces approximately 7-8 billion bottles of wine each year, making it the wine capital of the world. First and foremost, let’s understand why French wines have a mystic appeal to them. Winemaking is an art and rightly so! It might help to know certain terminology that is commonly used. To begin with - “terroir”. Terroir is a French term that literally translated means: earth, or soil. In the larger context however, French winemakers define terroir as the “sense of place” which encompasses not only to the soil but also the climate and the terrain. The terroir thus defines the character of a wine. “Climat” is a specific term used while speaking of parcels of land with unique geographic characteristics of the region of Burgundy. The climat defines the personality of a wine. There are about 1,247 “climats” stretching just between Dijon and Santenay in Burgundy; a distance of just about 70km... As a matter of fact, climat and terroirs of Burgundy or Bourgogne have been inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage site in 2015. Similarly, hillsides, houses and cellars of Champagne -the only region in the world that produces the iconic bubbly are also listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list of sites in 2015

What is AOC?

French wines are subject to some of the strictest quality control systems. Appellation systems, such as the French AOC system that is Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée/Protégée, first started in 1937, is the highest quality classification developed by the French government. AOC designation indicates a top-quality product that has been produced under strict conditions using specific grapes and adhering to traditional methods of wine making. There are currently over controlled appellations under AOC in France. The French have a classification system for its wines and the wines are divided into four types as described by the Wine-searcher.com:
Grand Cru is the very highest classification of French wine. All Grand Cru and Premier Cru wines fall into the AOC category. The term can refer to a wine in one of two ways, either a) the plot of land where the grapes are grown or b) the chateau at which the wine is made. The former applies most famously in Burgundy, Alsace and Champagne (but is also used in Languedoc and the Loire Valley). The latter is exclusive to Bordeaux.
Premier Cru denotes either 1) a vineyard plot (most often in Burgundy) of superior quality, or 2) the very highest tier within a Grand Cru classification (such as the 'Premier Grand Cru Classé' châteaux of Bordeaux).
Vin de Pays means 'wine of the land', although it is often translated as 'country wine'. Its Europe-wide equivalent is IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée). This category focuses on geographical origin rather than style and tradition, and gives winemakers greater stylistic freedom than AOC. Vin de Pays was introduced in the 1970s, and by the year 2000 there were more than 150 individual VDP titles, covering about a quarter of French wine production. For comprehensive information about these, see Vin de Pays - IGP (External link) .
Vin de France replaced the outdated Vin de Table category in 2010, but remains the most basic quality tier for French wine. This is the least regulated (and least used) of the three categories; Vin de France wines can be made from grapes grown anywhere in France, but their labels do not mention a specific region of origin. Vintage and grape variety statements are optional. See Vin de France (External link) .

Where does all this wine come from?

The key to understanding French wines is understanding its regions. In France, wines are not just about the grape but also where it comes from and how it is produced. In fact, wines in France are segmented on the basis of the region of production and not the grape itself. Bordeaux is one of the largest wine-producing regions in France and is home to around 10,000 producers. Burgundy yields some of the most expensive wines in the world and are very tricky to find. Champagne, situated in eastern France is home to the drink that is synonymous with celebrations. Further down south-east is the Rhône Valley primarily known for some robust and spicy red wines. Languedoc-Roussillon is the largest region in terms of vineyard surface and production along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. For sweet wines paired with some Christmas cheer at the Christmas markets, there’s Alsace and finally the wines of the Loire Valley spanning over 1000 kilometres along the Loire River in central and western France are some of the important and picturesque wine producing regions in France. Here’s a tip for planning your next visit: “Vignobles & Découvertes” – national wine tourism label identifies destinations in France that have shown a commitment to ensuring the highest standards of hospitality to vineyard visitors.

French grape varietals

France is source of numerous grape varietals that are now planted throughout the world. Undoubtedly some of the best varieties of the world are French. Some names you must remember for white grapes: Chardonnay from Burgundy, Champagne and Languedoc; Sauvignon Blanc from Bordeaux, Loire Valley, southwestern France, Languedoc; Viognier from the Rhône Valley and Languedoc; Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley; Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris from Alsace, Sémillon from Bordeaux and southwest France.
Among the red grape wine varietals; Merlot from Bordeaux, Southwest France and Languedoc; Cabernet Sauvignon from Bordeaux, Southwest France, Languedoc; Pinot Noir from Burgundy and Champagne, Syrah from the Rhone Valley and Southern France; Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley, Bordeaux, Southwest France; Grenache from the Rhône Valley, Southern France and Malbec from Southwest France, Bordeaux are widely used for wine production around the world.
While almost all French wines are created by blending multiple grape varietals that is not always the case. In Burgundy, only Pinot Noir is used to produce red Burgundy wines. Chardonnay is the only allowable grape used in the production of white Burgundy wine in Burgundy. In Bordeaux, majority of red wines are a blend of more than one grape varietal which gives wines its complex character. The choice of blending varietals or not depends on the rules and laws of the appellation, the terroir and the vision of the winemaker.


When it comes which wine to drink, one must trust their taste and follow their senses and enjoy the drink! Finally, some vocabulary might come in handy! When you do try some vin = wine, either the vin rouge = red wine or the vin blanc = white wine or the vin rosé = rose wine, don’t forget to toast and say Santé (formal) meaning “(to your good) health” or Tchin-tchin (informal) meaning cheers!