Alsace is in the northeast of France, about 300 miles east of Paris. Sandwiched between the Vosges Mountains to the west and the Rhine River to its east (which marks the German border), Alsace is noted for its quaint half-timbered houses and cobblestone courtyards. The winegrowing region is long and narrow, stretching southward about 70 miles from Strasbourg to Mulhouse along the Route du Vin (wine road).
Alsace is sheltered from Atlantic influences by the Vosges Mountains, which rise high enough to block rain clouds pushed by the west winds. As a result of the rain shadow, Alsace is graced with the lowest rainfall in France. Looking at Alsace through the seasons, one discovers relatively mild spring weather, often accompanied by frosts. Summers are warm, dry and sunny, but peppered with occasional thunderstorms and hail. Fall is marked by humidity, which encourages Botrytis (noble rot), the mold responsible for some vendange tardive (late harvest) and sélection de grains nobles wines. Winters are cold, throwing the vine into a true dormancy. The wide variety of soils, containing elements such as granite, limestone, gneiss, schist and sandstone, helps to bring out the finest characteristics of each grape variety.
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This French powerhouse wine-growing region is known primarily for its world-class blends of red wine. The typical blend contains Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with supporting notes from Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. The skill of the winemakers looms large, as they choose when to pick the different grapes and how to apportion the blend, with the aim of making great wines that age well.
Although most of the world calls these wines simply Bordeaux, the British refer to them as Claret. American wines blended with grapes in the traditional Bordeaux style are called Meritage (rhymes with heritage).
Bordeaux wines are typically dry, medium- to full-bodied, with medium acidity and medium to high tannins. They pair with beef, game birds, roasted lamb and venison.
The Left Bank
The left bank of the Gironde River has well-draining gravel soil and includes the districts of Médoc, Pessac-Léognan, Barsac, Sauternes and Graves.
The Médoc is famed for red blends centered on Cabernet Sauvignon. The district is home to some of the most revered winemaking villages in the world. They are St-Estèphe, Pauillac, St-Julien, Listrac, Moulis and Margaux.
Named for its gravelly soil, this area lies to the southeast of Médoc. Red wine dominates, but the area also produces famed white wines. The village of Sauternes makes a dessert wine that relies on the growth of Botrytis to concentrate the grape’s sugars. Sauternes, its smaller sub-appellation Barsac, and Pessac-Léognan are appellations within Graves that are recognized for exceptional quality.
The Right Bank
The blends from the Right Bank focus more on Merlot than on Cabernet. This area encompasses the appellations of St-Émilion, Pomerol, Bourg and Blaye.
Meaning “between two seas,” this is a large district lying between the Garonne and Dordogne rivers before they join to form the Gironde.
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The purplish-red hue of the wine from this region in Central France inspired the name for the color burgundy. The many monasteries that dot the landscape traditionally maintained their own vineyards and helped to make this the most terroir-oriented region in France, with wines differentiated by the micro climate and soil of their specific vineyards. Burgundy is home to some of the world’s most expensive and celebrated wines — as well as many wallet-friendly alternatives.
The Côte d’Or
The “golden slope” is one of the world’s premier sources of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It offers big, full-bodied wines and famous Grand Cru wines.
Named for the town of Mâcon, this region produces elegant, medium-bodied and beautifully balanced white wines that are half the price of wines made in other parts of Burgundy. Almost all of the wine made here is white, with Chardonnay reigning as the main grape variety — there is even a small village in the north named Chardonnay. The most popular village appellation is Pouilly-Fuissé.
Further to the south, Beaujolais is known for light, fruity red wines from the Gamay grape that are meant to be drunk young. By French law, Beaujolais Nouveau, the fun, fruity, seasonal wine of the region, can be released no earlier than the third Thursday in November. Racing to taste the year’s first vintage has become a popular tradition around the world. For those looking for a more serious version of Gamay, there are several cru appellations that make very well-respected wines. These include Brouilly, Fleurie, Moulin-À-Vent and Morgon.
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Champagne is a cool northern growing region with sole legal claim to the term “Champagne” for its sparkling wines. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier make up the trio of grapes that serve as the basis for these famous bubblies.
True Champagne comes only from France. The Champagne growing area consists of about 70,000 acres planted to Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. The black grapes (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) yield the softest, ripest wines with ample fruitiness. Chardonnay gives freshness, lightness and elegance to the final blend. The practice of blending wines, a function that rises to the level of art in this region, was developed in Champagne in the 17th century. Encompassing different grape varieties, different vineyards and sometimes even different years, the winemakers can balance variables brought on by the northern climate and create a “house style.” Bottles labeled “Brut” will be dry, and those labeled “Extra Dry” will actually be semi-dry. There are about 100 Champagne houses, each with its own brand name, or marque. Choosing between them becomes a matter of personal taste since they differ mainly in style: lighter versus fuller in body, elegant versus powerful, or fruity versus flinty.
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The Midi: Languedoc-Roussillon
Sprawling from the Spanish border to the Rhône River, this coastal area is the hottest part of France, but the heat is tempered by the Mistral winds that come off the Mediterranean Sea. Nearly 40% of all French wines and 12% of the world’s production comes from this region. The wines generally show the climate, offering ripe fruit, spice (known here as garrigue) and full body. The reds of the region are blends made from varying amounts of, among others, Carignan, Grenache and Syrah. Look for the wines from Corbières, Côteaux du Languedoc, Côtes du Roussillon, Faugères, Fitou or Minervois.
The eastern bookend of France’s Mediterranean coast, Provence covers an area extending north from Marseilles and Nice. Provence has all a wine grower could ask for in climate: a long, hot, dry growing season with cool winds to provide a moderating effect. Highly regarded wines, made from about 50% Mourvèdre blended with Grenache, Cinsault, Carignan and Syrah, come from the tiny area of Bandol. They are deep, spicy and intense wines that are aged at least 18 months in wood. In the three largest areas — Côtes de Provence, Côteaux d’Aix-En-Provence, and Les Baux de Provence — winemakers have begun to incorporate Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, which have brought about more complexity and balance in their wines.
Shop Wines by Region: Southern France
In the southwest the climate is cooler and the resulting wines show less ripeness and lower alcohol content as well as more complexity of flavors. Bergerac is known for its Bordeaux-like blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec, lighter wines meant to be consumed young. Cahors, where Malbec dominates, forges bigger wines with harder tannins, which generally require a couple of years to soften. Madiran wines require patience because they are based on the Tannat grape (whose name aptly suggests tannin), blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. These wines require three to four years to soften and show their charms.