- History - A history of French wine and winemaking
History of French Wine
The growth of French viticulture shares the origins of all European winemaking. First begun by the Greeks in the sixth century b.c., it was expanded and organized by the Romans. The church, as in Italy, protected the vineyards after the fall of Rome, particularly since many vineyards bordered monasteries, and their products were used in religious rituals. Over time, a strong traditional system emerged in the Middle Ages, which continued until the rise of Napoleon in the nineteenth century.
Historically, French law followed primogeniture, the system in which the oldest son inherited the entirety of his father’s wealth. Under Napoleon, the abolishment of aristocracy included the end of primogeniture, requiring each estate to be split equally amongst all children. While perhaps more fair, Napoleon’s system wreaked havoc on wine-producing estates. Under primogeniture, a wine estate could pass from father to son for generations with little change, allowing specific traditions to develop, molded to each individual estate. Napoleon’s law led to fragmentation, splitting single vineyards among as many as ten owners. These laws have made France’s land system somewhat bewildering to outsiders and are the reason Burgundy today is such a labyrinthine patchwork of small owners and vineyards.
In the late nineteenth century, the phylloxera aphid from North America began destroying France’s vines. The wine industry was only saved by grafting the classic French varieties onto phylloxera-resistant American rootstock.
Prices followed the upward trajectory of French wines’ fame and prestige, particularly those of certain wellknown regions and producers. Seeing the rich potential for fraud, the French government began to safeguard these reputations to protect both the growers and the consumers.
- Overview - An overview of French wine today.
Overview of French Wine
French wines have traditionally set the standard for the rest of the world, producing more wine at the very highest level than any other country. There are more classic, world-famous winemaking regions in France than in any other country, and France’s AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) system has been the standard for wine law worldwide. France has the combination of ideal geography and a diverse range of cool climates that are perfect for the cultivation of fine wine grapes. Over the course of many centuries, French winemakers have determined which grapes grow best in each region. The result of this tireless trial and error is a wide range of consistent, classic wines.
Despite the association of French wine with a classic Bordeaux or Burgundy, there’s incredible variety within the world’s largest wine producer. An Alsace Riesling comes from a German grape variety, while a wine made in Provence might come from any number of varieties unique to that region. The Champagne region produces exclusively sparkling wine, while variety in the Loire is endless. For every taste, France produces not one wine but ten.
But beneath the broad differences, there’s a layer of deep nuance, and even a lifetime is not enough to appreciate the subtle differences between a classic Bordeaux blend and a pure Pinot Burgundy. Unmatched in elegance and complexity, French wines still represent the pinnacle of viticulture to wine lovers all over the world.
- Understanding the French System - A guide to understanding the French system
Understanding the French System
Unlike many New World wines, most French wines are labeled by their source rather than their grape variety. After all, France is known for its world famous regions, not its grapes - although they too are used worldwide. Many people find French wine labels confusing (they are in French, after all!), but they are actually quite clear and simple once you know what you’re looking for. Listed on every French AOC wine label is information on the producer, location, vintage, vineyard, etc.
All of these label features are required by law today, but that wasn’t always true. In the late 1800’s a series of viticultural maladies plagued Europe, devastating vineyards everywhere. The worst of these vine diseases was caused by the Phylloxera louse, which destroyed nearly all of the vinifera vines in Europe. Meanwhile, because wine was in such short supply, demand increased, prices rose, and many French estates began making wine using grapes from other regions and bottling them as their own.
To combat fraud and guarantee product authenticity, the French Government intervened in 1905 and laid out the framework for the current Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée system. In 1935, an organization called the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO) was created to define regional boundaries based on terroir. They were also made responsible for restricting maximum yields, alcohol levels, and have defined appropriate grape varieties and viticultural, vinification, and maturation practices.
In addition to the AOC, there are three lesser categories of wine law in France. Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure, or VDQS is a stepping stone to AOC. The VDQS laws cover the same things as AOC, but are less stringent. Below that are Vin de Pays, or country wines. Under this labeling, producers have much more control over the grapes they can use, and can even place the grape variety on the label.
Below Vin de Pays, is the basic, Vin de Table. These “table wines” are rarely exported, and are loosely controlled. Because of the large amount of high quality, affordable AOC wine being produced today, the Vin de Table is in decline.
Resting between the French Vosges Mountains and the Rhine River, Alsace has incorporated both styles of winemaking into its own, unique tradition. Although disputed over by France and Germany for more than one thousand years, the last switch occurring after World War I, little appears to have changed for generations: the region boasts ruined castles, stone churches, and old villages. The famous white wine is made from German varieties in the French style. Americans often think of German varieties (and by extension, those from Alsace) as overly sweet – however, this is not the case.
The Alps lend variety to Alsace’s soil, and consequently the region produces an abundant amount of varieties, including Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Muscat, Pinot Blanc, Chasselas, and Sylvaner. Chasselas and Sylvaner are blending grapes that are losing acreage to the more noble Riesling, while the others can stand alone. The most popular variety in Alsace, Riesling, is bone dry, with steely acidity and floral aromas that mature into flint and wet slate. Gewürztraminer, Alsace’s second signature wine, is fruit-forward with high acidity, making it ideally suited for drinking with spiced food. Also in Alsace’s repertoire is the often-underrated Pinot Gris, which combines the spice of Gewürztraminer with the acidity of the Riesling.
Other varieties include Pinot Blanc, a simple white wine with a clean acidity and a crisp dryness, and even a little Pinot Noir, which in Alsace is light and soft with strawberry flavors. Sparkling wine in the region is called Crémant d’Alsace, and consists of Pinot Blanc and possibly Pinot Blanc and Riesling. Crémant d’Alsace is growing in popularity, and currently represents about 10% of all wine made in Alsace.
The final major Alsatian wine is the deep and rich Vendage Tardive. Literally “late picked,” Vendage Tardive hangs longer on the vine, developing additional sugars, to create a semi-sweet wine with increased amounts of alcohol. Only Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Muscat, and Pinot Gris are acceptable varieties, additional sugars may not be added, and the grapes need not be botrytized. Vendage Tardive can possess flavors of wonderful richness and depth.
Located roughly ninety miles northeast of Paris, near the Ardennes Forest and Belgium, cold and wet Champagne has quite variable weather, which makes spring and fall difficult for winemakers. The nearby Atlantic keeps the summers cool. Vineyards grow on the gentle hills of the region, typically facing south to maximize warmth and sunlight. The soil of Champagne consists of a chalky limestone, which drains well but allows for some water retention. The limestone-based soil creates grapes with high acidity, which is essential to the production of Champagne’s sparkling wines. The important (and only!) varieties are:
Languedoc-Roussillon, which mainly produces red wine, also has the distinction of being France's largest producer of wine. Though robust and powerful, these wines generally cannot compare with a good Burgundy or Bordeaux; however, they are priced accordingly. Located in southern France, west of the Rhône, Languedoc hugs the Mediterranean and stretches across vast open fields and hillsides from Nîmes to the Spanish border. Although it traditionally grows varieties typical to the South of France such as Carignan, Cinsault, and Grenache, Languedoc has recently begun producing more Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot.
Viticulture in Languedoc differs from the rest of France, as grapes are mechanically harvested in the manner of corn or wheat. This low-cost technique has cemented Languedoc’s reputation as France’s “Bargain Basement.”
But that is not to say that Languedoc doesn’t make some excellent wines. The region owes a great deal to Australian company BRL Hardy, which purchased the Domaine de la Baume vineyard in 1990 and produced some stunning wines that showed the world Languedoc’s potential. In particular, BRL Hardy implemented the idea that a great Languedoc is better than decent Bordeaux, particularly in terms of cost. Recently purchased by a French company, Domaine de la Baume has continued in the same vein.