The stereotypical Frenchman may no longer start the day with a shot of red wine to tuer le ver (kill the worm) followed by an espresso, but France is one of the top ten alcohol-consuming countries in the world. Wine, predictably, is the favourite tipple and there are dozens of wine-producing regions throughout France.
Wines in France are generally named after the location of the vineyard rather than the grape varietal, and there are strict regulations governing where, how and under what conditions grapes are grown.
Burgundy developed its reputation for viticulture during the reign of Charlemagne, when monks first began to make wine here. The vignerons of Burgundy generally only have small vineyards and produce small quantities of wine. Burgundy reds are produced with pinot noir grapes; the best vintages need 10 to 20 years to age. White wine is made from the chardonnay grape. The five main wine-growing areas are Chablis, Côte d’Or, Côte Chalonnaise, Mâcon and Beaujolais, which alone produces 13 different types of light gamay-based red wine.
Britons have had a taste for the full-bodied wines of Bordeaux, known as clarets in the UK, since the mid-12th century when King Henry II, who controlled the region through marriage, tried to gain the favour of the locals by granting them tax-free trade status with England. Thus began a roaring business in wine exporting that continues to this day.
Champagne, northeast of Paris, has been the centre for what is arguably France’s best-known wine since the 17th century when the innovative monk Dom Pierre Pérignon perfected a technique for making sparkling wine.
Champagne is made from the red pinot noir, the black pinot meunier or the white chardonnay grape. Each vine is vigorously pruned and trained to produce a small quantity of high-quality grapes. Indeed, to maintain exclusivity (and price), the designated areas where grapes used for Champagne can be grown and the amount of wine produced each year is limited. In 2008 the borders that confine the Champagne label were extended to include another 40 villages, increasing the value of their vineyards and its produce by tens of millions of euros.
The Loire Valley
The Loire’s 700 sq km of vineyards rank it as the third-largest area in France for the production of quality wines. Although sunny, the climate here is humid and not all grape varieties thrive. Still, the Loire produces the greatest variety of wines of any region in the country (a particular speciality of the region is rosé). The most common grapes are the Muscadet, cabernet franc and chenin blanc varieties. Wines tend to be light and delicate. The most celebrated areas are Pouilly-Fumé, Vouvray, Sancerre, Bourgueil, Chinon and Saumur.
This is the country’s most productive wine-growing region, with up to 40% of France’s wine – mainly cheap red table wine – produced here. About 2,500 sq km of the region is “under vine”, which represents just over a third of France’s total.
Alsace produces almost exclusively white wines – mostly varieties produced nowhere else in France – that are known for their clean, fresh taste and compatibility with the often heavy local cuisine. Unusually, some of the fruity Alsatian whites also go well with red meat. The vineyards closest to Strasbourg produce light red wines from pinot noir that are similar to rosé and are best served chilled.
Alsace’s four most important varietal wines are riesling, known for its subtlety; the more pungent and highly regarded gewürztraminer; the robust pinot gris, which is high in alcohol; and muscat d’Alsace, which is not as sweet as that made with muscat grapes grown further south.
There are dramatic differences in the wines produced by the north and south regions. The northern vineyards produce red wines exclusively from the ruby-red syrah (shiraz) grape; the aromatic viognier grape is the most popular for white wines. The south is better known for quantity rather than quality. The vineyards are also more spread out and interspersed with fields of lavender and orchards of olives, pears and almonds. The grenache grape, which ages well when blended, is used in the reds, while the whites use the ugni blanc grape.
The bière de la pression (draught beer) served by the demi (about 25cL) in bars and cafes across the land is usually one of the national brands such as Kronenbourg or Heineken-owned Pelforth and totally forgettable.
Alsace, with its close cultural ties to Germany, produces some excellent local beers (eg Bière de Scharrach, Schutzenberger Jubilator and Fischer d’Alsace, a hoppy brew from Schiltigheim). Northern France, close to Belgium and the Netherlands, has its own great beers as well, including St-Sylvestre Trois Monts, Terken Brune and the barley-based Grain d’Orge.
Apple cider is made in many parts of France, including Savoy, Picardy and the Basque Country, but its real home is Normandy and Brittany. You’ll also find pear-based poire (perry) here.
Apertifs & digestifs
Meals in France are often preceded by an appetite-stirring aperitif such as kir (white wine sweetened with cassis or blackcurrant syrup). Pastis, a 90-proof, anise-flavoured alcoholic drink that turns cloudy when water is added, is especially popular at cafes during the warmer months.
After-dinner drinks are often ordered with coffee. France’s most famous brandies are Cognac and Armagnac, both of which are made from grapes in regions bearing the same name.
This article was first published in July 2010 and was republished in July 2013.