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Enlarge France mapIntroduction to France

France is the most famous wine region in the world. And for good reason. It produces the highest volume of wine each year. And it has largest area 'under vine'. And it is the source of the most expensive wines in the world. And, when you say "wine" to most people anywhere in the world, the place they think of is France.

But, it also has its problems: it has nearly been wiped out by disease in the past, and is currently facing another attack. And it has a huge surplus of wine which is ruining small producers.

 

Bordeaux

The wines of Bordeaux are the most famous of all French regions. Britain has a long-standing relationship with Bordeaux (whose wines we generically term as "claret". Bordeaux's wines are some of the most complex wines in the world and can benefit from ageing for decades, and sometimes centuries. This is the area of BIG money wines (think Chateau Lafite, Latour, Margaux and Petrus) but also a large amount of everyday wines which piggy back on the region's good name.

Bordeaux red wines predominantly consist of two grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The general rule is: the higher proportion of Cabernet that a wine has needs ageing (otherwise it will have harsh, astringent tannins), while those with a higher proportion of Merlot will be smoother earlier on. That is why wines from such regions as Margaux are wines to age, while wines from St-Emilion can be appreciated earlier.

Another great wine from Bordeaux is the sweet, dessert wine: Sauternes. A traditional match with foie gras, this luxurious wine is a perfect accompaniament to all things sweet. Again, it is Bordeaux which gives us the most famous of this style of wine: Chateau d'Yquem - a bottle of which will usually set you back around £400.

Be careful of wines from Bordeaux. Unless you are buying quality (which normally means expensive), many wines are not meant for ageing and can be very astringent due to their high Cabernet Sauvignon content. Buy with care!

Champagne

Champagne is often mistaken to mean "sparkling wine". In fact, "Champagne" is a trademarked term and refers only to wines made from specific grape varieties, by specific methods, from the specific region in northern France (around the town of Reims).

Most Champagne is meant to be drunk as soon as it is purchased. Most of it won't benefit from ageing. There are different methods of production, some of which is very labour-intensive, which accounts for at least some of the vast difference in price that you can pay.

One character of Champagne which is often found is a "bready" smell/taste. This comes from the production method (basically, it's yeast) and is nicer in the better Champagnes.

A simple rule of all sparkling wine is: the smaller the bubbles, the better the quality of the wine. Also, the bubbles will hang around for longer in the better wines.

 

Burgundy

The arch-rival of Bordeaux and one which many claim is a better all-rounder. Burgundy covers a large area with many different wines: the steely white Chablis in the north, through the high-class wines of the Cote de Nuit and Cote de Beaune, to Macon and Beaujolais in the south.

The Burgundy reds are almost always pure Pinot Noir or Gamay grapes; while the whites are Chardonnay or Aligoté.

Each area within Burgundy has some remarkable wines, but most of the top end wines come from the Cote de Nuit and the Cote de Beaune - with the most famous of all being Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (simply referred to as DRC).

Beaujolais is an often under-valued region with some wonderful wines from the Gamay grape. Beaujolais Nouveau can be really rough (it is something of an acquired taste and I often think has undertones of white spirit!) while Brouilly, Fleurie and Morgon are usually very easy-to-drink wines.

 

Rhone Valley

This is the second biggest area in France and is split into two: Northern Rhone and Southern Rhone.

Northern Rhone produces around 5% of the total production, but has most of the best wines. The dominant grapes used are Syrah (also known as Shiraz in other countries - produces red wines) and Viognier (white wines). Famous areas in Northern Rhone are Cote-Rotie, Saint-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage and Hermitage. Southern Rhone produces the bulk of Rhone wines, but also has some fantastic areas within it: for example, Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

This is a fantastic region for good-quality wines at not too high prices.