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France has led the fine wine world for centuries, and it remains the reference point today. France’s wine is as diverse as its food, landscape, and people – indeed, French wine is a part of France’s culture and identity. French wine is iconic, though there is plenty of substance behind the style.
The Grand Crus of Burgundy are the most expensive wine in the world, setting records at auction and gracing the wine lists of the world’s most exclusive restaurants. Burgundy is not a land of luxury, however: The domaines are often little more than farms, tended to by the same families for generations. The classified growths of Bordeaux lie dormant in the private cellars of the world’s richest collectors, though they account for only a minority of the production.
The Rhône Valley boasts a wealth of legendary appellations, from Hermitage to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, each with its own identity and style. Champagne, despite many contenders, still dominates the sparkling wine world.
As if that weren’t quite enough for one country, there’s more. There is high-quality and regionally distinctive wine produced throughout France, from Alsace and the Loire Valley to the Southwest and Languedoc-Roussillon – and that’s not to mention Provence, Savoie or the Jura.
Burgundy is subdivided into many small vineyard sites (“climats”) based upon the studies of monks in the middle ages. The best sites – recognized as such for their microclimate, soil makeup, sun exposure and so on – are designated as Grand Cru. They’re followed by Premier Cru, then village-level wines and, finally, generic wines labelled as Bourgogne (the French name for Burgundy). Key regions are Chablis, the Côte d’Or (itself made up of the Côte de Nuits and the Côte de Beaune), the Côte Chalonnaise, the Mâconnais and Beaujolais.
Located in the southwest, Bordeaux is most famous for its red wine blends based on Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The region can be broadly divided in two by the Gironde estuary. Its left bank contains the Médoc, Graves and Sauternes sub-regions. On the right bank, the key sub-regions are Saint Emilion and Pomerol. Most châteaux produce inexpensive, everyday wines, though a small minority of fine wine estates – classified growths and their equivalents – attract all the attention and command the highest prices.
The Rhône Valley is divided into north and south. The Northern Rhône is known to produce some of the world’s greatest Syrah wines, particularly from sub-regions like Côte Rotie, Hermitage and Cornas. Some sub-regions produce white wines, the best coming from Condrieu and the tiny single-owner Château-Grillet. Down south, red blends are common, led by Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre. White blends are increasingly fashionable, too. Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Vacqueyras and Gigondas produce some of the best wines in the south, with good value in the Côtes du Rhône Villages.
Home to the world’s most celebrated sparkling wine, Champagne is France’s northernmost major wine region. Three grape varieties rule Champagne production, namely Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Most Champagne is non-vintage (NV), making it a blend not just of different grapes from different sites, but of several different vintages. Rarer and more expensive is vintage Champagne, produced only in the best years. Champagne is produced according to the so-called “traditional method”, whereby the wine’s secondary fermentation takes place inside the bottle in which it will be sold.