A Beginner's Guide to 5 Essential French Wine Regions
First thing’s first—French wine is labeled by region rather than grape variety.
In the first episode of our new series Wine School, executive wine editor Ray Isle guides Hallie, a self-identified “wine idiot,” through five of France’s most important wine regions: Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Loire Valley, the Rhône Valley, and Champagne.
As they try different reds and whites, Isle drops some basic wine knowledge, such as that French wines are labeled by region rather than grape variety—which is why you’ll hear people ordering Bordeaux—and that there’s one master family of grapes, Vitis Vinifera, which Hallie says sounds like a Harry Potter spell. They sip everything from Champagne to Syrah from the Rhône Valley, as Isle breaks down five major French wine regions.
Bordeaux is home to the world’s greatest Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots. Bordeaux wine is the original red blend, and dates back hundreds of years. While Isle and Hallie try the wine, he teaches her how to swirl it (on the table, so there aren’t accidents), and has her ask herself the most important wine question of all—“do you like it?” She ends up really noticing the tannins, which give the wine structure and body.
Then Isle and Hallie move on to Burgundy, which is a smaller region than Bordeaux. Here, you can find great reds and whites—primarily, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. They try a white Burgundy from Chablis and a red Burgundy, a Pinot Noir. Hallie automatically frowns when she sips the white, which Isle believes is a reaction to the acidity, and says the Pinot Noir “smells like bad memories."
The sprawling Loire Valley extends north of Bordeaux and west of Paris. The crucial grape to know in this region is Sauvignon Blanc, and Isle has Hallie try a wine from Sancerre. Sauvignon Blanc tastes similar to how it smells, and Isle says it often has a scent that’s reminiscent of grapefruit.
Next up is the Rhône Valley, which is in the South of France and divided into two regions—northern and southern. The northern part is known for Syrah (red grape), while the southern region is known for Grenache. The Syrah has a peppery scent, and Hallie says it reminds her of jerky. Isle explains that pepper, game, and meat are all common descriptors for Syrah.
Champagne, Isle says, is a region, and only sparkling wines made there can be called Champagne—otherwise they're just sparkling wine. Champagne is typically a blend of three grape varieties—Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. The reason the red Pinot Noir grape doesn’t color the wine is because the skins aren’t used when the Champagne is made.