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The ultimate guide to French wine

Updated: Sep 23, 2022

France's wine business is one of the few that can compete with its global reputation. This is the ideal starting point from which to explore the complex world of wine produced in France.


Charles de Gaulle, a former president of France, famously posed this question to himself: "How does one lead a nation that has 246 types of cheese?" When it comes to cheese and wine, France certainly has more options than it knows what to do with, which is a problem, of course. When I first went to France, I lived next to a market that had three whole aisles dedicated to cheese and much more space dedicated to wine. The figure that De Gaulle gave was an underestimate; currently, there are well over 350 distinct types of cheese produced in France. Where do we even start?


To get you started on your adventure of discovery in France, I have compiled a list of some of my favorite wines and cheeses to enjoy along the way. Bon journey!


Selecting a French wine


The majority of wines produced in France are labeled with their respective appellations, which indicate the regions from whence the grapes originated (the grapes used). Someone who selects their wine based on the kind of grape it is, such as Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, may find this to be highly perplexing. How can one tell the difference between a Pommard and a Pomerol? The grape varieties that went into the production of the wine are often (though not always) detailed on the rear label of the bottle. But if there are three or more aisles to navigate, you can find yourself rotating bottles for years before giving up in exasperation.


To be of assistance, I have compiled the following list of wines for you to sample first to gain a sense of the diverse wines that come from various areas in France without feeling too overwhelmed. The bulk of these wines do not need to be aged before consumption; you may drink them directly off the shelf. You will have the opportunity to discover what interests you at this very moment.


A guide to choosing French red wines


Saumur-Champigny


This wine from the Loire Valley is created from Cabernet Franc grapes and has a body that ranges from mild to medium (western France). It is simple to consume, very affordable (€5–8 for a bottle), and pairs well with a broad range of foods, from roasted chicken to vegetarian options.


Beaune


One of the most well-known cities in the region of Bourgogne (Burgundy), the Pinot Noirs that are produced in this region are excellent and justify the higher price tag (€15–€40 a bottle). The prominent minerality in these dry, medium-bodied wines helps to strike a balance with the red fruit flavors. They usually improve after being aged for a few years; if you want to drink them right away, search for vintages that are a little older than usual. They go well with lamb, fish that has been grilled, or lasagna. They also shine when matched with a variety of cheeses from throughout the world.


Pessac-Léognan


One of the several subregions that make up Bordeaux, the wines produced here are often a combination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and even Petit Verdot and Malbec on occasion. When compared to their relatives from Saint-Emilion or the Médoc, these wines have a suppler texture and may be consumed at a younger age with more ease. Keep an eye out for wines that are at least five years old and cost between 20 and 60 euros a bottle. They are delicious when paired with dry-aged meat or venison. Make sure you open the bottle at least half an hour before you want to consume it so that the wine may absorb oxygen and become more pleasant.


How to choose French white wines


Sancerre


These wines, which are produced from Sauvignon Blanc, have a high level of fragrance and fruitiness, yet they are bone dry. They have a price range of nine to twenty euros a bottle and pair quite well with shellfish. You could also come across some red Sancerres from the Loire Valley, which are often produced with Pinot Noir.


Chablis


Chardonnay wines from the region of Bourgogne, sometimes known as Burgundy, are notable for their high mineral content and citrusy flavors. They typically begin at €9 a bottle and have the potential to reach very high costs. Do not get them confused with Petit Chablis, which is likewise produced from Chardonnay but is far more affordable. Because of the tartness of these vegetables, one of my favorite ways to enjoy them is combined with creamy spaghetti sauce. A more traditional accompaniment would be raw oysters.


Champagne


There is no such thing as an exhaustive list of French wines that do not include the king of bubbles. The desire for sweeter kinds of Champagne has been shifting in recent years in favor of drier expressions of the beverage.


Grower champagnes are produced by over 4,000 small producers around the region of Champagne, and they capitalize on the desire of wine lovers to try something different.


Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier are the three grapes that are used to produce the great majority of champagnes or a combination of these three. Try a bottle of Brut Nature champagne if nothing else seems dry enough for your tastes. These contain very little to no sweetness, which is necessary to counteract the inherent tartness.


Champagnes that are worth the money typically cost between €20 and €60 a bottle, although you may sometimes get bottles of champagne for under €10. You do not need to keep them for a particular occasion; instead, you can make every day seem like a special occasion by serving them with a warm cheese and leek puff pastry appetizer or a meal consisting of fish or shellfish. Champagnes called Blanc de Noirs, which are created from Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier, can hold their own when paired with heartier dishes like pork loin or chicken.


Alsace


This area is renowned for its white wines and is located on the easternmost edge of France, close to the borders with Germany and Switzerland. There are too many varieties to name them all, but a few of the more popular ones include Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris. Riesling is a wine that can go from being bone dry to quite sweet, and I recommend that you start your journey with it. To our good fortune, the labels of Alsatian wines always include an indication of the grape variety. On the back of the bottle, you will often find descriptions or charts that direct you toward the sort of wine that best suits your tastes (terms like "sucré," "doux," and "vendanges tardives" imply sweet wines). Rieslings, which often have a lot of citrus overtones, pair very well with rich, creamy sauces that are served over pasta, fowl, or fish. The semi-sweet or somewhat sweet wines go well with a broad range of cheeses because of their similar flavor profiles.


Types of French rosés


Côtes de Provence


These light-bodied wines from the south of France are perfect for sipping as an aperitif on a warm summer evening since they are so simple to consume. A combination of Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvèdre, these wines often have a pale peach or pink color, are very dry and have a harmony of sour acidity and fruitiness with a fragrant aroma. There are some sweeter rosés available, so if that is what you are after — or if you want to steer clear of them — be sure to read the back of the bottle (doux is sweet, sec is dry). Just €4–8 per bottle, try them out with some tiny snacks like savory cookies and sliced dry sausages; they go well with them.


Tavel


Rosé wines from Tavel, produced from Grenache, Cinsault, and occasionally Syrah and/or Mourvèdre, have a vivid pink color that makes them simple to identify. Tavel rosés are also known for their high alcohol content. In addition to being very dry, they sometimes exhibit robust flavors of red fruit as well as a characteristic spiciness, particularly after being aged for a few years. Combine them with a piece of mushroom or Lorraine quiche and a fresh salad to round off the meal.


Champagne


There are certain varieties of "pink champagne" that do live up to the reputation of being sickeningly sweet and syrupy, which is the consensus among consumers. The vast majority of rosé champagnes, on the other hand, have flavors that vary from a touch of sweetness to a sourness that leaves your mouth watering, and they are a lot of fun to try.


These wines, which are often produced from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, or both of these grapes, have scents of berries and blossoms and are wonderful on their own or when coupled with sweets that are based on fresh fruit.


A guide to French cheeses


If only I had access to all of the cheeses in the world and time! It is quite possible to taste a different French cheese daily for a whole year and yet fall short of trying them all. At your neighborhood fromagerie (also known as a cheese store) or neighborhood market, the selection may seem to be overwhelming. You may be able to find a variety of younger artisanal cheeses at your neighborhood market; but, the finest cheeses may be purchased from a cheese store that specializes in cheese or from a cheese stand that is located at your neighborhood farmer's market. If your French is up to the challenge, cultivate a connection with the cheesemonger, and they will point you in the direction of cheeses that have reached their peak maturity. They can identify the cheese's level of maturity down to the hour, so they may ask you precisely when you intend on presenting the cheese.


Because cheese labels do not often clearly identify their country of origin in the same way that wine labels do, it is up to you to find out where the cheese came from. I recommend that you sample a range of textures, ranging from tough to mushy, as well as different kinds of milk (cow, goat, sheep, or a combination). Make sure that you allow them to reach room temperature before serving them because otherwise you will miss out on a lot of the flavors and smells that they have to offer.


The following is a choice of France's many delicious kinds of cheese.


Comté


The eastern region of France is the source of this firm cheese made from cow's milk. If you want to get a good sense of what this cheese is all about, you should search for one that has matured for 12–18 months, since the taste becomes nuttier and more nuanced with age. It pairs nicely with a wide variety of wines, particularly Pinot Noirs from the Beaune region.


Rocamadour


These tender small rounds of goat cheese become gooey when they are fully ripe and have a savory flavor that is comparable to that of a fine Brie. They originate in Aquitaine, which is also the location of Bordeaux in France. Spread it over toast points or simply lick it off your fingers, and then wash it down with champagne that was created from Pinot Noir grapes.


Fourme d'Ambert


This blue cheese created from cow's milk is shaped in a huge, recognizable log and has a very little sweetness that distinguishes it from other blue cheeses. The cheese is manufactured using a blue mold. The hilly area of Auvergne is where you will find this delicious cheese. Pair with a Riesling from Alsace that has a touch of sweetness.


Époisses


If you believe that you can withstand an explosion of flavors on your tongue, you may be ready for a washed-rind cheese such as an Époisses. This Bourgogne cheese made with cow's milk may be off-putting due to the strong scents of the liqueur or brine with which it is washed before consumption. The inside is luxurious and creamy, and one has the option of consuming the bright orange peel or not (I do). It pairs well with the regional specialty, a glass of Pinot Noir from the Bourgogne region.


Chaource


Chaource is a cheese made from cow's milk that is somewhat solid but soft and a touch crumbly inside, and it has a thin, white rind that may be eaten. This cheese is great for those who do not like strong flavors and is a perfect option for them. Because it is a Champagne product, it pairs very well with the sparkling wines that are produced in the Champagne area.


Munster


This cheese is made from cow's milk and is frequently washed with Riesling or brine. This cheese may be the most well-known cheese to come from the Alsace area. It has a rather faint odor and flavor when it is quite fresh, but both of those qualities will intensify with time, and if it is not consumed, it will soon make the whole home smell terrible. It goes well in omelets and is delicious when paired with sliced apples or pears. You might try it with any white or red wine from Alsace.


Ossau-Iraty


The greatest examples of this solid cheese made from the milk of sheep and produced in the Basque area of southwestern France (Aquitaine), have received awards at international cheese competitions. It has a texture that is both smooth and hard, and it is satisfying to the tongue. Try it out with a cold glass of Chablis or a Beaune red wine and discover which one you like more.


Sainte-Maure de Touraine


What exactly is the grey log that is sitting on top of the cheese board? This cheese is made from goat's milk and comes from the Loire region of France. It has a thin, blue-gray rind that is completely edible and a straw running through the middle of it. The straw serves two purposes: it keeps the cheese together and it allows air to circulate through the middle of the cheese. Pair with a lighter red wine such as a Saumur-Champigny and enjoy on a sandwich with chicken breast and silky Dijon mustard.


Brin d'Amour (French)


Cheese is made from sheep's milk and is typically produced on the French island of Corse, which is located off the coast of Provence. The flavor of the savory cheese, which is rich and somewhat sour, is affected by the fact that it is coated with herbs, including rosemary. Do not be afraid to consume the rind, which may have a mottled appearance of blue, white, and grey. It is recommended that you enjoy it with a rosé from the Côtes de Provence or a lighter red wine from Corse.


Find out more


This guide to French wine is written in French and covers the wines produced in each area, as well as their history and the foods that go well with each wine.


The following is a guide to matching French wine with the cuisine.


This comprehensive guide to French cheese covers everything you could ever want to know about le fromage (the French word for cheese).


Find out which foods go well with certain wines and compile a list of the many kinds of cheese produced in France. Wine and cheese make the ideal pairing.


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