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French wine: the Old World's distinctive flavor


France is synonymous with wine, and visa versa. They are the largest producer of wine in the world (8 billion bottles), have the second-largest vineyard area (867,000 hectares), and have many of the oldest continuous producers on earth.

Wine has been made in France as far back as 600 BCE, and the Romans planted many varietals that remain to this day. The French pioneered many of the traditional winemaking methods that are still used throughout the world – most famously the méthode champenoise, used to produce the sparkling wines of Champagne. For many, the French remain the definitive experts on wine in the world, and all other wineries are judged in their relation to the great chateaus of France.

Unlike New World wines, which identify wines by the varieties of grape used in their production, French winemaking focuses more on the region in which the grapes were grown. The French are strong advocates of the idea of terroir – the concept that the soil, weather, altitude, microclimate, and the general feel of the place in which grapes are grown sets a distinctive imprint on the final wine, and that certain grapes are best suited for certain regions.

To that end, France is separated into strictly-controlled Appellations d’Origine. These regions have rules as to what grape varietals may be used in their wines, and wines which fail to meet those requirements cannot put the name of the region on their bottle. So while a bottle of French red Burgundy may not say pinot noir on it, a savvy consumer will know that a red wine from anywhere in Burgundy except Beaujolais (where gamay may be used) will have at least 85% pinot noir, and will likely be 100% pinot noir.

The French wine world tends also to focus more on small-production wines. Many of these boutique wines can be exceedingly rare, and those from highly sought-after vintages can command record prices for their prestige. Although some regions have begun to develop a tasting room culture in line with that found in the United States, the majority of small producers are open to visitors only on appointment.

The world of French wine can seem daunting. With hundreds of regions, each with their own rules and regulations, even navigating a wine label to identify what grapes are found within can seem exceedingly difficult to the novice. Thankfully, a basic knowledge of a dozen major regions, and some general rules of thumb can quickly level the playing field.