Exploring the world of wine can be a lifelong quest that becomes more than just an interest. It’s an experience that becomes imbedded in your everyday life, and one that starts with our digital tasting tour.
If you’re new to wine, it can be a frustrating and intimidating experience. There are so many options available, the confusing labels and insider lingo, the pretension that goes with some winemakers or wine fanatics. You don’t have to let that make you want to run away from it all though.
In this article (and those that came before), I will give you a roadmap of the world of French wine. If you haven’t read our first French wine article: Bordeaux, Loire Valley, Alsace, Champagne, check that out first! These articles are for people who are interested in French wines, want to learn more about them, what varietals are grown in the different regions, and how the differing landscapes create these wonderful wines.
Where is Burgundy?
Burgundy is in a region located in central eastern France. It’s true fame is as a wine producing area.
What is Burgundy?
This may sound like a silly question, but many people are confused about what Burgundy really is because the name is often misused on the label. For our purposes, Burgundy is one of the major wine regions that holds an AOC designation in France. Burgundy is not a synonym for red wine even though many red wines are simply labeled “Burgundy.” Many of these Burgundy wines are ordinary table wines that are rough, dark red, and heavy. They may come from California, South Africa, Australia, or Chile and bear little resemblance to the styles of authentic French Burgundy wines.
When you see a label on a wine list that says Bourgogne or Burgundy (French), you should instantly think Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which are the two varietals you will see most commonly from this area. Gamay is the third most common varietal. You may see signs in your wine shop for Red Burgundy and White Burgundy, which makes this a little easier to understand.
Before we go any further, Burgundy is one of the most difficult subjects in the study of wine. People get uptight about Burgundy. They say, “there’s so much to know,” and “it looks so hard.”
Yes, there are a lot of vineyards and villages, and they are all important. But, actually, there are only 25 to 50 names you need to familiarize yourself with, if you’d like to know and enjoy Burgundy wines. Not to worry, I’m going to help you decode all the mysteries of Burgundy names, regions, and labels.
As we have stated, Burgundy is a large area with a ton of appellations throughout. Some of these areas are better known than others. In some areas you will find world class wines that command a price tag into the thousands. In other areas you can score a decent wine for $20 to $30.
In general, good Burgundy comes with a weighty price tag, especially compared to some other areas in France. And there is a good reason. The Pinot Noir grape is notably difficult to grow and very hard to master, especially with the often erratic weather in Burgundy. Fortunately, many of the French winemakers have been at it for a considerable amount of time, sometimes dating back generation after generation in their family. This deep history of winemaking is something we are only beginning to establish in the U.S. Experience begets expertise.
The wines of Burgundy taste a little different than the Pinot Noir that you might be drinking from Oregon or California. The French Pinot Noir utilizes the amazing land and old vines, tasting a little more old world, dry and chalky compared to it’s U.S. counterparts. There is layer after layer of complexity on the palate which only gets better with some air. These are wines that age superbly well, even decades for the very best.
The Importance of Soil to Burgundy Wines
If you talk to any producers of Burgundy wines, they will tell you the most important element in making quality wines is the soil in which the grapes are grown.
This, together with the slope of the land (and sunshine), determines whether the wine is a Village wine, a Premier Cru, or Grand Cru. A friend once told me that he was in Burgundy where it rained for five straight days.
On the sixth day the workers were at the bottom of the slopes with their pails and shovels, collecting the soil that had run down the mountain and returning it to the vineyard.
What Is The Best Way To Understand The Wines Of The Côte d’ Or?
Côte d’ Or is a name to remember. Côte d’ Or wines are stored and known around the world for their fine quality and refinement. Côte d’ Or is divided into two regions:
- Côte de Beaune – red and white wine
- Côte de Nuits – where quality red Burgundy wines come from
First you need to know these wines are distinguished by quality levels: Generic, Village, Premier, and Grand Cru.
- Grand Cru typically means the wine is of the highest quality single vineyard; these are the best of the best, accounting for less than 2% of the Burgundy wines.
- Premier Cru accounts for about 10%, and means a high quality single vineyard.
- Village is the third designation, and the largest, accounting for around 37% of the region’s wines. It means the wine is made using fruit from multiple vineyards.
- After that, the remaining 50% or so are generic which is not considered a designation. These wines are produced in abundance and you would be hard pressed to find a generic wine that is outstanding, though they are drinkable table wines.
Côte de Nuits
In the Côte de Nuits, around 90% of production is in red wine. If you’re going to spend any time with geography, do it now. Most of the big full-bodied reds come from this area. The most important names (also the most expensive) are included in a list at the end of this article.
I have been buying and drinking Côte de Nuits wines for over thirty years and here’s some advice on buying from your wine shop or ordering in a restaurant. Always check maps. This is a good idea not only for French wines but all European wines. Look for a Village designated wine located next to a Premier Cru. Or a Premier Cru located next to a Grand Cru. It used to be far more difficult, but now it’s only a Google search away. While the terroir and winemaking will not be exactly the same, in many cases it will be similar and can give you a plan for tasting many of these famous wines.
Why are we bothering with all this geography? Must we learn the names of all the villages and vineyards? First of all, geography is important because it helps make you a smart buyer. If you are familiar with the most important villages and vineyards, you’re more likely to make an educated purchase. But, no, you really don’t have to memorize all the villages and vineyards verbatim, just familiarize yourself with them.
Here is a little secret of how to choose a Burgundy wine and tell at a glance if it’s a Village, Premier Cru, or Grand Cru wine.
- If only the village is listed on the label then it’s a Village wine.
- If the village and vineyard is listed on the label it is a Premier Cru.
- If the vineyard is only listed on the label then it is a Grand Cru.
It’s that simple.
Chambertin Clos de Beze, a Grand Cru from the Côte de Nuits, was the favorite wine of Napoleon, who is reported to have said: “Nothing makes the future look so rosy as to contemplate it through a glass of Chambertin.” Obviously, he ran out of Chambertin at Waterloo.
Côte de Beaune
Côte de Beaune produces the most famous white Burgundy wines from a number of top areas such as Corton Charlemagne, Puligny-Montrachet, Meursault, Volnay, and Pommard. Very few of the wines are white in the Côte de Beaune, but the ones mentioned above are the finest examples of dry white wine produced in the world and are considered a benchmark for wine makers everywhere. The same tips discussed in the Côte de Nuits section are applied here too.
As with wines from Côte de Nuits, those from Côte de Beaune can get expensive, starting around $40 for entry level wines and going over $100 quickly. If you have the resources that’s great but if you are on a tighter budget you are in luck because there are other regions in Burgundy that offer great wine but at a more affordable price.
Wines of Mâconnais, Côte Chalonnaise, Beaujolais, Chablis
The southernmost white wine producing area in Burgundy. Macon wines, in general, are pleasant, light, uncomplicated, reliable table wines, which represent a very good value.
The Macon is a great place to go for value-priced Chardonnay and is home to the wines of Pouilly. Fuisse and Saint Veran are both excellent areas to explore with wines starting at around $12 to $15 a bottle.
The Côte Chalonnaise is the least known of the major wine regions of Burgundy. Not many wines are exported from there. Mercury is the most important village in the region for producing red wine of high quality. Because they are not well known in the U.S. Mercury wines are often a very good buy.
The Chalonnaise does produce some very good white wines that not many people know about, which again means value for you. The limestone soil of the Chalonnaise gives the wines a distinct minerality and some very good buys in Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, as well as their Cremant bottling (sparkling). Remember the French sparkling wines I mentioned earlier that aren’t from Champagne? Many are offered from this region for about $20.
The Chalonnaise is also home to an under-the-radar white grape varietal, Aligote, which is super crisp and citrusy, and a treat on a hot day. Better yet, there are plenty available for about $15 a bottle.
Made from 100 percent Gamay grapes, this wine’s style is typically light and fruity. It is meant to be consumed young. Beaujolais is the largest selling Burgundy in the U.S., probably because it is so easy to drink.
What are the quality levels of Beaujolais?
- Beaujolais: the basic Beaujolais accounts for the majority of all Beaujolais produced.
- Beaujolais-Villages: comes from certain villages in Beaujolais. There are 35 villages that consistently produce better wines than basic Beaujolais. Most Beaujolais-Villages are a blend of wines from these villages and usually no particular village name is included on the label.
- Cru: a total of nine in Beaujolais. A “Cru” is actually the name of a village that produces the highest quality of Beaujolais. The most popular “crus” are Brouilly, Morgon, Moulin-a-Vent, and Fleurie. All the crus are affordable ($15) quality wines.
What is Beaujolais Nouveau? Nouveau is “new” Beaujolais – picked, fermented, bottled, and available at your wine shop in a matter of weeks. The exact release date is November 15, and Beaujolais Nouveau is introduced to the consumer amidst great hoopla. Restaurants and retailers all vie to be the first to offer it.
How long should I keep a Beaujolais? It depends on the level of quality. Most Beaujolais are meant to last between one or two years, except for the “cru” Beaujolais. A “cru” can easily be in excellent condition at five years.
Chablis is in the northernmost area in Burgundy that produces only white wine.
Isn’t Chablis just a general term for white wine? The name “Chablis” suffers from the same misinterpretation and overuse as does the name “Burgundy” because the French did not take the necessary precautions to protect the use of the name. Chablis is now used randomly, applied to many bulk wines from other countries. Chablis has come to be associated with some very undistinguished wine, but this is not the case with French Chablis. In fact, the French take their Chablis very seriously.
What are the quality levels of Chablis?
- Petit Chablis: the most ordinary Chablis
- Chablis: a wine that comes from Chardonnay grapes grown anywhere in the Chablis district.
- Chablis Premier Cru: a very good Chablis that comes from specific, high-quality vineyards.
- Chablis Grand Cru: the highest classification of Chablis, and the most expensive because of limited production. There are seven vineyards in Chablis entitled to be called Grand Cru.
Chablis is an excellent white wine for almost any occasion and, like many great French wines, we are seeing many more quality bottles reaching our shores. I have found Premier Cru’s for under $20 that would best most California chardonnays.
Summing up on our look at Burgundy it remains one of the most premier wine regions in the world. The wines can be expensive, but for a reason. Their distinctness cannot be matched anywhere.
The Rhône Valley is in southeastern France, below the Burgundy region. Here the climate is hot and the conditions are sunny. The extra sun gives the grapes the sugar to add an extra boost of alcohol. The soil is full of rocks that retain the intense summer heat during both day and night.
A Rhône wine is typically a bigger, fuller wine than those of Burgundy and it has a higher alcohol content. That’s a fact. The winemakers of the Rhône Valley are required by law to make sure their wines have a specific amount of alcohol. For example, the minimum alcoholic content required by the A.O.C. is 10.5 percent for a Côtes du Rhone and 13 percent for the renowned Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Rhône wines will appeal to a wide range of wine drinkers. They exude the beauty of the French terroir with old-vine heritage, and they are consistently outstanding values from the low end of $10 all the way to the high end of $300+.
The Rhône Valley is divided into two distinct areas, northern and southern, and they are a little different as to the grapes they feature as well as their tasting characteristics.
Northern Rhône is known for its Syrah, which is the primary red grape that is grown in the area. Interestingly enough to many U.S. wine consumers, the winemakers of Northern Rhône will blend their Syrah with small parts of white grapes including Viogneer, Marsanne, and Roussanne. Fans of Australian wines may find that familiar, since it also occurs in some Australian Shiraz.
Wines that come from the Northern section that you should pay attention to are:
- Côte Rôtie
- Saint Joseph
The climate in Northern Rhône is a little cooler and sees more rain than southern Rhône, so the growing season is a little shorter. Another distinct difference is in the grape varietals. While Southern Rhône uses several different red grapes, Northern Rhône is primarily Syrah.
Some of the oldest vineyards in France are in the Rhône Valley. Hermitage, for example, in Northern Rhône has been in existence for over 2,000 years.
The best appellations for value and to introduce you to the Northern Rhône wines would be Crozes-Hermitage, Saint Joseph, and Cormas. Very drinkable wines can be had for $20 and in Southern Rhône there are quality wines for much less.
Southern Rhône is a bit warmer than its neighbor to the north. In addition to Syrah, you will also find blends with Grenache, Cinsault, Mourvedre, and Carignan. These make up the core of the Rhône Varietals that are growing in popularity around the world.
Some of the key appellations in Southern Rhône that you should familiarize yourself with are:
Côtes du Rhône – Grenache-dominated blends that are a safe bet at almost any price, though below $10 might be pushing it. I find that consistent quality wine is guaranteed in the $12 to $15 range.
Côtes du Rhône Village: Comments from above apply, but these wines are held to a slightly higher standard in production and can cost $2 to $3 more.
Gigondas – these wines are big and flavor-packed with aging potential. They exhibit some of the characteristics of their much higher priced neighbor Châteauneuf-du-Pape and can be purchased in the $20 to $40 range.
Vacqueyras – these are rich, bountiful wines at very good prices. They are medium in body but pack a punch with a notable pepper spice taste. Generally priced in the $15 to $25 range, they deliver much more value than most other wines in that range.
These wines are the crown jewels of Southern Rhône, made predominantly with Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre, however an additional fifteen varietals may be used. The best bottles contain the top-quality grapes of the big three, and the lesser bottles use more varietals.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape means “new castle of the pope,” named for the palace in which Pope Clement V resided in the fourteenth century.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape are among the most respected and celebrated wines from Southern Rhône. You’ll be hard pressed to find one for under $25 dollars and they can reach several hundred dollars.
Two wines from the largest and best domains in Châteauneuf-du-Pape that are popular in the U.S. are Château Mont-Redon and Château de Beaucastel.
The standard Beaucastel Châteaunuef-du-Pape can be found for $80 to $100 with some five times as much. Many Châteaunuef wines will be priced in the $40-$80 range and they are very good. Try your luck online, I’ve scored some incredible bargains.
A relatively new appellation that was started in 1973, they are generally a good value because not too many consumers know about them. This is where you can travel in $10 territory. Look for a La Vieille Ferme: it’s inexpensive, a good value, and a tasty wine.
The White Wines of Rhône
Like Bordeaux, Rhône is known for its reds but that doesn’t mean that you won’t find some decent affordable white wines. The whites are also blended and include grapes such as Viognier, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, and Roussanne.
White Rhônes are tasty and can be had for as little as $8 to $10. There is a white Châteaunuef-du-Pape and a white Hermitage, but only a few thousand cases are produced each year. They tend to climb the price ladder and will put you in the $30 to $50 price range.
Côtes de Provence
I would be remiss if l did not mention Côtes de Provence in the southwestern part of France near Nice. This is home to the popular Rosé wine.
Rosé is a “short vatted” wine, meaning the skins of the grapes are allowed to ferment with the grape juice for a short period of time, only enough to take on that Rosé color.
No discussion of French wine would be complete unless you experience a Rosé from Côtes de Provence. A good bottle will start at $12. Rosé sometimes gets a bad name from lower end bottles, so keep the benchmark at $12 and you will experience a world class wine.
What to Look For: A Quick Rhône Guide
We’ve mentioned a few producers but here are some big names to keep an out when shopping for Rhone wines. You will always see the region listed on the bottle, so taste through some areas. Find what you like, match them up with the producers in the following list and you will be well on your way to becoming a Rhône connoisseur.
- Château de Beaucastel (The Pernin family, they make everything from Côtes du Rhône to Châteauneuf-du-Pape)
- Vidal-Fleury (oldest producer in Rhône)
- Château de Saint Cosme (Reasonably priced Châteauneuf-du-Pape)
- Domaine du Pegau (reasonably priced Châteauneuf-du-Pape)
- E. Guigal (lots of great wines, their basic Côtes du Rhône is $15)
- Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe (semi-pricey Châteauneuf, but worth it)
- Maison Denuzière (Hermitage and Cormas at reasonable prices, wide distribution)
- Domaine Mousse (a “Les Garrigues” Côtes du Rhône is very drinkable for $20)
Located in southern France, Languedoc shares many of the same soil and climate characteristics as neighboring Rhône, and the wines share similar features as well. Languedoc relies heavily on a blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre (GSM) but is also home to other grape varietals including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault, and even whites such as Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.
Wines from Languedoc will come from a variety of geographical classifications including Corbieres, Faugeres, Saint-Chinian, and Roussillon. Sometimes (but not always) you will see the geographies listed, though it might take a little searching.
Most GSM wines have big jammy flavors with hints of black pepper and you can drink them young if you like them fruity or can wait a few years for a balanced taste. More and more Languedoc wines are appearing in stores and on restaurant wine lists in the U.S. Gerard Bertrand, one of France’s top wine producers, offers some tasty blends from Languedoc that will cost between $15 to $20. Keep an eye out for Luc Pirlet, a producer of affordable ($12 range) drinkable wines from Corbieres and Minervois.
FRENCH WINE TASTING MENU WITH SUGGEST PAIRINGS
Here is a quick handy guide to exploring the wines we discussed in Part 1 and Part 2 as well as foods that complement and pair well with them.
- Bordeau Pauillac (Red): Red meat, game, all steaks, cheese
- Bordeaux Margaux (Red): Red meat game, all steaks, (both this and the Pauillac pair well with a Charcuterie Board)
- Bordeaux Pomerol (Red): Mild red meat, stews, roast duck
- Bordeaux St Emilion (Red): Mild red meat, stews, roast duck
- Pessac – Leognan (Red) Red meat, steak
- Sauternernes (White): Chocolate, pies, fruit tarts
- Burgundy Côte de Nuits (Red): Salmon, tuna, duck, pork, veal
- Burgundy Côte de Beaune (Red): Salmon, tuna, duck, pork, veal
- Burgundy Beaujolais (Red) Sweet pork, spicy poultry
- Burgundy Chablis (White): Crab, lobster (perfect for lobster rolls), light fish, chicken, turkey
- Rhône Côtes Rôti (Red):Pork, braised lamb shanks, beef fillet
- Rhône Côtes du Rhône (Red): Pork chops, chicken stir fry, roast turkey
- Rhône Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Red): Spicy pork, beef
- Rhône Châteauneuf-du-pape (White): Seared tuna, grilled fish
A Final Thought
I hope our two articles expedite your understanding of French wine. Hopefully you will feel compelled to check out all the areas we’ve covered.
The mystique of wine is very alluring but it can also be intimidating. However, the enjoyment of wine should be denied to no one, and we can all appreciate it in our own way. You may not wish to be a wine professional, but once you understand the basics you may want to learn more about wine. It is an absorbing hobby that will give you a lifetime of pleasure.
If you’re going to spend any time studying your geography, then concentrate on the Côte de Nuits. Most of the big, full-bodied reds come from this area. The most important names (also the most expensive) for you to remember when you go to your local wine shop or dine out are:
Village Gevrey-Chambertin Grand Cru Vineyards
- Chambertin Clos de Beze
- Latricieres . Chambertin
- Mazis . Chambertin
- Mazoyeres . Chambertin
- Ruchottes . Chambertin
- Chapelle . Chambertin
- Charmes . Chambertin
- Griotte . Chambertin
Village Morey-St-Denis Grand Cru Vineyards
- Clos de Tart
- Clos St. Denis
- Clos de la Roche
- Bonnes Mares (part)
Village Chambolle-Musigny Grand Cru Vineyards
- Bonnes Mares (part)
Village Vougeot Grand Cru Vineyard
- Clos de Vougeot
Village Vosne-Romanée Grand Cru Vineyards
- La Romanée
- La Tache