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The wine region of Bordeaux is situated in the south west of France where the rivers Garonne and Dordogne meet to form the Gironde estuary. The positioning and climate of the area are ideal for vine production, and it is considered to be the most important red wine region in the world.
It was probably the Romans who first planted vineyards in Bordeaux and the Roman poet Ausonius was the first to produce written documentation of wine in the region. Ausonius was also one of the first wine makers, and St Emilions prestigious Chateau Ausone takes its name from the poet.
How the vineyards evolved during the immediate centuries following the Roman era is somewhat hazy, although it is strongly believed that most viticulture was carried out in order to make wine for religious ceremonies. It wasn’t until the XII century that the area exploded, with vineyards quickly developing in the areas of Bourg, Blaye, Graves, around the Dordogne and the valley of the Garonne River.
In the 1600s that the same happened in the Medoc area, as many Dutch investors created vineyards, and thus, set in motion the foundations of what would later be known as the first cru classification, which is still used today.
The Dutch are not the only foreign link to Bordeaux. Since medieval times, the wines from Bordeaux were appreciated by the English, and a great deal of the wine was shipped to England. Most of the wines at the time were a deep rosé colour, called Claret. In 1152, Eleanor of Aquitaine’s marriage to Henry II politically tied the south west of France to England, which in turn greatly favoured wine exports. Many merchants from England became exceedingly wealthy, some building chateaux of their own.
As the years passed, more and more foreign investors from northern Europe arrived, and the role of the wine merchant became more and more important. Most of the reputed wines however, rarely made it to Paris, as the majority of them were exported. That would change mainly during the reign of Napoleon.
Today the demand for these wines easily overpowers the supply, and as a result the price of Bordeaux wines has soared, with some bottles sold for a price that most people would pay for a car.
Medoc is both an AOC and an area on the left bank of the Gironde that groups together seven other AOCs (St Estèphe, Pauillac, St Julien, Listrac, Moulis, Margaux and Haut-Medoc). In 1855, the future President of the USA, Thomas Jefferson, drafted out the historic Bordeaux Classification which stands as the single most important and famous classification of any wine region in the world. Originally asked to do so for all of the region, he managed to taste and classify wines from Medoc and Sauternes only. The best chateaux were classed into five categories, with first growth being the most prestigious and originally only given to four: Chateau Latour and Chateau Lafite (both AOC Pauillac), Chateau Margaux (AOC Margaux) and for its white wine Chateau Haut-Brion (AOC Graves). The original list has stood the test of time with most changes coming between the third and fifth growths. It would not be until 1973 that a second growth, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild (AOC Pauillac) was successfully granted the first growth status, and so far no other chateaux has been able to repeat this feat.
Graves, like Médoc, is also an AOC and an area that contains four other AOCs. The red and white wines of graves were not classed until 1953, and reviewed in 1959. Twenty three chateaux were given the Cru Classé status, seven of which produce both white and red, with most of them in the Pessac-Leognan AOC. Chateau Haut-Brion was also given this status for its red wine to go with the first growth status it was awarded for its white, effectively giving it double status!
This AOC known for its sweet dessert wines is located within Graves. The chateaux were also classified in 1855 but into two categories rather than five. One chateau, however, was given a separate category of first growth “supérieur” as its wines stood apart from the others: Chateau d’Yquem. The micro climates here are perfect for late-harvest production, and next to Sauternes are two other dessert wine AOCs: Cérons and Barsac.
Not an AOC in its own right, but the name given to the area on the right bank. Jefferson did not have enough time to visit all the wine producing areas in Bordeaux, and it took this side of the Region time to catch up. Some of the AOCs in this area have equalled the status of the left bank, even if the Cru system doesn’t apply to all:
1955 was when the first classification of St Emilion was made. Premier Cru Classé was the most prestigious, and was further separated into two categories of A and B. This was followed by Grand cru Classé and finally Grand Cru. It has since been reassessed and changed in 1969, 1985, 1996 and 2006. The 2006 classification was fiercely rejected by a number of winery owners who claimed that a number of the judges of the tasting panel had vested economic interests that influenced the classification, and thus were accused of being impartial. After several legal turns, the 2006 was subsequently judged invalid by the Bordeaux courthouse, and a new classification was made in 2012. As it stands, there are 18 wineries with Premiers Crus Classés status, four of which are classed as A: Chateau Pavie, Chateau Cheval Blanc, Chateau Ausone and Chateau Angélus.
Saint Emilion is the patron Saint of wine merchants and there are four other AOCs that include his name: Puissegeon St Emilion, St Georges St Emilion, Montagne St Emilion and Lussac de St Emilion.
There is no classification of the Pomerol AOC. Pomerol is a unique AOC due to the soil type, which is made up of clay and “crasse de fer”. Crasse de fer is very firm soil that is a mixture of dirt and iron oxide. This unique soil type, adds character to Merlot and Cabernet Franc, producing wines that have extraordinary longevity. Château Petrus is the possibly the most reputed, followed by about ten others who compete for top spot. North of Pomerol is Lalande-de-Pomerol, with a more limestone and clay soil that does not produce the same character as its southern cousin, however the wines here are still complex.
The latter of these two AOCs is about the third of the size, and the composition of clay and grey limestone produce tannic red wines that age really well. Fronsacs are generally lighter and fruitier.
The second largest AOC in the Libournais after St Emilion, the wines from this AOC are normally easy drinking with medium body but can be more complex and tannic. They certainly represent one of the best value for money in the region.
In between the Libournais and Graves is the zone literally called “in-between two seas”, due to the fact that the River Dordogne flows through it in the north and the River Garonne in the South. Entre-deux-Mers is also an AOC and most of the wine from here is light, easy drinking whites, reds and rosés. Yet in the southern part of the area are some very curious AOCs, like St-Croix-du-Mont, that produce interesting dessert wines, albeit less concentrated than Sauternes (that lies directly opposite on the left bank of the Garonne).
North-west of the Libournais is the area of Blayois and Bourgois, which consists of two AOCs: Blaye-Côtes-du-Bordeaux and Côte-de-Bourg. They both produce light to medium bodied Merlots.
Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc are the three big red grape varieties cultivated in Bordeaux followed by Malbec, Petit Verdot and Carmenère. Cabernet Sauvignon dominates the left bank and is highly used in Médoc and Graves. In turn, Merlot dominates the right bank and is the most important variety in Pomerol and St Emilion. The red varieties of Bordeaux (even if Cabernet Franc is more typical of the Loire Valley) have conquered the wine world, and dominate not only in most new world wine regions, but old world regions as well.
As well as red varieties there are also a selection of white grapes that are important to the region, with Sémillon Blanc arguably the most. It is used in Sauternes for dessert wines, sometimes blended with Muscadelle, and has an extraordinary capacity to age well, often more than one hundred years. Sauvignon Blanc also has an important place, and is used mainly for dry crisp white wines predominantly in Graves and Entre-Deux-Mers.
North of the City of Lyon, in-between Burgundy and the Rhone Valley is the Province of Beaujolais, where Beaujolais wine is made. The large majority of wine here is red, and this region is symbolised by the Gamay grape. From an administrational point of view, Beaujolais is part of Burgundy, yet the differences in climate, grape types, vinification and terroir, set this region well apart. Winemaking here is typically known for the long tradition of carbonic maceration, which when properly used, can intensify the fruitiness in wines, and add complexity.
During the 1980’s, Beaujolais reached the top end of the world wine market with Beaujolais nouveau. Increased carbonic maceration accelerates fermentation allowing the vintages’ wine to be sold before the end of the year. The third Thursday of November is officially when this wine can be retailed, offering economic advantages to wine growers.
As the wine became popular, more and more wine growers jumped on the bandwagon and converted to making Nouveau wine. Production of regular Beaujolais dropped more and more, eventually leading to a backlash in the late 1990s. Although easy-drinking, the wines do not age well and the Nouveau fad died off. Production still continued, creating large quantities of surplus wines that nobody wanted. The longer lasting effect was that consumers now only associated Beaujolais for its Nouveau wine.
The past 15 years have seen a slow improvement of reputation, with many wine growers concentrating on more complex full-bodied Gamays that differentiate from one another as terroir changes. This region has also some of Frances’ leading figures in Biodynamic Wine, as some of the first wineries to convert to this method are located here.
The northern part of the region has the best terroir for Gamay, producing wines with more character and aging potential. The soils have a large concentration of granite, and the vines are also exposed to elements of the cooler continental climate. Here 10 villages make up what is known as the Cru Beaujolais AOC classification:
Beaujolais-villages AOC is the intermediate classification spread out around 39 villages, also in the northern part of the region. The terroir of schist and granite hills dominate the landscape. The name of the village can be added to the end of the appellation if the grapes all come from one village, although, given the lack of international recognition, most wineries prefer not to do so. Usually, any white wine produced here is done so under the appellations of Mâconnais or Saint-Véran.
Most of the wine from the region is produced under the more generic appellation of AOC Beaujolais, which in some areas can produce wines that are quite concentrated, but most should be drunk within 2-4 years.
The vineyards of burgundy stretch down southwards in-between Dijon and Lyon on the right bank of the river Saône. In this region, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay reach incomparable levels of excellence and uniqueness.
The Romans first brought vines to the region, and the records of this period, indicate that the wine produced was well sought after by the noble Roman families. After the Romans, the declining vineyards were restored and maintained mainly by the local monasteries, significantly for religious ceremonies. After the revolution, these lands were then confiscated from the Church as well as the aristocracy and divided into small plots amongst the local farmers. Since then, these plots have passed down through generations, some sold and fused together and others further split between brothers. Today these small plots are known as climats, referring to the belief that each plot has its own unique climate and soil, and thus each wine from each plot is also unique. They can also be referred to as Clos, meaning the outer walls of the monasteries.
One of the most distinguishable features of Burgundy is the classification of AOC. Wine is classed in the region as follows:
Monopole: the word monopole can sometimes be found on a bottle of premier or grand cru. It simply means that the winery producing the wine, owns all of the climat. E.g. the Romanée-conti climat in the Vosne-Romanée Village AOC, is owned by the “Domaine de la Romanée-Conti” winery.
Given that a great deal of climats and the land in burgundy is divided out into often tiny plots, wine merchants (négociants-eleveurs in French) play an important role in the region. A great deal of the farmers sell their grapes or grape-must to the merchants. Most merchants possess vineyards of their own, and many are active wine makers. They decide when it is time to harvest, and dictate most of what happens on the vines.
With the exception of the Bourgogne passe-tout-grains AOC (regional appellation) that allows two-thirds of Gamay, all red burgundy wine is made using Pinot Noir. Chardonnay is the big white grape used for all of the big white burgundy wines. Aligoté is the forth main variety in the region, and is often neglected, as none of the climats consist of it.
The area of Chablis is like an island in between Paris and Dijon, and is separated from the rest of burgundy. Only Chardonnay is allowed in the Chablis AOC. It is flanked to the west by the regional appellation of Auxerrois, where for some of the wines in the area, Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris are allowed. The red wine in the Irancy AOC can include a small amount of a very rare grape called César. To the north-east of Chablis is another regional appellation called Tonnerois, where only white wines from chardonnay are allowed.
In the heart of burgundy, sits the Côte D’Or, the Golden Bank, and it covers a surprising small surface area. On the western bank of the Saône River, south of Dijon, the Côte D’Or produces some of the world’s rarest and most prestigious wines, most of them from Pinot Noir. Only in burgundy does Pinot Noir express itself in such a complex and powerful way, and the grape lies deep in the hearts of the regions wine makers.
The Côte de Nuits is the northern half of the Côte D’Or. The great reds of Burgundy are produced here, with all the AOCs situated right next to each other in a line down next to the west bank. The majority of Grand Crus are part of the AOCs in the Côte de Nuits, with eight in Gevrey-Chambertin, four and a half in Morey-Saint-Denis, one and a half in Chambolle-Musigny, One in Vougeot, two in Flagey-Echézeaux, and six in Romanée-Conti.
The southern part of the Côte D’Or is called Côte de Beaune, which is famous, above all, for its sublime white wines. The area does also produce some fine reds, however they are lighter and fruitier than in the Côte de Nuits. The remaining Grand Crus are to be found here, with two in Aloxe-Corton, and five in Le Montrachet.
These two AOCs are in the west of the Côte D’Or, the first further north, and the latter further south. The AOC is only given to red wines made from Pinot Noir. Over the years, many of the merchants have established themselves in this area, as the vineyards are not as large an investment as in the Côte du Nuits and Côte de Beaune. They have also developed a large production of Blackcurrents and Raspberries, in order to produce Créme de Cassis and Créme de frambois, two liqueurs used for Kir cocktails.
Directly south of the Côte de Beaune, this area was once cursed with a reputation for producing mediocre wine. Things have changed, and the wines from here have significantly improved, and offer a great alternative to the more pricy wines in the Côte D’Or. Some have even made it to Premier Cru status. Mercury, Givry, Montagny, Rully and Bouzeron are the stars of Chalonnais.
The last are of Burgundy, is again, directly south of the last one. Most of the wines produced here are white, with Saint-Veran, Pouilly-Vincelles, Poully-Loché and Pouilly-Fuissé the most prominent. Pinot Noir is slightly less important, as a great deal of red wine is made with Gamay.
This region can boast to having a long history of wine making. It runs up from the south-east tip of the Pyrenees across to the Rhone delta. Records of vineyards in the Languedoc area predate the Roman Empire, with the first vines undoubtedly having been planted by the ancient Greeks. Languedoc has been a part of France since the XIII century, whilst Roussillon was attained from Spain during the XVII century. The wines from here were extremely reputed during the Middle Ages, with some wines profoundly thought to have miraculous healing powers. During the industrial revolution, and given the extremely favourable climate of the region, wines started to become mass-produced to help supply the growing labour force in France. This led to the two regions being known as the “mass-produces-of-wine” as the volume of production increased rapidly at the expense of quality. In fact, this is still a reputation that haunts the region today, with many people having the misconception that wines from here are of mediocre quality. The last three or four decades have seen vast improvements, and the Mediterranean sunshine helps grapes reach excellent maturity and produce powerful, expressive wines. The two regions were united into one administrative region during the 1980s, and with almost two-million hectolitres of AOC wines produced per year, it is the biggest wine producing region of France (some ten million hectolitres in total).
A great deal of wines from the region are known as VDN. The technique used for making these wines is similar to how Port, Madeira and Marsala are produced, as well as sharing some practices that are used for making Sherry. During alcoholic fermentation, once the alcohol level reaches 5-6%, the fermentation is stopped by adding distilled wine. This method preserves the natural aromas and sugars of the grapes.
If a VDN has rancio specified on the label, it means that the wine has to have spent a number of years aged in oak barrels that are exposed to the outdoor conditions, and are never topped up. This accelerates the oxidation of the wine, which in turn intensifies colour and flavour as well as adding body.
Situated at the most southern part of the region, is the district of Roussillon. The sunny and dry climate here creates the best conditions for maturing grapes. Côtes du Roussillon is a more generic AOC, producing red, white and rosé wines from a multitude of grape varieties such as: Grenache Blanc, Malvosie, Marsanne, Maccabeu, Carignan, Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre.
Within and around this AOC are several others. Three produce VDN wines: Banyuls and Maury (red wine with majority of Grenache) as well as Muscat de Rivesaltes (white, made from Muscat-a-petit-grains and Muscat d’Alexandrie).
Côtes de Roussillon villages is an AOC reserved only for red wines and has a slightly stricter regulation for vine cultivation and vinification.
Corbières is an AOC that covers a vast area and consists mainly of red wines from Syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignan. Fitou, an AOC since the 40s, produces full-bodied and structured reds from Grenache and Carignan, which can age well.
In the north of Roussillon is Minervois. It was in Minervois where the first traces of the phylloxera aphid (a parasite that almost wiped-out all European vinyards in the 19th Century) was found. To the west of Minervois is an AOC more well-known for its crèmant sparkling wine: Limoux. The crèmant is usually labelled as Blanquette-de-Limoux, and although a lot of red wine is made from Merlot, it is the sparkling wines that dominate this AOC. Made using a majority of Mauzac, sparkling wine has been produced in this area long before Dom Pérignon started experimenting in champagne and despite the extremely warm climate, the wines are dry and mineral.
Between Narbonne and up to and around Montpellier is a landscape is of endless hills of vineyards, where Syrah, Grenache Noir and other grapes easily reach perfect maturity. Many AOCs, such as Montpeyroux, La Clape, Faugéres, St-Chinian and Pic St Loup, are well known for producing really powerful, full bodied and complex red wines, sometimes with more than 15% alcohol, which can age well over 20 years. The Three AOCs of Muscat-de-Frontingnan, Muscat-de-Miravel and Muscat-de-Lunel produce VDNs with Muscat-à-petit-grains. The dry white wines from the region, made from an even greater variety of grapes than the reds, are often rich, full bodied whites that are more suitable to gastronomic needs rather than easy drinking.
The Loire River is the longest river in France and flows for over 1000km. Its source is in the macif central region, south west of Lyon. It flows northwards before curving around to the west by the town of Orleans, then out into the Atlantic Ocean near the city of Nantes. The vineyards of this green and lush region, known also for its many Castles, follow the river from just before it curves westerly and across almost right up to the coast, and therefore just over half the length of the river. The 68 AOCs of the region produce a huge variety of wine. As France’s third largest wine region, the Loire is the biggest producer of appellation white wines, and second biggest producer of sparkling and rosé.
The great deal of tributary rivers that flow into the Loire, not to mention the Loire itself, create many different microclimates that are the key to variety of wine.
Another important facture that influences this variety, is the climate, or rather climates. The west is dominated by an oceanic climate, which is often mild and humid but can have harsh winters that drag on into spring and late frost on the vine can cause problems. Yet the generally milder conditions suit grape varieties like Cabernet Franc, Chenin Blanc and Muscadet. The eastern part of the region is mainly continental with rigid long winters and shorter hot summers, favouring grapes such as Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.
The large variations in climate conditions year in year out, mean that in this region, the vintage is an extremely important factor that influences the quality of the wines.
Given the length of the region (over 500kms), it is often split into four main areas. The most western is Pays Nantais, referring to the wines produced around the city of Nantes. The main grape produced is Muscadet, also called Melon de Bourgogne, and here one of the few French wines that are named after the grape variety (rather than a geographical location) is made. One technique that characterises some Muscadet’s, is to age the wine with yeast deposits until the spring after the harvest: sur lie. The Muscadet appellation suffered somewhat of a bad reputation, but the last 15 years or so have seen greater investment by wine growers to make better balanced and richer wines.
Moving eastwards from Nantes, is the area around the towns of Anjou and Saumur. This area produces some of the finest late harvest dessert wines in the world with the remarkable Chenin Blanc grape, such as AOC Coteau de Layon, Chaume, Coteau-de-L’Aubance, Quarts-de-Chaume, Bonnezeaux. Chenin Blanc has all the right concentration and acidity levels in order to produce world class dessert wine that is rich in sugar yet perfectly balanced, and can easily age for more than fifty years. The area also produces a great deal of Rosé and Red wines from Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grolleau and Gamay. The most reputed reds from the area are produced near Saumur with Cabernet Franc.
Situated in the heart of the region, this area takes its name from the city of Tours. Here, the two major climates meet, creating conditions for a great variety of grapes. Some the more well-known regional red wines and white wines are produced here from the well-known Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc (Chinon, Bourgueil, Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, Vouvray and Montlouis). As we move further east, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Malbec (locally known as Côt) start to dominate, as well as rarer grapes such as Romorantin (used only for the AOC Cour-Cheverny) and Pinot D’Aunis. This area is also known for wines that represent great value for money!
The far eastern zone of the region, produces a lot less wine than the others, yet it is home to two of the region’s, (not to mention the country’s) most famous wines: Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé. South of Orleans, the first on the left bank, the latter on the right, these two AOCs produce some of the world’s finest Sauvignon Blanc wines. They are both have different characteristics from each other, and the quality of either remains unequalled elsewhere. As well as Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir is grown and used for red wines (yet rarely do they gain the same complexity as Burgundy Pinot Noirs) and rosé. Finally Pinot Gris is used in other AOCs of the area, such as Reuilly, to also make rosé.
Welcome to the region of lavender fields, olive trees, pine trees, mountains and rocky inlets, where wine has been made for over 2600 years.
The Mediterranean climate warms the sandy, volcanic stone and chalky terroir and the Alps shelters them in the north.
9 appellations make up the 2600 hectares of vineyards, dominated by red grape varieties, with Carignan in first place followed by Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah and Mourvèdre. White grapes are rare in this region, about 3%, and the two most common grapes are Ugni Blanc and Rolle. Rolle, otherwise known as Vermentino, is one of the oldest known varieties, and was probably brought to the Mediterranean well before the period of ancient Greek colonisation.
Even if the region does offer a great selection of red and white wines, it is Rosé wine that the region is known for. All types of rosé wine can be found, from light crisp ones to deep round ones. 88% of produced is dedicated to making rosé wine and regional production makes-up 35% of national production. No other region in France comes even close to matching these volumes of rosé.
The largest of the 9 appellations is Côtes de Provence, which spreads from the town of Aix-en-Provence in the west to the town of Saint-Raphaël in the east. Within this appellation there are 4 sub-appellations that were distinguished due to their terroir: Sainte-victoire, Fréjus, La Londe and Pierrefeu.
East of Marseille, we find Cassis, a small appellation cultivated on the slopes of the valley that surrounds the small fishing village of Cassis, famous for its picturesque rocky inlets.
A few km from Cassis is Bandol, another charismatic village. Wines from here are arguably the most reputed, and Mourvèdre dominates grape varieties and helps produce powerful, complex reds.
The small appellation of Bellet surrounds the city of Nice. The soil here is consists of rounded stones and silica, and this helps produce aromatic wines. In Bellet you can also find a number of really rare grape varieties that can be used, such as Fuella, Braquet and Mayorquin.
Le Coteaux Varois-en-Provence obtained its appellation in 1993. Wines from here are quite similar to those from Côtes de Provence. However, small differences with the terroir usually produces better balanced wines.
Les Baux de Provence and Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence are two appellations spread over thousands of hectares between the village of Baux and the town of Aix-en-Provence. The first is the smaller of the two (350 hectares) and produces mainly strong red wines. The latter is the second largest appellation of the region with richer soils and vineyards that are cooled by the Mistral wind.
Except for 5 small wineries, nearly all production of Pierrevert is carried out at a cooperative, on a terroir that is very typical of the region.
We end our tour of Provence wine appellations at Palette, an area that inspired the artist Paul Cézanne. Carmelite monks first planted vineyards here around 1500AD. With 46 hectares it is the smallest appellation of the region, and over 30 grape types can be used for production. White wines from Palette are reputed as some of the best in Provence.
One of the oldest wine regions of France, the Rhone valley is home to some of France's most legendary wine appellations. After the Roman Empire fell, the wines and vineyards were largely forgotten, until their renaissance during the 14th century 'Avignon Papacy', and today their reputation has matured.
It is the region of two climates! Continental and Mediterranean, or, simply, north and south. These climatically different areas produce very different wines. Lovers of elegant, but still powerful wines should travel north, whereas admirers of fuller bodied, strong wines will prefer the south.
Syrah, Grenache noir, Carignan and Mourvédre dominate the red grape varieties, and Viognier, Roussanne Clairette and Marsanne the white.
The terroir here also plays a key role in creating such exceptional wines. The soils are pretty light, composed of granite and slate with certain variations, from sandy granite soil to chalky, and again to iron-sand.
The Rhone River flows south, down from the Alps and through the city of Lyon. The vineyards of the Rhone Valley follow the river from the town of Vienne, in a very narrow band, mostly on the right bank, down to Valence. This is the northern part of the region, and some of the most prestigious wines are produced here. Although situated south, the altitude if the terraced vineyards is significant enough to cool the vines during the summer evenings. This means that there are white grape varieties that produce unique wines, such as Viognier, that are both powerful and refreshing. The altitude is also exposed to the minstrel summer wind, which is helpful for drying the vineyards if it rains. Yet the great deal of sunshine per year here does allow many red grapes, especially Syrah, to reach advanced ripeness.
The “roasted coast” is at the tip of the region and the river here is often more of a rapid. Viticulture, on the steep terraced vineyards, can only be done by hand, ensuring top quality grapes. This appellation is in direct competition with Hermitage as to who produces the best Syrah wines in the world. It is one of Frances’ oldest wine districts, as vineyards here were first planted by the Romans. Legend has it that a Medieval Count Maugiron split his estate between his two daughters, one brunette the other blond, giving the names to the Côte Brune (brunette) and Côte Blonde. Wines from the Côte Brune tend to require longer to reach drinking maturity but can age for decades.
These two appellations are directly south of Côte Rôtie, and both exclusively make white wines, produced from Granite-terroir Viognier. Viticulture here is also only practised by hand, and wines are extremely powerful, rich, very well balanced, age really well and are best drunk 3 to 4 years after bottling. The 3.5 hectare appellation of Château Grillé was for a long period the smallest appellation in France, and only one winery exists: Château Grillé.
Stemming from the French word for hermit: ermite, the hill of Hermitage is the oldest wine producing zone in northern Rhone. It was around 120-100 BC when Roman settlers first cultivated vineyards on the steep slopes around the town. But the name is given thanks to an old crusader, Gaspard de Sterimberg, who, whilst full of remorse from the Holy land, stopped on his homeward journey and settled here as a hermit. Some claim that the Syrah was brought here from Crusaders travelling back from Persia, although no historical evidence can prove this. Red Hermitage is complex, deep and has long tannins. These tannins often mean the wine required 4 to 5 years after bottling before drinking and the acidity allows long aging potential. The 130 hectares of the appellation are divided into 4 areas, three for Syrah: Les Bessards, Le Méal, and Les Greffieux, and 1 for white-producing Marsanne and Roussanne: Les Murets. Vineyards around the north, west and south of the hill are part of the Crozes-Hermitage appellation, which produce slightly lighter versions of red and white wines from the same grapes.
At only 70 hectares, with only red wines from Syrah, Cornas is a pretty small appellation, but thanks to the south facing hillsides, some of the wines produced here have great finesse. In Saint-Péray, only white wines from Marsanne and Roussanne are made, and although quite complex and rich, they are unable to match the powerfulness of their northern counterparts.
This appellation is nested in-between Château Grillé and Cornas, and stretches over only 50kms. Syrah here is often blended with Marsanne and Roussanne for reds, and the latter two are used for whites. Recent years have seen these wines improve greatly, thanks to winegrowers re-cultivating the abandoned slope terroir, which gives the wines more richness and complexity.
The landscape in southern Rhone changes a great deal and the vineyards stretch out up to Provence in the east and Languedoc in the west. The vines are warmed by the Mediterranean breeze and surrounded by lavender fields, olive trees, thyme and rosemary. The Roman aqueduct of Pont du Gard, the Papal Palace of Avignon, are just two of the historic monuments that remind us of the richness of history here. The wines, of course, change drastically compared to northern Rhone, and the volume of wine increases radically. A Mediterranean climate replaces the cooler continental climate, providing longer hotter summers, and the soils are richer in chalk. Syrah is replaced by Grenache as king of the red grapes, and a host of other grape varieties are added to those used in northern Rhone: Cinsault, Muscardin, Grenache-blanc, Picpoul, Terret Noir, Clairette, Bourboulenc, Muscat Blanc à Petit Grains, etc…
One of the heavyweights of French wine, and not just in terms of reputation. Deep, long, powerful, complex, elegant, tannic, just a few adjectives to describe the wine from this appellation. Back in 1309 the Papal residence in Rome was transferred to Avignon, after a conflict between Rome and the French crown, and Châteauneuf du Pape castle (The Popes’ New-Castle) was built north of Avignon. Vineyards were planted around it and today there are just over 3000 hectares of vines on soils dominated by large round pebbles that reflect heat back onto grape bunches during the evening. No less than 13 grape varieties are permitted for these wines, yet the majority of them are red wines with a dominance of Grenache.
Once the favourite wine of many a Pope, only Rosé wine is produced in Tavel, and generally they are deep and dry wines with enough structure to class them as gastronomical Rosés. Lirac, is also heavily dominated by Rosé wine production, yet some white and reds are also made. Both appellations are allowed a number of grape varieties, but it’s Grenache that takes top spot.
Both known for their Vins Doux Naturels VDN, otherwise known as fortified wines. Port and Sherry are made the same way with distilled-wine added to the wine during fermentation once the alcohol level is at 5%. This stops the process and creates sweet wines with a higher alcohol degree. Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise is made mainly with Muscat-Blanc-à-Petit-Grains, although Muscat-Rouge-à-Petit-Grains is also allowed. Not to be mixed-up with the Loire Valleys Muscadet, both Muscats are very aromatic grapes that make extremely fruity and floral wines. Red fortified wines made from Grenache are produced in Rasteau, and dry reds from here were once classed as Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages before the appellation became one of the Cru appellations of the region, as is Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Just like Rasteau, these two appellations were once part of the Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages. The wines produced here tend to have a lot more structure and are heavier than the other Villages wines, so it was naturel to separate them. Gigondas is unique as the vines are on the slopes of the Dentelles de Montmirail, a small chain of mountains between Provence and Rhone, with a dominance of chalk in the soil. Vacqueras is at the foot of these small mountains and whereas Gigondas consists of red wine mainly from Grenache, Syrah and Mourvédre, Vacqueras is more similar to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, with over 10 types of grapes that are blended to make reds and whites.
The generic appellation of this region is Côtes-du-Rhône. There are however some areas that deserved a slightly different distinction thanks to the quality of wines produced. These areas, surrounding a village, often have specific soil types or climates, and today there are currently 18 villages that produce, mainly red, Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages. Once again, Grenache is the dominant grape.
In-between north and south Rhone, isolated like an island is the appellation of Clairette de Die. Clairette is the common name given to the grape variety that is used here, along with Muscat-Blanc-à-Petit-Grains, to make ancestral method sparkling wines. This method produces fruitier wines with a lower alcohol content of 7-9 degrees.
Other areas in the Rhone valley produce red, white and rosés that can often surprise you for their value-for-money. Coteaux de Tricastin, Luberon, Ventoux, Costières-de-Nîmes, Grignan-des-Adhemar, Duché d’Uzès and Côtes-du-Vivarais mainly produce reds that can be light or full-bodied from either blended grapes or a single grape type, and in Clairette de Bellegarde only white wines are made, exclusively from Clairette.
Even prior to the Roman conquest of the region, it is probable that the Gauls grew grapes around the town of Gaillac. However the Romains saw a huge potential, and quickly expanded production. The region is divided up into small pockets of vineyards that produce a great diversity of wines, some of which are very distinguishable. However the wines here are often overshadowed by the Bordeaux region, and most of the wineries here at some point, produced wines with a similar style, in order to compete with the often more expensive Bordeaux. Many local grape varieties were replaced with the classic Bordeaux varieties (red and white), and almost forgotten. The last twenty years or so, have seen a renaissance of the more traditional grapes that now coexist with Bordeaux ones, producing some of the regions finest wines. The area is also where the famous Armagnac is produced.
Directly east of Bordeaux, further upstream of the Dordogne River, is Bergerac, where mainly the same grape types as its neighbour are grown. An AOC in its own right, Bergerac also contains six other AOCs, three of which produce powerful dessert wines. South of Bergerac, along the Garonne River are the two AOCs of Côtes-du-Marmandais and Buzet, near the town of Agen, which produce mainly medium to full-bodied reds, also in the Bordeaux style.
East of Agen is Cahors, where Malbec grapes produce full-bodied and robust reds. Gaillac, and Fronton, south of Cahors produce some of the country’s most unique wines with rare grape varieties such as Negrette, Duras, Fer-servadou, Mauzac and Len-de-l’el.
The heart of the region is dominated by the vineyards of Armagnac, where some of the grapes are used to make light white wines.
Moving south-westerly towards the Pyrenees Mountains, are another seven AOCs where the red Tannat grape produces powerful reds, and where Petit Manseng, Gros Manseng and Courbu are used for whites. In the AOC of Jurançon the two Manseng white grapes reach excellent maturity and can make complex and perfectly balanced dessert wines.