France has an extraordinary, and in many ways extremely difficult, position in the world of wine. To many of us, France is wine, and a certain sort of wine, not always the easiest to appreciate but often the most rewarding.
France makes more wine than any other country except Italy, which sometimes wins the race for quantity but only in certain quarters comes near in terms of quality. France supplies the benchmarks by which almost all wines are judged. This perfectly temperate and varied climate and landscape can supply wines of virtually every style. Its finest red bordeaux sets a standard for the world's Cabernet Sauvignons. The millions and millions of Chardonnay vines planted around the globe owe their existence to white burgundy – just as their Pinot Noir equivalents depend on someone's memory of a great red burgundy. The produce of the Champagne region in the north east provides a model for every single bottle of dry fizz, no matter where it is made. The Rhône valley supplies deep, rich reds while the Loire is better known for pinks and whites of all degrees of sweetness and fizziness. The vine dominates the Mediterranean hinterland in a swathe of vineyards across southern France which are capable of producing almost 10% of the entire planet's wine output. Only Germany's wines ignore the French tradition. The French even produce their own answer to port (Banyuls) and sherry (vin jaune).
It has been difficult, however, for France to come to grips with the modern, fiercely competitive, tirelessly iconoclastic and innovative wine world. The problem is that the average French wine producer simply cannot understand any criticism of his (and most are male) wines. He is so imbued with the notion of terroir, the belief that his wine can be produced only from his patch of land, in a way enshrined in the all-important AC regulations (see below), and that he is really only a human instrument of the unique expression of that land, that he finds it difficult to understand the New World's unfettered winemakers, many of whom see man as the most important, controlling factor in wine production.
Complacency has slowed winemaking improvements in France, but the great change in French wine producers since the last generation is that virtually all of them now have some formal training and understanding of why, as well as how, they do what they do. And most of them now travel to other wine-producing countries as well, which must be a good thing for us all.
There is a broad difference in style between French wines and New World wines which reflects the relative reputations of the two, although the distinction can be increasingly blurred. Generally, the French feel that they don't need to woo the wine drinker with obviously fruity wines designed to be drunk as soon as they are bottled. Instead, they tend to make wines for the medium and long term, in the restrained style of their forebears, so that the average French wine will probably take more effort to appreciate than its New World counterpart but may well repay that effort and will almost certainly last longer.
The French themselves see wine as an important part of their heritage, but are drinking less and less of it. The generation which took a daily litre of rough red for granted is rapidly being replaced by one to whom quality is much more important than quantity. Total wine sales in France are not helped either by the fact that the French have only rarely drunk wine without food – although they have an unusual fondness for sweet drinks such as port, sauternes and Muscats before meals.
Understanding French labels
AC, appellation contrôlée, France's principal and much-imitated quality designation system, devised to protect producers from imitators and to guarantee authenticity to consumers. More than a third of all French wine and all of its best wine is AC, sometimes called AOC (appellation d'origine contrôlée) or AOP (appellation d’origine protégée). For each appellation strict regulations control the area included, which grape varieties may be planted, how they should be pruned, maximum yields, when the harvest may begin, minimum grape ripeness levels and/or alcoholic strength, and even how the wine should be made. Superior appellations typically fit inside other, less rigorous ones, eg Pauillac is an area within the Médoc, which itself lies within the general Bordeaux appellation. Appellations are granted by, and their regulations administered by, the Paris-based INAO (Institut National des Appellations d’Origine).
cave means literally ‘cellar’ or ‘winery’ and is often used for a co-operative cellar, as in Cave des Vignerons de…
château, French for 'castle' but in a wine context it means a registered wine-producing property whose only building may be a shed or even a corner of a co-operative winery. Most common in Bordeaux.
clos, enclosing wall, often used in Burgundy for an enclosed vineyard.
côte(s) de, prefix usually denoting a superior wine. Like coteaux it literally means ‘hillsides’.
cru, literally 'growth' or vineyard site. A cru classé is a Médoc or Graves property listed in the most famous wine classification of all. See Bordeaux for more details.
domaine, Burgundian name for the accumulated holdings of one grower. Thus a domaine-bottled wine is one bottled by the producer.
éleveur, one who looks after wine between fermentation and bottling.
grand cru is a widely used term but in Burgundy means one of the very finest vineyards.
mis(e) en bouteille par/pour means 'bottled by/for'. France's best wines are almost invariably bottled at the château (au château) or domaine. Co-ops are allowed to claim mise en bouteille au château for wines from specific vineyards.
premier cru (1er cru), another vague term but in Burgundy denotes superior vineyards just below grand cru status.
négociant, wholesale wine merchant or bottler.
récoltant, literally 'harvester', ie ‘grower’.
supérieur, infrequently used and regulated suffix denoting a more alcoholic wine (and intended to indicate higher quality because riper grapes).
villages, suffix usually denoting a superior wine because it comes from a more limited area, eg Beaujolais-Villages.
Vin, Vin de France, VSIG or vin sans indication géographique, formerly known as Vin de Table, this is French wine at its most basic. Vintage and variety are now permitted on the label.
IGP or indication géographique protégée, superior to generic Vin de France this is wine with a stated geographical origin but made to less strict specifications than appellation contrôlée wines. This term is increasingly replacing the Vin de Pays designation, although the latter is still permitted on labels; see The inexorable advance of IGP for more details.