A bottle-by-bottle crash course in everything you’ll ever need to know about French wine.

By Ray Isle
August 26, 2019
Victor Protasio

The world of French wine is dauntingly vast. To learn every aspect of it, you’d need an entire wine shop, and a lifetime as well. Yet drinking wine, from anywhere, without knowing something about the wines of France is like going to the movies with a blindfold on; you’re missing a lot. Even your favorite California Cabernets and Argentine Malbecs, after all, are made with grapes that originated in France.

Thankfully, learning about wine isn’t like learning calculus. All you really need is a corkscrew and a glass (though a friend or two who’s willing to share a bottle never hurts). Plus, French wine is endlessly fascinating. If you try the 50 wines here, or even a fair percentage of them, you’ll never be daunted by the French wine section on a restaurant list ever again. So, wine glasses out! Class is in session.

Le Newbie

Victor Protasio

Let's suppose you’ve never had a wine from France in your life (unlikely, but hey, maybe you were raised in Antarctica). The six types of wine on this page are the baselines for any understanding of French wine; if we were talking basketball, for instance, knowing these is like knowing that you have to throw the ball through the hoop to score. Note also that here and throughout the next pages, specific bottles are suggestions, not absolutes; the point is to smell and taste (and drink) a red Bordeaux. Château Greysac, recommended here, is a great a ordable example—but there are many, many others.

A CHAMPAGNE

Nv Louis Roederer Brut Premier ($55)
Crucial thing to know: Real Champagne only comes from northern France’s Champagne region. All else, French or otherwise, is simply sparkling wine. And you couldn’t ask for a better introduction than this refined nonvintage brut (dry) bottling.

A LOIRE VALLEY WHITE

2017 Patient Cottat Anciennes Vignes Sancerre ($35)
Sancerre is the Loire Valley’s most famous Sauvignon Blanc appellation (trailed closely by Pouilly-Fumé). Cottat’s wine is exemplary: all grapefruit and fresh-cut grass, with mouthwatering, lemon-tangy acidity.

A RED BURGUNDY

2017 Domaine Faiveley Mercurey Clos Des Myglands Premier Cru ($53)
While there are inexpensive red Burgundies out there, try spending a little more. The grape of the region, Pinot Noir, achieves glory in its complexity and nuance—and this bottling shows that in its delicate floral and black raspberry aromas and flavors.

A WHITE BURGUNDY

2017 Vins Auvigue Pouilly-Fuissé Solutré ($35)
Chardonnay, the world’s most popular white grape, is the grape of white Burgundy (hence two Burgundies on this page—neither can be left out). This elegant example, with its light peach notes and hint of vanilla from oak barrels, comes from the Pouilly- Fuissé appellation.

A BORDEAUX RED

2015 Château Greysac ($29)
Bordeaux is France’s most famous wine region and the reference point for Cabernet Sauvignon. But there’s actually more Merlot (66%) in Bordeaux’s vineyards overall than Cabernet (22.5%). This wine’s blend mirrors that, and its black- and red-currant flavors and aroma are equally classic.

A RHÔNE VALLEY RED

2017 Ogier Vacqueyras Boiseraie ($24)
A good Côtes du Rhône is a fine introduction to the southern Rhône’s Grenache-based reds, but try jumping up to one of the village appellations: Gigondas, Cairanne, Rasteau, or, in this case—brimming with ripe blackberry fruit—a wild herb–scented wine from Vacqueyras.

Le Advanced Student

One great way to learn about wine is side-by-side tasting. The Grenache-driven lushness of a southern Rhône red becomes all the more vivid when you compare it to a more brooding northern Rhône Syrah, for instance. Look for the following pairs (or ask your wine shop for similar examples), open them together, and taste back and forth between them. And since you’ve got two bottles open, why not invite some friends?

ALSACE TWO WAYS

2017 Jean-Baptiste Adam Riesling Les Natures ($24)
2017 Domaine Weinbach Gewürztraminer ($37)
Alsace, along France’s border with Germany, specializes in white wines, particularly Riesling and Gewürztraminer. Here, the Adam’s smoky stoniness and austerity contrasts dramatically with the Weinbach’s exotic aromas of lychee and rosewater, its moderate sweetness, and its ripe nectarine fruit.

LOIRE VS. RHÔNE WHITES

2016 Domaine Huet Le Mont Vouvray Sec ($36)
2014 Coudoulet De Beaucastel Côtes Du Rhône Blanc ($50)
Two very different regions, two very different wines. Vouvray, in the Loire Valley, is Chenin Blanc. Whites from the Rhône Valley can use a range of varieties, depending on the appellation (in this case, Marsanne, Viognier, Bourboulenc, and Clairette). The Huet is spot-on Loire Chenin: floral, appley, its richness contained by zingy acid. The Coudoulet is lusher, suggesting ripe peaches and honeysuckle.

SOUTHERN VS. NORTHERN RHÔNE

2016 Chateau De Saint Cosme Gigondas ($57)
2016 E. Guigal Crozes-Hermitage ($30)
Southern Rhône reds are typically blends, dominated by Grenache. In the north, no blends: Syrah rules all. The southern Saint Cosme (pronounced like “comb”) is all ripe raspberries, white pepper, and wild herbs. The northern E. Guigal’s fruit is blacker, with hints of olive and black pepper, its tannins more taut and muscular.

A LIGHTER RED DUO

2017 Château Thivin Côte De Brouilly ($29)
2017 Olga Raffault Chinon ($20)
Lighter reds are back in fashion, a boon for regions like the Loire and Beaujolais. Côte de Brouilly is one of the 10 Beaujolais crus, known for wines whose fruit recalls wild blueberries; Thivin is a benchmark producer. The reds of Chinon—sommelier faves right now—are made from Cabernet Franc and are more herbal and earthy. Raffault’s vibrant bottling is black-peppery with svelte tannins.

CHABLIS AND THE CÔTE D’OR

2017 Domaine Christian Moreau Père Et Fils Chablis ($34)
2017 Philippe Colin Chassagne-Montrachet ($70)
First thing: Smell these wines. The vanilla spice in the Chassagne comes from new oak barrels; most Chablis, like the Moreau, won’t have that note. Instead, the Moreau recalls the way dry earth smells just after rain, a telltale Chablis scent. The Chablis is light and fine; the Chassagne richer and more tongue-coating.

BORDEAUX’S TWO BANKS

2015 La Croix Ducru-Beaucaillou Saint-Julien ($55)
2015 Château Bourgneuf Pomerol ($60)
A crucial Bordeaux division lies between its Left Bank wines—from vineyards west of the Gironde estuary, typically dominated by Cabernet—and Right Bank wines—east of the river, usually Merlot- based. The La Croix, 52% Cabernet, is classically Left Bank: firmly tannic, with Cabernet’s cassis-and-cedar character; the Bourgneuf, 85% Merlot, is plush and more forgiving, with dark sweet-plum notes.

BURGUNDY’S TERROIRS

2017 Domaine Tollot-Beaut Chorey-Lès-Beaune ($52)
2016 Louis Jadot Gevrey-Chambertin ($73)
The slopes of the Côte d’Or, home to Burgundy’s greatest wines, are divided into two sections: Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits. Very broadly, the former’s reds tend to be lighter, red-fruited, and more delicate, the latter’s darker and more powerful. These two show that: the Tollot-Beaut with its pretty raspberry notes, the Jadot more robust, with dark cherry flavors and grippy tannins.

Victor Protasio

Le Value Buyer

Americans tend to think of French wine as expensive, but consider this: The country produces over 1.2 billion gallons of wine per year, and the average price per bottle is about three bucks. Makes you start to think, “Hmm, there must be some great values here, right?” In fact, France is a spectacular source for wine bargains if you know where to look—so here are some suggestions.

FRENCH SPARKLING

2016 Cuvée Jean Philippe Crémant De Limoux Rosé ($15)
You can’t touch actual Champagne for under $30, but France produces a bevy of other good sparkling wines. Crémant de Limoux is a reliable bargain; this one, with its
bright strawberry and tangerine notes, shows why.

CÔTES DU RHÔNE

2017 Delas Saint-Esprit ($12)
Raspberries and black peppercorns, witha hint of herbs and earthiness—it’s hard to imagine a more classic Côtes du Rhône profile than this red from Delas. And like most Côtes du Rhônes, it’s affordable enough for everyday drinking.

LANGUEDOC-ROUSSILLON WHITE

2018 Domaine Lafage Côté Est ($13)
The Languedoc- Roussillon region produces vast amounts of wine. Much of it is forgettable, but there are great deals to be found among the dross. Lafage is a perennial go-to for wines, includ- ing this floral, peachy white.

ROUSSILLON RED

2017 M. Chapoutier Les Vignes De Bila-Haut ($15)
The rugged eastern part of the vast Languedoc-Roussillon is home to robust reds blended mostly from the Grenache and Carignane varieties. Case in point: this peppery, plummy, luscious bottling.

FRENCH ROSÉ

2018 Biotiful Fox Rosé ($16)
Provençal rosé has taken the world by storm, but remember that for values, there are excellent rosés from all over France. Case in point: Beaurenard, an acclaimed Châteauneuf-du-Pape producer in the Rhône, makes this ultra-fresh, organic rosé.

BORDEAUX

2015 Arbalest ($20)
Say Bordeaux, and people think “expensive.” But this vast region is home to more than 5,000 wineries and, once you escape the storied names, offers plenty of killer deals. This robust red, dense with black cherry and forest-floor notes, is one of them.

LOIRE MUSCADET

2018 La Pépie Muscadet ($15)
The perfect seafood wine for a minimal price, that’s Muscadet. Green apple, seaside breeze, fresh and zesty—a Muscadet from a top producer like this one begs for oysters on the half shell. Or sole. Or snapper...

VIN DE FRANCE

2016 Domaine Fournier Pinot Noir ($16)
“Vin de France” is a catchall term for wines that don’t fit more restrictive AOC regulations. Much of it is plonk that lands in French hypermarkets, but there are steals to be found. Witness this lively Pinot Noir, full of berry fruit.

Le Outliers

French wine isn't just tradition. It also embodies discovery and change. For every famous Bordeaux château there’s a start-up natural winemaker in the Loire; for every sought-after Burgundy grand cru, there’s a side valley in Corsica to explore. Here are some rewarding lesser-known roads to wander.

Le Obscurantist

France’s more obscure wine regions often produce eye-openingly excellent wines. Learn them and impress your friends with your super-savvy wine geekitude; why not? Southwestern France’s Cahors is the original home of Malbec. Try the powerful 2017 Chevalier du Château Lagrézette Malbec ($35), full of spice and licorice notes. Or take the Savoie region, in the foothills of the Alps, along France’s border with Italy and Switzerland: The smoky, appley 2016 Domaine des Ardoisières Argile Blanc ($32), a blend of Jacquère and Chardonnay, is a great introduction. The south-facing slopes of the Pyrenees are home to the tiny wine region of Irouléguy. Seek out the 2016 Herri Mina Rouge ($29), a structured, tea-leafy red from the former winemaker of Bordeaux’s famed Château Petrus, for an outstanding example. Finally, look into the truly obscure Côtes de Toul appellation in Lorraine. Almost no one knows about it, but the 2017 Domaine Migot Pinot Noir ($25) suggests that more people certainly should.

Le Naturaliste

“Natural” wines are farmed organically or biodynamically and made without adding anything at all (sulfur, additives, enzymes, etc.). It’s a vital movement that rejects the industrialization of wine (if you’re a believer) or a form of neo-Luddite silliness (if you’re a naysayer). Here’s a suggestion: Ignore the arguments and try these bottles. Then make up your own mind. First up, Éric Texier’s 2017 Brézème Côtes du Rhône Rouge ($30) is marked by brilliant acidity and freshness, with earthy-leathery avors. The 2017 La Grange Tiphaine Clef de Sol Rouge ($32), from the Loire, is so full of life and energy, it’s hard to set down your glass.

The 2018 Clos du Tue-Boeuf Blanc ($20), also from the Loire, is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay with bright notes of grapefruit and apple and a saline nish. Finally, seek out the joyous, electric-raspberry 2017 Lapierre Morgon ($35) from Beaujolais. Marcel Lapierre was a natural wine visionary; now his son and daughter continue his work.

Le Cool-Hunter

Want to be praised for your in-the-know- ness (at least by fellow wine nuts)? Start looking into these regions and varieties. First, a wine from the sommelier-beloved Jura region, like the light-bodied 2015 Bénédicte & Stéphane Tissot Singulier Trousseau ($35), with its vivid wild-berry and spice notes. Next, grower Champagnes, which come from individual small vineyard owners. The steely, zero-dosage 2013 Larmandier-Bernier Terre de Vertus Brut Nature ($85) is a great start. Learning about tiny Corsica’s tongue-twisting native grapes like Sciacarellu and Niellucciu will up your wine-cool. The 2015 Domaine Comte Abbatucci Faustine Rouge ($38), with its cured meat and olive notes, is a great choice. Finally Aligoté, the long-over- looked other white grape from Burgundy, is having its moment. Try the taut, oral 2017 Charles Audoin Bourgogne Aligoté ($22).

Le Master's Degree

It's possible to get a solid sense of the basics of French wine without tasting some of the country’s truly great wines, but why would you want to do that? Sheer pleasure aside, benchmarks exist for a reason: Other wines are weighed against them, and by tasting them you learn the full measure of a region, the expanse that lies between “good” and “great.” Even so, you don’t need to mortgage your house and buy a $5,000 bottle of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Montrachet to reach the heights. Here are two approaches: rst, somewhat moderate, and then, sky’s the limit.

Le Semi-Grand

The wines here are all delicious right now and will also benefit from years of cellaring. Are they inexpensive? No. But they’re less than the price of an average Napa Cabernet on a restaurant wine list.

2016 Domaine Du Gros ’Noré Bandol Rouge ($48)
Possibly the greatest French reds that people forget can be great, the wines of Bandol, from Provence, are briary, earthy, and wild. They speak of the French countryside. This one is no exception.

2016 Domaine Laroche Les Montmains Chablis Premier Cru ($65)
As white Burgundy prices skyrocket, top Chablis remains within reason. It can be stunning, too, like this lemon verbena–scented, chalky wine.

2016 Domaine Du Vieux Télégraphe Châteauneuf- Du-Pape La Crau ($90)
Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the source of the southern Rhône’s greatest wines. This standout plays its velvety texture against raspberry fruit so fresh it’s like biting into a just-plucked berry.

2014 Château Climens Barsac ($96)
The great sweet wines of Bordeaux are glorious in their youth and can age for decades. This honeyed bottling, with its seductive notes of dried apricot and almond, is exemplary.

Le Plus Grand

Look, life is short, right?

2017 Domaine Zind- Humbrecht Clos Saint Urbain Rangen De Thann Riesling Grand Cru ($108)
Smoky, creamy, citrusy, green- appley—and all are focused by laser-like acidity. Great Alsace Rieslings, such as this grand cru, can rival great white Burgundies for their ageable complexity.

2012 M. Chapoutier Monier De La Sizeranne Hermitage ($125)
Think layers of blackberry liqueur flavors, gamey wildness, and an elusive wild thyme note. The hill of Hermitage is one of the greatest Syrah sources in the world, producing wines of formidable power and almost savage intensity.

2017 Bouchard Père & Fils Beaune Grèves Vigne De L’enfant Jésus Premier Cru ($150)
No wine education is complete without trying a top Burgundy. This tiny plot of vines was named in honor of the birth of France’s Louis XIV; the wine from it is gorgeously floral—violets and roses— with wild strawberry notes.

2015 Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse De Lalande ($200)
The Médoc’s 61 classified growths are the apex of Bordeaux’s Cabernet-based wines. Pichon Lalande is one of the best, and the 2015 is a perfect example of a great Bordeaux red’s gift for combining elegance with power.

2016 Bonneau Du Martray Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru ($274)
Bonneau du Martray makes this wine from one of Burgundy’s greatest grand cru vineyards. Lemony, minerally, complex, subtle—its full grandeur won’t be on display for a decade, but it’s regal today. If you drink it now, decant it an hour ahead.

2004 Bollinger R.D. Champagne ($300)
There’s good Champagne, and then great Champagne. Bollinger ages its top cuvée, R.D., for 10 to 15 years before its final disgorgement and release. The result is, in this 2004, sublime: The intense aromas and flavors suggest toasted brioche, pear, and a hint of honey, lingering with each sip.

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