Pliny the Elder, a Roman author and commentator, mentions the presence of vineyards in Bordeaux as far back as 77 B.C. It would be roughly 400 more years until the poet Ausonius (for which Chateau Ausone is named), would cite the popular rise of wines from Bordeaux. Thousands of years of customs, traditions and viticultural trial and error have helped define the distinct French wine regions we know today.
Master Sommelier Desmond Echavarrie says, “the styles of French wines from each region have been developed over time alongside the local cuisine and by virtue of that evolution have been constructed to pair well with great food regardless of grape or process, no exceptions that I have found to that rule so far.”
Since 1935, the Comité National des Appellations d’Origine has codified these traditions into law. Their system of appellations d’origine contrôlée (AOC), or appellations of controlled origin, serves as a model to the wine world at large in establishing viticultural law. Some of the regulations are practical. The Comité Champagne, for instance announces when harvest can begin each vintage. Other legislation appears more eccentric. Châteauneuf-du-Pape keeps its 1954 law on the books forbidding “cigares volants,” or “flying saucers,” from soaring over their vineyards.
As a whole, French wine law exists to protect a region’s unique “sense of place,” and France boasts a diverse array of regions, each with varying viticultural needs, traditions and ideologies. But the French will define that “sense of place” differently, depending on where you are and whom you ask.
Burgundy and Bordeaux, for example, share a storied rivalry. Bordeaux is a commercial powerhouse, with household names producing wines of great structure and expense. Burgundy, on the other hand, is heralded as a thinking-man’s wine, the fodder to ignite intense philosophical debate. The Bordelais would argue that complexity is achieved through blending different grape varieties, each contributing a specific element to a cuvée. Bordeaux wines are classified by estate; if a château purchases new or sells old vineyards, it does not affect their classification. The Burgundians rather use single varietal wines as windows into their incredibly nuanced terroir. Over the course of millennia, Benedictine monks classified Burgundy’s vineyards into infinitely small parcels, they call “climats,” each baring their own personality. As of this past July, Burgundy’s climats are designated a UNESCO world heritage site (see also the New York Times article about the designation). But despite their differences in philosophy, at their finest, Bordeaux and Burgundy produce the most sought after wines in the world.
Most of France’s other regions fall more or less into the Bordeaux or the Burgundy camp. Alsace, notwithstanding its important German influences, attempted to mimic Burgundy, demarcating fifty “grand cru” vineyards between 1983 and 1985 (a fifty- first was added in 2006). The move was controversial, with many of Alsace’s top producers disregarding the decision as a marketing ploy and refusing to label their wines as “grand cru,” despite meeting the requirements.
Other regions less squarely fit into the Bordeaux vs. Burgundy model. Chardonnay and pinot noir (and pinot meunier) thrive in Champagne, as they do in neighboring Burgundy. As of late, artisanal grower-producers have received much attention for their “terroir-driven” Champagnes coming from their small estates. Still, the most well known Champagnes are produced in large houses, or “Grand Marques.” These venerated houses blend the three Champagne grapes together from plots across the region and with base wines across vintages to create their signature cuvées. So, is Champagne more like Bordeaux or more like Burgundy?
Defining French wine as a singular entity is a daunting task. But each of France’s regions share a common passion for their traditions, fostered through centuries of meticulous work and today systemized as legislation. Coming to understand the nuances between each region, village and vineyard requires dedicated study. Master Sommelier Catherine Fallis suggests, “The essentials you should know about French wines are a little bit of history and a lot of geography. Classes by region with tutored tastings are ideal. Personally I think the French Wine Scholar program, while advanced level, is the best program out there.” Are you up for the challenge?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bryce Wiatrak is the winner of the 2015 Vinous Young Wine Writer’s Fellowship. Previously serving as Content & Social Media Manager for Bottlenotes, Bryce writes for a variety of publications including Vinous, The Tasting Panel and 7×7 San Francisco. He is also a Certified Sommelier by the American Court of Master Sommeliers. Follow him at @brycewiatrak.