Some things in life are meant to be forever inseparable. Such is the case with France and wine.
While no other country can compare to France’s winemaking excellence, it can also be said that no other country has inspired the world’s vintners to accomplish the same. By setting the gold standard in wine production, France has delivered the kind of example from which the rest of the global winemaking community can learn how to refine and perfect their own respective performances. It is a profound responsibility, but France has proven for centuries that she is more than up to the task.
So what makes France, and French wine, so special? Perhaps it is the diversity of varietals. Nearly every grape varietal celebrated across the world can trace its origins to France: from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, each one calls the country home. In addition, an unparalleled array of other grapes complements France’s core
France’s range of offerings is also a reflection of the varied climates found in its many wine regions. Because climate influences the growth and health of a vineyard, it also determines the quality of the wine. Bordeaux, the world’s premier wine region, is situated in the country’s southwest corner where a maritime climate dominates due to ocean breezes from the Atlantic. Across the country near the eastern border, the landlocked regions of Burgundy and Alsace enjoy a continental climate, allowing for warm, dry summers and cold winters. To the north, Champagne is ensconced in one of the coolest climates in all of France while in the south, the Rhône region battles both hot, humid summers and cold winters due to its proximity to mountains. Still further south, Provence and Languedoc Roussillon are purely Mediterranean, with warm, temperate summers and mild winters.
Hand-in-hand with climate is the importance of soil and topography. Equally influential, soil types and landscapes are almost parental: they help define a wine’s character and profile as they provide a temporary home during the vine’s development. Moreover, soils influence the degree of a wine’s notes and overtones. For example, limestone soils yield wines with high acidity and low sugar content, such as Burgundy’s Pinot Noir and Champagne’s Pinot Meunier. Conversely, Bordeaux’s rocky/gravel soil promotes drainage, which provides the perfect foundation for the roots of robust Cabernet Sauvignon vines. French winemakers are famous for their attention to these details, and this synergy among climate, soil and topography is something they consider critical to fine wine production: terroir.
Terroir refers to the complete natural environment in which a vineyard grows. When combined, the elements within the environment create a unique character of its own that influences the vineyard and, ultimately, the wine. A somewhat abstract concept that is almost impossible to translate, the French see terroir as an indigenous barometer for authenticity, clarity, and individual expression, all of which are diametrically opposed to mass production and sameness. This is the philosophy behind their winemaking: to create a product unlike any other. If the same varietal is planted in different terroirs, the varietal’s characteristics are transformed into a unique experience that cannot be duplicated. Terroirs are so important to the French winemaking mindset that their appellation system, the Appellation d’origine côntrolée, or AOC, also reflects similar requirements of authenticity.
Established in 1935, France Appellation d’origine controlee not only defined the country’s appellations but also determined additional requirements for inclusion, i.e. which grape varietals could be grown and/or used in a specific region, how they should be pruned, the maximum yields per hectare, when a harvest can begin, a specific wine’s minimum required alcohol content, and many other policies and practices which ensure the wine’s quality and provenance. The system’s success had prompted other countries such as Italy, Spain, South Africa and even the United States to implement programs to protect the integrity of their wines as well.
France is, and will likely always be, the finest wine producing country in the world. No other offers such a boundless variety of wines, each with distinctive attributes that spark delight and passion in a wine lover. It is a country that has welcomed wine into every important sector of life, and so far, it appears that the plan is a good one.