Beginner French: Where to Start With French Wine

French wine can be intimidating and hard to determine where to start. In North America, we classify our wines by the type of grape – like Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Noir. Whereas in France, the wines are classified by region – like Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy. France has 11 major wine regions, all with sub-regions, which together produce thousands of different wines. To put this into perspective, Wine Folly tells us that “If you drank a new wine each night, it would take 8 years to drink your way through France.” So, where to start with French wine?

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My partner, Matthew, goes on “wine binges” where he will spend a few weeks exploring one wine varietal from a specific region. And I must say, his approach can be very helpful! This is definitely what I suggest for the beginner in French wine (and trust me, I am only an advanced beginner). I think it’s helpful to start with those French wine regions that have the least nuances and complexities. My suggestion for where to start with French wine is Beaujolais, Burgundy and Provence.

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First up in the beginner French lesson is Beaujolais. Not only is Beaujolais easy to drink, but it’s also easy to understand! In Beaujolais there is only one wine varietal, one grape, one wine – Gamay. A Gamay wine from Beaujolais is typically a light bodied fruity red with high acidity and low tannin. Within the Beaujolais region there are 10 different “Crus”, which means the 10 best sub-regions, consisting of Saint-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié, Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly. When you’re buying a bottle of Beaujolais, you want the label to indicate one of these 10 sub-region names. Life’s too short to drink bad wine right?!

My recommendation is to start with wine from the Fleurie cru. Fleurie wines have been described as “the Queen of Beaujolais” and “pretty pretty princess.” This is because they tend to have soft fruit flavours and lovely floral notes like rose, iris and violet. My favourite so far has been the 2015 Villa Ponciago La Réserve Fleurie. The Villa Ponciago La Réserve has a bright plum colour with a bursting bouquet on the nose and pretty flavours of cherry, blueberry and violet. This wine has some aging in oak barrels which adds a finessed smokiness. You can find the Villa Ponciago Fleurie in the LCBO vintages for $19.95. It’s a great example of a Fleurie and a perfect place to start your French wine lessons.

Chablis Wine

Moving north of Beaujolais is the wine region of Burgundy. To keep it simple, Burgundy has two main types of wine. Red wine is made from the Pinot Noir grape and white wine is made from the Chardonnay grape. Easy, right?! Within Burgundy there are 5 sub-regions – Chablis, Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune, Côte Chalonnaise, Mâconnais. Within these regions, wines are classified by 4 different levels of quality – Grand Cru, Premier Cru, Village Wines and Regional Wines. The Burgundy classification system can get quite complicated, hard to decipher on the label and expensive! This is why I recommend starting your French wine exploration with the Burgundian region of Chablis; where the classification system is simpler, wine is clearly labelled and has good value.

Wine from Chablis is Chardonnay. Chablis is in the most northern part of Burgundy, so it produces cool climate Chardonnays that are zesty and acidic (think the opposite of a buttery California Chardonnay). Wines from Chablis are characterized as being pure and crisp with chalkiness and minerality. Some even describe Chablis as having a seashell quality (vineyards are located on prehistoric sea and seashells can still be found in the soil). While not described with any seashell notes, the 2015 Gueguen Chablis does provide you with a taste of the quintessential crisp and acidic Chablis. Like most Chablis, the 2015 Gueguen Chablis is clearly labelled and easy to find in the Burgundy section of the LCBO vintages.

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A beginner French lesson would not be complete without a look at Provence. Provence is the oldest wine region in France and while 36 wine varietals are grown, 88% are made into Rosé. I couldn’t agree more with Wine Folly that, “pink wine is chic and Provence is the benchmark for Rosé.” Pretty simple to understand, Provence = Rosé! Provence is divided into 9 sub-regions that are referred to as AOC (Appellation de’Origin Contrôlée). Each AOC has strict rules about the type of grapes that are grown and how they’re grown, harvested, produced and labelled. Lucky for the beginner French student, these strict labelling rules make it easy to decipher Rosé from Provence.

The largest sub-region (or AOC) is Côtes de Provence, who’s production is about 90% Rosé. This is where most Rosé in North America is imported from.  However, I was able to find a Rosé from a different AOC called Coteaux Varois. This sub-region is considered the “heart of Provence” as it sits in the middle of the region and produces mostly Rosé.  The Terres De Saint Louis Rosé Varois en Provence AOC is medium bodied and dry with the prettiest pale pink colour and delicate flavours of citrus and cherry. Found in the France section of the LCBO, the Terres De Saint Louis Rosé is only $13.95!

Wine and Cheese

While it’s confusing to determine where to start with French wine, I think that narrowing in on a few regions and types can definitely help. Start your studies with these 3 recommendations and you’ll be speaking French wine in no time. And what’s the best way to study French wine? Drinking French wine! Happy studying 🙂

Cheers!~GDW