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French Wine Regions

by Staff Writer - B. Shaughnessy | January 09, 2012

The history of winemaking can be traced back to the dawn of human civilization. Ancient peoples observed the effects of fermentation and learned to control the process. This fact can be supported by biblical references and historical stories. With the development of the human race came the natural development of winemaking practices. Nowhere was this more visible than within France. For it was in France that the practice of winemaking truly evolved into an art.

France is recognized as the world leader with respect to wine. Reviewing statistics as well as agricultural characteristics substantiate this fact. Statistically speaking, France is the world leader in the amount of wine produced and is second for the amount of vineyards planted. From an agricultural standpoint, France is the source of many of the Vitis vinifera grapes used to make quality wines. France also has some of the best agricultural conditions for the successful growth of the vinifera grape. Finally, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then France should be proud. It is a fact that many of the New World wineries seek environments identical to the agricultural conditions found within the vineyards of France.

When reviewing the French wine industry, one is presented with an amazing historical background combined with continued modern successes. Embodied within the French wine industry are historical virtues, artistic triumphs and scientific breakthroughs. Appreciating these various characteristics comes from understanding the various regions that make up the French wine industry. It is also important to understand regional characteristics--such as food--that can be found outside the winemaking process. The wine regions of France include Bordeaux, Southwest France, The Loire Valley, Languedoc-Roussillon, The Rhone Valley, Provence & Corsica, Burgundy, Jura & Savoie, Champagne and Alsace & Lorraine.

Bordeaux is a famous and important French wine region. Bordeaux borders the Atlantic Ocean and thus is a natural center for trade. Early history shows wine exports to Great Britain through the Bordeaux region. Growth occurred naturally over time and the wineries of the Bordeaux region prospered. Facing various crises--Oidium, Phylloxera, and two world wars--Bordeaux's modern appearance has been shaped by recent events. Individuals including Philippe de Rothschild, Emile Peynaud, Michel Rolland and Robert Parker also positively influenced the development of the Bordeaux region. Today the Bordeaux region covers an area of 280,000 acres (113,000 hectares) with some 16,000 wine producers. Due to the large amounts of wine producers, Bordeaux wines can be of dubious quality or of the very best quality. Bordeaux features unique Terroirs with different soils and microclimates presented throughout the region. The Bordeaux region is known for its famous red wines with recent technological advances leading to the production of decent dry white wines.

Immediately south of the Bordeaux region are the wineries of the southwest of France. While located in close proximity to the Bordeaux region, the wineries of southwest France are found within their own appellations. These appellations are not defined with a logical pattern and as such can be considered unique. Many of the appellations feature the production of local grape varieties not grown elsewhere in France. The end result of this condition leads to the regions of Southwest France acquiring something of a second-class stigma. In terms of the quality of wine produced, wines found in the Bergerac region can in some cases be compared with wines produced in the Bordeaux region. It is important to remember that much of the wines are produced to local tastes. The quality of wines found in Southwest France is increasing due to technological advances.

When traveling north from the Burgundy region, one eventually reaches the Loire River. Encompassing the Loire River is the Loire Valley region. The Loire Valley region yields approximately 87,150 acres (35,000 hectares) of grapes and produces approximately 390 million bottles of wine annually. Terroirs throughout the region include climactic variations between ocean and inland climates. Major grape varieties include Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Gamay, Sauvignon Blank and Melon Blanc. Historically winemaking got its start in the Loire Valley by way of the Roman Empire. The development of wine trade routes matured with wines being shipped to England in the 12th century. The most important historical trait found with the Loire Valley was that, until very recently, the Loire Valley was the only French region that could produce quality white wines. Advancements in modern technology resulted in other regions producing quality white wines as well.

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The Languedoc-Roussillon region of France is an impressive region, in part due to its size. With vineyards consisting of 740,300 acres (300,000 hectares), one out of every 3 bottles of French wine is produced within the Languedoc-Roussillon region. The development of the Languedoc-Roussillon region can be found with modern historical developments. Much of the wine produced within the Languedoc-Roussillon region is mass-produced and as such viewed as poor quality. Regardless of this perception, Languedoc-Roussillon vineyards have focused on improving the quality of their wines. The result is that many quality wines are now available from the Languedoc-Roussillon region. Climactically speaking, the Mediterranean ocean influences and moderates temperatures of the Languedoc-Roussillon region. Soils of the Languedoc-Roussillon are varied and include limestone as well as alluvial soils. Grape varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay and Muscat.

The Rhone Valley region includes a long history of winemaking accomplishments. Like many other regions in France, winemaking was underway during the era of the Roman Empire. Historical developments in the 15th and 16th centuries brought some recognition to the Rhone Valley, however Burgundy wine merchants negatively influenced the sale of Rhone Valley wine. The Rhone Valley region has greatly influenced the wine industry of France in more modern times. In the beginning of the 20th century, quality conscious producers of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape established a quality control system that led to the creation of the Appellation d'Origine Controlee system. Today the Rhone Valley region yields 173,000 acres (70,000 hectares) of grapes and produces 450 million bottles of wine annually. Situated along the Rhone River in southeast France, the Rhone Valley region features continental climate conditions with varied soil types. Grape varieties include Syrah, Mourvedre, Carignan, Roussanne, Viognier and Muscat.

When compared to the wines of the more famous regions of France, the wines of Provence & Corsica would historically fall short with their presentation of quality. This perception is changing due to the introduction of technological advances. Many estates are now producing high quality wines within the Provence & Corsica regions. Generally, the poor reputation that seems to follow the wines of Provence & Corsica has to do with local environmental surroundings. It is fascinating to observe how localized characteristics stimulate and modify the enjoyment of wine. Enjoying a wine while on vacation in a tropic-like climate is different that tasting a wine in the cold climate of a city. The regions of Provence & Corsica yield 54,000 acres (22,000 hectares) of grapes and produce 160 million bottles of wine annually. The climate of the Provence & Corsica regions is warm and can be somewhat dry. Soil types are varied and include granite and sandstone. Grape varieties include Syrah, Nielluccio, Cinsault, Ugni Blanc, Grenache.

Condensing the description of the Burgundy region to a single paragraph is not a simple task. For those unfamiliar with French wine regions, Burgundy is known for its spectacular red wines. Historically speaking, the Burgundy region finds its winemaking roots with the Roman Empire as well as the Church. Developments in the 18th century included cartographic endeavors indicating where the best wines were made. Producers also began to recognize that the Pinot Noir was the best variety for red wines while Chardonnay was the best for white wines. In the late 20th century, major changes concerning wine production were instituted. It was during this time that wine producers began to control wines from the grape to the bottle. Today many Burgundy estates are small and produce limited production runs of wines. The Burgundy region yields 111,000 acres (45,000 hectares) of grapes with 390 million bottles of wine produced annually. Temperatures vary between warm and cool and soils are also varied with limestone and granite being common. Grape varieties include Pinot Noir, Gamay, Cesar, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris.

The Jura & Savoie regions are two of the smaller wine regions of France. Historically speaking the Jura region holds significant value. It was during the 19th century that Louis Pasteur carried out experiments researching the process of fermentation. Today the Jura & Savoie regions yield 8,600 acres (3,500 hectares) of grapes and produce 35 million bottles of wine annually. Climates include hot summers and cold winters with soil types being clay and limestone. Grape varieties include Pinot Noir, Trousseau, Gamay, Savagnin and Chardonnay.

The Champagne region of France is world famous for the bubbly fizzy wines that bear the region's name. Yet when sampling various Champagnes, one can sometimes find wines that don't live up to expected standards. The main reason for this has to do with the growing conditions of the Champagne region. In certain instances the cold climate leads to a lack of ripening of the grape. This lack of ripening can lead to sub-par wines. Regardless of this condition, the Champagne region continually produces high quality wines. Producers within the Champagne region enjoy some of the best market value for their wines. The Champagne region today yields 74,000 acres (30,000 hectares) of grapes and produces 270 million bottles of wine annually. The climate of the Champagne region is somewhat cool and the soils are comprised of chalky components. Grape varieties include Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

The wine regions of Alsace & Lorraine are unique when compared against the balance of French wine regions. This is due mainly to the fact that the Alsace & Lorraine regions focus almost exclusively on white wine production. Another unique trait of the Alsace & Lorraine regions is that wine producers generally print the wine's varietal name on the label. The differences between the majority of French wine regions and the Alsace & Lorraine regions can be understood through historical context. The regions of Alsace & Lorraine have been passed between Germany and France throughout all of recorded history. The continued changing of nationalities usually led to hard times for many wine producers. New governments would impose new legal stipulations that usually caused instability for wine producers. With these various developments it comes as no surprise that the Alsace & Lorraine regions developed somewhat of a unique identity. The Alsace & Lorraine regions yield roughly 33,300 acres (13,500 hectares) and produce about 157 million bottles of wine annually. The climate of the Alsace & Lorraine regions can be best described as northern continental with warm summers. Grape varieties include Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Muscat, Gewurztraminer and Sylvaner.

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