French wine regions might be divided up a bit differently depending on who you are talking to, but eleven areas seems to work for me. Not too many to get mixed up, but enough to separate things a bit when choosing a bottle of wine. Plus I have ten fingers and a nose to count them on!
Each area includes many different appellations made from dozens of different types of grapes. Each also has their own special techniques and their own incredible history of wine making. So . . .
Please do consider this to be the barest of introductions.
The Alsace region is in the north of France with its border touching Germany. Despite its latitude, the region is somewhat protected by the Vosges mountains and the climate is drier and sunnier than what might be expected. Still, white wines make up the vast majority of the wine production in Alsace.
This is the only one of the French wine regions that labels its wine by the type of grape rather than the specific area where the wine was produced. This makes it a bit easier for the amateur wine enthusiast to get a handle on these wines.
The varietals you will find in Alsace are: Gewurztraminer, Muscat, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling and Sylvaner. Pinot Noir, which produces a light red wine, is also cultivated in Alsace.
The Bordeaux wine region is perhaps the most famous of French wine regions. It lies a little more than half way down France with a border on the Atlantic Ocean. It is a notably humid climate that presents many challenges to the wine makers.
However, the warm summers and gravely soil of Bordeaux are good for creating full bodied red wines, which makes up the vast majority of the region's production. Most of the red wine made in Bordeaux comes from a combination in varying quantities of Merlot and Cabernet-Sauvignon grapes, although other grapes are certainly used.
Bordeaux is not limited to red wines. The region also produces quite a bit of white wine (mostly from Sauvignon and Sémillon grapes), some rosés, and is well known for its sweet wines (Sauternes being the most famous).
A region that rivals Bordeaux in notoriety, Bourgogne (some English speakers refer to it as Burgundy) must deal with cold winters, hot summers, and fickle weather. Located in the east of France, this region stretches quite a distance from north to south.
As one might expect from this geography and climate, Bourgogne produces quite a variety of different sorts of wines. Known for both its white and red wines, the history and classification of wines in the area is amazingly complex. The Pinot Noir grape is the main focus for red wine production. White wine from the region might be made mostly from Chardonnay grapes (as in the case of Chablis), but Sauvignon Blanc and Aligoté grapes are also found.
Beaujolais is sometimes considered a separate amongst the French wine regions, but it is often included as part of Bourgogne. You have probably heard of Beaujolais Nouveau, made from Gamay grapes, a wine designed to be drank while it is still very young. The wine producers of Beaujolais have cleverly marketed the notion of quaffing this light weight, fruity wine as a sort of carefully timed, yearly ritual that has spread far beyond France.
La Corse, as it is called in France, is a rocky island that sits in the Mediterranean sea just south of the French-Italian border. It enjoys very warm summers and mild winters, and the grapes grown here must be able to survive in a hot, dry climate.
More than any of the other French wine regions, wine making in Corsica has been influenced by Italian traditions. A large number of different types of grapes go into making the island's wines, which include reds, rosés and whites. The Muscat du Cap Corse is a sweet dessert wine that is produced on the peninsula of land attached to northern Corsica.
The Champagne region is a little east of Paris in the north of France. The climate is rather cool and the soil is notably chalky. The weather conditions can make it challenging to grow a grape that fully develops its sugar potential, which is why the method of making the sparkling wine, Champagne, was developed.
As you might have suspected most of the wine producing land in the Champagne region is devoted to making the world's most famous bubbly wine. However, there are some other lesser known wines that are made in the area including: Bouzy (red wine), Coteaux Champenois (white wine) and Rosé des Riceys.
Situated in the department of Jura and bordering on Switzerland, this area is neighbors with Bourgogne. Even more so than for other French wine regions, the cool climate is a challenging one for growing grapes, and the constraints of weather have stimulated the wine makers' creativity resulting in some very distinctive wines.
Vin jaune, or yellow wine, and vin de paille, or straw wine, are two well known examples. Vin jaune is made by aging the wine for more than six years in oak barrels, where it develops a layer of yeast that gives this wine its distinctive taste. Vin de paille is made by first drying the grapes on beds of straw. The drying allows the sugar of the grapes to concentrate and it is only in the winter that the grapes are finally pressed.
In terms of area and production, Languedoc-Roussillon is the largest of the French wine regions. It covers a swath of land on the Mediterranean stretching from Spain in the west all the way to the region of Provence in the east. The weather here is about as hot and dry as France gets, and the region is known for producing large quantities of wine, sometimes, perhaps, at the expense of quality.
A large range of grapes are grown, and both red and white wines are produced here. Some specialities of the region are the vins doux naturels, or fortified sweet wines, and crémant, a sparkling wine made according to the traditional Champagne method.
This is home to some of the best white wines produced in the French wine regions. Starting at the Atlantic ocean and stretching halfway across the country, the Loire Valley includes a cooler coastal climate and a warmer inland climate, resulting in a variety of wines.
Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, elaborated from Sauvignon Blanc, are two well known wines from the eastern portion of the Loire Valley. Moving west, you will find Vouvray, made from Chenin Blanc grapes. And finally around the city of Nantes, there is Muscadet made from the grapes of the same name. These are all white wines, but the Loire Valley also produces reds and rosés.
The south eastern corner of France is known as Provence. If there is a king of rosés amongst the wine regions of France, Provence wears the crown. The climate here is unabashedly sunny and dry, and also notably windy. The soil drains easily and the grapes grow quickly.
If you are somebody who avoids rosés because they taste like Koolaid, you may be pleasantly surprised by the light, refreshing and definitely not sweet wine that Provence is able to produce. The largest appellations are: Côtes de Provence (mostly in the east) and Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence (in the west). Bandol is a smaller Provençal appellation that garners international attention.
Rhône River Valley
Like the Bourgogne region, the Rhône region stretches quite a distance from north to south. The Rhône Valley is divided into two distinct areas that produce different sorts of wine.
North of Montélimar, Syrah grapes dominate. To the south, quite a number of different grapes are cultivated and the wines typically are made from several different grape types. Both of these areas produce red wines, and the southern area is home of world famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
The Rhône Valley also produces some white wine that is typically made from an assemblage of several different grape types.
Called the Sud-Oeust in French, this region includes several different isolated areas spread across south western France between Bordeaux and Languedoc-Roussillon. In general the weather is warm and dry, making this a good place to cultivate grapes.
The wines produced here tend to be unique to their particular location, and it is difficult to characterize the wines of the region in general terms. Some of the more well known appellations from the Sud-Oeust are Bergerac, Monbazillac and Jurançon.