Why are the French Famous for Wine?


Have you ever had a debate with your friend about whether or not the Pinot Noir produces a slightly more oaky taste than the – dare I say it – rather bland Merlot, or how the viticulture of the terroir  marvelously enhances the exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon,  but, then again, the Chardonnay does have just a tint of that Je ne sais qoui, although, like Bridget Bardot, it doesn’t age too well and tends to become slightly anti-immigration as the years tick by, and maybe, in the end, it would just be best to settle for one of the more regional wines such as Folle blanche or Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains and move on to the crème brûlée? Well, if you have had that debate, perhaps you are asking yourself (along with whether or not you should take another wine class – probably) just why so many of your wine terms come from France. Why are the French so famous for wine?

The beginning of wine in France

Painting portraying the early fermentation process

Wine did not come from France. The origin of wine is up to some dispute, but most experts say that the very first form of alcoholic beverage made by fermented grapes came from Georgia (6000 BC). There is evidence to suggest that, 1000 years earlier, China had already developed a sort of wine, rice tincture. Either way, it is not from France.

Wine slowly made the long voyage up to the Balkan coast around 4500 BC where it was drunk in Ancient Greece and Rome. The art of winemaking was taught to the people in central Italy by the Phoenicians of Lebanon, where it was then exported to the rest of Europe.

France instantly took a liking to the pounded grape and demanded that more be brought over by the boatload. The alcoholic beverages before were poorly brewed meads or beers, and those that could afford the exotic beverage relished in their new, flavorful find.

French wine, however, was not only used for merriment. Old wine vessels show that it was sometimes mixed with herbs and tree residue, hinting that it may have been used as a cure-all medicine, making it all the more valued in France.

The monks and the vineyards

A French vineyard – Courtesy of Wikimedia Images

Evidence shows that the French did not begin producing their own wine until 400 BC, much later than their neighbors to the east. They were likely taught the art by the Italians and began planting vineyards in the south of France.

Then, with the help of the Rhone river, the home-made ambrosia was sent to the northern regions of France.

Wine had taken over France.

The expansion of wine in France was fueled by an ancient landholding law that encouraged wine farmers to approach land owners and offer to till their field in order to create a thriving vineyard.

Under this system, swaths of empty fields were turned into vineyards, where farmers and land owners shared the profit of their yield in a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Barrels like these were used to transport wine in Georgia

As the power and influence of the Christian Church rose, so did their acres of French land. Abbeys and monasteries were built in all regions of France and the monks dwelling inside were given the task of wine making.

The monks quickly became experts in the art of wine making, learning how to make different quality wine: the more basic for their own everyday consumption, and the more sophisticated for important guests visiting the monasteries.

The monks made wine for thousands of years. They would age the wine in caves stowed in great wooden barrels. They made many discoveries in viniculture that are still being used today.

It was the French monks who discovered the importance of the terroir (the slope of the hill and its affects on the taste of the wine). They also were the first to turn still wine into sparkling wine, hence the grand region of Champagne. 

As their wealth and fame grew, monasteries acquired more and more land to grow their grapes. They cultivated different strains of grapes and different blends of wine that still, to this day, are the most commonly used grapes in the wine industry.

Types of wine in France and the world

Top of a wine bottle – Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The French have strict laws as to how their wine can be marketed and categorized. The type of wine depends on the strain of grape and the region in which it was cultivated.

Cabernet Sauvignon wines can not be produced in Bordeaux, and, likewise, Champagne can not be produced in any other region besides the region of Champagne. Each region of France produces its own, unique character of wine.

If a certain wine does not meet the criteria set by the INAO, it is marked as Vin de Pays, a humiliating declassification that literally translates to Wine of the Country (it is no longer qualified as a wine from a particular region).

Nearly every strain of international grape originates in France. Some of the most famous types of grape includes Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. All of these grapes were cultivated in France and then exported to take the rest of the wine drinking world by storm.

Wine regions in France

Château Pichon Longueville Baron in Bordeaux – Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Outside of France, it is easy to quickly classify all wine from France as “French.” But, to those who live in France and enjoy wine, “French wine” does not really mean anything. Because of the individual characteristics of each wine, it is the particular region where the wine was cultivated that makes all the difference.

Every French wine will boast of the region in which it was made. The fancier wines will tell of the village that the wine comes from, and, sometimes, even the exact vineyard where the grapes were grown.

Bordeaux is perhaps the most well known wine region in France. It is located in south western France and typically produces more red wine than white.

Champagne is known for its champagne. That is pretty easy. It is located in the center of France and only champagne produced and cultivated in Champagne can legally be called champagne.

A Champagne vineyard – Courtesy of Wikimedia Images

Alsace is a beautiful region in France that borders Switzerland and the Alps. The majority of wine produced is white wine.

Provence  is in southern France and is the oldest wine making region in the country. Its claim to fame is rosé, a type of wine that is made by limiting the contact between the grape juice and skin. Traditionally, rosé is not sweet.

Every region of France, at one time, produced their own wine. Each region contributed to the advancement of the fermented grape.

The next time you are sitting, sipping a glass of wine, remember to thank the French and their monks for the perfected art of wine making.

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