France is widely considered to be the birthplace of both fine wine and haute cuisine. As such, it’s really easy to get intimidated when it comes to experimenting with French wines and pairing them with food. But don't worry. I'm here to help you out!
A vast country with many wine-producing regions, France bases its tradition in place rather than in grapes. So, instead of labeling wine with the varietal, they identify them by AOC, which is an abbreviation for a long French term that basically means, “Where it came from.”
Each of France’s wine regions has its own climate, terroir, grapes and local food – all adding up to amazing pairing possibilities, but I don’t want you to be overwhelmed, so I’m here to help with a little tutorial on French wines so you can discover new favorites, order with confidence, and pair them perfectly.
To start you off on your new French wine adventure, we’ll focus on just a few of the top French wine-producing regions to keep it simple.
On the far western side of France, just off the coast you’ll find the Loire Valley, home of the Muscadet grape, a perfect warm-weather sipper that works well with oysters or other raw seafood – the local specialty. The cooling breezes off the Atlantic also provide a great climate for Sancerre, a grassy, crisp wine made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes that works great with light pasta entrées and salads.
P is for pink and for Provence where rosé wine is king, but not that sweet, cloying version. This southern region of France produces rosés that are like sunshine in a bottle, dry and zesty with hints of watermelon and strawberry that pair perfectly with light summer dishes.
Just north of Provence, you’ll find the cherished Rhone Valley where a blend of Grenache and Syrah comes together to create Côtes du Rhône. A medium-bodied red, Côtes du Rhône is easy to drink and pairs well with everything from roasted chicken to stews to French cheese.
Bordeaux is where France’s most renowned rich, dry reds come from such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot-based blends that offer bold, sturdy flavors that express the unique soil and continental microclimate of the region. Bordeaux from Côtes du Castillon is a great value, and Bordeaux from Haut-Medoc is widely available. Both pair great with hearty dishes like lamb burgers or a nice grilled steak.
The Holy Grail for wine geeks, Burgundy is wildly popular for serious collectors, but don’t be intimidated. This region in the northeastern section of France is quite rainy and it stays pretty cool, so grape growing is pretty tricky here, which is why Burgundy wines can get quite expensive. Talk to your local wine guy to find inexpensive yet tasty options for both red and white Burgundy wines.
When it comes to pairing, remember red Burgundy comes from the light, elegant Pinot Noir grape, giving the wine more finesse than a powerful Bordeaux, for example, which is why it’s one red that can be paired with fish such as salmon. White Burgundy comes from Chardonnay grapes and is more acidic and gracefully oaked than other Chardonnays.
Burgundy, by the way, is also home to the Beaujolais, where they famously produce a fruity red wine every November.
Perhaps my favorite region is Champagne thanks to their production of the bubbly! I mean, who doesn’t love a little sparkle in their glass? Also note that unless your bubbly is made in this specific area in France, it’s not champagne; it’s sparkling wine.
Easy enough, eh? Really, French wine doesn’t need to be complicated. Just follow my tips and you’re personal palate, and you’ll be pairing like a pro in no time!