An easy guide to the best French wine regions

"Веселые люди делают больше глупостей, чем печальные, но печальные делают большие глупости." Эвальд Христиан Клейсту ©
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Much like global politics, art and architecture, French wine is one of those subjects that can strike terror into the heart of even the most confident, well-seasoned traveller. It’s an enigmatic world riddled with variables, subjective opinion and the ebb and flow of taste. Getting your head around the basics can be intimidating, but the sommeliers at Parisian cellar La Cave du Château are well-placed to lend a hand.

The slick operation, located below a splendid Haussmann townhouse on avenue Franklin Roosevelt, is the work of family-owned company Domaine Clarence Dillon, whose wine pedigree is well documented in the country. Its solid reputation is built on close relationships with various wine growers, in-depth knowledge of each wine – its terroir (soil), climate, vines, composition, taste – and a clever storage set-up (every wine is kept at its optimum temperature). The result is a vaulted treasure trove of both classic and harder-to-find bottles, one which can now also be accessed online, along with the wisdom of its resident oenophiles.

Here, Damien de Gironde, director of La Cave du Château, gives us a whistle-stop tour of four key areas: ‘A good wine should be long, balanced, flawless and should reflect its region,’ he says. So perhaps the first thing to note is that French wine is labelled by its region as opposed to grape variety. From silky Burgundies to the Loire Valley’s crisp Sauvignon Blancs, here’s an easy-to-follow expert guide to four French wine regions, including recommended bottles to buy.

  • An easy guide to the best French wine regions


    Carpeted in pretty vineyards and thousands of châteaux, Bordeaux is the world capital of wine with its prestigious Grand Crus Classés – a classification Emperor Napoleon III requested in 1855 for the five best Bordeaux wines. It is lauded for its full-bodied, delicate reds and is home to the world’s finest Merlots, Cabernet Francs and Cabernet Sauvignons.

    Bordeaux’s variety of terroir and climate, along with the differing skill of its growers, results in a broad sweep of wines, each with its own distinct character. Vineyards here are divided into five categories: Médoc; Libourne; Entre-Deux-Mers, Graves and Sauternes; Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur; Côtes de Blaye and Côtes de Bourg. The left bank (to the west and south of the Gironde and Garonne rivers) is largely known for its Cabernet Sauvignon wines, while the right bank (north of the Dordogne) for its Merlot – and you’ll often hear these two terms bandied around when discussing Bordeaux wine. The grape varieties of the region’s famous reds are Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Carmenère and Malbec, and for white wines: Sauvignon, Sémillon and Muscadelle.

    La Cave du Château recommends:

    Domaine de Chevalier

    Lauded for producing one of the world’s finest dry whites, this historic wine estate can be found in Léognan, the capital of the Graves region, and is owned by the Bernard family (key movers and shakers in the world of premium Bordeaux wines).

    Pair reds with chicken or pork and whites with seafood.

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    Château Canon

    With one of the finest terroirs in Saint Emilion (pictured), the Château Canon estate is planted with 75 per cent Merlot and 25 per cent Cabernet Franc. It is owned by the Wertheimer family and run by Nicolas Audebert who routinely monitors and tweaks the vineyards and cellars to ensure the best possible quality.

    Pair reds with truffle pasta.

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  • An easy guide to the best French wine regions


    The rich history of wine growing here dates back to the Romans and is woven into the tapestry of Imperial France – its kings, courts and viticulturist monks. Divided into five wine-growing areas: Chablis, Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune, Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnais, Burgundy (also known as Bourgogne) produces mainly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Its reds tend to be rich, fruity and medium-bodied; its whites fresh and earthy – using one type of grape, unlike Bordeaux. While Burgundy is often associated with reds, there are two types of Chardonnay to look out for (oaked and unoaked), and Chablis is considered the most famous.

    La Cave du Château recommends:

    Domaine de Montille

    Owned and run by the de Montille family for more than 70 years, this eminent Burgundy estate practises biodynamic farming and produces 16 red and white wines, with the vast majority of its vineyards spread across the Côte de Beaune.

    Pair reds with red meat such as boar and whites with seafood such as swordfish.

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    Domaine Claude Dugat

    One of the top producers in Gevrey-Chambertin, Claude Dugat’s estate is known for its distinctively full and ripe Pinots which age well (up to a decade in a good cellar). The estate is now run by Dugat’s three children whose only objective is to finesse the stellar work of their father.

    Pair reds with steak.

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  • An easy guide to the best French wine regions

    The Loire Valley

    Home to the world-renowned Sancerre and many opulent chȃteaux, the Loire Valley produces the greatest variety of wine styles in all of France and is the second largest sparkling wine producer after Champagne. Its lush and diverse landscape rustles up refreshing wines such as Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc. Spanning more than 100 kilometres along the Loire river, the region is divided into three key areas: the upper, middle and lower Loire (the latter influenced by its proximity to the Atlantic) and is currently enjoying a renaissance having lured a set of creative young winegrowers to its verdant valleys.

    La Cave du Château recommends:

    Domaine Vincent Pinard

    This distinguished Sancerre vineyard is run by the Pinard brothers, known for their relentless quest for purity in their wines. The chalky terroirs and complex soil of Bué is largely responsible for Pinard’s vivacious, lean Sauvignons such as the Harmonie Cuvée, a smooth wine whose saffron notes lend it an exotic edge. The estate’s fruity Pinot Noirs are equally outstanding.

    Pair reds with duck breast and whites with grilled shellfish.

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    La Coulée de Serrant

    The radars of wine aficionados will be finely honed into La Coulée de Serrant, a name that has been circulating since ancient times. Planted in the 12th century by Cistercian monks, the vineyard was named as producing one of the five greatest white wines in France by the famous gastronome Curnonsky at the beginning of the 20th century. Now owned by the Joly family, the vineyard is fully biodynamic with Chenin vines flourishing on schist and quartz soils. The domaine also produces a Roche aux Moines (Le Clos de la Bergerie) and a Savennières (Les Vieux Clos), but it cherishes its precious Couléee de Serrant, which should be savoured after 15 years in cellar.

    Pair whites with shellfish.

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  • An easy guide to the best French wine regions


    Perhaps lesser known than the other wine regions but no less intriguing, Jura – on France’s eastern flanks – began turning the heads of oenologists around 20 years ago with its idiosyncratic wines. Comprised of rolling vineyards in the foothills of the Jura mountains, this small wine-growing region’s major grape varieties include Poulsard (a unique and key grape for Jura), Trousseau and Pinot Noir for reds, and Savagnin and Chardonnay for whites. The Savagnin grape (used to make the sweet aperitif vin jaune) is cultivated almost exclusively in Jura.

    Domaine Stéphane Tissot

    Stéphane Tissot, the leading grower in the wine appellation of Arbois, mainly uses two white grapes (Savagnin and Chardonnay) to make exceptional cuvées as well as a vin jaune. The barrels of Savagnin undergo a similar process to fino sherry, as they are deliberately oxidised but then protected by a film of yeast, while the classically exuberant Chardonnays assume a toasted, nutty aroma. Tissot’s 50-acre vineyard in Montigny les Arsures was certified as biodynamic in 2004.

    Pair reds with beef and other red meats and whites with squid.

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    Domaine Ganevat

    Having worked at Domaine Jean-Marc Morey in Chassagne-Montrachet, Jean-François Ganevat took his Burgundian wine-growing prowess to Revermont, in the very south of Jura, to take over his family estate in 1998. He built up his own vineyard which now produces dense and concentrated natural wines with great purity.

    Pair reds with a plate of serrano ham.

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