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Wine Part 1 - The Basics About French Wine

David Ronis

Here's a pop quiz question for you: which country in the world produces the most wine? If your answer is France, you're .... wrong [buzzer sound]! Italy, for one, produces more. Yet when we think of France, one of the first associations we have is of French wine. France has a reputation for making some of the greatest wines in the world with the oldest and most "important" pedigrees. This distinction, in many people's eyes, is entirely merited. Although we won't get into that particular discussion right now, one thing is for sure – wine is definitely a significant part of French culture.

Travelers visiting France will most likely want to taste a variety of wines. For wine beginners, these pages will hopefully help to demystify French wines as well as provide essential wine vocabulary and pronunciation instructions. We're including such basic information as descriptions of wine growing regions, different grapes used (varietals), and characteristics of each type of wine. There are also sections describing how to make sense of French wine labels. As such, these pages can serve as both an introduction to French wine as well as a pronouncing phrasebook.

Notes on Pronunciation

French words tend to be accented lightly on the last syllable or the last syllable of a group of words. In rare instances for emphasis or where this is not the case, an accented syllable will be indicated by ALL CAPS. Liaisons are indicated by red, italicized initial consonants (e.g. "Puis-je vous aider?" pronounced as "pwee-zhuh voo zeh-day"). See Guide to Transliteration for more information.

Basic Vocabulary for Wine

Let's start out with some basic vocabulary.

wine vin va*
red rouge roozh
white blanc blah
rosé rosé roh-zay
cellar cave kahv
tasting dégustation day-gew-stah-syoh
glass verre vehr
bottle bouteille boo-tay

*In this transliteration system, written "a" not followed by "h" rhymes with "cat". "Ah" is the same sound as in the first syllable of "father".

French Wine Regions

Although there are many wine-producing regions in France, the major ones are considered to be Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhône Valley, Alsace, the Loire Valley, and Champagne. Others include Provence and Languedoc-Roussillon. The most expensive and highly sought-after wines tend to come from Bordeaux and Burgundy. As you will see in the following chart, most of the names of French wine regions don't have distinct English equivalents.

Bordeaux   bohr-doh
Bourgogne Burgundy boor-goh-nyuh*
la Loire   lah lwahr**
Côtes du Rhône Rhône Valley koht dew rohn
Alsace   ahl-sahs
Champagne Champagne shahm-pah-nyuh*
Languedoc-Roussillon   lah-guh-dohk roo-see-yoh
Vin de Pays d'Oc   va duh peh-ee dohk

* What we're calling the third syllables of Bourgogne and Champagne are not really proper syllables and should be pronounced very lightly.

** Try to pronounce Loire as one syllable, making the "w" come very quickly after the "l". What we want to avoid is the clunkiness of "luh-wahr".


It's useful to know a bit about which grapes are used in French wines. Some basics:

  • All red Burgundy is 100% pinot noir; all white Burgundy is 100% chardonnay.
  • Bordeaux wines are usually a blend, in varying proportions, of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet franc.

What follows are two lists of white and red grapes grown in France. Descriptions of the various wine growing regions (see A Tour of France's Principal Wine Regions) will include more detailed information as to which grapes are grown where.

White Grape Varietals

chardonnay shahr-doh-neh
sauvignon blanc soh-vee-nyoh blah
chenin blanc shuh-na blah
sémillon say-mee-yoh
viognier vee-oh-nyay*
muscadet mews-kah-deh
riesling rees-ling**
(tokay) pinot gris (toh-keh) pee-noh gree
pinot blanc pee-noh blah
gewürztraminer guh-vewrts-trah-mee-nuhr**

* Although we've split this word into three syllables, it's preferable to try to pronounce it in two, "vyoh-nyay".

** Since riesling is a German word, French transliteration symbols aren't quite applicable. The second syllable rhymes with "sing". In the case of gewürztraminer, even though it's a German name, our French transliteration sounds do work.

Red Grape Varietals

cabernet sauvignon kah-behr-neh soh-vee-nyoh
merlot mehr-loh
cabernet franc kah-behr-neh frah
pinot noir pee-noh nwahr*
syrah see-rah
Grenache gruh-nahsh
mourvèdre moor-vehdr(uh)
viognier vee-oh-nyay

* Again, as with the word Loire, care should be taken to pronounce noir in one syllable. Saying "nuh-wahr" (or worse, "noh-wahr") is clunky and inaccurate. It's sort of like saying ka-vetch instead of kvetch, no?

Reading Wine Labels

Trying to make sense of wine labels can be confounding for the novice. Even for someone who has more experience with wine, it can be confusing. Different regions use different systems. For instance, on the label of a bottle from Bordeaux, you'll often see the name of the individual château, or wine estate, that produces it, as well as the name of the sub-region, or appellation, in which that château is located. In Burgundy, the appellation will also appear as well as the name of the individual vineyard. (More about appellations, below.) The producers' names figure prominently on Burgundy, Alsatian, Côtes du Rhône and most notably, Champagne labels, while they don't as much in Bordeaux.

Accompanying each section of our Tour of France's Principal Wine Regions will be a label from a bottle from that region along with explanations of certain terms on that label. We've decided to zero in on selected parts of the labels in an effort not to overload the reader with information.

There are a number of basic terms often appearing on labels that can be very useful to know. The designations grand cru and premier cru are used to indicate quality and pedigree of the wine. In general, grand crus are the highest quality wines commanding the highest prices. The word cuvée refers to a particular bottling, sometimes indicating that all of the grapes used to make that wine come from one specific vineyard. Other times, it refers to a special bottling from a producer who has used other criteria for grape selection. Most vin de table is simple, local wine. Vins de pays are regulated regional wines -- also usually simple, but no less pleasing for it! Vintage years are always either included on the main label or on a separate label around the neck of the bottle.

grand cru   grah crew
premier cru   pruh-myay crew
cuvee   kew-vay
appellation appellation (place name*) ah-puh-lah-syoh
Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC)**   ah-puh-lah-syoh doh-ree-zheen koh-troh-lay
réserve reserve ray-zehrv(uh)
vendage vintage vah-dahzh
mis en bouteille au château (au domaine) bottled at the château (estate or property) mee zah boo-tay oh shah-toh (oh doh-mehn)
vin de table table (house) wine va duh tahbl(uh)
vin de pays local wine (literally: wine of the country) va duh peh-yee

* The official designation of where a wine comes from.

** French system by which wines are defined and regulated. See AOC and Appellations below.

AOC and Appellations

Ok. Here we go. This can be a confusing topic but we'll try to simplify it. The French system of defining and regulating wines is called Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée, or AOC. It was established in an effort to have some quality control in the wine industry (it's also used elsewhere, for example, for cheeses). It guarantees that the wine on whose label the term appears was, in fact, produced in a particular place – the place name being the appellation.

In addition to being the name of the system itself, AOC is also the designation given to top ranking wines. The others are, in order of decreasing "importance", Vins Délimités de Qualité Supérieur, Vin de Pays and Vin de Table. If a wine is designated an AOC wine, the place name, or appellation, will appear inserted into that very phrase on the label (e.g. a wine from the Graves part of Bordeaux that is an AOC -- top rated -- wine will show the designation Appellation Graves Contrôlée).

The appellation on a bottle can refer to a larger area (i.e. if it just says Bordeaux and nothing more) or a smaller sub-region like Pauillac. In the case of the former, it indicates that the grapes used in making the wine come from somewhere (and it could be anywhere) in the Bordeaux region. The latter designation is more specific, indicating that all of the grapes were grown in the Pauillac sub-region. The word appellation is the same in French as in English. It's just pronounced differently! Note that the designation of appellations is not an arbitrary thing – it's done in accordance with French law.

Read our Tour of France's Principal Wine Regions.

David Ronis is a classical singer, actor and translator living in New York City. www.davidronis.com

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