The French take great pride in their wines, and with good reason. Some of the country’s vineyards trace their heritage back to Roman times, and vintners have occasionally come to blows over who would be allowed to use coveted brand names such as Champagne or Burgundy. Here, we take a closer look at how four of France’s favorite wines rose to prominence. You can sample these wines for yourself on Go Ahead’s A Taste of France: Burgundy & Champagne.
The popularity of Champagne’s wines is a testament to the vagaries of personal taste. We think of Champagne as a celebratory libation, and indeed, the wines of Champagne have been used to toast auspicious events since at least the 10th century, when the new Frankish king Hugh Capet featured the region’s wines at his coronation. But back then, Champagne referred to a still, pinkish wine made from Pinot noir—not the golden, bubbly drink we know today. Champagne’s famous bubbles were once considered undesirable, and contrary to his popular legacy, Dom Pérignon actually spent most of his life trying to keep the bubbles out of bubbly. France’s love affair with modern Champagne began only in 1715, when the newly crowned Regent of France, Phillippe d’Orléans, introduced a sparkling white wine to his court. As best we can tell, Phillippe brought Champagne to the Palais-Royal simply because he preferred sparkling white wines to still red wines. French nobility, Parisian restaurateurs and Champagne’s wine merchants quickly followed Phllippe’s lead.
Today’s Beaujolais wines are predominantly made from Gamay grapes, but for centuries, the Gamay was considered inferior to Pinot noir—so much so that Phillippe the Bold, the Duke of neighboring Burgundy, outlawed Gamay, decreeing that “the Dukes of Burgundy are known as the lords of the best wines in Christendom. We will maintain our reputation.” The Gamay grape, however, matured faster than the Pinot noir, and it was also hardy enough to thrive in the granite-based soils of Beaujolais. Rare among French wines, Beaujolais production has never involved crushing grapes with one’s feet. Instead, Beaujolais wines undergo a process known as carbonic maceration, whereby Gamay grapes are stacked in an airtight barrel and left to ferment in their own skins. The resulting wine is light, fruity and low in acidity—and best of all, it’s ready to drink just a few weeks off the vine.
For more than 400 years, Burgundy was its own proudly independent state. When Phillippe the Bold outlawed the cultivation of Gamay grapes, his boast that Burgundy produced “the best wines in Christendom” was a widely accepted truth. In some ways, Phillippe was ahead of his time: his attempt to protect Burgundy’s distinctive wines by controlling grape cultivation presaged the modern concept of terroir. But viewed another way, Phillippe’s action was deeply traditional, and even today, most of the wines we think of as Burgundies are deep, full-bodied reds made from Pinot noir grapes. In modern-day Burgundy, the terroir system still reflects the hodge-podge of individual vintners, and serious oenophiles can spend a lifetime getting to know Burgundy’s 400 officially recognized terroir classifications. But a quick look at price tags might be the easiest way to see Phillippe’s long-lasting impact on the Duchy he once held: Burgundy’s wines are routinely among the most expensive in the world.
Technically, all Chablis wines are Burgundies, as Chablis is actually a small village within the region of Burgundy. But while Burgundies usually refer to red wines, Chablis refers to rare, dry, acidic Chardonnays. Chablis is geographically isolated from the rest of Burgundy by the granite Morvan Hills, and the soil in this part of France gives Chablis’ Chardonnays their distinctive “flinty” taste. Moreover, Chablis is so far north that vintners are in a constant battle against frost, a battle they sometimes lose—in 1957, for instance, a hard, late spring frost killed so many grapes that all of Chablis produced a total of 132 bottles. The best-quality Chablis wines are referred to as Chablis Grand Crus, a distinction awarded only to grapes grown on the southwest-facing slope of a hill overlooking the village of Chablis.
What’s your favorite French wine? Leave a comment and let us know!