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History of French Wine


"In Europe we thought of wine as something as healthy and normal as food and also a great giver of happiness and well being and delight. Drinking wine was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary." Ernest Hemingway

W ine is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented grape juice. Growing grapes for wine is one of the world's most important farming activities, and the industry is a major feature of the economy of many wine-producing countries. Wines may be either red, white, or rose and also dry, medium, or sweet. They fall into three basic categories: natural, or "table," wines, with an alcohol content of 8 to 14 percent, generally consumed with meals; sparkling wines, containing carbon dioxide, of which champagne is archetypal; and fortified wines, with an alcohol content of 15 to 24 percent, drunk either as an aperitif or with dessert, depending on their sweetness. The various types include port , sherry , and aromatic wines and bitters, such as vermouth .


Greek toastCultivation of the vine began several thousand years before Christ and is mentioned many times in the Old Testament. The ancient Egyptians made wine; the early Greeks exported it on a considerable scale.

During the Roman Empire vine cultivation was extended to such a degree that a surplus ensued, and in AD 92 the emperor Domitian decreed that half the vines outside Italy be uprooted. When replanting was later permitted, vineyards extended into northern France and Germany and even into southern England .

The Middle Ages, AD c.400-1200, saw little progress in viticulture. From about 1200, monasteries kept alive the art of wine making. Later the nobility also owned extensive Bacchusvineyards. The French Revolution and the secularization of the German vineyards by Napoleon, however, removed many vineyards from ecclesiastical hands.

From the beginning of the 13th century, the wines of Bordeaux (an area under the English crown from 1152 to 1435) were commonly shipped to England , the Hanseatic ports, and the Low Countries . By the 14th century wines from Spain and Portugal were also widely exported. Drinking habits were largely governed by changing fashions at court, political relations with producing countries, and changing rates of excise duty. During the 18th century heavy duties on French wines and an English alliance with Portugal led to a sharp rise in English consumption of Portuguese wines.

For convenience in commerce, the Bordeaux merchants classified their finest red wines as early as 1725, but it was not until 1855 that such a classification , based on the market price for each wine, received official recognition. The wines of the Medoc district were divided into five classes, or crus . The 1855 classification stands today with only one recent significant change.

During the middle and second half of the 19th century the European vineyards suffered from a series of disastrous diseases and pests, particularly mildew, or Oidium , and the plant louse, Phylloxera . First discovered in 1863, Phylloxera spread across Europe , destroying the vines by attacking their roots. Not until about 1880 was the grafting of European vine species onto immune American rootstock accepted as the only viable solution. Selective replanting also led to improved grapes.

Simultaneously, a movement began to ensure the authenticity of wine, culminating (1936) in France when the appellation controlee (quality control) law, now the model for similar legislation in other countries, came into effect. The law allows only wine made from grapes grown in the Champagne region, for example, to be called champagne .



French wines lead the world in quality. The area adjacent to the port of Bordeaux is the home of the widely planted "noble" vine, the Cabernet Sauvignon, which, with other related varieties, principally Cabernet Franc and Merlot, produces such famous red wines as the chateaux Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, and Mouton-Rothschild in the Medoc district; Haut-Brion from the Graves; Cheval-Blanc and Ausone in Saint Emilion; and Petrus in Pomerol. Equally renowned is Chateau d'Yquem, a luscious white wine produced in Sauternes from Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon grapes. A large number of other chateaux produce a vast quantity of red and white wine of middle and lesser quality.

Burgundy is a smaller region but produces many famous wines from two related grape varieties: Pinot Noir for reds and Chardonnay for whites. The best reds come from the Cote d'Or, a narrow strip of hilly land that follows the course of the Saone River and extends roughly from Dijon for 60 km (37 mi) south to Chagny, a town 20 km (12 mi) to the south of Beaune, the municipal heart of the Burgundian wine trade. The Cote d'Or is traditionally divided between the stronger, heartier red wines of the Cote de Nuits, such as Gevrey-Chambertin, Chambolle-Musigny, Vosne-Romanee, and Nuits-Saint-Georges, and the more delicate reds of the Cote de Beaune, such as Beaune, Pommard, and Volnay. Of equal standing are the dry white Burgundies: Chablis from the north; and Corton-Charlemagne, the Montrachets, and the Meursaults from the southern part of the Cote d'Or. Southern Burgundy has extensive vineyards producing good red wines of lesser quality: Macon Rouge, Mercurey, and Beaujolais from the Gamay grape, plus dry whites, including the currently popular and overpriced Pouilly-Fuisse.

The Champagne region in northern France produces indisputably the best sparkling wine in the world. Other good sparkling wines are produced in the Loire , Burgundy , and Savoie. The Rhone valley produces excellent full-bodied reds such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Cote Rotie, and Hermitage; rare and subtle whites such as Condrieu and Chateau Grillet; and the most renowned rose, Tavel. Alsace , in the Rhine valley to the east, produces consistently good quality white wines named for the grape variety: Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Muscat , Sylvaner, and others. The Loire valley, in west central France , produces excellent, light, and refreshing white wines such as Sancerre and Muscadet; the well-known rose d'Anjou; and the minor reds Chinon and Bourgeuil. The Midi and Provence regions in the south of France produce a great deal of ordinary wine, as well as some aperitif and dessert wines and popular roses.

United States

Although wine is made in no fewer than 34 states, only California wines can be said to rival those of France . French wines are usually named by the region, town, or vineyard where they are produced, and, occasionally, by a generic name ( Beaujolais ). California wines, on the other hand, are often named for the principal grape variety used in making the wine. The finest California red wines are made from the Cabernet Sauvignon grape. Others include the Pinot Noir, Grenache (a rose grape), Zinfandel, and Petite Sirah.

Fine whites are led by the Chardonnay, by Pinot Blanc, and by some late-harvested Rieslings. Wines from the Chenin Blanc and Semillon grapes are not in the same class. The finest wines are made in the Napa and Sonoma valleys north of San Francisco , in nearby Sonoma and Mendocino counties, and in an expanding grape-growing area to the south of San Francisco Bay as far as Monterey . Mass-produced table and dessert wines come mainly from the Central Valley .

Wine Making

The quality and quantity of grapes depend on geographical, geological, and climatic conditions in the vineyards, and on the grape variety and methods of cultivation. Some of these factors may be governed by local laws.


The crop is harvested in the autumn when the grapes contain the optimum balance of sugar and acidity. For the sweet white wines of Bordeaux and Germany , picking is delayed until the grapes are affected by a beneficial mold, Botrytis cinerea , which concentrates the juice by dehydration.


For red wine, the grapes are crushed immediately after picking and the stems generally removed. The yeasts present on the skins come into contact with the grape sugars, and fermentation begins naturally. Cultured yeasts, however, are sometimes added. During fermentation the sugars are converted by the yeasts to ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide. The alcohol extracts color from the skins; the longer the vatting period, the deeper the color. Glycerol and some of the esters, aldehydes, and acids that contribute to the character, bouquet, and taste of the wine are by-products of fermentation.

Traditional maturation of red wine, as practiced, for instance, in Bordeaux, then takes up to two years in 50-gallon oak casks, during which time the wine is racked drawn off its lees, or sediment three or four times into fresh casks to avoid bacterial spoilage. Further aging is usually advisable after bottling.

The juice of most grape varieties is colorless. Grapes for white wine are also pressed immediately after picking, and the must starts to ferment. Fermentation can proceed until it is completed, which will make a dry white wine; or it can be stopped to make a sweeter wine. Maturation of white Burgundy and some California Chardonnays still takes place in oak casks, but vintners now tend to use large tanks of such modern materials as stainless steel. Minimum contact with the air retains the freshness of the grapes.

To make rose wines, the fermenting grape juice is left in contact with the skins just long enough for the alcohol to extract the required degree of color. Vinification then proceeds as for white wine.

The best and most expensive sparkling wines are made by the champagne method, in which cultured yeasts and sugar are added to the base wine, inducing a second fermentation in the bottle. The resulting carbon dioxide is retained in the wine. Other methods, such as carbonation, are also practiced.

The alcohol content of fortified wines is raised by adding grape spirits. With port and madeira, brandy added during fermentation kills off the yeasts, stopping fermentation, and leaves the desired degree of natural grape sugar in the wine. Sherry is made by adding spirit to the fully fermented wine. Its color, strength, and sweetness are then adjusted to the required style before bottling.

Economic and Social Value of Wine

Like other commodities, wine is subject to the laws of supply and demand. Wine is an agricultural product, and the time between planting new acreage and mature grape production is relatively long. Since the end of World War II, the demand for table wine in the West has increased steadily. Also during this period the classic fine wines of Europe , with their traditional and limited production methods, have increased considerably in price. At the same time newer regions, including California , have increased and improved production to provide the consumer with everyday drinking wines.

The great increase in wine consumption in the United States and elsewhere has by no means saturated production capacity; indeed, there is almost a permanent world overproduction of wine. The price of fine wines will likely increase still further under the impetus of the demand for them, both for drinking and for investment buying. In the long term the price of fine and everyday wines will be affected by the performance of the economy of the West and the consequent affluence of the average consumer, and by inflation.

Bottle Storage

Wine bottles should be laid on their side to prevent the corks from drying out and the air getting at the wine. There should be no great fluctuation in temperature: 13-16 degrees C (55-60 degrees F) for reds, 10-13 degrees C (50-55 degrees F) for whites being ideal. Humidity should be 70 to 80 percent, and the storage place should be free from drafts, light, and vibration.  


Red wine should be served at room temperature, 18-22 Wine & cheesedegrees C (65-72 degrees F). White and rose wines should be at refrigerator temperature, 6-10 degrees C (43-50 degrees F). Only wines that have thrown sediment in the bottle, such as vintage port, red Bordeaux , and red Burgundy , need be decanted before drinking.

Wine Classifications

All French wines are classified according to a very strict hierarchy based on the source and the control of the production. These classifications are an indication of the potential for the quality of the wine. The actual quality may vary so drastically that a good wine of a lower classification is better than some of the higher-classification wines (and vice-versa of course).


AOC - Appellation d'Origine Controlee The top of the line, AOC applies to French wines from precisely specified regions, and with the most rigid controls, specified by the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO). The items controlled include the: variety of grapes, density and size of vines, maximum yield, minimum alcohol level, method of culture and vinification. AOC wines will be the most exclusive and, of course, the most expensive wines.

Note: Appellation , on its own, is simply the identifying name or designation of a wine.

Cru Classe A high-quality classification used by only a few appellations, including Cote de Provence (and Grave, Medoc, Saint-Emilion and Sauterne). Originally, Cru Classe was one of the five categories of Medoc wines classified in 1855.

VDQS ( Vin Delimite de Qualite Superieure) The second-highest classification, "superior quality wine", has strict controls on production and variety of grapes used. The label has a VDQS icon in the lower-left corner, and specifies the type of grape it's made from.

Vin de Pays A vin de pays is a higher-class table wine, from a particular region of France and with a specific vintage. The vin de pays is controlled primarily for the source of the grapes and also for the density of vines: the amount that can be produced per hectare. The region of a vin de pays can be very large or quite small.

Vin de Table This is your basic French "table wine", available in small food shops, giant hypermarche supermarkets, and served by the pitcher at cafes and restaurants familiales (family restaurants). Vin de table is sold in 1-litre bottles, either plastic or the classic "6-star" glass bottles. The quality can vary from "sharp" to very good indeed, and the price is often not an indication of the quality.

Table wines are blended from several different sources, and more and more now include wines from other parts of the European Union. The vin de table label shows the alcoholic degree of the wine. The higher-percentage table wines are often smoother.


Individual vineyards often assign categories to their own wines, indicating levels of quality. Since the different wines of a vineyard are assigned their categories by experts, for aiding everyone from us novices to experienced vinophiles, it's a good indication of relative quality. The final taste that suits you, however, could easily transcend categorization; so do your own tasting, and select what pleases you best.

The categories used by the Cellier des Quatre Tours, in Le Puy-Sainte-Reparade, for example, are typical: Cuvee PRESTIGE, Cuvee TRADITION, Cuvee CLASSIQUE.

Health effects of Wine

The health effects of wine (and alcohol in general) are the subject of considerable ongoing debate and study. In the USA , a boom in red wine consumption was touched off in the 1990s by 60 Minutes and other news reports on the French paradox .

It now seems clear that regular consumption of up to 1-2 drinks a day (1 standard drink is approximately equal to 5 oz, or 125 ml, of 13% wine) does reduce mortality, due to 10%-40% lower risk of coronary heart disease, for those over the age of 35 or so.

However, with larger amounts the effect is compensated by the increased rate of various alcohol-related diseases, primarily cancers of mouth, upper respiratory tract and ultimately cirrhosis of liver. Originally the effect was observed with red wine. Compounds known as polyphenols are found in larger amounts in red wine, and there is some evidence that these are especially beneficial.

Other studies have shown that similar beneficial effects can be obtained from drinking beer. It is unclear if this means that the only important ingredient is ethanol.

Sulfites (or sulphites) are compounds found in wine that act as a preservative and can trigger a severe and life-threatening allergic reaction in a small percentage of consumers, primarily asthmatics. In the USA nearly all commercially produced wine is required to state on the label that it contains sulfites. In other countries they do not have to be declared on the label, leading to a common mistaken belief that only wine from the USA contains sulfites. Many consumers who have adverse reactions to wine such as headaches or hangovers blame added sulfites, but are probably reacting instead to naturally occurring histamines. The quantity of sulfites in a glass of wine is the same as a serving of dried apricots.

The French Paradox

The French paradox is a name for the perceived paradox that people in France suffer relatively low incidences of coronary heart disease, despite their diet allegedly being rich in saturated fats. The term is often confused with the related but different notion of the Mediterranean diet.

It has been suggested that France 's high red wine consumption is a primary factor in the trend. This theory was expounded in a 60 Minutes television broadcast in 1992. The program generated a large increase in North American demand for red wines from around the world. It is believed that the active ingredient in the red wine is resveratrol .

Resveratrol and other grape compounds have been positively linked to fighting cancer, heart disease, degenerative nerve disease and other ailments. Although many people wrongly assume that red grapes have the most health benefits, the fact is that grapes of all colors have comparable benefits. Red wine has health benefits not found in white wine because many of these compounds are found in the skins of the grapes and only red wine is fermented with the skins.

The medical causes of the French paradox are still not entirely clear, however. A number of studies have been made and some researchers are moving away from the theory that wine consumption is the primary cause.

Visiting Vineyards & Wine Tasting

Wineries in France are usually open from around 9 a.m. to 6 or 7 p.m. in the summer, while they close for a mid-day break between noon or 12:30 p.m. to 2 or 3 p.m. during the off-season. Most offer free wine tasting sessions (degustation) without advance reservations, and sell wine by the bottle.

Keep in mind, if you plan to return with bottles of wine from your vacation, that there are limits on what may be brought into your home country duty-free generally one bottle per passenger.

If you have the opportunity to do so, try to make a point of sampling the local cuisine in area restaurants near the vineyards, and ask for a recommendation as to which wine that is made in the same region would complement your dish. It is a wonderful way to acquire wine knowledge, and the local vintages will often be quite inexpensive.

Guided tours are available at many of the wineries, but usually by advance reservation. If you happen to be wandering around from vineyard to vineyard, you'll likely find them open and offering free tasting but if you are planning to visit a particular winery, call ahead first for the hours and details on tours.

Wines on the cheap in France

Besides french bread, France is famous for its wines. Happily, wines in France are extraordinarily cheap compared to their prices in America . You can purchase wine either in the supermarkets or in specialty wine shops. Supermarkets like Monoprix have a huge wine selection. Nicholas wine stores are abundant in and around Paris .

Wine prices start around 1 for table wine in a box. You probably don't want to buy that. Bottled red wines that are drinkable start at about 1.75-2.00 ($2.00 - 2.50 U.S. ) and work their way up from there. If you are not interested in trying a bunch of 2 wines to find one you like, then try the mid-priced wines between 5.00-7.00. Wines in this price range will generally not disappoint you.

Sparkling white wines start at about 5.50-6.00 ($7 U.S. ) and are quite drinkable and do not give you a hangover. Champagne starts at 10.00 ($12 U.S. ) and is good even at this price.

In general you will find that bottles of wine are cheaper than a six pack of beer and about the same price as one liter of Coca-Cola.


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