France – the home of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne – is arguably the world's most important wine-producing country. For centuries, it has produced wine in greater quantity – and of reportedly greater quality – than any other nation. Wine is ingrained in French culture at almost every level of society; it is the drink of both the elite and the common people, and a key symbol in Roman Catholicism, France's majority religion.
The enduring attraction of French wine is not necessarily its volume or prestige, however, but rather the variety of styles available. Consumer preferences have changed over the centuries, encouraging the development of new styles of wine from the terrain and grape varieties available to France's vignerons. Red, white, rosé, sweet, dry, sparkling, opulent, austere, mineral-scented, fruity - French vineyards have produced wines to match each of these descriptors. (© Wine-Searcher)
The diversity of French wine is due, in part, to the country's wide range of climates. Champagne, its most northerly region, has one of the coolest climates anywhere in the wine-growing world – in stark contrast to the warm, dry Rhone Valley 350 miles (560km) away in the south-east. Bordeaux, in the south-west, has a maritime climate heavily influenced by the Atlantic ocean to its west and the various rivers that wind their way between its vineyards. Far from any oceanic influence, eastern regions such as Burgundy and Alsace have a continental climate, with warm, dry summers and cold winters. In France's deep south, Provence and Languedoc-Roussillon enjoy a definitively Mediterranean climate, characterized by hot summers and relatively mild winters.
Geology and topography play equally important roles in the diversity of French wine. The country's large number of independently recognized wine regions and sub-regions reflects its wide range of soil types – and the landscapes that created them. Each sub-region can be defined by its particular geographical features, which in turn create specific characteristics in the wines produced there. From the granite hills of Beaujolais to the famous chalky slopes of Chablis and the gravels of the Medoc, the sites on which France's vineyards have been developed are considered of vital importance and are at the heart of the concept of terroir.
A region's terroir dictates the grape varieties used to produce its traditional wines. In the days before efficient vine husbandry, vignerons grew whatever was best suited to the local soils and climate, choosing from the (often limited) selection of grape varieties available to them. Thus, the relationship between French wine regions and their key varieties have evolved naturally over many centuries, as exemplified by the close relationship between Pinot Noir and Burgundy. Where a variety has been used in multiple regions, the style/s of wine it produces in each have also evolved naturally. Compare, for example, the difference between Chardonnay in Champagne (crisp, tart, acidic, sparkling), and in Macon (rounder, riper, richer, fruitier).
France's appellation system was created in the early 20th century and has since been imitated in many other countries. This complex system of laws ultimately defines each wine region and its boundaries and imposes strict rules around winemaking practices. Protecting the names of French wines and guaranteeing the quality and provenance of the products themselves are its key objectives. No other country has developed its appellation system to such an extent; as of 2012, there were more than 450 controlled appellations under the AOC titles and a further 150 Vin de Pays/IGP titles.
A key factor in the development of the complex, comprehensive categorization of France's wine styles and quality levels is their sheer volume and diversity, as discussed above. Every year, the country produces more than 50 million hL of wine (6500 million standard bottles) from around 1.9m acres (775,000ha) of vineyards.