France is the fountainhead of the grape varieties most craved by North American wine drinkers: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. In fact, these grapes are widely referred to as "international" varieties because they have been planted and imitated all over the world. Of course, one of the most exciting developments in wine over the past generation has been the growth of intriguing local styles of these varieties, such as Pinot Noir in Oregon and New Zealand, or Syrah in Australia, South Africa, and California. But most cosmopolitan wine-lovers -- and even winemakers -- would agree that French wines are the archetypes.
France enjoys the perfect geographic position for the production of a wide range of fine wines. Its relatively northerly location ensures long hours of daylight during the summer months and an extended growing season, allowing for the slow and steady accumulation of flavor in the grapes. Although the country as a whole enjoys a temperate climate, conditions can vary significantly within a limited land mass: cool and Atlantic-influenced; continental, with very cold winters and hot summers; warm and Mediterranean, with wet winters and dry summers.
Wines of France
France began classifying its best French wine-producing sites more than 200 years ago. Its detailed appellation controlee system, designed in the 1930s, has served as the model for classification systems adopted by other countries in Europe and elsewhere. Appellation d'Origine Controlee (often abbreviated to AOC), means "controlled place name" and is the consumer's assurance of the origin and authenticity of any French wine whose label bears these words.
AOC laws, administered by France's INAO (Institut National des Appellations d'Origine), establish the geographic limits of each appellation, permissable grape varieties and methods of production, minimum alcohol level, and maximum crop level (or yield) per hectare. Just beneath the highest category of appellation controlee is the comparatively tiny category of VDQS (Vins Delimites de Qualite Superieure), wines which may eventually be promoted to AC status and which are most commonly found in the Loire Valley and the Southwest. The third category is Vins de Pays, or "country wines". This latter category gives producers, including some of the more adventurous French wine growers, an escape route from the straitjacket of AC regulation in terms of higher permitted yields and less restrictive geography, a wider range of legal grape varieties, and fewer restrictions as to method of production and minimum age of vines. Finally, at the bottom of the pyramid, there are Vins de Table, or simple "table wines."
And yet, despite France's illustrious wine history and the fact that it is still the world's leading producer of wine, the country is struggling to compete in the international market. Today, France faces fierce competition from New World wine producers. U.S. imports of French wines actually declined, in number ofcases, between the end of 2002 and early 2006 -- this during a period when overall wine consumption in the U.S. grew by more than 50 percent.
Today, the French government is agonizing over how to help French wine producers, who are also facing homegrown challenges such as changing domestic drinking habits and an aggressive anti-alcohol abuse program. Wine producers in some regions of France are coming to view the AC system itself as an obstacle to selling wines to North America and other important export markets. Among the changes being considered are loosening restrictions on what can be planted where and on how wines can be made, and allowing producers in certain areas to indicate the grape variety or varieties on their labels -- rather than simply the place name, which is less meaningful to consumers in many of France's key export markets.