French Wine 101

If you’re a wine newbie looking to push your knowledge of French culture past camembert and brie or the infamous refrain from Lady Marmalade, you’ve come to the right place. Drink The District’s Wine Edition at the French Embassy is only a week away, so a crash course in les vins Française is in order. Here’s the basics that every would-be French wine connoisseur needs to know:


France has consistently been one of the world’s largest producers of wine for centuries, and it’s the source of many famed grape varieties. Whether you prefer red, white, or rosé, you can taste what a difference these juicy gems make in producing a particular flavor. The grapes used to make Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pino noir, Sauvignon blanc, and Syrah all originated in French soil. However, these varieties are now planted around the world, so you never know if that glass of Chardonnay you’re drinking is from California or — gasp — Australia! The bottom line? If you want to truly enjoy the fruits of France, always check the bottle.


When it comes to grapes and grape varieties, soil matters. Terroir (land) connects the place the grapes are grown to how it’s harvested and the particular style of wine it becomes. For example, the Alsace region primarily produces white wine. The Beaujolais region primarily produces red wine. And the Champagne region produces that sparkling nectar of the elite. No, it cannot be called Champagne if it’s not from Champagne. If you want the read deal, you better pony up. (Or just buy Prosecco, that’s Italian.)


Quality control is serious business in the world of French winemaking. The AOC (aka Appellation d’origine controlee) is in charge of certifying French wine and dividing it into four distinct categories:

VIN DE TABLE (table wine) can be produced anywhere in France, but it can’t be labeled with the year of production, the grape varieties, or the region that it comes from. There are no restrictions on how it’s made — or how it tastes.

VIN DE PAYS (country wine) is subject to all kinds of restrictions including grape variety, alcohol content, acidity, and sulphur levels. This is the wine you’re most likely going to be drinking when you go to a decent restaurant.

VDQS (Vin Delimité de Qualité Supérieure) stands for “wine of a superior quality,” meaning that it’s heads and shoulders above table wine and country wine. Tastings are required to prove the distinct character of the wine.

AOC wines, which are wines from a particular area in France, are forced to pass even more tests regarding grape varieties, vine age and planting density, harvesting techniques, and alcohol levels. They are the crème de la crème of French wines and boast the price tag to prove it.

So now that you know the basics of French wine, all that’s left is to snag a ticket to Wine Fest — and learn how to taste it properly. Check out our step-by-step tasting guide here.