The French Grape Varieties

They have different colors, shapes and sizes, meaning different flavors and wine styles!

"If you are an artist in the vineyard, you don’t need cosmetics in the cellar" - Nicolas Joly.

To put it simply, good grapes make good wines. 

18 Major Grape Varieties planted in France

There is an estimated total of 10,000 grape varieties worldwide.

France is the source of many grape varieties that are now planted throughout the world (such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah…).

250 grape varieties are officially authorized by the French Ministry of Agriculture but 95% of the production come from 40 varietals.

France has approximately 800,000 hectares planted with vines.

The top 3 grape varieties take up one third of this area:

1/ Merlot (116,000 hectares),

2/ Grenache (97,000 hectares),

3/ Ugni Blanc (83,000 hectares, which is used mainly for Cognac),

Followed by:

4/ Syrah (69,000 hectares),

5/ Carignan (59,000 ha),

6/ Cabernet Sauvignon (57,000 ha),

7/ Chardonnay (43,000 ha),

8/ Cabernet Franc (37,000 ha),

9/ Gamay (31,000 ha)

10/ Pinot Noir (29,000 ha),

Above top 10 grape varieties (8 reds, 2 whites) take up two third of the total French vineyards. Other favourite grape varieties in France include:

11/ Sauvignon Blanc (26,000 ha)

12/ Cinsaut (22,000 ha)

13/ Melon de Bourgogne (12,000 ha)

14/ Semillon (11,000 ha)

15/ Pinot Meunier (11,000 ha)

16/ Chenin Blanc (9,000 ha)

17/ Mourvedre (9,000 ha)

18/ Colombard (7,000 ha)

19/ Muscat Blanc (7,000 ha)

20/ Malbec (6,000 ha)

23/ Viognier (4,000 ha)

25/ Riesling (3,000 ha)

28/ Gewurztraminer (3,000 ha)

33/ Pinot Gris (2,500 ha).

Top 20 grape varieties in France by surface planted 

France grape growing ability greatly benefits from diverse climates resulting from the influence of the Atlantic Ocean, Continental Europe, and Mediterranean Sea.

To keep it simple, the climate in France can be divided into 4 quadrants:

Northwest is cool and wet, Northeast is cool and dry, Southwest is warm and wet, Southeast is warm and dry. (See figure below).

Each particular climate is more suitable to certain grapes varieties: early ripening in the East and late ripening in the West, cooler climates like Alsace, Champagne, Chablis and Burgundy produce significantly more sparkling and white wine than red wine, as the wines there have more acidity and less alcohol; Loire Valley in the centre of the country produce a good mix of red and white; and the wine regions South of France, such as Bordeaux, Languedoc-Roussillon, Rhone Valley and Provence, produce a majority of red wine and a bit of rose, very little white, as the wines there tend to have more alcohol and less acidity.

 french wine region climate and grape varieties

From the first Greeks or Etruscans settlements in 500 BCE to modern era, the monks played a key role in preserving viticulture, especially during the middle-age, experimenting with agricultural methods, grape varieties, soil types and climates to find the best vineyards.

WWI fighter pilot, lawyer and winemaker in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Pierre Le Roy de Boiseaumarié (aka Baron Le Roy) was the first man to recognize the importance of protecting geographic origins and ensure high quality standards by law. The first AOC laws were passed in 1936, and most of the classical wines had their initial set of AOC regulations before the end of 1937.

After World War II the committee became the public-private "Institut National des Appellations d'Origine" (INAO) renamed "Institut National de l'Origine et de la Qualité" which cover all agricultural products.

It is important to realize that for many French winemakers, the grape variety is only a way to express a sense of place, the terroir in French. It is a medium, not a message. If you grow Pinot Noir north of France or south of France, it will have very different characteristics, in terms of alcohol, acidity, aromatic profile, etc. Same thing with other grape varieties, and so it is most common to see the region (Bordeaux, Burgundy...) or the appellation (Pauillac, Meursault...) on French labels, before the grape, if it is even mentioned.

As a result, French wine regions are implicitly associated with grape varieties, and in some cases, almost become synonymous:

Chablis with Chardonnay; Muscadet with Melon de Bourgogne, Beaujolais with Gamay;

Loire Valley with Sauvignon Blanc (Sancerre, Pouilly-Fume), Chenin Blanc (Anjou, Vouvray, Montlouis), and Cabernet Franc (Saumur, Chinon, Bourgueil);

Alsace with Gewurztraminer, Muscat, Riesling, Sylvaner, and Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Auxerrois;

Burgundy with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir;

Bordeaux usually do blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot for reds, Semillon and Sauvignon for whites,

South West of France appellations are focusing on indigenous grapes like Mauzac, Tannat, Malbec, Petit and Gros Manseng, Len de l’oeil, Fer Servadou;

Rhone Valley, Languedoc and Provence have a good mix of Grenache, Syrah, Carignan, Mourvedre, Cinsaut for red, which are often blended together, while Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, Clairette and Bourboulenc are used for whites.

Which is your favourite grape variety? Do you have any, or do you prefer blends?

I think the most interesting fact is the typicity and diversity of French wine regions and grape varieties, sparkling, bone dry, dry, off dry, lightly sweet or very sweet, light bodied or full bodied, fruity, spicy, oaky, mineral, there is a wine for every occasion, from the humble rosé for a picnic to a vintage Champagne to celebrate a special occasion!

There are plenty of good value for money wines in France, high quality producers at low prices to be found off the beaten paths, if you veer off star winegrowers and luxury estates, stay curious, forget the brands, drink authentic wines!