How French Wines Differ from American Wines

France has been the leader of the winemaking world for centuries. France is number one in wine production (most years) and also in wine consumption. In the quality department, the most critically-acclaimed, most treasured red wines, white wines, sparkling wines, and sweet wines all come from France. The country’s renown is such that winemakers from all over the world find inspiration and motivation in French wines.

French wines are more similar to other European wines than to the wines of the “New World” (such as U.S., Chile, or Australia). French wines differ from American wines in three major ways:

  • How the wines are named. Most French wines are named after the place they come from, such as “Bordeaux” or “Burgundy.” American wines are named after their primary grape varieties, such as “Chardonnay” or “Merlot.”

  • The climate in which the grapes are grown. Many French wines are made in cool or temperate-climate regions — such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Loire Valley, and Champagne — while very little American wine is made in such cool climates. As cool-climate wines, French wines are lighter-bodied, lower in alcohol, and higher in acidity than warm-climate wines, such as many of California’s wines. These characteristics enable many French wines to accompany food more graciously than do the fuller-bodied, high-alcohol American wines.

  • Emphasis of terroir vs. the grape variety. French wines generally very much reflect their terroir; in other words, they speak the characteristics of the particular location where their grapes grew. Many American wines, especially the less expensive ones, speak the language of their grape variety: Trueness to varietal character is their main goal.

The French make a big deal about terroir because they’ve got their various terroirs pretty much figured out, thanks to centuries of experience. Newer wine regions might disparage the concept, but maybe the reason is that they just haven’t experienced the true impact of their own fine wine terroirs yet. Terroir is a more important issue for fine wines than it is for simple beverage wines.

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