10 Essential French White Wines
Kirra Barnes Wine Education & Careers
The white wines of France offer unrivaled perfection. With few exceptions, every vineyard growing white grapes is so planted not because reds won’t grow well there, but because whites will flourish. France’s white wines are not an afterthought or a consolation prize. These are vinous treasures worth exploring.
The world’s most famous sparkling wines come from France’s Champagne region. Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay are the principal varieties and each grape is grown in the soils that fits them best. The Côtes de Blancs sub-region is particularly suitable for Chardonnay and produces unforgettable blanc de blanc Champagne (white wine made from only white grapes).
Crémant is the French term used to indicate sparkling wines made in the same manner as Champagne, but outside of that region. These are beautiful wines at super-friendly price points. Important crémant regions include Alsace, Loire and Burgundy. The recently awarded Crémant de Savoie is an appellation to watch as more and more producers are discovered.
The region of Alsace was traded between France and Germany many time in its history. The German legacy remains in the principal grape varieties, but local winemakers put a uniquely Alsatian stamp on each and every one. Riesling is the signature white wine of Alsace. Often made in a dry style, these aromatic wines are built for aging.
Closer to the vineyards of Champagne than to the famed Cote d’Or, Chablis is Burgundy’s northernmost sub-region. One of the world’s top terroirs for Chardonnay, the region crafts chiseled and electric wines that never fail to delight and surprise.
Chardonnay is the grape behind Burgundy’s famed white wines. Montrachet is arguably the pinnacle of Chardonnay-based wines, while the Mâconnais (especially Pouilly Fuissé) crafts many fine examples of its own. There is a white Burgundy for every budget and most over-deliver.
The Rhône region is well-known for its red wines, but its whites are also worth exploring. Viognier reaches its zenith in the Northern Rhone’s Condrieu and Château Grillet AOCs, while Roussanne and Marsanne stun in Hermitage. Grenache Blanc leads in the southern Rhone and forms the backbone of the beautiful white wines of Châteauneuf du Pape Blanc.
The white wines of Provence’s Cassis AOC are the darlings of the sommelier set. The appellation’s vineyards are precariously perched on terraces overlooking the sea and production is small. The wines are exquisite blends of Marsanne and Clairette that offer hints of the Mediterranean Sea in the glass.
There are many reason why the Languedoc is a fascinating wine region, but the region’s white wines may be the bastion of discovery. Located next to the sea, the Picpoul de Pinet AOC produces refreshing wines with zippy acidity, while the wines of the Clairette du Languedoc AOC are often full-bodied with a dense palette. Sparkling wines were first discovered in the Limoux area, and producers here craft both still and bubbly wines from Chardonnay and Mauzac.
The red wines of Bordeaux may be more famous, but the region’s whites are worth exploring. The wines are primarily blends; Semillon provides texture, while Sauvignon Blanc adds perfume. Bordeaux’s sweet white wines are made from the same varieties and rank among the best in the world.
Each of the Loire’s three sub-regions has its own signature white grape variety. Melon de Bourgogne is the grape behind the Lower Loire’s Muscadet appellation—a wine that is the perfect match for oysters. Chenin Blanc is the star in the Middle Loire, where it is made into top-quality dry, sweet and sparkling wines. This versatile variety excels in each style and ages extremely well. The Centre Loire area includes the famed Sauvignon-Blanc wines of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé. These whites pair beautifully with almost any summertime fare, but add some goat cheese and the match becomes ethereal.