French white wines are excellent and deserve more attention. In comparison to the high-priced red wines of Bordeaux, French white wines offer a comparative bargain. There are multiple kinds of French white wines – international varieties like Chardonnay and Riesling, sweet dessert wines like Sauternes, and dry wines. You can find great French white wines by looking outside of well-known regions like Bordeaux.
The best place to start with French white wines are those made from noble grapes. These wine grapes are also known as “international varieties” because they are grown around the world. Even if you have never had a French wine, there is a good chance you have had a Chardonnay from California or another wine region.
- Key French Wine Regions: look for chardonnay wines from Burgundy.
- Taste Profile: varies considerably based on the region and winemaker’s goals. Expect a dry wine with medium acidity. Typical flavors include apple, lemon, and pineapple.
- Alcohol Range: expect an alcohol level between 12% to 15%.
- Estimated Volume Produced in France: approximately 35 252 hectares of France are devoted to Chardonnay
As one of the world’s best-known white wines, Chardonnay is widely planted throughout France and other countries. For more coverage on popular French Chardonnay white wines, read this post: Petit Chablis: 5 Things To Know About This Classic Burgundy White Wine. Fun fact: Chardonnay is sometimes called “the winemaker’s grape” because it is easy to work with.
- Key French Wine Regions: look in the Alsace wine region.
- Taste Profile: expect to taste fruits like apricot, nectarine, pear, and apple. The wine also has a relatively high acidity which can be refreshing.
- Alcohol Range: 11-12% is typical for French Riesling (German Riesling can have lower alcohol levels).
- Estimated Volume: 3280 hectares of Riesling is grown in Alsace (enough to create millions of bottles of wine).
I have fond memories of Riesling because it is one of the most common white wine varieties made in Ontario, Canada. In France, Riesling is considered a signature grape of the Alsace region, which borders Germany. For a different experience, look into a “late harvest” Riesling if you are looking for a sweeter white wine experience.
3) Sauvignon Blanc
- Key French Wine Regions: look at the Loire Valley and Bordeaux.
- Taste Profile: expect to taste green fruit flavors like apple and gooseberry.
- Alcohol Range: expect to see 10-11.5%.
- Estimated Volume: France has 26,800 hectares planted with Sauvignon Blanc, making it the number one global producer of this grape. New Zealand is the second-largest producer.
If you live in Canada or the United States, you probably first encountered Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. The French approach to Sauvignon Blanc is different. Like other Old World wines, you can expect more mineral tastes in the glass and somewhat less intense fruit flavors. To truly appreciate the difference between a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and a Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc, get a few bottles of each and organize a wine tasting at home.
4) Pinot Gris (also known as Pinot Grigio)
- Key French Wine Regions: look for this white wine in the Alsace wine region. A small amount is grown in Burgundy.
- Taste Profile: Generally described as fresh and spicy, expect to taste citrus and stone fruit in the glass.
- Alcohol Range: 11.5-13.5 (i.e., a medium alcohol wine)
- Estimated Volume: France is the second-largest producer in the world after the USA.
Widely described as the “medium” grape, Pinot Gris (called Pinot Grigio in Italy) is a famous white wine. Since it has moderate characteristics, many people enjoy it and work well in various settings. Pinot Gris is considered dryer than Chardonnay. Pinot Gris is a bit different on the grapevine because it comes in various colors, from pink to black! Traditionally, Pinot Gris grapes are considered grey, giving the grape its name (i.e., “Gris” is French for grey).
Like other Alsace white wines, Pinot Gris is also made in a sweet, late harvest style if you are looking for something different.
Tip: If you like Pinot Gris, then you may also like Gewürztraminer and Viognier.
5) Chenin Blanc
- Key French Wine Regions: most popular in the Loire Valley region.
- Taste Profile: In general, Chenin Blanc has a refreshing taste. Expect to taste apple and pear flavors. Some producers make the wine with a peach or even honeyed style.
- Alcohol Range: 11.5% to 13.5%
- Estimated Volume: France accounts for 63% of the world’s Chenin Blanc production. South Africa is the second most significant producer.
Chenin Blanc is known for its high acidity levels so expect to have a refreshing experience when you drink it. In France, it is a well-established white wine that has been grown for more than 1000 years. In South Africa, Chenin Blanc goes by a different name – Steen. The grape is also sometimes made into a sweet, dessert-style wine. Seafood pasta is a traditional Chenin Blanc food pairing.
Tip: If you like the Chenin Blanc experience, other similar white wines to try include Chardonnay, Riesling, and Viognier.
- Key French Wine Regions: Loire Valley
- Taste Profile: expect to taste citrus fruit and gooseberry. It is considered an aromatic wine variety, which means enjoying beautiful scents from the wine before you drink anything.
- Alcohol Range: 10-10.5% is the minimum alcohol content in Sancerre.
- Estimated Volume: annual production is primarily white wine (i.e., 22,000 hectolitres). The area also produces red wines and rose wines.
Sancerre is a wine-producing area rather than a specific grape. The white wines of Sancerre are typically made from Sauvignon Blanc, and the red wines are made from pinot noir. You can enjoy Sancerre white wines that are relatively young (i.e., 2-3 years old). That’s good news if you are waiting for your Bordeaux red wines to age.
- Key French Wine Regions: the best French examples come from Alsace.
- Taste Profile: this off-dry white wine tastes like grapefruit, ginger, and tangerine.
- Alcohol Range: 13.5-15%
- Estimated Volume: France is the number one producer of Gewürztraminer (i.e., 43% of the global production). Today, Italy is the second-largest producer of Gewürztraminer.
Gewürztraminer is a German word that translates as “Spice Traminer.” That name gives you a hint of what to expect in the glass – a spicy experience! It has been grown in Germany for centuries, including Alsace, a region of France that combines French and German influences.
Are you looking for a white wine to keep up with your spicy dishes? Gewürztraminer is a good choice because ginger notes pair well with powerful spices like cayenne pepper, turmeric, curry, and cumin.
- Key French Wine Regions: Sémillon is mainly produced in the Bordeaux region.
- Taste Profile: in sweet wine, expect to taste peach, apricot, mango, and nectarine. In some cases, note that Sémillon can have similar aromas to Sauvignon Blanc.
- Alcohol Range: 11%*
- Estimated Volume: France is the number one producer of Sémillon (i.e., 73% of global production). Australia is the second-largest producer, with 18% of global production.
*The actual alcohol content will vary considerably due to the common practice of blending Sémillon with other wine grapes.
Sémillon is a critical ingredient in the legendary sweet dessert wines from Sauternes. Keep in mind that Sémillon is typically blended with other grapes in Bordeaux like Muscadelle and Sauvignon Blanc. Bordeaux is famous for its high-quality blends, so don’t be worried that blending is somehow a negative. Instead, the Bordeaux approach to blending is a way to add balance to the wine.
Outside of France, Sémillon is popular in Australia, where it has been grown in the Harvest Valley area north of Sydney for many years.
Tip: Sémillon is one of the world’s underappreciated white wine grapes, so it is well worth trying if you are looking for something new to explore.
- Key French Wine Regions: Viognier is produced in the Northern Rhone and Languedoc-Roussillon.
- Taste Profile: this full-bodied white wine tastes like peach, tangerine, and honeysuckle. If the wine has been aged in oak, expect to taste a creamy wine with some vanilla.
- Alcohol Range: 13.5%-15% (relatively high for white wine)
- Estimated Volume: France is the number one producer of Viognier (i.e., 54% of global wine production). The USA is the second-largest producer (i.e., 20% of global wine production)
Do you love Chardonnay for its rich, bold flavors? In that case, you’re probably going to enjoy Viognier. It is also a wine that keeps surprising you because it can taste quite different depending on the winemaker. For example, there are off-dry versions of Viognier that will give you a sense of sweetness. That said, most Viognier wines are considered dry.
As a wine grape, Viognier is relatively challenging to cultivate and tends to lead to low yields. The difficulties in raising this grape are one reason why it is less widely produced. Some winemakers solve the problem by producing late-harvest Viognier, which means you can find sweet Viognier wine.
Fun fact: Viognier goes by a variety of other names. In France alone, this grape is also called Barbin, Picotin Blanc, and Vionnier.
- Key French Wine Regions: look for this wine in Alsace, Loire, and Burgundy.
- Taste Profile: varies considerably because Crémant is made from multiple grapes, including Riesling, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris.
- Alcohol Range: 12%
- Estimated Volume: challenging to estimate.
Do you like wines from the Champagne wine region of France? If so, you find feel put off by the higher prices associated with champagne. Fortunately, there are other sparkling wines from France that are worth a look at. Crémant is a French term for sparkling wines that use the Champagne method.
- Key French Wine Regions: the Loire Valley (mainly near the city of Nantes, the hometown of French author Jules Verne)
- Taste Profile: challenging to generalize because the Melon de Bourgogne is relatively neutral.
- Alcohol Range: 12% is the maximum alcohol content
- Estimated Volume: 8300 hectares are devoted to this white wine.
Made from the Melon de Bourgogne grape, this white wine type has been cultivated since at least the 1700s. In the last, Melon de Bourgogne was also produced in Burgundy, but this is no longer permitted. Muscadet is a dry white wine that is popularly paired with seafood like oysters and shrimp.
12) Muscat Blanc
- Key French Wine Regions: look for this white wine in southern France (e.g., Roussillon). A version of it is also grown in Alsace.
- Taste Profile: a sweet dessert wine usually compared with peach, apple, and mandarin oranges.
- Alcohol Range:
- Estimated Volume: France is considered to be the 5th largest producer of Muscat Blanc (the UA is the largest producer).
Formally known as Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, Muscat Blanc is a flexible great. It can be made in dry, medium, and sweet styles. Further, there are many different regional varieties (e.g., the Italian version is relatively different from France and different from the South African version). The grape is popular with winemakers because it is highly flexible.
The Best Way To Appreciate French White Wines
Drinking a single wine on its own makes it difficult to fully appreciate, especially if you are less experienced in wine tasting. Instead, set up a wine tasting at home where you taste a few different types of white wines.
For those who already like a specific white wine like Riesling from Germany or Chardonnay from California, use that wine interest as a starting point. Pick up three Chardonnays – one from France, one from the USA, and one from Australia – and taste them. That’s a great way to get started in seeing the difference between the wines. Alternatively, try a night of Rieslings – get one from Alsace, one from Germany and one from Canada.
You might not feel quite knowledgeable enough to host a wine tasting party with friends just yet. Fortunately, there are a few easy ways to educate yourself. Download a wine audio course like “The Everyday Guide to Wines of France” (see my full review here), and you will learn the basics of French wine in a few hours.