We’ve all heard the stories. That single bottle of Romanee Conti that sold for almost €500,000. That elusive bottle of 1787 Chateau Margaux. That incomprehensible but oh so important classification system for Bordeaux wine. Common denominator? They’re all French.
France and wine have been inextricably linked since time immemorial. Like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire or love and marriage, you can’t really have one without the other. But what makes the French so good at wine? Is it just because they have monopolised the market? Is it that they have an inherent comprehension of terroir? Is it their skill in matching the right grape to the right soil that gets them those extraordinary results and makes French wine perhaps the best in the world? Or is it just the amalgamation of all three that give them that je ne sais quoi over the others.
Whatever the reasons, there is no denying that France is home to some of the world’s best wine. Here’s our top picks of the best French wines on the market today.
What Is Special About French Wine?
But first, a quick history lesson. The French have been making wine since the 6th century BC when the Greeks colonised parts of southern France. The Romans then picked up the mantle during their era in the area in 121 BC and monetised wine production by allowing only specific regions to produce wine. Wine making knowledge then passed from generation to generation through the Christian church, with terrains being cultivated by monks who were allocated the largest parcels of land. This remained until the French Revolution (1789), when many great vineyards were confiscated, destroyed or left abandoned.
In 1855, Emperor Napoleon III requested that a classification system for the best french red wines be created. This led to the famous First-Fifth growth system that classes 61 wines from Bordeaux in ascending order and today serves as a (controversial) benchmark for all wines worldwide.
Regardless of whether it is one of the coveted 61 or not, the best french wine undergoes a strict certification process known as AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée or “controlled designation of origin” for non-French speakers). This system is applied to many French products including cheese, butter, honey and erm, lavender, and ensures that meticulous guidelines are respected. No other countries have such a strict system in place and, despite being complicated and bureaucratic, the AOC system guarantees that the end product is the best it can possibly be.
So even if your pockets are not deep enough for un First Growth, make sure that what you add to your table or your portfolio is AOC. Thousands of yards of French red tape can’t be wrong.
If you are keen on investing in French wine make sure to read more about French wine regions, so you can make an informed choice.
Best French Wine: Top 5
We know that investing in fine wine is more lucrative than ever. We know that the best choices are Bordeaux and Burgundy, a fact summed up beautifully by an article in The Daily Telegraph in 2017. Not only do vineyards in these areas adhere to the AOC guidelines but many choose to limit their yield. This is hugely beneficial and not just from a financial point of view. Limiting your yield allows for better quality wine (but there’s less of it). Ironically, this practice pushes the price up even further as supply dwindles and becomes rare bottles can begin to reach astronomic prices.
If you consider buying any of these wines for investment, you may find it useful to read how to sell your wine afterward, so you have precise expectations.
Best French Red Wine
It’s exceptionally hard to define what makes a wine “good”. Firstly, there is the matter of taste – one man’s trash is another man’s treasure and all that. Beauty is genuinely in the eye of the beholder but the true oenologist will be able to see past personal taste and recognise greatness when they taste it. Obviously the big hitters – aka the First Growths in Bordeaux along with Romanee-Conti and Domaine Leroy in Burgundy, are sure fire wine wins in terms of both taste and ROI. All wines, all vintages. No exceptions.
But it would be foolish to only look at the number one wines when considering the best French wines on the market. Because of the vast improvement in viticulture in the past 150 years, not to mention the huge amount of funds funnelled into vineyards, wines which were once considered borderline or even below radar are today as good as many First Growths. These wines may be equivalent in taste but if the label on the bottle says Cinquieme Cru, the price will never reach the heady heights of Premiers such as Chateaux Margaux, Lafite Rothschild, Latour, Mouton Rothschild and Haut Brion. That is not to say that returns will not be spectacular, on non-Premiers, in fact it is perhaps even better – initial outlay is lower too.
There are two Fifth Growths and a Super Second that are among our favourite of best French red wines. These are:
Ranked among the elite of Medoc, this Fifth Growth estate is owned by the negociants colossus CVGB The estate is managed by Dourthe, who, in 1979 when they started managing the property negotiated management until 2025. Dourthe and CVGB invested heavily and renovated the winery in 2004, allowing for a parcel by parcel approach, rather than a one size fits all approach. This has caused a noted uprise in both points and prices; for example the stellar 2015 scored 90/100 from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate and 16/20 from Decanter.com’s Jane Anson. With a good 15 years of ageing, we expect marvellous things in both taste and profit from this particular vintage.
Château Cos Labory
This Fifth Growth appellation of just 18-hectares, located within the hallowed grounds of St. Estephe and just a stone’s throw from Chateau Cos d’Estournel, is a Bordeaux bijou. The estate is interesting in that it is one of the few estates left that has yet to embrace biodynamic farming. This has lead to the claim that the estate is compromising its potential quality. Their refusal to do so seems a shame, as with some of the best plots in the region, their quality (and hence price) could increase by a large margin. Undoubtedly more sustainable farming methods will be introduced soon, and when they are, expect Château Cos Labory to rocket. 2016’s vintage is a sterling example of what the Château is capable of. And if you don’t believe us, the high scores from both Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson (92/100 and 16/20 respectively) prove it.
Château Cos d’Estournel
What can we say about Château Cos d’Estournel that has not already been said? If ever the best French wine could be described by personality alone, Chateau Cos d’Estournel would be it. It is the leading estate of the St. Estephe region, and many say it challenges its neighbours in Pauillac. The 2eme Cru Classé (Second Growth) produces strong, intense and powerful wines from its 100-hectare terroir, north of Lafite. The high content of clay in the soil means wines have an exceptional capacity for ageing, so this is a producer to have on your radar. We particularly love Cos d’Estournel en primeur as for investors, this is where the money is. It is an (almost) guaranteed win, as 2019’s release proves. Outstanding scores of almost 100 by Robert Parker (97-99+/100 to be precise) and 18+/20 from Jancis Robinson plus a drinking window of 40 years means that you can safely add this to your portfolio for long term results.
Best French White Wine
How could we mention our best French white wines without mentioning Champagne? An icon in the fizzy world of wine, Champagne is to white wine what Marilyn Monroe is to women: it knocks you out with its body and then reels you in with its brains. If still wine is prose, Champagne is poetry. An almost impossible question, but our top pick would be:
Champagne Cristal 2012
After the frenzy of the 2008 release in 2018, we have been waiting patiently for cellar master Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon to release his next instalment. And in December 2019, he did just that – releasing not one but two vintages (the other is the Rosé). The Cristal 2012 marks the first release after the celebrated house skipped two consecutive years, and marks “the next chapter” in the House of Roederer. It is the first vintage to be released that is 100% biodynamic, pulling in stellar scores. These include two 98/100 from James Suckling and Antonio Galloni. The blend of 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay is considered “terrific” and expected to age well past 2050. Our suggestion? Get it before it’s gone.
If ever there was a white wine worth keeping, Chateau d’Yquem is it. Described by numerous sources as “the best sweet white wine in the world”, this Sauternes is holder of the auspicious title of “world’s fifth most valuable wine” after a single bottle of the 1811 vintage sold at auction for €87,133 in 2011 (1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th places were won by Château Cheval Blanc 1947, Heidsieck 1907, Château Lafite 1869 and Château Margaux 1787 respectively). It is the only Bordeaux wine (either red or white) to be classified as Premier Cru Supérieure.
Because of its superior ageing and slow growth, Chateau d’Yquem is the perfect wine when choosing an investment opportunity that offers substantial gains over a long period of time. From a tasting point of view, the best vintages mature at about the 100-year mark, so if you are looking for something for immediate drinking or return, we advise against this lovely white. Wine investors should note that in 2006, a single lot of Château d’Yquem containing every vintage produced from 1860 until 2003 was sold for US$1.5 million, still one of the highest price wine lots ever purchased. Rivalled only by Cheval Blanc in terms of sustained growth potential, this is a wine that will keep on earning, as long as the cork stays in!
You can find these great french wines on our wine investment app – Vindome!