France: The essential wine-lover’s journey
The world’s greatest wine-producing country has evolved into one of its finest destinations for wine tourism, leaving the visitor with only one problem: which of the country’s unmatched range of historic regions, estates, cellars, wine routes, tours, museums, and wine-themed restaurants and hotels should they visit first?
France has long been the center of the wine universe, with the country’s celebrated producing regions being the envy—and inspiration—of winemakers, and wine lovers, everywhere. Inevitably, then, and whether it’s to explore the underground cellars of Champagne, the fragmented vineyards of Burgundy, or the grand châteaux of Bordeaux, France has always been at or near the top of any list of must-visit countries for anyone with any interest in wine.
In the past, however, the French wine industry’s approach to wine tourism didn’t always quite keep pace with its winemaking skills. Visits were somewhat hit and miss, with vignerons not always welcoming, tourist information not always forthcoming, and customers often leaving unsatisfied. Happily, in the past few years the French have finally caught up with rivals such as Italy and Spain when it comes to infrastructure and attitude. And with local regional groups and individual companies—of all sizes—much more attuned to visitors’ needs, France is now a world-leading wine-tourism destination as well as producer.
Bordeaux typifies the changes in the French wine trade’s attitude to wine tourism. Whereas once there was a feeling that the region’s great châteaux were rather intimidating and inaccessible places for anyone outside the industry, now almost all have a policy of welcoming guests, whether by appointment or via a cellar door operation. With so many to choose from, it’s worth making a wish list and getting in touch well in advance of your trip, although many of the better hotels in the region are able to offer tours or act as a liaison with châteaux owners. InterContinental Bordeaux Le Grand Hôtel’s Wine Concierge Service has particularly strong links with the most exclusive châteaux, providing entrées and excursions ranging from helicopter rides over the vineyards to gourmet picnics.
That the city of Bordeaux itself has, after years of disruptive renovation work, woken up to its potential as a tourist destination in the past five years has certainly helped producers inland. And the great, historic trading city, accessible in a mere two hours on the recently opened TGV from Paris, is now a logical place to begin any French vinous tour.
Perhaps the most intriguing new addition to the Bordeaux cityscape is the startling twist of glass and steel of La Cité du Vin on the banks of the Garonne River. With a design inspired by “gnarled vine stock and the swirling of wine in a glass,” La Cité du Vin, opened in 2016, is a kind of vinous theme park, featuring an immersive permanent exhibition exploring the “cultures and civilizations of wine,” plus a series of themed temporary art exhibitions, restaurants, a wine boutique, and a range of workshops and other events. Worth at least an afternoon for a proper exploration, tickets are priced at €20 (www.laciteduvin.com).
The city’s dining scene has also been on a distinct upward swing in recent years, with a new generation of chefs making their presence felt. Of particular interest to wine lovers are two superb and affordable bistros that double up as wine shops: chef Tanguy Laviale’s Garopapilles and Fabrice Moisan’s Univerre. La Tupina is a much-loved traditional bistro that has been drawing visitors to its cluster of rooms with its farmhouse-like charm, rustic cooking, and superb wine list since the 1960s, and Bernard Magrez’s La Grande Maison, formerly a collaboration with Joël Robuchon and now in the capable hands of Pierre Gagnaire, a relatively recent addition to the white table-clothed fraternity.
Outside the city, there has also been something of a revolution in the kitchens of Bordeaux wine châteaux. Indeed, the quality of the food may prove to be a decisive factor when deciding on which châteaux to include on your itinerary. Two that have earned justifiably widespread acclaim for their culinary approach can be found in the Graves district. Château Smith Haut Lafitte in Martillac is host to Les Sources de Caudalie, a five-star hotel amid the vines with a spa based around a natural spring that uses vine and grape extracts and with two excellent restaurants, La Table du Lavoir and La Grand’Vigne. In Léognan, Château Haut-Bailly offers a private dining room with chef Jean- Charles Poinsot cooking for small, pre-booked groups, as well as a luxurious guesthouse amid the vines at Château Le Pape.
On the Right Bank, the owners of top châteaux such as Troplong-Mondot (Les Belles Perdrix, currently closed for renovation) and Angélus (Le Logis de la Cadène) are part of the gastronomic attraction in St-Emilion, while the famous village, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is, with its steep, cobbled medieval streets, wine shops, and range of bistros and restaurants, perhaps the most picturesque town in the region.
Inspired by the award, in 2015, of UNESCO World Heritage Status for their climats et terroirs, the vignerons of Bordeaux’s great fine wine rivals in Burgundy are also taking wine tourism much more seriously than has perhaps been the case in the past. As with Bordeaux, independent travelers are best advised to make arrangements for visiting the domaines of their choice well in advance of their visit, and the website of the local wine promotional body, the BIVB, is a good place to start: it offers a vast, easily searchable database of domaines, maisons, and accommodation (www.bourgogne-wines.com).
In a wine region that prides itself on terroir, perhaps the greatest pleasure for any visiting Burgundyphile is to work one’s way, by car, bike, or foot, along the Route des Grands Crus. Clearly marked with brown signposts, the 37 mile (60km) stretch from Dijon and Beaune and then on to Santenay runs through a roll-call of great vineyards, famous wine villages, châteaux, and other intriguing sites such as the Dukes of Burgundy’s 14th-century wine presses in Chênove. Although this is one of the wine world’s best free attractions (a map and a picnic need be the only expense), a great range of guided tours are available that can add to the experience (again, the BIVB’s website is worth checking for a list of guides).
Beyond the vineyards, many visitors will be drawn to Beaune, one of the world’s great wine towns. The city’s most famous site is, of course, the magnificent Hospices de Beaune, a 15th-century almshouse and hospital that, in November, plays host to the annual Burgundy charity wine auction. But the atmospheric streets lined with limestone buildings and steeped in the history of the local wine trade, is also a convenient base for an exploration of the region: Ma Cuisine, with its traditional Burgundian cuisine and remarkable wine list, has long been the wine lovers’ restaurant of choice (book well in advance; +33 3 80 22 30 22); La Maison de Colombier a relaxed “gastro-bar” with a daily changing menu and five delightful apartments for rent (www.maisonducolombier. com).
Outside Beaune, options for accommodation in the heart of the vineyards include a stay at Maison Olivier Leflaive, which has 13 spacious rooms around a peaceful garden, and a respected restaurant (www.olivier-leflaive.com) in Puligny- Montrachet, while Domaine Anne Gros has a beautifully restored house for six to eight people in the domaine in Vosne- Romanée (www.anne-gros.com).
The Champagne region was awarded UNESCO status at the same time as Burgundy, and the areas covered by the award— hillsides, houses and cellars—are very much a reflection of the priorities for any visitor. To experience both of the latter, it’s best to take a tour of one of the great Champagne houses located in either Reims or Epernay. Among the most accommodating and spectacular is Moët & Chandon in Epernay; the largest Champagne producer has a vast labyrinth of the Gallo-Roman crayères extending to more than 17 miles (28km) between 10m and 30m below ground, and tours, including tastings, priced between €25 and €40 per person, can be booked in advance at www.moet.com. In Reims, Taittinger has some spectacular chalk cellars in the vestiges of the 13th-century Abbé St-Nicaise in a tour that has been widely praised for its informative approach to the Champagne-making process (tickets are available at www.cellars-booking.taittinger.fr).
For those who are more interested in Champagne’s burgeoning grower-producer movement, a trip into the hillsides can be planned in advance using the Comité Champagne’s helpful website (www. champagne.fr), with suggested itineraries as well as information on which producers require advanced booking. Places to enjoy lunch or a glass of Champagne along the way include Au 36, a bar à vins and wine shop just up the road from Dom Pérignon in the pretty village of Hautvilliers with a fabulous selection of fairly priced Champagne that can be enjoyed with a platter of local delicacies (www.au36.net) or the brilliantly quirky treehouse-cum-wine bar, Perching Bar, which sits 6m up in the trees in the forest of Verzy in Arboxygène park during the summer months (www.perchinglife.com).
For fine-dining, and five-star accommodation, two Reims institutions stand out: Arnaud Lallement’s three Michelin-starred restaurant l’Assiette Champenoise in Tinqueux just outside the city, and the magnificent Domaine Les Crayères, with 20 luxury rooms and chef Philippe Mille’s gourmet restaurant set in a château surrounded by manicured gardens in the heart of the city.
Another very well planned and signposted Route du Vin is one of the hallmarks of wine tourism in another of France’s great wine regions, the Loire Valley. The scenic route takes you through one of the country’s prettiest corners, taking in the grand châteaux and gardens that are perhaps the region’s most emblematic feature, but also through its villages, farmland, and, of course, its vineyards and caves. The Loire’s vignerons have always been amenable to visitors, but there is a list of around 350 caves touristiques du vignoble du Loire that offer something a little extra beyond a tasting and tour. That might mean a particularly spectacular troglodyte chalk cellar, such as that of the large sparkling wine producers Ackerman and Bouvet-Ladubay in Saumur (www.ackerman.fr; www. bouvetladubay.com) or Chinon’s La Cave Monplaisir (www. cavemonplaisir.fr); or a venue for cultural events such as literary readings, art exhibitions, and classical concerts in gracious gardens such as Château des Vaults in Savennières. A full list, searchable by region, village, and style of production (organic, biodynamic), and including contact details, is available at www.valdeloire-france.co.uk.
For eating and drinking, the Loire is of course populated with Michelin-starred restaurants in grand surroundings such as Château de Pray, housed in the eponymous château, gardens, and four-star hotel near Amboise, or l’Auberge du Bon Laboureur, a short walk from one of the most elaborate châteaux in the region in Chenonceaux.
The modern side of Loire wine and food is perhaps best exemplified by the region’s de facto natural wine headquarters, restaurant L’Herbe Rouge in the tiny village of Valaire near Blois, where Cécile Argondico serves up local, seasonal ingredients to accompany natural wines made by her husband and co-owner, Thierry Puzelat, as well as a range of other members of the Loire’s natural wine fraternity (Argondico also offers a handful of gîtes on the site; www.restaurantherberouge.com).
Alsace was one of the first French regions to really embrace wine tourism, developing its wine route in the early 1950s, and it has long been a favored destination for Parisians looking for a weekend gastronomic break. The route winds through just over 100 miles (160 km) of rolling hills and half-timbered villages, with many options for biking and walking tour itineraries on the route’s official website, www.alsacewine- route.com. Most wineries along the route are happy to accept visitors without an appointment, with Domaine Weinbach in Kaysersberg—with its pretty stream and walled vineyard by a 17th-century farm house—and Domaine Josmeyer, in Wintzenheim—with its tranquil courtyard and tasting room lined with work by local artists commissioned by the family to appear on their various labels—among the most engaging for visitors.
Not far from Domaine Weinbach, La Winstub du Chambard is the place to go for a traditional Alsace eating experience, with such regional classics as baeckeoffe (three types of meat slow-cooked with potatoes and Alsace wine), onion tart, and coq au Riesling. The same venue also hosts the more refined, much-admired, two Michelin-starred La Table d'Olivier Nasti, with chef Olivier Nasti’s dishes matched with wines by sommelier Emmanuel Nasti, and a five-star hotel.
The Northern Rhône begins a little to the south of the city that is often referred to as France’s gastronomic capital, and Lyon makes an excellent base for touring Côte-Rôtie et al, as well as the vineyards of Beaujolais to the north. Converted from an 18th-century convent, the five-star Villa Florentine offers, along with panoramic views of Lyon’s old town, one of the best wine lists in France. Further south, and closer to the vineyards in Valence, is the similarly luxurious Maison Pic, home to the eponymous three Michelin-starred restaurant of Anne-Sophie Pic.
When it comes to visiting producers, the Rhône has an excellent online resource at www.rhone-wines.com, with ideas for which producers to visit, where to stay and eat, but also fun things to do in the vineyards. Around the hill of Hermitage, perhaps the Northern Rhône’s most distinctive landmark, the well-regarded local co-operative, Cave de Tain, offers a vast range of different guided and self-guided tours through the “Terres de Syrah,” whether on foot, gyropod, bike, electric bike, or mini-bus, while, at the foot of the hill, Maison Paul Jaboulet Aîné's fine restaurant-cum-tasting room, Vineum, offers wine-matching tutorials. In Ampuis in Côte-Rôtie, Domaine Barge offers visitors the opportunity to help with the harvest (by appointment; www.domainebarge.com) and take a guided trip through the vines in a jeep.
Enter the Southern Rhône, and you’re entering one of France’s most popular tourist destinations. Many visitors choose the medieval city of Avignon as a center of exploration, with the UNESCO World Heritage site, Palais du Papes, hosting a superb wine shop devoted to the region’s best producers and sold, with a handful of exceptions, at cellar-door prices. Not far from the Palais, in a converted 18th-century Banque de France, a new attraction devoted to the various AOCs of the Rhône Valley opened in 2016. As well as a tasting room, the Carré du Palais features a wine school, a bistro and restaurant, a wine shop, and a hotel.
Outside Avignon, the attractive village of Gigondas at the foot of the Dentelles de Montmirail hosts a fine visitor center with regularly changing themed tastings (www.cavegigondas.fr), while the extensive grounds and 18th-century château, as well as a fine new tasting room, make Château de la Nerthe among the most tourist-friendly of the famous names of Châteauneuf-du-Pape (book in advance via www.chateaulanerthe.fr). Finally, for visitors who want to experience a moment of serenity amid vines and unspoiled Provençal scenery in the Dentelles de Montmirail, La Verrière, run by the people behind Southern Rhône producer Chêne Bleu, offers a handful of luxury suites and guestrooms, plus the use of a tennis court, swimming pool, spa, and private chef. The hotel also hosts a respected, immersive wine course, or “wine bootcamp,” with top wine educators.
The Southern Rhône segues into the Provence wine region as you approach the Mediterranean, and the twinkling blue sea is the backdrop to visits to the region’s two most celebrated appellations, Bandol and Cassis. Two noted producers worth visiting are Domaine Tempier in Bandol, whose attractive patchwork of vineyards and old stone house is open to the public on weekdays (www.domainetempier.com), and, in Cassis, the almost absurdly picture postcard-like Clos Ste-Magdeleine in the Calanques National Park, which offers a guided tour of its grounds and villa for €12. In the village of Taradeau, and producing wines in the Côtes de Provence appellation, the classically styled 18th-century Château de St-Martin is a very special place to stay surrounded by 40ha of vines.
Moving west across the Mediterranean, wine tourism may have started more recently in the Languedoc-Roussillon than elsewhere in France, but it has, in the past decade, been an important part of this vast region’s strategy for establishing itself as a fine-wine producer. Among the producers that have taken up the challenge with most success are Château Camplazens, a spectacular site in La Clape featuring artwork by the owner, noted British watercolorist Simon Fletcher (www.camplazens.com), and Château de Flaugergues, with its 17th-century château and manicured gardens near to Montpellier (www.flaugergues.com), while Domaine La Tour Vieille is a highlight of a wander around the various wineries in the seaside town and home of the Fauvist art movement in Collioure (www.latourvieille.com), Domaine Gauby (by appointment www.domainegauby.fr) is one of a cluster of naturally minded producers up the Agly Valley in the village of Calce, and the Corbières growers’ association has come up with five different themed itineraries to explore the appellation’s various châteaux and terroirs (www.en.20decorbieres.com).
For accommodation, Château les Carrasses (www. lescarrasses.com) offers luxury self-catering suites, a clay tennis court, an infinity pool, and a well-regarded bistro at its boutique winery and 19th-century château near Capestang in Languedoc, while Domaine de Verchant is a stylish modern five-star hotel amid the vines ten minutes from the center of Montpellier (www.domainedeverchant.com).
For the many holidaymakers that make their way to the Dordogne and Lot Valleys each summer, the city of Cahors, set in a U-bend in the Lot River, is a popular day trip for its well-preserved medieval architecture including the famous 14th-century Valentré Bridge and, increasingly, its wine domaines. A tour of the region’s wines can start in the center of the city, at the Villa Cahors Malbec and the Cahors Malbec Lounge, where the local growers’ organization hosts tastings and provides information about the local wines and vineyards. The tour itself might take in the gorgeous 17th-century Château de Chambert (www.chateaudechambert.com), which has a fine on-site bistro, or Clos Triguedina, home of leading winemaker Jean-Luc Baldès (www.jlbaldes.com).
Elsewhere in the South West, the Brumont family’s two châteaux, Bouscassé and Montus, are the leading lights in Gascony’s Madiran appellation, and extensive tours are available in both, with a group tour including lunch with matching wines at €50 (www.brumont.fr), while Domaine Cauhapé is one of the best and most welcoming cellars in Jurançon, with appointments to taste with the owner Henri Ramonteu bookable at email@example.com.
Back east, the Jura is one of France’s more delightful hidden corners, although, as its wines become increasingly fashionable, so more visitors are discovering its bucolic charms. Producers in this small patch of land between Burgundy and Switzerland are small, and appointments required. Base yourself in the gracious Château de Germigney (www.chateaudegermigney.com) with its extensive gardens and two fine restaurants, and consult the informative list of vignerons at www.jura-tourism.com, or the fine book on the region by Wink Lorch (Jura Wine), to make the most of this new-old region.
Set in the vineyards of Château Smith Haut Lafitte, Les Sources de Caudalie is a five-star hotel, two Michelin-star restaurant, and a spa in funky surroundings constructed from recycled materials.
Chemin de Smith Haut Lafitte, 33650 Bordeaux-Martillac | +33 5 57 83 83 83 | www.sources-caudalie.com
This stately château was transformed into a serene, hideaway in Bordeaux by Bernard Magrez, with all the luxurious attention to detail you would expect from one of the biggest names in fine Bordeaux.
10 Rue Laboutièrre, 33000 Bordeaux | +33 5 35 38 16 16 | www.lagrandemaison-bordeaux.com
A charming converted 17th-century winemaker’s house between the vineyards and village of Aloxe-Corton with gardens, a pool, a sauna, a Turkish bath and an extensive wine cellar.
9 Rue Franche, 21420 Aloxe-Corton | +33 3 80 26 46 70 | www.hotel-villa-louise.fr
A 12th-century Cistercian abbey lovingly converted by an English couple into one of France’s finest hotels along the Route des Grands Crus, and with two superb restaurants.
D 33, 21360 La Bussiere-Sur-Ouche | +33 3 80 49 02 29 | www.abbayedelabussiere.fr
A Reims institution now, with the ambitious, inventive three- Michelin-starred cuisine of Arnaud Lallement in the kitchen and 33 stylish modern rooms.
40 Avenue Paul Vaillant-Couturier, 51430 Tinqueux | +33 3 26 84 64 64 | www.assiettechampenoise.com
A charming chambres d’hôtes offering four beautifully decorated guestrooms, a fantastic buffet breakfast, and a wonderfully intimate atmosphere located in the town of Aÿ, home to some of Champagne’s biggest houses.
3 Rue Billecart, 51160 Aÿ-Champagne | +33 3 26 56 99 20 | www.champagne-sacret.com
In the town of Vivy, 3 miles (5km) from Saumur, a gracious 17th-century château set in extensive parkland with a range of four immaculately presented rooms and suites. Le Château de la Ronde, 49680 Vivy | +33 6 07 45 99 83 | www.lechateaudelaronde.fr
Arguably the Languedoc’s finest luxury resort, Château Les Carrasses has 28 self-catering apartments and suites with a bistro and bar surrounded by vines.
Route de Capestang, 34310 Quarante | +33 4 67 00 00 67 | www.lescarrasses.com
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Quite apart from the magnificent wine, the great Pauillac first growth offers one of Bordeaux’s most stylish châteaux and a stellar collection of art. Visits by appointment only.
33250 Pauillac | +33 5 56 73 21 29 | www.chateau-mouton-rothschild.com
Named for its original owner, Pope Clement V, this vineyard is one of the oldest in Bordeaux, dating all the way back to 1252. Wine tastings can be booked any day of the week.
216 Avenue Dr Nancel Pénard, 33600 Pessac | +33 5 57 26 38 38 | www.chateau-pape-clement.fr
One of Champagne’s great grandes marques plays host to one of Reims’ best wine tours, with extensive cork cellars amid the remains of a 13th-century abbey.
9 Place Saint-Nicaise, 51100 Reims | +33 3 26 85 84 33 | www.taittinger.com
A Champagne house with a reputation for the friendly and personal welcome it extends to its guests, Telmont offers extensive, informative workshops for 12-15 people that take place all year round, while during harvest in September visitors can spend a day in the vineyard (including lunch and tasting).
1 Avenue de Champagne, 51480 Damery | +33 3 26 58 40 33 | www.champagne-de-telmont.com
Tastings from Drouhin’s wide range follow a tour of the cellars of the Duke of Burgundy’s Parliament building, which cover 1ha beneath the historic center of Beaune.
1 Cour du Parlement, 21200 Beaune | + 33 3 80 24 84 05 | www.drouhin-oenotheque.com
With a restaurant and four-star hotel on site, Olivier Leflaive has all the facilities for hosting tastings, with or without food, at his Puligny- Montrachet headquarters.
10 Place du Monument, 21190 Puligny-Montrachet | +33 3 80 21 37 65 | www.olivier-leflaive.com
Chapoutier’s biodynamic and organic Rhône empire is well set up for wine tourism, with a fine visitor center, tasting room, a wine school, gîtes, and various tour options.
18 Avenue Dr Paul Durand - BP 38, 26601 Tain Cedex | +33 4 75 08 92 61 | www.chapoutier.com
It’s worth visiting this beautiful vineyard for its setting alone: it sits high up in the Dentelles de Montmirail mountains at 1,640ft (500m) above sea level. Some 50,000 bottles of Beaumes de Venise and Côtes du Rhône are produced here and tastings can be booked Monday through Friday, or weekends by appointment.
84190 Suzette | +33 4 90 62 99 25 | www.domainesaintamant.com
Some of Alsace’s finest wines are presented in one of its most delightful domaines in Kaysersberg, where a stream flows by the walled vineyard.
25 Route du Vin, 68240 Kaysersberg-Vignoble | +33 3 89 47 13 21 | www.domaineweinbach.com
A beautiful historic estate containing a 12th-century monastery, a visit to La Coulée de Serrant is also an opportunity to encounter one of France’s great biodynamic pioneers.
Château de la Roche aux Moines, 49170 Savennières | +33 2 41 72 22 32 | www.coulee-de-serrant.com