A wine tour de France
France is, to most, the spiritual home of wine, universally admired over the centuries for its celebratory sparklers, magnificent reds, elegant whites, and rosés redolent of the summer sun. It may well be the dream of every wine lover to take a rambling tour around its vineyard regions, talking to the vignerons and tasting their life’s work straight from the cellar door.
The wine world is a greatly more competitive place than it was even 30 years ago. But notwithstanding that rival countries in Europe and elsewhere have challenged its supremacy, France continues to exert the strongest hold over the imaginations of wine lovers. If you are at all interested in wine and travel, the chances are France will be at the top of your list of potential destinations. The good news is that, as that global competition has intensified, so vignerons in every corner of France have become increasingly more adept at the art of hospitality.
Bordeaux best 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, though many of the better hotels in the region are able to offer tours or act as a liaison with château owners. InterContinental Bordeaux Le Grand Hotel’s Wine Concierge Service has particularly strong links with the most exclusive châteaux, providing introductions and excursions ranging from helicopter rides over the vineyards to gourmet picnics.
That the great city of Bordeaux itself has, after years of disruptive renovation work, woken up to its potential as a tourist destination has certainly helped its producers. This 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 vinestock and the swirling of wine in a glass,” La Cité du Vin opened in 2016. It 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, state-of-the-art tasting rooms, and a range of workshops and other events, that merits at least an afternoon for a proper exploration (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 as wine shops: Tanguy Laviale’s Garopapilles and Fabrice Moisan’s Univerre (www. garopapilles.com; www.univerre-restaurant.com). La Tupina is a much-loved traditional bistro that has been drawing visitors with its farmhouse-like charm, rustic cooking, and superb wine list since the 1960s (www.latupina.com), while Bernard Magrez’s La Grande Maison, now in the capable hands of Pierre Gagnaire, is a relatively recent addition to the fine-dining fraternity (www.lagrandemaison-bordeaux.com).
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 choosing which châteaux to include in your itinerary. Two that have earned justifiably widespread acclaim for their culinary approach can be found in the Graves district. In Léognan, Château Haut-Bailly offers a private dining room with chef Jean-Charles Poinsot cooking for small, prebooked groups, as well as a luxurious guesthouse amid the vines at Château Le Pape (www.haut-bailly.com). 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, L’Auberge de la Table du Lavoir and La Grand’Vigne (www.smith-haut-lafitte.com).
On the Right Bank, the owners of top châteaux such as Troplong Mondot (Les Belles Perdrix) 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 purely picturesque town in the region (www.saint-emilion-tourisme.com).
Inspired by the award, in 2015, of UNESCO World Heritage status for their climats et terroirs, the vignerons of Burgundy are also taking wine tourism much more seriously than has perhaps been the case in the past. As is the case with Bordeaux, independent travelers are best advised to make arrangements for visiting the domaines of their choice well in advance of their visit. 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, châteaux, 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 (60-km) stretch from Dijon and Beaune and then on to Santenay runs through a rollcall 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 is 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 Les Hospices de Beaune, a 15th-century almshouse and hospital that, in early 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 are also a convenient base for an exploration of the region: Ma Cuisine, with its fine 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 is a relaxed “gastro-bar” with a daily changing menu, strong wine list, 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 14 spacious rooms around a peaceful garden and a respected restaurant in Puligny-Montrachet (www.olivier-leflaive.com), while Domaine Anne Gros has a beautifully restored house for six to eight people in the domaine in Vosne-Romanée (www.maison-lacolombiere.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 at Moët & Chandon in Epernay; the largest Champagne producer has a vast labyrinth of the Gallo-Roman crayères (cellars) extending to more than 17 miles (28km), and tours, including tastings, 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-Niçaise, and their tour has been widely praised for its informative approach to the Champagne-making process.
For those 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), which has 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, during the summer months, in the brilliantly quirky treehouse-based Perching Bar, set 20ft (6m) up in the trees of Parc Arboxygène in the forest of Verzy (www.perchingbar.eu).
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 Château Les Crayères, with 20 luxury rooms and chef Philippe Mille’s gourmet restaurant surrounded by manicured gardens in the heart of the city.
A further 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 the region’s most emblematic feature but also through its villages, vineyards, and cellars. The Loire’s vignerons have always been amenable to visitors, but a list of around 350 caves touristiques du vignoble du Loire offers something a little extra beyond a tasting and tour. That might mean a particularly spectacular troglodyte chalk cellar, such as the large sparkling-wine producers Ackerman and Bouvet-Ladubay in Saumur (www.ackerman.fr; www.bouvetladubay.com) or Chinon’s La Cave Montplaisir (www.cavemontplaisir.fr); or a venue for cultural events such as art exhibitions and classical concerts in gracious gardens such as at Château de Vaults in Savennières (www.savennieres-closel.com). The list, searchable by region, village, and style of production (organic, biodynamic) is available at www.valdeloire-france.co.uk.
When it comes to wining and dining, the Loire is replete with Michelin-starred restaurants in grand surroundings, such as Château de Pray near Amboise (www.chateaudepray.fr) and l’Auberge du Bon Laboureur, just a short walk from Chenonceau, one of the most magnificent châteaux in the entire Loire Valley (www.bonlaboureur.com).
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 dishes featuring local, seasonal ingredients to accompany natural wines made by her husband and co-owner Thierry Puzelat and other members of the Loire’s natural-wine fraternity (www.restaurant-herberouge.com).
Alsace was one of the first French regions fully to 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 (170km) of rolling hills and half-timbered villages, with many options for biking and walking tour itineraries on the route’s official website, www.alsace-wine-route.com. Most wineries along the route are happy to accept visitors without an appointment. Among the most engaging are Domaine Weinbach in Kayersberg, with its pretty stream and walled vineyard by a 17th-century farmhouse, and Domaine Josmeyer in Wintzenheim, whose tasting room is lined with works by local artists commissioned to appear on their bottle labels (www.domaineweinbach.com; www.josmeyer.com).
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 offers the more refined, much-admired, two-Michelin-starred 64° Le Restaurant, at which chef Olivier Nasti’s superb dishes are matched with wines chosen by sommelier Emmanuel Nasti.
The Northern Rhône begins a little to the south of Lyon, the city often referred to as France’s gastronomic capital, and the town makes an excellent base for touring the Côte Rôtie, 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 (www.villaflorentine.com). Farther south, closer to the vineyards in Valence, is the similarly luxurious Maison Pic, home to the eponymous three-Michelin-starred restaurant of Anne-Sophie Pic (www.anne-sophie-pic.com).
When it comes to visiting wine 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 cooperative Cave de Tain offers a vast range of different guided and self-guided tours through the “Terre de Syrah,” whether on foot, gyropod, bike, electric bike, or mini-bus (www.cavedetain.com). At the foot of the hill, Maison Paul Jaboulet’s restaurant and tasting room, Vineum, offers wine-matching tutorials (www.jaboulet.com). In Ampuis in Côte Rôtie, Domaine Barge offers visitors a guided trip through the vines in a jeep and even a chance to help with the harvest (www.domainebarge.com).
Cross into 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 for exploration, with the UNESCO World Heritage site Le Palais du Papes housing a superb wine shop devoted to the region’s best producers and wines, most sold at cellar-door prices. Not far from Le Palais, an 18th-century Banque de France has been converted into a center devoted to the wines of the Rhône. As well as a tasting room, the Carré du Palais features a wine school, a bistro and restaurant, a wine shop, and a hotel (www.carredupalaisavignon.com).
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.cave-gigondas.fr), while the extensive grounds and 18th-century château, as well as a fine new tasting room, make Château la Nerthe among the most tourist-friendly of the famous names of Châteauneuf-du-Pape (www.châteaulanerthe.fr). Finally, for visitors who want to experience a moment of serenity amid vines and unspoiled Provençal scenery of the Dentelles de Montmirail, La Verrière, run by the cultured and passionate people behind Southern Rhône producer Le 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 highly respected, immersive wine course—or “wine bootcamp conducted by top wine experts (www.chenebleu.com).
The Southern Rhône segues into the Provence wine region as you approach the Mediterranean, and the twinkling blue sea is the backdrop for 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 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 (www.clossaintemagdeleine.fr). In the village of Taradeau, and producing wines in the Côtes de Provence appellation, the 18th-century Château de St-Martin is a very special place to stay, surrounded by vines (www.chateaudesaintmartin.com).
Wine tourism may have started more recently in Languedoc-Roussillon than elsewhere in France, but it has, over the past decade, been an important part of this vast region’s strategy for establishing itself as a fine-wine producer. Among producers taking up the challenge with greatest success are Château Complazens, a spectacular site in La Clape decorated with artworks by the owner, British watercolorist Simon Fletcher (www.complazens.com), and Château de Flaugergues, with its 17th-century château and manicured gardens near Montpellier (www.flauguergues.com). Domaine La Tour Vieille is a highlight of a wander around the wineries in the seaside town of Collioure, birthplace of the Fauvist art movement (www.latourvieille.com), while Domaine Gauby in the village of Calce is one of a cluster of naturally minded producers in the Agly Valley (by appointment; www.domainegauby.fr). The Corbières growers’ association has also come up with five themed itineraries via which to explore the appellation’s châteaux and terroirs (www.en.20decorbieres.com).
For accommodation, Château les Carasses offers luxury self-catering suites, a tennis court, an infinity pool, and a well-regarded bistro at its boutique winery and 19th-century château near Capestang in Languedoc (www.lescarrasses.com), 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 visitors who 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 14th-century Valentré Bridge and, increasingly, its wine domaines. A tour of the region’s wines can start in the city center, at the Villa Cahors Malbec and the Cahors Malbec Lounge, where the local growers’ organization hosts tastings and provides information about local wines and vineyards. The tour might take in the gorgeous 17th-century Château de Chambert (www.chateaudechambert.com), which has a fine on-site bistro, and Clos Triguedina, home of leading winemaker Jean-Luc Baldes (www.jlbaldes.com).
Elsewhere, the Brumont family’s two châteaux, Bouscassé and Montus, are leading lights in Gascony’s Madiran appellation, and extensive tours are available at both, including a group tour complete with lunch and matching wines (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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the east, the Jura is one of France’s delightful hidden corners, although, as its wines become increasingly fashionable, so more visitors are discovering its bucolic charms. Producers in this patch of land between Burgundy and Switzerland are small, and appointments are 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 Wink Lorch’s excellent book Jura Wine to make the most of this new-old region.
Château Haut-Bailly and Château Le Pape
From the creative cuisine of chef Jean-Charles Poinsot at the Private Table of Château Haut-Bailly, to the luxurious accommodation at Château Le Pape, renovated in 2015, the gracious owners and managers here offer the perfect stay.
+33 5 56 64 75 11 | email@example.com | www.haut-bailly.com/en/hospitality
InterContinental Bordeaux Le Grand Hôtel
Immaculate and indeed grand five-star hotel in central Bordeaux, with restaurants by Gordon Ramsay and a Wine Concierge Service providing entrées to the region’s smartest vinous addresses.
Place de la Comédie, 33000 Bordeaux | +33 5 57 30 44 44 | firstname.lastname@example.org | www.bordeaux.intercontinental.com
Hôtel Villa Louise
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 | email@example.com | www.hotel-villa-louise.fr
Abbaye de la Bussière
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 Bussière-sur-Ouche | +33 3 80 49 02 29 firstname.lastname@example.org | www.abbayedelabussiere.fr
A Reims institution, featuring 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 | email@example.com | www.assiettechampenoise.com
Château Les Crayères
Another Reims classic, a five-star château-hotel that has been among the finest in the region for the best part of a century, with classically styled fine dining at Le Parc restaurant.
64 Boulevard Henry Vasnier, 51100 Reims | +33 3 26 24 90 00 www.lescrayeres.com
Le Château de la Ronde
In the town of Vivy, 3 miles (5km) from Saumur, a gracious 17th-century château set in extensive parkland with a range of ten immaculately presented rooms and suites.
Le Château de la Ronde, 49680 Vivy | +33 6 07 45 99 83 | firstname.lastname@example.org | www.lechateaudelaronde.fr
Château Les Carrasses
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
Château de Rochegude
Surrounded by vineyards in the Southern Rhône, with views toward Mont Ventoux, a magnificent 12th-century fortress now converted into a luxuriously tranquil Provençal hotel.
Place du Château, 26790 Rochegude | +33 4 75 97 21 10 | email@example.com | www.chateauderochegude.com
The Nasti family’s hotel in the middle of the wine village of Kaysersberg has comfortable rooms, two fine restaurants, and an excellent local wine list.
9–13 Rue du General de Gaulle, 68240 Kaysersberg | +33 3 89 47 10 17 | firstname.lastname@example.org | www.lechambard.fr
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Château Mouton Rothschild
Quite apart from its magnificent wine, this great Pauillac first growth offers one of Bordeaux’s most stylish châteaux and a stellar collection of art. By appointment only.
Château Mouton Rothschild, 33250 Pauillac | +33 5 56 73 21 29 | www.chateau-mouton-rothschild.com
Château Cos d’Estournel
This St-Estèphe second growth welcomes visitors by appointment to one of Bordeaux’s most architecturally striking estates.
Château Cos d’Estournel, 33180 St-Estèphe | +33 5 56 73 15 50 | email@example.com | www.estournel.com
One of Champagne’s great grandes marques offers an excellent wine tour, through extensive cellars amid the remains of a 13th-century abbey.
9 Rue Saint-Nicaise, 51100 Reims | +33 3 26 85 84 33 | www.taittinger.com
A consistently excellent and good-value grower Champagne, Barnaut hosts its visitors in Bouzy with a flight of seven wines in an excellent shop stocked with local Champenois delicacies.
2 Rue Gambetta, 51150 Bouzy | +33 3 26 57 01 54 | www.champagne-barnaut-bouzy.com
Maison Joseph Drouhin
Tastings from Drouhin’s wide range of domaine and négociant wines follow a tour of the cellars of the Duke of Burgundy’s Parliament building, beneath the historic center of Beaune.
1 Cour du Parlement, Place du General Leclerc, 21200 Beaune | +33 3 80 24 84 05 | Email firstname.lastname@example.org | www.drouhin-oenotheque.com
Domaine Olivier Leflaive
With a restaurant and four-star hotel on site, Olivier Leflaive has all the facilities necessary for hosting tastings, with or without food, at his Puligny-Montrachet headquarters.
Place du Monument, 21190 Puligny-Montrachet | +33 3 80 21 37 65 | email@example.com | 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 Av Dr Paul Durand – BP38, 26601 Tain | +33 4 75 08 92 61 | www.chapoutier.com
You’ll need to book in advance to enjoy lunch or a tasting at Madiran master Alain Brumont’s two domaines—Château Bouscassé and Château Montus.
Vignobles Brumont, 324000 Maumusson Laguian | +33 5 62 69 74 67 | firstname.lastname@example.org | www.brumont.fr
Some of Alsace’s finest wines are presented in one of its most delightful domaines in Kayserberg, in the Ballons des Vosges Natural Regional Park.
25 Route du Vin, 68240 Kientzheim | +33 3 89 47 13 21 | www.domaineweinbach.com
Vignobles de la Coulée de Serrant
A visit to this beautiful historic estate, with its 12th-century monastery, offers the chance to meet one of France’s great biodynamic pioneers.
Château de la Roche aux Moines, Chemin de la Roche aux Moines, 49170 Savennières | +33 2 41 72 22 32 www.coulée-de-serrant.com