It’s not easy to plan the perfect France wine vacation because there are so many regions to see, and each region has its own charms. The wines vary greatly from Alsace, to Bordeaux and the Loire River Valley. Learn what each area has to offer, then decide where to go!
Located on the border of France and Germany, the wine and food of this region are a blend of both countries. More famous for white wines like Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Tokay Pinot Gris, Muscat and Gerwürztraminer, a small amount of red wine, mostly Pinot Noir is also produced. Labeling wine in Alsace is a bit of a hodge-podge combination of varietals, grand cru vineyard sites and producers, unlike other areas of France. Noted Alsatian wine producers include Trimbach, Kuentz-Bas, Zind-Humbrecht, Marcel Deiss, Weinbach, Hugel, Albert Boxler, Hugel & Fils and Albert Mann.
With 57 AOC regions, Bordeaux is one of the largest wine regions in the world and one of the most popular. The centuries-old system of negociants who blend and market wines, along with cooperatives and winemakers, produce over 800-million bottles of wine each year. Famous for the red wine blends made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot, Bordeaux also produces dry and sweet white wines, the most famous of which is Sauternes.
When it comes to deciphering Bordeaux’s labeling systems, the 1855 classification that assigned various chateaus into a ranking system is still in place today. On top of that, the more recent AOC system that is built around very specific geographical sites and winemaking standards is also used. The end result is that Bordeaux produces some of the most expensive, highly-prized trophy wines in the world right alongside delightful everyday sippers.
Visiting wineries in the Bordeaux region, especially the 1st and 2nd growth chateaus, isn’t for the casual wine tourist. Appointments are a necessity and may require using a pre-arranged tour service. Given that some of these wines sell for hundreds, even thousands of dollars for a single bottle, it’s not surprising. The five first growths include Chateaux Margaux, Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Haut-Brion and Mouton-Rothschild. Bordeaux also offers visitors outstanding restaurants, stunning chateau architecture and vineyards at every turn.
If Bordeaux is dominated by Cabernet-based blends, Burgundy is dominated by Pinot Noir in reds and Chardonnay in whites. While other varietals are produced here (example: Beaujolais is made from Gamay) they are of lesser importance. Although the two regions products are completely dissimilar, the one thing they do have in common is astronomic prices for the handful of wines produced from top vineyard sites.
Burgundy is a much smaller wine region than Bordeaux both geographically and in terms of volume, but for those who love the Pinot Noir grape, this is heaven. The small city of Beaune is the ideal location for exploring wineries and enjoying fabulous food.
Wine tourists will find that advance appointments are a necessity when visiting the region’s 21 wine appellations. Like Bordeaux, negociants are often responsible for making and selling the wine. Well-known negociants would include Louis Jadot or Joseph Drouhin. Wines made from the famous 33 Grand Cru vineyards bear the name of the site on the label. Some examples would include Corton, La Tache and Romanee-Conti.
Travelers arriving in Paris who have limited time to see the wine regions will find that Champagne is the closest wine tour destination and one of the most accessible for visiting. Located just an hour or so east of Paris, the city of Epernay is the central locale for wine tours.
The Champagne houses are really palaces, devoted to the production of sparkling wine. The Moet and Chandon house is modeled after Versailles. Famous names like Pol Roger, Perrier-Jouet and Mercier are located on the Avenue de Champagne in Epernay, and at the end of this famous avenue are the Chardonnay vineyards of the Cotes de Blanc.
Only three grapes go into Champagne – Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. Tours and tastings are regularly scheduled at many of the major houses, some of them in English. Champagne is one of the best known wines in the world. Demand for the wines is high and so are the prices but tasting this wine, learning about the method champenoise and seeing literally millions of bottles aging in chalk caves that go back to Roman times are experiences not to be missed.
Located in the south along the Mediterranean and stretching west to the border with Spain, Languedoc-Roussillon is the largest wine region in France with over 1/3 of the country’s vines. Traditionally, this region’s mainstay was the everyday table wine consumed by most French citizens. As wine consumption has slowly declined, focus has turned to producing higher-quality AOC wines, along with the Vin de Pays (country wines) and Vin de Tables (table wines) the area is known for.
The area’s capital city is Montpellier but the walled medieval city of Carcassonne is perhaps better-known to tourists. Red wines are the focus here, made from grape varietals that include Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Chardonnay is now the most widely planted white wine grape along with Roussane, Marsanne and Viognier.
Without doubt, some of the best bargain wines to be had in France come from this region. Highly recommended producers include Clos Marie, Domaine Foulaquier, Chateau de la Negly, Domaine Saint Antonin, Mas Amiel, Domaine Gauby and Domaine de la Tour Vielle.
Outside of Paris, the French Riviera is probably the most heavily visited tourist destination in France. With spectacular beach resorts, magnificent food and quaint towns favored by artists like Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse and Renoir, there’s much to love about Provence.
The wines of Provence include red, white and rose, but it is rosé that gets the most attention and accounts for roughly 75% of the wine produced in the region. Vineyards and wineries are woven into the landscape and driving the sun-drenched country roads lined with fragrant fields of lavender and sunflowers is delightful.
With over 500 to choose from, Provence wineries range from large cooperatives down to tiny one-man operations. An interesting cross-section of producers would include Domaine de Fontavin, Chateau de Calissanne, Chateau de Simone and Chateau de Capitoul. Making an appointment in advance is typically required.
The Loire River Valley in north-central France is home to France’s third largest winegrowing area and contains 87 AOC designations. Some of the better-known appellations include Sancerre, Vouvray, Muscadet Sur Lie and Chinon. This is a highly diverse region that produces red, white, rosé and sparkling wines in both dry and sweet versions.
The Loire offers wine tourists peaceful, less traveled countryside, ancient towns, elegant chateaus and excellent wine values. Some well-respected producers include Domaine Francis Blanchet, Francois Cotat, Le Haut Lieu (Huet), Baumard, Pierre-Bise and Filliatreau.
Rhone Valley Wineries
Along the banks of the Rhone River in southwestern France are some of the most prized sites in the world for Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre grapes. In the northern portion of the valley, Syrah tends to be the focus. In the Cote-Rotie appellation, wines made from impossibly steep vineyard sites fetch equally steep prices from collectors. But the high-priced collectibles of the Rhone Valley are right at home with some of the best value wines France has to offer, the Côte du Rhones.
In addition to the blockbuster reds, Rhone Valley whites made from Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne are also excellent. Blends are common in both reds and whites. There are more than 1,500 wineries and cooperatives in the area.
In the northern part of Rhone some of the most acclaimed producers are E. Guigal, Jaboulet, Chapoutier, Jean-Luc Columbo and Auguste Clape. In southern Rhone the most famous appellation is Chateauneuf du Pape. Excellent wineries in this area are Beaucastel, Vieux Telegraphe, La Barroche, Bonneau, Clos des Papes and Clos Saint-Jean. Vines grow in soils with what appears to be almost nothing but large pebbles and rocks. Winery appointments are a generally requirement throughout the Rhone Valley.