One of the delights of France is its wine, and as a major wine producer, there are vignerons all over the country doing magic with grapes and producing more wines than most of us will ever taste.
In fact, there is so much wine, it can be hard to know what’s what, and where it comes from. But even if your interest in wine is fleeting, these regions are wonderful places to explore. We look at a selection of wine regions from the north of the country. Look out for another article in the spring, exploring some more wine-producing regions!
Being so close to Germany, wines from Alsace are different from other French wines. They are mainly fragrant dry or fruity white wines with a pale colour, in the German tradition. Some of the best-known are Riesling, Sylvaner and Gewürztraminer. Alsace vineyards are situated on the lower eastern slopes of the Vosges mountains in the Rhine Valley between Strasbourg and Mulhouse.
Strasbourg is one of France’s most beautiful cities; the historic centre (La Petite France) on the Grande Ile is surrounded by the Ill river and the Canal du Faux-Rempart meaning that with its half-timbered houses, cobbled streets and multiple bridges over the water, it is often compared to Venice.
The Hospice of Strasbourg claims to own the oldest bottle of wine on the planet dating from 1472, which you can see on a free visit to their wine cellars. Get details and a map from the tourist office (it can be tricky to find) and while you’re there, ask about a day tour to the Alsace vineyards, or even better, about the Route des Vins d’Alsace (www.route-des-vins-alsace.com ).
In 2019, June 2 is ‘Slow Up’ day when cars are banned from the route, turning it over to walkers, roller skaters, and cyclists and all the wine cellars offer free tastings. And if that’s too energetic, how about a Segway tour? If you happen to be in the region in October, and fancy grape-picking, check out the ‘Vendangeur d’un jour’ (‘Grape-Picker for a Day’) scheme. But before setting off, do visit a winstub, a traditional bar serving Alsace wines, and more fun than the modern, international, trendy winebars springing up all over town.
Mulhouse is a thriving industrial city, with less aesthetic charm than other cities in the region like Colmar. It is, however, well worth the visit for its museums. Train-spotters will want to relocate and move into the Cité du Train, Europe’s largest railway museum. Petrolheads will be in similar ecstasy over the Cité de l’Automobile, which contains 400 vehicles including two of only six Bugatti Royale’s extant in the world.
North of Lyon, the narrow strip of land on the eastern slopes of the hills running south-east from Dijon are home to the wines of Bourgogne, or Burgundy. Burgundy is particularly associated with dry red wines made from pinot noir grapes, which can be laid down for 20-30 years. It does, however, also produce whites made from chardonnay grapes as well as wines (including whites and sparkling wines) made from other grape varieties (‘cépages’). Look out for 2003, said to be an exceptionally good year.
The heart of the wine-making region is Beaune, where every autumn wines are sold for charity in the historic Hospices de Beaune. One of the high points of the annual calendar, it takes place on 16-18 November this year. In fact, the sales only actually take place on the Sunday; the rest of the weekend being taken up with tastings, tours of wine cellars, large meals, music and dancing. Tickets should be booked in advance, all details are on www.beaune-tourisme.fr .
All year round, you can visit the Hospices on the same ticket as the art museum and the Musée du Vin de Bourgogne, which explains the history of Burgundy’s vineyards (which have Unesco heritage status) and includes an ‘aroma room’ as well as exhibitions and a quiz for all the family.
Halfway between Dijon and Beaune is Nuits-St-Georges, famous for its red wines. So much so that 97% of its production is red, but it does also make white and sparkling wines (Crémants de Bourgogne) and the Imaginarium gives a really good introduction into exactly how the wines are made. The visit starts with a 40 minute film, and then visitors explore a hands-on interactive exhibition before enjoying a wine tasting.
Dijon is, of course, the French capital of mustard, and the beautiful, grey, stone historic centre (a Unesco heritage site) is jam-packed with shops selling all kinds of different flavours, along with local vinegars, jams, flavoured oils, biscuits and other foodie delights.
Follow the well-marked, circular ‘Parcours de la Chouette’ walk, which takes in 22 different things to see. (Look up so you don’t miss the amazing coloured roof tiles, and use a paper map from the tourist office rather than the app as network/wifi isn’t always available.)
The Dijon International Gastronomy Fair is a major event in France, attracting around 200,000 people annually. This year it takes place from 1-11 November, with 600 stands, cookery demonstrations, tastings, and a mini-farm amongst the attractions. The guest of honour is Italy. More details from www.foirededijon.com
The vineyards of Burgundy are so close at hand that you can cycle to some of them, the Chambertin domaine, for example, is only 15kms (nine miles) outside Dijon. The tourist office offers maps and tickets for independent souls, and good-value guided tours for those who prefer their day planned in advance.
The city is also packed with winebars and cellars offering tastings, making it a delight for anyone interested in wine.
Move northwards to Chablis, 20km east of Auxerre, to taste flinty whites made from Chardonnay grapes grown in a cooler climate. It is a lively and prosperous town with a bustling Sunday market.
Halfway between Auxerre and Chablis is the Domaine Alain Geoffroy, where you can not only visit the domaine and taste the wines, but you can also visit their Wine and Corkscrew museum.
A particularly interesting visit for wine lovers.
Wines are produced along the Loire river valley, from the Muscadet region near Nantes to the Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé regions south-east of Orléans, taking in Anjou, and Chinon.
It is known for producing dry whites that go perfectly with fish and seafood, rosés, ‘vin gris’ (a very pale rosé) and a few pale reds. It is also the second largest producer of sparkling wines in France outside Champagne; the best known of which are probably Vouvray and Saumur.
The Loire valley stretches halfway across the country from the Atlantic Coast right into the centre of France, and is usually sub-divided into regions; the ‘Pays Nantais’, ‘Anjou’, Saumur’, ‘Touraine’, and ‘Centre-Loire’.
For the energetic, La Loire à Vélo stretches 900kms along cycle paths and quiet country lanes along the Loire Valley from Cuffy in the Cher département all the way west to Saint-Brevin-les-Pins where the Loire flows into the Atlantic.
It is part of Eurovélo 6, the 3,600km EU-funded cycle route that connects the Atlantic to the Black Sea. A million cyclists pedal along sections of La Loire à Vélo every year, enjoying the fabulous chateaux, the wine-tastings, and the scenery flanking the hills.
The route is plentifully provided with around 600 cycle shops (sales, hires and repairs), cycle parks, hotels, guesthouses youth hostels, restaurants, bars and cafés, and runs through Orléans, Blois, Amboise, Tours, Saumur, Angers and Nantes, all attractions in their own right.
In Blois, visit the Maison du Vin opposite the chateau. It is run by an association regrouping all the ‘vignerons’ of the Loir-et-Cher so it’s a great place to find out more about vineyards to visit. They also offer tastings, have wines for sale and run short introductory sessions to understanding wine-making, and learning how to taste wine like a pro.
Amboise is extraordinary. The very beautiful Château d’Amboise which dominates the town’s half-timbered, medieval centre, was once home to the French royal court; Leonardo da Vinci spent the last years of his life there, and died 500 metres away, in a manor house in Clos Lucé; Joan of Arc passed through the town in 1429 on her way to Orléans; and Mary Queen of Scots spent much of her early life in France there (she lived in France from 1548 when she was only six until 1561 when she returned to Scotland). So as well as being surrounded by wine-makers, the town is also packed with fascinating history.
Tours and Saumur
The city of Tours has many attractions, and the Touraine Wine Museum (in the cellars of the 13th century Saint-Julien Abbey) is perhaps one of the smaller ones. It is, however, well worth a visit before striking out to explore the wine domaines in the region. It has information about local wine-making history, a display of costumes belonging to wine brotherhoods of Touraine along with collections of ceramics, glass, and silverware.
Place Plumereau in the medieval district, Vieux Tours, contains a good selection of bars and pubs where you can relax with a glass of local wine. A curiosity is a huge cedar tree in the garden of the Musée des Beaux-Arts, said to have been planted by Napoleon. In the same garden, check out the alcove containing Fritz the elephant, who escaped from the Barnum and Bailey circus during their stay in Tours in 1902, and was duly shot and stuffed.
The town of Saumur boasts a wide variety of wine-related activities, including a tour of the vineyards in a horse-drawn cart, and their Maison des Vins d’Anjou et de Saumur. The ‘Secret des Papilles’ (The Secret of Taste Buds) is a centre offering short courses designed to teach tourists (whether already knowledgeable or not) more about the local wines. They run fun guided tours (three hours or all day) explaining everything from the effect the soil and climate has on wine, right through to wine-making vocabulary and what to look out for when tasting it. They also run lamp-lit evening tours, and all of them include wine-tasting at the end.
Angers is a great gateway to Anjou, famous for its rosé. The city is an attraction in itself. For wine lovers however, the Château de Brissac, in Brissac-Quincé, just south of Angers, is possibly even more attractive as they offer a wine tasting at the end of the guided tour. (They also offer B&B at the hefty price of €390 per night.)