Now that has all changed and winemakers are branching out to offer a range of other imaginative activities and attractions.
Visitors can go on guided walks among the vines, discuss philosophy, practise yoga, watch movies … and learn about the entire process of winemaking. This rising popularity of ‘wine tourism’ is reflected in gleaming new centres such as the huge purpose-built Cité du Vin in Bordeaux. Here we look at six vineyard activities to try.
1: Barrel sleepover
Visitors to the Domaine le Rocher des Dames, near Beaumes-de-Venise (84), can sleep in an outsized wooden barrel (pictured below). “We built it to offer visitors a fun place to stay,” said Corinne Bernard, who owns the vineyard with husband Jean-Luc. “It’s a barrel, but it’s also a bit like a gypsy caravan or boat. We came up with the idea as a way of raising our profile, because we also offer other accommodation here at the vineyard.”
She says people like spending time with them because it is an authentic working vineyard where they can either escape and relax in the tranquility of the countryside or learn about making wine.
“People often come in the autumn so they can be here for the grape harvest, which is obviously a very special time of the year for all winemakers.”
2: Yogic drinking
Other vineyards are taking the leisure trend even further.
The Château Gassier, near Puyloubier in Provence (13), has embraced the concept of ‘œnotourisme’, offering outdoor cinema and yoga classes, and selling picnics to visitors wanting to dine among the vines.
An hour of outdoor yoga is followed by an organic wine-tasting session; the cinema screenings also feature a local food truck and include a free glass of wine; and the picnics all include a bottle of wine from the chateau.
Visitors can also follow signposted walks through the vines, and it is possible to book the venue for large events.
3: ‘Welcome to wine world’
In Beaujolais country, not far from Dijon (71), visitors can take in ‘Europe’s only wine theme park’ - Le Hameau Duboeuf, which spreads over nearly eight acres.
The park includes a cinema, puppet theatre and a 3D virtual experience, allowing you to ‘fly’ over the area and see all the chateaux and vineyards.
There is also a museum, an adventure golf course leading through the vineyards and a restaurant and shop.
The venue is designed to appeal to all ages with educational and fun activities exploring the world of wine and wine-making.
The tasting room is highly decorated, making it a visual treat before you even start learning about the wines.
“The idea was born years ago,” said Anne Duboeuf. “When my father-in-law, Georges Duboeuf, was about 16 he came up with the idea of setting up a wine-making museum so throughout his life, working here at the family vineyards, he collected memorabilia. Some items he bought, some were given to him.”
The result is an extraordinary collection of wine-related posters and graphics that are on display in the musuem which he opened when he was 60. “I would say it was the beginning of ‘œnotourisme’, because he was the first,” said Mme Duboeuf.
The Hameau uses actors and interactive experiences as well as exhibits to immerse visitors into the world of wine.
“Of course, technical information is available for those who are interested but we concentrate on the human story so as to make the information accessible. We aim to make this a fun visit – even for people with no interest in wine.”
The Hameau Duboeuf has an old station, which contains a railway carriage that belonged to Napoleon III and was used by Queen Victoria in Calais.
The restaurant dining room is a beautifully decorated treat. “We serve locally-sourced foods and dishes from the region, and the restaurant is open 7/7, from 10am to 6pm.”
Another nice detail is that you can take a Corail train from either Lyon or Dijon direct to Romanèche-Thorins, on the doorstep of Hameau Duboeuf, meaning you do not have to drive there.
“You arrive via the original station hall, which is restored to its original beauty and even features the traditional fresco, so you enter the winemaking world as soon as you arrive,” said Mme Duboeuf.
4: Run a marathon
Really. Every September, the Marathon du Médoc wends its 42km way through some 59 Bordeaux vineyards.
Like most serious long-distance races it features regular refreshment stations but, unlike serious marathons, anyone taking part is treated to a feast of oysters, cheese, steak and foie gras, washed down with up to 23 glasses of wine. Entrants are also entertained by a series of bands. Every year up to 10,000 runners in compulsory fancy dress line up at the start of the most laidback and typically French of ‘races’, which starts and finishes at Pauillac.
Beware the pre-race parties, which ensure many of those taking part do not even make it to the start line in good shape.
This year’s race on September 9 is full but anyone who fancies taking part in the future should check out www.marathondumedoc.com when entries reopen in February 2018.
5: On horseback or on foot
In the west of France, in the heart of Bordeaux wine country, you can tour the vineyards of Saint-Emilion on horseback with ‘A Terre à Cheval’ (aterreacheval.fr).
The tours are suitable for beginners as well as experienced riders and include explanations about wine-making. Some also include wine-tasting and one includes lunch at a vineyard as well as a tasting.
Alternatively, at Entre-Deux-Mers the Caves de Rauzan run an Récréation Gourmande every June: a 6km walk through the vineyards, stopping at seven chateaux on the way for wine tastings and the seven courses of a gargantuan meal. Each stage offers music, dancing and games making it something of a marathon.
Back at the ‘caves’ there is more music, more tastings and of course the opportunity to re-stock your own wine cellar. The event is popular so advance booking is required. www.cavederauzan.com
6: Live the Life
The best way to experience wine making remains joining the harvest (le vendange). In areas like Champagne the picking is still done by hand and across the country more than 100,000 temporary workers are needed for les vendanges which last around three weeks.
Vignerons usually provide board and lodging and, for experienced pickers with good references, pay. But they also rely on volunteers. Apply by asking around locally if you live in a wine growing area, or by sending application letters to vineyards producing your favourite wines.
Otherwise, the Pôle-Emploi website has offers in Bourgogne, Rhône-Alpes, Champagne-Ardenne, Aquitaine, Languedoc-Roussillon, and Alsace.
Some regions even have dedicated sites for grape harvesting vacancies. Try www.anefa.org (Association Nationale pour l’Emploi et la Formation en Agriculture).
If doing an entire harvest sounds like too much work (and it is not for the faint-hearted) you can be a vigneron for a day. For details on www.vigneron-independant.com follow the links accueil - actualités - idée week-end.
Bruno Hertz in Eguisheim, Alsace, offers visitors the chance to visit the vineyards in a 2CV and pick grapes for either a few hours in the morning or the afternoon for the bargain price of €30. If you go in the morning and stay for lunch it costs €45 per person.
Whichever option you chose, a wine-tasting is included!