Getting to know the wines of France is one of the joys of residence in ‘L’Hexagone’.
All over the country ‘vignerons’ are producing fabulous new wines as well as beloved old favourites. So much so in fact, that it can be hard to know what’s what, but a good start is grasping the layout of the main wine-producing regions.
Last November, we looked at the north of the country, and now we are turning our attention to vineyards in the south.
Even if your interest in wine is fleeting, these regions are wonderful places to explore.
The Bordeaux region of Nouvelle Aquitaine is one France’s top three wine-producing regions (along with Burgundy and Champagne).
With easy access to the Atlantic, it has traditionally been the country’s major wine-exporter. During the reign of King Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, it was England’s main wine supplier. Historically, red wines from this region have been referred to as ‘clarets’.
Appellation Bordeaux vineyards stretch 100kms north-south along the Gironde estuary, and the banks of the Garonne and Dordogne rivers.
The best-known specific appellations include Médoc, Graves and Saint- Emilion. The most prestigious are designated as ‘grand cru’ and just below that category are wines called ‘cru bourgeois’.
Among the Bordeaux vineyards, Médoc deserves a special mention. The Médoc, an area south of the Gironde estuary to the north west of Bordeaux, is home of many of the most prestigious French wines.
Among the famous appellations produced in this area are Saint-Estèphe, Margaux, Saint-Julien and Pauillac.
In 1855, wine producers in the Médoc region classified their 61 best wines into a league table of ‘grands crus’, with ‘premier cru’ at the top and ‘cinquième cru’ at the bottom.
These grands crus are generally said to be the greatest of all French wines, and they come with prices to match their star-studded reputations.
If you buy an estate bottled wine from a chateau with grand cru status, you can be pretty sure of getting a top quality wine. But if you plan to keep it, make sure it is matured correctly in the right conditions. [See page 15 for more on storing wine.]
Between the Garonne and Dordogne rivers is the Entre-Deux-Mers region which boasts around 3,700 acres of vineyards.
The name has no connection to the sea (‘la mer’) but is derived from the French word ‘marée’ meaning tidal, referring to the two rivers.
The dry white wines produced here, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Muscadelle grapes, are usually drunk young and are perfect with salads, fish and seafood.
The market town of Cadillac, 30kms south of Bordeaux, which lies directly across the Garonne from Sauternes, and is known from producing sweet dessert wines under the Cadillac AOC designation, is a great base for exploring the area. However, before setting off it is worth visiting the award-winning Maison des Vins de Cadillac. They have a museum which explains the basics of wine-making and they organise courses in wine-tasting and gastronomy for those who want to delve deeper into the subject.
They also organise workshops and other activities for children.
Before heading off on one of the well-marked circuits around the various wine-producing chateaux of the region by car, bicycle or on foot, it is also worth exploring the town.
It has a river port, historic fortifications and Catholic church as well as an Islamic Mosque, not to mention the magnificent chateau, which is listed as one of France’s national monuments.
If you happen to be there at the end of August do not miss the Balades en Cadillac festival; three days of music, circus, street entertainment, dancing, fireworks and wine tasting. (Contact the tourist office for more information.)
To mark September’s Journées européennes du patrimoine, the town organises a guided evening visit to the château, with theatrical scenes illustrating the town’s history. This is followed by fireworks.
Inland and south of the Bordeaux region there are many less well-known wine growing areas including Bergerac and Cahors which are particularly known for their red wines; those from Cahors are some of the richest and darkest in France, resulting in them sometimes being called “purple wine”.
The area around Bergerac is also known however for its white wines, including some strong sweet aperitif bottles like Monbazillac.
Winemakers in Languedoc produce a lot of simple table wine; mostly designated as ‘Vin du Pays’ but also produce ‘appellations controlées’ such as Corbières and Fitou. The wines from this region tend to be rich and full bodied, with a high alcohol content.
Further west, the wines from Minervois and Carcassonne are worth exploring. The old historical ‘cité’ in Carcassonne is well worth a visit, despite being undeniably touristy. The Ville Basse on the other side of the river, has its own attractions, including good shopping, cobbled streets, 18th century architecture, fountains, squares and the Musée des Beaux-Arts. Also do not miss the Lac de la Cavayère which has three beaches, a snack bar, a water park, and a range of activities.
Just 30kms south, Blanquette de Limoux – the sparkling wine from Limoux, near Carcassonne – is said to be the oldest sparkling wine in France.
Limoux (pictured above)straddles the river Aude, and the riverbanks are lined with grand old houses. The central Place de la République is a great place for a glass of wine and some people-watching before exploring the Musée du Piano, strolling round the Friday market, the flea market – or during July and August, the Tuesday evening markets.
CÔTES DU RHÔNE
The Côtes du Rhône wine making area is less renowned for the quality of its wine than for the extent of its vineyards, which run 200kms down the Rhone valley south of Lyon to the Camargue on the Mediterranean coast.
The most prestigious wine is perhaps Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but the majority of the wines are sold under generic appellations of “Côtes du Rhône” and “Côtes du Rhône Villages”. A luxurious way of enjoying the scenery is taking a river cruise, but most people take a road trip.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape is possibly the most famous village between Avignon and Orange, set on a hill overlooking the vineyards.
It was originally a château built by the popes in the 14th century so they could escape the boiling summers in Avignon, but as it fell into ruins the village around it flourished.
Make sure to wander up to the top however, and enjoy the fabulous views. The winding cobbled lanes of the medieval village are also enjoyable to explore. The Place de la Fontaine is a good place to enjoy a break before plunging into some serious wine-tasting.
The streets are lined with wine shops and caves, where you can taste and buy the famous nectar.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape was the first wine-producing region to receive an ‘appellation contrôlée for its generous, full-bodied reds and whites, and one way to explore is to follow the walking circuit which leaves from the west side of the village and meanders through the vineyards.
The Fête de la Véraison on August 2-4 2019 is not to missed.
As well as medieval parades, sword-fights, music, jousting, dances, juggling, market stalls, shows and entertainment, there will also be a grand dinner with dancing, an equestrian performance and, of course, a fountain that is literally flowing with wine!
The Brotte Wine Museum has a free exhibition of old agricultural tools, along with a detailed explanation of how wine is made and a free wine tasting too. You can also buy their wines in their shop.
The wine-making region of Provence is best known for its rosé wines – Côtes de Provence and Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence are perhaps the most famous – but it does also produce some whites and reds, and in the Camargue, a ‘vin gris’ (‘grey wine’) which is a very pale rosé made from red grapes.
The towns of Provence are well-loved by visitors, making it difficult to get off the beaten track in the summer months.
There are also, however, numerous wine chateaux to visit where you can taste and buy their wines.
One to investigate is the Château d’Esclans and their rosé ‘Whispering Angel’, which they claim is the greatest rosé in the world.
They produce around 3 million bottles of it a year, a vast amount of which is exported to the US. The label is certainly pretty, so a tasting is required to ascertain if the wine lives up to the hype.