Anyone who has visited the wine regions of California, South Africa, Australia or New Zealand finds it incredible how little wine tourism there is in France.
It seems that many wineries here are reticent to invite visitors. Outside of Bordeaux and Champagne, there are few opportunities to experience how wine is made.
One of the reasons is that many French people feel they already know enough about their national drink, so they tend not to partake in wine tourism other than to arrange a group tasting or go on a balade through the vines with a picnic.
The second reason is that, in most cases wine production remains an artisanal, family affair without the resources or the huge volumes of sales to justify the effort. In some regions, particularly Burgundy, the best producers may not be open to visitors because they have no wine left to sell.
However, there has been a recent push for more oenotourisme, with grants and regional government support for tasting rooms, wine-related activities and opportunities to eat and stay at vineyards.
Some producers have used this to diversify their revenue from purely selling wine while others have tried to increase their direct sales or to help publicise their name.
In most regions there are dedicated tour operators who will take you to visit a few wineries and teach you about the region in general. These can be a great option for visitors pressed for time and who don’t want to drive.
Most wineries in France still do not charge for tasting. Many small wineries may not have regular opening hours but will be happy to welcome interested customers by arrangement.
Others may have dedicated tasting facilities and on-site restaurants. This provides a large range of options for wine tourists but also a degree of confusion.
Wineries expecting to sell cases of wine to every visitor may get upset at visitors who are just there for the experience. Tourists expecting a Napa Valley tasting-room or a fancy chateau may be put off by rustic cellars, irregular opening hours and limited facilities.
The aim of the visit should be to meet expectations on both sides. If you cannot buy because of travel restrictions, choose a winery offering guided tours or paid tastings rather than one which expects direct sales.
Here are some tips for an enjoyable visit to a vineyard.
Check out the website before visiting for opening hours, directions and prices.
Ask questions of the winemaker or their representative. They will be only too happy to explain their winemaking methods and philosophy.
Taste rather than drink. Take time to smell the aromas. The first sip may taste overly acidic or tannic, so don’t judge too quickly. Imagine what the wine would be like with a meal.
Spit out the wine after tasting. It is not rude and is essential if driving.
Try to say something positive, even if you don’t really like the wine. Be respectful.
Go tasting with no intention of buying.
Pull a face or make critical remarks. You are there to learn about wine, not to judge.
Treat the tasting as a free bar but do ask to retaste a wine if you can’t decide what to buy.
Feel obliged to buy if the wine really isn’t to your liking.
Name-drop other famous wines you have drunk in the past or try to show off your wine knowledge.
Tasting wine, especially in a cellar, can be quite different to drinking wine at home. It may not be served at the correct temperature and you may be tasting at a different time of day, probably without food.
Therefore the wines may taste more acidic or tannic than they really are.
I’ve noticed a tendency for visitors to prefer wines that are the smoothest and easiest over those with more complexity and structure, simply because of the circumstances.
A visit to a winery can be a great experience. Not only will you discover wines that you don’t know. You’ll meet the people who make the wine, hear their stories and find out what makes them unique.
And if you find a wine you really like, buy at least a case of it. You will regret it if you don’t.
Jonathan Hesford has a Postgraduate Diploma in Viticulture and Oenology from Lincoln University, New Zealand and is the owner, vigneron and winemaker of Domaine Treloar in the Roussillon – visit www.domainetreloar.com.