One of the best reasons to visit France is wine. The world's second-largest wine producer, taken over by Italy in 2015, France's range of wine types, flavors and tastes is as diverse as the various wine regions in France. Here are some of the top regions, plus suggestions of tours, sights, and routes.
Tours, Tips and Wine Routes
There are six main wine regions: Alsace, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Loire Valley, Provence, and Rhone Valley. Also worth considering are some of the smaller regions like the Jura.
The best wine tours are designed to give you an insight into the terroir, the process that makes a particular wine special and a tasting to help you recognize the quality of the wine. One of the best companies doing this for individuals and small groups is Exclusive France Tours, run by the knowledgeable Marie Tesson. Their tailor-made tours can do what others cannot. So you can meet the top wine producers on their estates which are normally closed to the public, go with them around their vineyard then taste their very best. And this is often with wine producers who reserve this for their friends and business associates only. If you are a wine connoisseur or aspire to be one, this will be the experience you will never forget.
Exclusive France Tours is a specialist in Burgundy, Champagne, Bordeaux, the Loire Valley, Alsace, and the Rhône Valley and their tours take in the best, as well as top hotels and attractions.
Exclusive France Tours: Tel.: +33 493 218 119.
Here are more companies involved in wine tourism.
- Arblaster & Clarke, based in Britain, offers a wide range of expert-led tasting and vineyard walking breaks, including Champagne weekends. Tel.: +44 (0)1730 263111
- Grape Escapes, based in Britain, is another top expert company with tours all over France. Tel.: +44 (0)845 643 0860
- Headwater is another well-established company with good walking and cycling tours in wine regions. Tel.: +44 (0)1606 828307.
- Inntravel is known for its gastronomic emphasis and has good walking and cycling breaks. Tel.: +44 (0)1653 617000.
- Susi Madron's Cycling for Softies based in Britain has gentle cycling holidays through top wine regions. Tel.: +44 (0)161 248 8282.
Rue des Vignerons Mobile App
With Reu des Vignerons, you can book a wine tour through this young company which works with award-winning and recommended wineries in the main wine regions. Many of the wineries are organic and biodynamic and they run from big names, through co-operatives to family-owned estates. They have just launched an app, free on iPhone and Android which allows you to book tours up to 30 minutes before they begin.
Bordering Germany and the Vosges mountains in the west, Alsace is rather different from the rest of France, both in its architecture and in its character. It’s one of the top wine-producing regions with plenty of vineyards to visit.
This is the area for those fruity, fresh and aromatic white Riesling and Gewurtztraminer wines. They also produce a sparkling Crémant d’Alsace, the second most popular sparkling wine in France after Champagne.
Take the self-guided Alsatian wine route which runs from Thann near Mulhouse in the south through Eguisheim and Riquewirh up to Marlenheim near Strasbourg. It runs for 105 miles (170 km) through the hills of the Vosges mountains.
Or book a day tour from Strasbourg which will take you along the Alsace Wine Route and passes through little villages like Dambach-le-Ville, Ribeauvillé and Mittelbergheim. You see and taste at four different wineries.
Grape Harvest Festivals
Every major village along the Alsatian Wine Route holds its own wine festival, usually at the end of September or the beginning of October when the harvest is in. Taste wines, try local foods, watch performances and see traditionally dressed people parade through the street.
Barr, the capital of Alsatian wine in the Bas-Rhine region, holds a well known, 3-day festival with a Queen elected for the event. They have new wines and grands crus on each day of the festival and as well as the usual merry-making, hold concerts and a big flea market.
Bordeaux is one of the great wine-producing areas with a historic past in which the British played a vital part. The wine regions circle the city from Médoc in the north to the best known (and prettiest) village of St-Émilion, through Entre-Deux-Mers in the east, and south to Sauternes.
In each major village, ask at the local Maison du Vin for a list of vineyards which you can visit, then taste and buy.
Bordeaux itself is one of France’s great wine cities, with many great attractions. In June 2016 the city opened La Cité du Vin which is where you should start for an immersion into the whole world of wine.
This extraordinary building, called the Guggenheim of Wine, takes you through the world’s vineyards, not just those of France, with some pretty nifty exhibits along the way. It’s very high tech but done in such a way that you concentrate on the story that unfolds, with historic characters taking you back to the past, demonstrations on winemaking, talks with chefs and wine growers. You end with a wine tasting at The Belvedere, a huge space which looks over this part of Bordeaux which is renovating fast.
And when you've done that, there are countless wine bars to try, and around the city, numerous top châteaux to visit, and a Viking boat cruise.
Burgundy is another of the great French wine regions, centering around Beaune. With the tradition of winemaking 1,000 years old, they know a thing or two about producing top wines and there are 100 Appellations d’Origines Controllées, or designated wine areas. The area lies along the Saône River, running around 100 miles from near Dijon to Lyon.
Burgundy produces 15 million cases of wine a year, mostly white, but also red, plus Crémant de Bourgogne, a sparkling wine made by the Champagne method. There are five major regions in Burgundy: Chablis, Côte Chalonnaise, Mâconnais, Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune, the last two grown in Côte d'Or. All qualities of wine are produced here under the AOC label; the best being Domaine de la Romanée-Conti which is one of the most expensive French wines you can buy.
The Burgundy Tourist Office produces good self-guided tours of the major wine routes.
Another option is the organized trip, Côte de Nuits Region with 2 visits. The tour lasts three hours.
If you’re in Burgundy, stop in Beaune which has been at the heart of the wine trade for centuries. There are caves (wine cellars) to explore and wine shops with a good range of Burgundies to try and buy. The Ecole des Vins (School of Wines) offers wine classes for the serious. They also offer good itineraries through the vineyards.
Each year the most famous wine auction in the world takes place in aid of the Hospices de Beaune in the historic building itself. Called La Vente des Vins, and over three days from November 18th to 20th, the charity auction is run by Christie’s Auction House. Anybody can buy but in reality, it’s the professionals and very wealthy collectors who participate. The auction is also the reason for one of the great wine festivals, where the famous names of Burgundy open their cellars and vineyards to offer some spectacular tastings which you have to book in advance. You can book for the auction from Christie’s at +33(0)1 40 76 83 68 or by e-mail, but reservations are limited so book early.
If you want to make a weekend of it, book the Arblaster & Clarke Burgundy Celebration Tour. It takes you to Beaune for the weekend and the festival that includes street performances, parades, a gourmet village and half-marathon around Beaune. 5-star accommodation and good meals at different wineries, and visits with Andrew Jefford, a well-known wine writer are included, as well as rail from London.
Champagne, the queen of drinks, is expensive when exported but go around the different, smaller houses and you’ll find lovely, individual vineyards producing small quantities of good Champagne at very reasonable prices. There are two main regions in Champagne: around Reims and Epernay and around Troyes in the Aube where my favorite Champagne producer is Drappier.
If you're in Reims, visit one of the top, international Champagne houses for a tour; Pommery is a great one.
There’s plenty of choices also in Epernay, where you can stroll along the main street of lovely 19th-century mansions owned by the great names. There’s also a spectacular 3-day Festival of Champagne at Christmas.
The Rue des Vignerons company which books tours have a particularly good selection of Champagne houses to visit. Check out their Champagne information here. You can book direct or better still, download their app and you can book up to 30 minutes before the tour which is great if you're not sure of times and places.
The Loire is a top wine region, stretching along the famous Loire river valley in central France to the west. It’s best known for its white wines, particularly for Sancerre produced in Centre Loire. Touraine produces Chenin Blanc and Vouvray plus red wines from Bourgueil and Chinon. Anjou-Saumur produces Savennieres and Coteaux du Layon, Saumur and red Saumur Champigny; Pays Nantais near the Atlantic produces Muscadet.
Many visitors come for the glorious castles and palaces that stand beside the river; others come for the gardens that range from the delightful kitchen gardens to grand affairs with formal parterres and parks. But it’s also a region that is great for wine lovers, and being such a popular region, many of the vineyards have been welcoming visitors for decades.
For local wine tours, go to the tourist office in each town.
If you’re in Sancerre in the eastern Loire, go first to the Maison des Sancerre, 3 rue du Méridien, 00 33 (0)2 48 54 11 35, housed in a gorgeous 14th-century house with a view over the vineyards. You can learn more about the wines and see a film show (adult €8). It’s open March to November 1.
Once regarded as the poor relation of wine-producing regions, today Provence has some top-quality vintages. The best-known appellation is Côtes de Provence, with rosé predominating. Bandol is another well-known appellation. Also, look for the light Côtes de Luberon and Côtes du Ventoux. Elsewhere look for Gigondas from the Dentelles, and the famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape, between Avignon and Orange.
The expert company, Grape Escapes, does a 2 or 3 night Hidden Gems' break at the 4 stars Château de Mazan all through the year, individually arranged. It includes some meals and winery trips and is in the Ventoux.
The Rhône Valley wine region runs from Lyon to Orange in Provence, so some wines from here fall into Provence wines. The Rhône valley is a wonderful sight, where the vineyards dot the countryside and climb up the steep slopes. It’s one of the oldest wine regions in France, producing wine since around 600 BC. It’s a large region, divided into north and south. In the north, Lyon is the main city for Beaujolais, a young wine celebrated each year throughout France, and the rest of the world. The wine might not be great, but the parties on the third Thursday in November are great fun.
The southern region’s most famous wine is Châteauneuf-du-Pape and this is also the area for the well-known Beaumes-de-Venise and Gigondas.
I went on a great day out from RV Rhônea, formed from cellars operating in Beaumes-de-Venise and Vacqueyras in the gorgeous Dentelles region. We went in a 4x4 off the roads and through vineyards that cling to the steep slopes. Small terraces are filled with healthy vines; you turn a corner and get views of the ragged Dentelles de Montmirail, a small chain of there are two main co-operatives. It's a wonderful drive past little villages and your picnic is in a vineyard with a view of the Dentelles.
Jura Wine Region
The Jura is an excellent wine region, but not as big as the others so it can get overlooked if you're planning a wine vacation. But don't ignore it; it's a beautiful region in the east of France between Burgundy and Switzerland, and has some unusual wines including the Vin Jaune which is fermented then stored for 6 years and 3 months. Also try Vin de Paille, a sweet wine made after the grapes have been stored on straw or left hanging from rafters.
Paris is full of wine bars where you can stop and take a glass at any time of the day.
Try the unusual private Left Bank Wine Tasting and Walk, which combines walking in the pedestrian-friendly Left Bank of Paris with two wine tastings. One of the tastings is during a stop at a Parisian wine bar. The 3.5-hour tour also visits the Panthéon, resting place of the bodies of Voltaire, Rousseau, Mirabeau, Marat, Victor Hugo, and Emile Zola.
To learn more about the wines of France in an easily digestible way, visit the Les Caves du Louvre, just two minutes from the Louvre itself. In once-royal 18th-century cellars beneath the pavements of the 1st arrondissement, this new venture takes you on an amusing, interactive lesson. Or go by yourself having downloaded the app.