There are few regions of France that don't cultivate vines for the production of wine. While most people have heard of Burgundy, Champagne, and Bordeaux, there are a few lesser-known wine regions to consider when exploring the country. If you're a beginner or want to develop your knowledge further, consider taking a guided French wine tour; these can be a great way to overcome any sense of intimidation and learn some essential wine-tasting "skills." Life is hard, right?
As for when to embark on a tour, we recommend going in mid-spring to late September. In September and October, lively harvest festivals around France offer an authentic and engaging way to participate in local winemaking culture.
More than any of France's wine regions, Bordeaux has probably been the most successful in exporting its brand. You'll find wines from the region in supermarkets and wine shops around the world, but did you know that many of the best don't carry the label "Bordeaux" at all?
Winemaking areas ("appellations" in French) that are especially prized and worth visiting include St-Emilion, Médoc, Pomerol, Margaux, and Sauternes. These are easily accessible from Bordeaux by train, car, or tour bus, and you can easily book wine tours through the Bordeaux Tourist Office.
Typical Wines and Grape Varieties: The region mostly produces red wines made from Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc grapes. It's also famous for its sweet white wines, especially Sauternes and Pessac-Leognan.
Touring & Tasting: Famous winemaking "chateaux" to visit or tour include Cheval-Blanc, Mouton Rothschild, Château-Margaux, Chateau Yquem, and Haut-Brion. Many of the more prestigious wineries don't offer guided tours, but you can see them from the outside and learn about their history during a guided tour.
Burgundy is one of France's oldest and most prestigious winemaking regions, with a history of vine cultivation stretching back some 1,000 years. Monks based in abbeys tended vineyards along the Saone River from at least 500, and the resulting knowledge is remarkable.
Burgundy is home to more than 100 different appellations, distributed across five major sub-regions: Chablis, the Côte Chalonnaise, Mâconnais, Côte de Nuits, and Côte de Beaune. Many of the region's finest wines are produced on tiny plots whose yields are quite small, making them expensive and sought-after by collectors.
Typical Wines and Grape Varieties: Burgundy produces some 15 million cases of red and white wines every year, with reds made almost exclusively from Pinot Noir grape varietals and whites from 100 percent Chardonnay. The region is also noted for a sparkling white called Crémant de Bourgogne, an accessible and popular alternative to Champagne.
Touring & Tasting: The region can be difficult to navigate alone since many wineries offer only limited access to the public. If you don't want to rent a car and go it alone, we recommend staying in Beaune and joining one of the many excellent wine tours promoted by the tourist office; these will allow you to more confidently explore some of the region's best wineries. Alternatively, the Burgundy Wine School offers tastings and tours ranging from 90-minute sessions to full-day regional visits at top wineries.
Most people associate the Loire Valley with fairy tale castles; though they wouldn't be wrong, it also produces some of France's finest wines, from crisp whites to complex reds and sparkling varieties called crémants.
The region is studded with miles of vineyards growing in close reach of the Loire and Cher rivers. It is divided into four sub-regions: Nantes, Touraine, Anjou-Saumur, and the "Central Vineyards" area.
Typical Wines and Grape Varieties: Some of the more famous Loire Valley wine appellations include Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, which produce dry and floral whites made with Sauvignon Blanc grapes. Saumur is an appellation that makes sweet and sparkling white wines as well as reds produced with Cabernet Franc grapes. Chinon, an appellation near Touraine, makes mostly red wines with Cabernet Franc.
Touring & Tasting: Local tourist offices in Saumur, Sancerre, and Touraine are good starting points for touring local wineries. You can generally find maps of vineyard routes and details of wineries open to the public. Staff members can also help you find a tour or guided excursion that suits your budget and tastes. In Sancerre, the Maison des Sancerre offers information and educational exhibits on local wines, plus tips on the best wineries to visit in the area.
Many tourists overlook the Rhone Valley when planning a wine-focused trip to France, but they shouldn't. Overall, this is the country's second-most-important wine-producing region, boasting 45 appellations. The fertile valley and river of the same name is home to many lesser-known but superb wines.
Typical Wines and Grape Varieties: These include reds and whites from the Côtes du Rhone appellation; elegant, balanced whites produced in the Tournon sur Rhone appellation; and sophisticated reds bearing the Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Côte-Rôtie labels. Somewhat confusingly, while some light Beaujolais red wines are made in adjoining Burgundy, others are produced in the Rhone Valley.
Reds are primarily made from Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvèdre grapes, while whites are derived from Viognier, Roussanne, Grenache blanc, and Marsanne varietals.
Touring & Tasting: The old Gallo-Roman city of Lyon makes an ideal base for touring the region. From here, you can easily embark on guided tours exploring the region's 14 different wine routes, or rent a car if you prefer to go it alone. We particularly recommend the Vienne and Côte-Rôtie coach tour, which brings you to one of the region's prettiest Gallo-Roman cities and nearby vineyards to taste five prized red wines.
Of course, we don't have to tell you what the Champagne region is famous for: a dry, bubbly sparkling white that has conquered the world. The interesting tidbit is that Champagne didn't start out by making sparkling wines deliberately. It was a happy accident that resulted from excess pressure developing within bottles.
When winemakers discovered that the bubbles could yield something irresistible, they began adding them on purpose. While many other regions in France (and worldwide) make sparkling wines, only those produced in Champagne have the legal right to use the name.
Champagne is easily accessible from Paris via a short train or car ride to the northeast.
Typical Wines and Grape Varieties: Most sparkling whites from Champagne are made with Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay grapes. Veuve Clicquot, Moët et Chandon, Ruinart, Krug, Pommery, and Dom Pérignon are among the most famous local producers.
Touring & Tasting: Start your regional tour in Reims, a gorgeous cathedral city with large underground networks of centuries-old chalk cellars. These are home to some of the region's most-prized champagne makers, including Pommery, Taittinger, and Bollinger (the last one was made famous by James Bond movies). While you're there, be sure to take a guided tour of the Veuve-Cliquot and Ruinart cellars.
After exploring Reims, head over to nearby Epernay, where producers such as Moët and Chandon, Dom Pérignon, and Mercier oversee some of the region's most prestigious vineyards and cellars. We especially recommend the champagne-tasting tours from Rue des Vignerons. Led by experts, their tours generally include educational cellar visits (some with audio tours) and tastings of several different champagnes.
The northeastern French region of Alsace is one of France's richest wine-producing areas. Its prized "wine route" stretches for some 100 miles north to south (east of the Rhine river), and boasts pretty Alsatian villages surrounded by rolling vineyards. The region has historically alternated between belonging to France and Germany, giving it a distinctively hybrid culture. This extends to winemaking as well, and the region's many rustic winstubs (wine cellars or taverns) offer visitors an authentic way to taste local wines paired with hearty Alsatian cuisine.
Typical Wines and Grape varieties: Alsace's wine country features remarkable diversity, even though 90 percent of the finished products are whites. Twelve different varieties of grapes are grown in vineyards here. These include Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris or Tokay, Pinot Blanc, and Chardonnay. Some of the more famous Alsatian wines to try include those from the Alsace AOC appellation, the sparkling white Cremant d'Alsace, and Riesling and Gewürtztraminer from the town of Eguisheim, near the storybook town of Colmar.
Touring & Tasting: You can explore the Alsace Wine Route by using cities including Strasbourg (in the north), Colmar (central), and Mulhouse (to the south) as bases. Their respective tourism boards offer guided wine tours and visits to some of the area's best cellars.