There's no question that the wine made in France is some of the best in the world. Though many travelers are content with ordering their favorite bottle while visiting Paris, I have found that the best way to immerse oneself in the French wine culture, and by association in the French culinary scene, is by traveling outside the big city and into smaller towns known for growing and harvesting the finest wines the country has to offer.
Here is a guide to help you plan your travel to some of the best wine regions in France.
The Loire Valley for White Wines
Located in central France, the Loire Valley is also referred to as "the garden of France" for its numerous vineyards. Recognized also for its historic destinations -- many of which are UNESCO Heritage Sites -- this is a perfect area if you love wine and nature and don't mind driving to get to either or both. Many of the towns that make up the valley, such as Amboise, Angers, Blois, Chinon, Orléans, Saumur, and Tours, are not all easily accessible by train, and visiting their castles and caves, as well as their vineyards, is easiest to do by car.
A must-visit is the Maison des Sancerre, a visitor's information center which also serves as an event venue. Here you will receive the guidance you need for specific vineyards, wine makers, and other places of interest in the area.
One tour not to be missed is the Pouilly-Fumé tour, which invites you to use your senses to smell, see, hear, touch, and finally taste all the elements that go into the making of their signature wines. Pouilly-Fumé is one of my favorite wines and is exclusive to the Pouilly-sur-Loire region. The terrain and conditions here give this wine its smoky quality.
Taking a tour of the sparkling wine vineyards throughout the Loire Valley will lead to exploration of the many underground caves used to store bottles. They store very well for centuries because of the stable and chilly conditions of the tunnels. No tunnel I saw contained as many bottles as Marc Bredif, with some of them dating back as early as 1875!
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The Aquitaine for Red Wines
It's hard to say that I have a favorite wine region in France. They are all so diverse and so beautiful. But the Aquitaine region was one of the first I visited in my journey to learn about French wines, and it has a special place in my heart. This is home to cities such as Bordeaux, Saint-Emilion, and Bergerac, all recognizable wine destinations worldwide.
Before you head off on your tour, take a wine class at l'Ecole du Vin. Here you will familiarize yourself with the various regions and the specialty wines in each. You will also have an opportunity to taste wines and learn to identify the qualities of each varietal by region and other other identifiable characteristics. It's not a bad way to start your day.
The best way to tour any wine region in France is by car. This is also the best way to get to Saint Emilion, a World Heritage Site celebrated not only for its history and beautiful architecture but for its stunning wine.
Here you can visit Chateau Haut Sarpe and meet with Pierre Dufourq of B-Winemaker, who will give you a tour of some great spots throughout the winery and teach you how to blend and bottle your very own wine.
Or you can visit and tour Chateau Ambe Tour Pourret, where you take part in a cooking class led by Chef Bertrand Auduberteau, whose charismatic approach is so comforting and welcoming that even I was able to pull off a fabulous foie gras dish to pair with the vineyard's divine wines.
Champagne Region for the Real Deal
The best place to kick off your tour of the Champagne region is in Reims, "the city of kings." It's not too big or too small and offers tons to see and many places to taste the champagne before touring. A good idea, considering that the task can be daunting, as there are 100 champagne houses and over 19,000 small vine-growing producers in the region.
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I highly recommend a visit to Chateau La Marquetterie for those wishing to learn about the family and the business behind the celebrated Taittinger champagne. After touring their expansive cellars, guests can shop to their heart's content for bottles often exclusive to the French market, as well as their own favorites. I complemented my experience there with a tasting and purchase of a bottle of their Prestige Rose Champagne.
Of course, this region is also home to Dom Perignon, Vranken-Pommery, and Veuve Cliquot, just to name a few of the many famous bubbly favorites.
If you are interested in possibly meeting the winemakers of your favorite wines, then it's best to avoid visiting during the harvest season, which usually starts in early fall. The About France webpage will help you coordinate your winery tours, as well as local tours around the towns where they are located.
Though I recommend driving, I don't recommend you drink and drive. So make sure to book a night or two near your favorite region so that you can taste your favorite wines without a care, eat fabulous local dishes, and get to know the beautiful people of France in the process.