Many of our travelers ask to include a wine tour, wine-tasting or vineyard tour in their self-drive trips. Therefore, we wanted to write a post on some of the famous French wine regions, including some top tips on the best wineries and wines.
Bordeaux, in the French region of Aquitaine, is one of the most famous French wine regions, along with Champagne and Burgundy. This is partly due to Bordeaux being next to the coast, which led to it becoming a major wine exporting region for centuries.
Bordeaux became the main wine supplying region to England in the 12th century, when King Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine. In the centuries that followed, this tradition of exporting helped Bordeaux establish strong commercial ties with other countries, too.
The Bordeaux vineyard surrounds the city of Bordeaux, along the Gironde estuary and the Dordogne and Garonne rivers. The “Bordeaux” appellation covers a geographical area that stretches over 60 miles north-south and east-west. Some of the better quality Bordeaux wines come from more specific and distinctive area appellations, such as Médoc or Saint Emilion.
- Look for wines with the classification “grand cru”, which indicates an exceptional mix of a number of criteria, the most important being "terroir", and guarantee the very best of French wines. Also consider “cru bourgeois”, which are high quality wines.
- If you’re looking for an exceptional vintage wine, look for wines from 2009.
- If you enjoy festivals, visit Bordeaux in the month of June, for the Bordeaux wine festival.
VISIT: Our favorite Bordeaux wine comes from a winery called Chateau Chasse-Spleen in Moulis-en-Médoc.
Vineyards in St Emilion. Photo© Heurisko
In Burgundy, the vineyards run south-east across the slopes from the regional capital of Dijon. The beautiful, medieval city of Beaune is right at the heart of this wine region. The highlight of the year for wine-lovers is the Hospices de Beaune wine auction, which takes place in the fall. It is scheduled for Sunday, November 15th in 2020.
The lowest level of wine classification in Burgundy is the generic “Bourgogne” appellation. Within the Burgundy region, selected areas also have their own specific classifications. Some villages and groups of villages have a reputation for producing higher quality wines, such as Aloxe Corton, Mersault or Pommard. Again, at the top of the wine pyramid are the ‘grand crus’, one of these being the Clos Vougeot, which is grown over just 51 hectares of enclosed vineyard.
Burgundy is known for its outstanding red wines, which can keep for 20-30 years. It also produces some excellent whites.
TIP: 2003 was an exceptional year for vintage Burgundy wines.
VISIT: Domaine Thierry Violot-Guillemard in the village of Pommard, just 10 minutes’ drive from Beaune.
Vineyards near Beaune, Burgundy. Photo© France Just For You
The famous region of Champagne spreads across the towns of Reims and Epernay and is the furthest north of the major French vineyards. Champagne is different from other great French wines, in that it is blended to produce non-vintage champagnes (from different harvests) or vintage champagnes (blending wines from the same harvest).
The quality of the Champagne depends most on the skill of the blenders, as well as the high quality of the grapes. Thus Champagnes are ranked by producer, not by more specific regional appellation, as is the case with other wines. Champagne gets its distinctive taste from the chalky soil and growing conditions of the region.
Some of the main Champagne producers tried opening branches and vineyards in California, but in spite of the expertise and reputations of their best master-blenders, have never been able to match the quality of the original.
Highly rated Champagne blends include Krug, Bollinger, Heidsieck, Mumm, Moët & Chandon and Taittinger.
Remember to be very gentle when opening a bottle of Champagne, easing the cork carefully out of the bottle.
If you’re not visiting Champagne and would like to try other excellent French sparkling wines, try Crémant de Bourgogne from Burgundy or Vouvray or Montlouis sparkling wines from the Loire Valley. Very good non-champagne sparkling wines sell at a fraction of the price of Champagne, and only a very experienced palate will be able to distinguish between an average Champagne and a good Vouvray.
VISIT: The Taittinger Champagne House in Reims. The tour takes in the ruins of the medieval Saint Nicaise Abbey, and descends 18 meters to the Gallo-Roman crayères (carved out caves), which are part of the Coteaux, Maisons et Caves de Champagne UNESCO World Heritage Site. The bottles of champagne are matured in the caves for years before being sold.
Vineyards in Champagne, France. Photo © Rob & Lisa Meehan CC-BY-2.0
If you are looking for a good French wine from the Loire Valley, try an Anjou Rosé (a good everyday rosé), or a dry white wine such as the Muscadet or Gros Plant, which are cultivated near the Loire estuary and are excellent when paired with seafood.
If you enjoy a light red wine, try one from the Gamay grape in the region of Touraine, the area around the city of Tours. The Loire Valley also produces vin gris (grey wine), which is in fact a very pale rosé, as it’s a white wine made from black grapes.
As we mentioned above, the Loire Valley is France's second largest producer of sparkling wines after Champagne. We challenge you to try a Vouvray or Saumur and see if you notice a difference when compared with an average Champagne!
VISIT: Our good friend Clothilde Pain’s winery. Emilie went to school with Clothilde and she took over running the winery from her father. We highly recommend her Cabernet Franc red and Chenin Blanc white wines.
Vineyards and troglodytic houses in the Loire Valley. Photo © Tango7174 CC-BY SA 4.0
Provence is best-known for its tasty rosé wines, such as the Côtes de Provence and Côteaux d'Aix. However, the region also produces red wines and "grey wine" from the Camargue. Bandol is the most famous appellation in Provence. The Provence vineyard also includes the southern part of the Côtes du Rhone AOP area.
TIP: Our favorite rosé is a Bandol from the Maison des Vins de Bandol.
Vineyard in the Luberon, Provence. Photo © Sheila Sund CC-BY 2.0
Côtes du Rhone
The famous Côtes du Rhône vineyard runs for over 120 miles down the Rhone valley between the south of Lyon and the Camargue in Provence, on the Mediterranean coast. Prestigious smaller areas within the region include Côte Rotie (this is Laura's favorite wine), Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and Gigondas.
The Côtes du Rhone mediterranean wines are normally blended from the classic varieties of grape from the South of France, including Viognier, Syrah, and Grenache.
VISIT: Mas de Valériole, for a beautiful wine experience in the Camargue.
Vineyard in the French wine region of the Rhone valley. Photo © Jean-Louis Zimmermann CC BY 2.0
One final tip
Just because a wine is expensive, doesn’t mean it’s a good wine. To find a great regional wine, we recommend trying them by the glass at a restaurant.
When you find one you like, ask your waiter about the winemaker and take a photo of the bottle. Don't be embarassed to ask questions about vintages, etc. You may then discover the winery where the wine was produced, and then buy some to take home with you or have shipped.