Although the birthplace of wine can be traced back to a cave in Armenia around 4000 BC, France has long been the beacon of viticulture. This is a country that has produced some of the finest vintages in history, and its regions lend their name to almost all grape varieties. Whether you’re a snob for a Southern hemisphere Sauvignon or favour a California Pinot Noir, you probably have France to thank for it. If you have a car, there should be little to put you off exploring France’s famous wine capitals on a summer road trip. After catching a P&O ferry to Calais, four of the most distinguished wine regions in the world are at your fingertips. Each have their own allures, and here, we delve into what makes each of them unique.
NB: France has a driving law which requires every vehicle to have a breathalyzer on hand at all times. Stay safe and stay overnight locally when choosing to indulge in a few glasses of regionally produced wine.
Although it’s only a few hours east of Paris, the rural Champagne province could hardly seem further away from the City of Lights. Sparkling wine can’t claim the name Champagne unless it originates from here, because no other area in the world has the same chalky, belemnite rich soil which imparts that distinct mineral flavour. Reims, the commercial centre of Champagne, is a good base to explore this region, where you can sample fizz in the famous cellars of Veuve Clicquot, Lanson and Tattinger. A guided tour is like nothing you’ve ever experienced, as the chaperones take their jobs seriously as defenders of an ancient legacy. After all, champagne has been synonymous with celebration since it became the preferred beverage in France’s royal courts back in the 18th Century. Between tastings and long, lazy vineyard lunches, be sure to check out Reims Cathedral and the Palace of Tau.
The Loire Valley
It may not be the most eminent of the French wine regions, but the Loire Valley is unbelievably pretty and the perfect place for a gentle road trip. Also known as the Garden of France, the region has a long history of winemaking that dates back to medieval times, when the local wine was the most sought after in Europe. The region specialises in fresh, lemony white wine of the Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc variety, as well as sparkling Cremant wine, making it the second largest sparkling wine producer after Champagne. Besides the abundance of vineyards, the Loire Valley has a spot on the UNESCO World Heritage list and is the perfect place to gawp at fairytale châteaux, including the impressive Château de Chambord (reportedly designed by Leonardo da Vinci), Le Chateau d’Usse (i.e. Sleeping Beauty’s Castle) and Château de Saumu.
It might be a longer drive from Calais, but Bordeaux is well worth the trip. This is arguably the greatest wine region in the entire world, and connoisseurs simply flock here to sample the superior claret. The calcium heavy soil and an oceanic climate make it the perfect environment for growing vines, and as such it is the largest grape growing area in France. Fine cellars around the world are filled with wines from this remarkable area, where dark, robust reds are the order of the day. There are over 100,000 vineyards across the province, many of which offer wine tours, but the most eminent producers are situated around Medoc. Venture to Château Mouton Rothschild to sample what purports the be the finest wine in Bordeaux. The house is home to a museum dedicated to its famous bottle art. Feast your eyes on labels hand-painted by Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali.
If you’re looking to experience the south of France in all its summer glory, what could be lovelier than a road trip through Provence? Just north of the Mediterranean Sea and south of the Alps, Provence is renowned for promoting joie de vivre. The oldest winemaking region is a real feast for the eyes, patched with purple lavender fields and elaborate olive groves. The region includes several different winemaking areas consisting of around 350 houses that produce the world’s most vibrant rosé. A drive from Toulon will take you through bucolic countryside down to the glorious vineyards that cling to the edge of glamorous Saint Tropez. Along the way, village bistros serve hearty portions of delicious Provençal cuisine, which you absolutely must indulge in.
Interested? Read our guide to France for more.