France’s top 10 wine experiences
From attending a wine festival to joining a grape harvest wine expert Dominic Rippon chooses his favourite 10 wine attractions in and around his favourite French vineyards
1 Enjoy a wine festival
Every French wine region hosts its own calendar of festivities, but none is bigger or more exciting than Bordeaux Fête le Vin. Opening with a dazzling firework display, the biennial four-day celebration includes concerts, barrel-rolling competitions, food and wine matching and two kilometres of tasting pavilions arranged along the River Garonne’s west bank.
2 Stay at a wine château
There’s nothing quite like waking up and opening a window on to a working vineyard. Many wine estates include accommodation, which doubles up as pickers’ lodgings during the harvest, but for elegance and luxury, stay at the self-catering Clos des Capucins, near Chinon. Facing the town’s medieval château, this 18th-century manor house has five large bedrooms, a banqueting hall and a living room with open fire. The Clos des Capucins won travel guide Sawday’s 2014 award for best selfcatering place to stay. It sleeps up to ten, price from €2,200 a week (tel: (Fr) 2 47 97 65 82, 3 Join a grape harvest
Wine estates always need grape pickers at harvest time, but it is tough work if you’re spending a couple of weeks doing it. A more relaxing way is to visit a harvest festival such as Festi’Vendanges in the village of Parnac, in the north of the Cahors appellation. Nestling within a lazy meander of the River Lot, the village comes alive in September for a morning’s grape picking, followed by a hearty midday meal. After lunch, pickers follow the grapes to the cellars before everyone gathers for an evening feast to celebrate the launch of the vendanges (tel: (Fr) 6 32 39 08 41, www.tourismemidi-pyrenees.com).
4 Go on a wine course
Near the market town of Limoux in Languedoc, the Vinécole wine school offers accredited courses and tastings led by Master of Wine Matthew Stubbs, as well as tailor-made tours (tel: (Fr) 4 68 31 64 14, www.vinecole.com). Vinécole is based amid Domaine Gayda’s sundrenched vineyards, which are framed by the Pyrénées. Visitors can enjoy a gourmet lunch at the estate’s restaurant from €19.50 and stay in one of the four luxury gîtes, complete with a ‘private brasserie’ with stocked bar, snooker table, films to watch and an outdoor pool (tel: (Fr) 4 68 31 64 14, www.domainegayda.com )
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5 Take a stake in a vineyard
Many Francophiles must have dreamed of owning a vineyard, but the effort, expertise and financial investment required means this usually remains a fantasy. There are, however, ways to invest in a French vineyard without breaking either your back or the bank. In the enclave of La Clape, near the Mediterranean coast, vigneron Jacques Ribourel offers investors the chance to “become a vineyard owner for €600”. Owners receive two cases of wine each year at the reduced price of €6 a bottle and get a 20 per cent discount if they stay in the estate’s B&B accommodation. Investors are kept abreast of vineyard developments and encouraged to participate in the frequent wine events (tel: (Fr) 4 68 41 31 15, www.vindinities.com ).
6 Make your own Bordeaux
In 2003, Jean-Michel Cazes, owner of the Grand Cru Château Lynch-Bages, near Pauillac (pictured left), began Bordeaux’s most ambitious wine tourism project. He renovated his home village of Bages, which now includes a bakery, épicerie, restaurant and, at its centre, Viniv – a winemaking facility that allows amateurs to make their own claret. Experts initially guide you through the different parcels of vines, explaining the importance of terroir and grape variety; you can take part in every stage: from the harvest to vinification, ageing and bottling, to creating the final blend. You even get to design your own label. The price of a barrel of wine (288 bottles) starts from €7,350 (tel: (Fr) 5 56 73 24 25, www.vinivwine.com ).
7 Discover a plus beau wine village
The Haut-Rhin département of Alsace is full of pretty villages, but none quite matches Eguisheim for its blend of preserved half-timbered houses, fine eateries and winemaking excellence. The village, voted France’s favourite for 2013, is known as the cradle of Alsace wine and is home to important large estates such as Léon Beyer, as well as smaller family holdings, including Domaine Ginglinger. There are only around 1,500 inhabitants, but the village has 17 restaurants, two of which – La Grangelière and Le Pavillon Gourmand – have the Michelin Guide’s bib gourmand accolade for serving good food at reasonable prices (tel: (Fr) 3 89 23 40 33, www.ot-eguisheim.fr). Other lovely wine villages include Riquewihr, Hunawihr 187 , Bergheim, Ribeauvillé and Kaysersberg.
8 Eat chez le vigneron
Since taking over his family estate in Avize, south of Épernay, in 1980, Anselme Selosse has become one of Champagne’s most iconoclastic winemakers. In 2011, he and his wife Corinne created the hotelrestaurant Les Avisés, next to the estate, with the aim of showcasing the area’s finest champagnes alongside Stéphane and Nathalie Rossillon’s stylish cuisine. An enormous terrace makes summer dining a special pleasure and the chic hotel rooms have stunning views of the Côte des Blancs vineyards. Lunch menus from €38, rooms from €240 (tel: (Fr) 3 26 57 70 07, www.selosse-lesavises.com
9 Next stop, Beaujolais
Georges Duboeuf is by far Beaujolais’s largest wine producer: creator of the trend for Beaujolais Nouveau and now a champion of the region’s under-appreciated cru villages – the best-known of which is Fleurie. In the early 1990s, Duboeuf bought the derelict railway station in the village of Romanèche-Thorins and transformed it into a wine tourism centre: Hameau Duboeuf. Visitors are greeted in the car park by a steam train, complete with wagons and rails, sitting outside the restored station. You are guided through displays and interactive viticultural exhibits, the Duboeuf winery and a botanical garden – all giving an insight into the vineyards and wines of Beaujolais. Admission €12, children €8 (tel: (Fr) 3 85 35 22 22, www.hameauduvin.com )
10 Buy at the vineyard
Buying wine directly from the winemaker can be a rewarding experience – and you’ll save valuable euros by cutting out the merchant. If the ‘experience’ is paramount, pick a region such as Alsace, where vignerons are most used to receiving visitors. In a more famous area, try the less well-known villages; for example, Marsannay-la-Côte and Santenay in Burgundy’s Côte d’Or. Do your homework and avoid the August break and harvest time. Phone estates in advance and make sure their wines fit your budget; then be sure to stock up with a range that you like to drink regularly. Be polite, don’t be afraid to walk away and don’t buy more than you can drink or carry home.
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