French wine towns are hubs of gastronomy, culture and festivals, with surrounding vineyards. Dominic Rippon recommends his top 10 to visit
As a wine destination, Bordeaux is hard to beat. Once considered rather aloof, even the prestigious estates of the Médoc are increasingly happy to welcome the wine-drinking public.
The city, which became a Unesco World Heritage site in 2007, is linked inextricably with the vineyards that surround it. A stroll through the fashionable Chartrons district reveals the residences of Bordeaux’s historic wine merchants, a stone’s throw from the renovated quays from which their wares were once shipped. The area is now bustling with street performers and commuters hopping on and off the city’s futuristic trams.
Don’t miss: Bordeaux Fête le Vin – the biennial wine festival with pavilions showcasing more than 80 appellations lining the River Garonne. Tel: (Fr) 5 56 00 66 00
Estate to visit: Château Smith Haut Lafitte, 33650 Bordeaux-Martillac. Excellent Grand Cru estate in the Pessac-Leognan appellation. Tel: (Fr) 5 57 83 11 22, www.smith-haut-lafitte.com
While Épernay is the self-styled ‘capital of champagne’, Reims is a larger, more cosmopolitan wine city. It contains the headquarters of prestigious champagne houses Pommery, Veuve Clicquot, Louis Roederer and, oldest of them all, Champagne Ruinart.
Visit the 13th-century Cathédrale de Notre-Dame, site of French coronations for six centuries from 1223, before heading to the buzzing heart of the city – Place Drouet-d’Erlon – to enjoy a flute of champagne on one of the many restaurant terraces.
Don’t miss: A plate of fresh oysters at the iconic brasserie Boulingrin in Rue de Mars, Tel: (Fr) 3 26 40 96 22
Champagne house to visit: Champagne Ruinart, 4 Rue des Crayeres, 51200 Reims. The city’s oldest champagne house, founded in 1729, has eight kilometres of cellars.
Without a doubt France’s prettiest wine city, Colmar sits between the River Rhine to the east and the Vosges Mountains to the west. Being close to the border with Germany, it has a gastronomic culture distinct from the rest of France, with crispy tartes flambées and hearty choucroute particular favourites. In the words of the locals: “The only thing we miss is the sea.”
Colmar comes alive during the Foire aux Vins every August and a vibrant restaurant scene ensures that the Alsace region’s delicious wines are showcased throughout the year.
Don’t miss: The Musée Unterlinden, which has an extensive exhibition of Alsatian history and culture, including the world-famous 16th-century Isenheim Altarpiece by Mathias Grunewald. Tel: (Fr) 3 89 20 15 50
Estate to visit: Domaine Viticole de la Ville de Colmar, 2 Rue du Stauffen, 68000 Colmar. Small négociant house with vines in several Grand Cru vineyards. Tel: (Fr) 3 89 79 11 87,
Situated between the Côte de Beaune to the south and the Côte de Nuits to the north, the town of Beaune is surrounded by some of France’s most prestigious vineyards. The commune itself contains 650 hectares of vines, more than any other in the Côte-d’Or département. The town’s main attraction is the 15th-century Hospices (or Hôtel-Dieu) de Beaune, arguably Burgundy’s most iconic building. The former almshouses in Place des Halles hosts an annual charity wine auction on the third weekend of November that attracts buyers from around the world.
Don’t miss: The Château de Savigny-lès-Beaune, with its collection of vintage cars, motorcycles and fighter jets. Tel: (Fr) 3 80 21 55 03
Wine merchant to visit: Patriarche Père et Fils, 5-7 Rue du Collège, 21200 Beaune. Take Beune’s most exciting cellar tour in the five kilometres of wine vaults at the home of a négociant founded in 1780.Tel: (Fr) 3 80 24 53 01
The capital of the Vaucluse département was the seat of the Papacy for most of the 14th century during a schism within the Catholic church. Today, Avignon’s beautifully preserved medieval walls encircle a dynamic university city that has a lively café culture.Every two years in March, the magnificent Palais des Papes stages the Découvertes en Vallée du Rhône wine tastings, when its halls are filled with winemakers and their bottles, all vying for the attention of international buyers. Avignon is at the southern tip of the fashionable Côtes-du-Rhône vineyards, only a few kilometres from the rocky slopes of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation known for its robust reds.
Don’t miss: The Pont Saint-Bénezet – better known as the Pont d’Avignon – the now-incomplete bridge that is immortalised in the popular song.
Estate to visit: Domaine de la Solitude, 84231 Chateauneuf-du-Pape. A star producer in the famous wine town just to the north of Avignon. Tel: (Fr) 4 90 83 71 45,
Wine-lovers are spoilt for choice in the Middle Loire: Angers and Saumur are both busy centres for the wine trade, but neither quite matches Chinon, with its combination of parochial charm and winemaking excellence. Most wine from Chinon is red, made from the cabernets franc and sauvignon grapes, but the bars and restaurants that line the town’s narrow streets serve a substantial quantity of Chinon rosé and a little white; the latter is made from the chenin blanc grape and is rarely found outside the region.
Don’t miss: The Forteresse Royale de Chinon, an imposing medieval castle that looks over the town from its rocky spur. Tel: (Fr) 2 47 93 13 45
Estate to visit: Domaine Couly-Dutheil, 12 Rue Diderot, 37500 Chinon. The owners run the famous Chinon vineyard Clos de l’Echo. Tel: (Fr) 2 47 97 20 20
A favourite haunt of the Marseille glitterati, Cassis is something of a Saint-Tropez for wine lovers. Unusually for Provence, Cassis produces mostly white wine, made with the clairette, marsanne, ugni blanc and sauvignon blanc grapes: excellent partners for the rich local seafood dishes. Cassis was once an important fishing village and many of its ancient sea-faring families now run the excellent fish restaurants that animate the quay.
Don’t miss: A drive along the clifftop Route des Crêtes, which separates Cassis from the picturesque ports of La Ciotat and Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer.
Estate to visit: Clos Sainte Magdeleine, Avenue du Revestel, 13260 Cassis. The estate’s vineyards reach almost to the cliff edge. Tel: (Fr) 4 42 01 70 28
The town of Arbois nestles beneath the towering mountains of the Jura halfway between Geneva and the Burgundian capital, Dijon. Arbois is the biggest wine-growing area in the Jura and is one of France’s oldest appellations, having been created in 1936. Jura’s most famous wine style is vin jaune, France’s answer to sherry, which is celebrated every February at the Percée du Vin Jaune in Arbois. The festival celebrates the newly released vintage, made from grapes harvested seven years before.
Don’t miss: The Musée de la Vigne et du Vin, housed within Arbois’s 13th-century Château Pécauld. Tel: (Fr) 3 84 66 40 45,
Estate to visit: Domaine Jacques Tissot, 39 Rue de Courcelles, 39600 Arbois. The estate offers a complete range of wine styles from Jura’s vineyards, including vin jaune. Tel: (Fr) 3 84 66 24 54
At the southern tip of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, near the Spanish border, France’s Catalan coast takes life at a more leisurely pace. Collioure is the fishing port that is on all the postcards; its steep vineyards rising from a bright azure sea.
The vineyards cover two separate but completely overlapping appellations: Collioure is for light red and white wines, while Banyuls — which takes its name from the port just to the south — makes mostly fortified reds. Banyuls is comparable in style to port, showing ripe berry aromas mixed with southern France’s characteristic garrigue herb overtones.
Don’t miss: Lunch at the Michelin-starred Relais des Trois Mas, overlooking Collioure. Tel: (Fr) 4 68 82 05 07
Estate to visit: Domaine la Tour Vieille, 12 Route de Madeloc, 66190 Collioure. With its view over the Mediterranean, the estate must have one of the most beautiful locations of any vineyard in the world.Tel: (Fr) 4 68 82 44 82
Home of the malbec grape and the legendary ‘black wine’, Cahors is defined by the magnificent Pont Valentré, which bridges the River Lot and leads into the town’s restored medieval quarter. Cahors’s cathedral was consecrated in the 12th century, launching an age of prosperity that lasted until the late 1800s when the phylloxera bug destroyed many vineyards. Today, there is a feeling of dynamism among Cahors’s winemakers, aided by a new tasting suite for the public in the tourist office.
Don’t miss: An aperitif or tutored tasting at Villa Cahors Malbec in the town centre tourist office. Tel: (Fr) 5 65 23 82 35,
Estate to visit: Domaine Pech de Jammes, 740 Route de Vayrols, 46090 Flaujac-Poujols. This is a great producer of rich, spicy Cahors malbec.
Tel: (Fr) 6 80 98 55 10
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Wine expert Dominic Rippon has many years’ experience in the wine trade, both in the UK and France, and now runs the wine merchant business Strictly Wine