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Bordeaux, Champagne, Burgundy -- three of the most popular terms associated with French wine. While the names refer to very traditional styles of wine, they are also the actual regions in France where these wines are produced. Considered the “big three” when it comes to Old World wine production, these spots are on many travelers’ bucket lists.
If you’ve been wine tasting in the United States and are hoping to plan a trip to wander through the famed vineyards of France, you should definitely do a little planning. Unlike wine tasting rooms you find in spots like Napa, tasting wine in Europe can be an entirely different experience.
Here is an introduction to France’s wine regions and some helpful tips for those who want to book a trip to these spectacular wine regions.
Pick Your Region
Unlike cruising through Napa, the distance between Champagne and Bordeaux is a multi-hour drive so it’s wise to have a good idea of what region you really want to focus on. Don’t expect to find the wide range of wines in a French Chateaux that you typically see in a Napa tasting room. Bordeaux is known for its blends made with grapes like Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec. Whites from Bordeaux can be made from Semillon or Sauvignon Blanc, but more well known are the sweet dessert wines from Bordeaux’s Sauternes region. Burgundy has soft reds, primarily Pinot Noir, and white wines made from Chardonnay. And obviously, Champagne is most known for its sparkling wines.
Guided versus Self Tour
If you know very little about French wine and are looking to learn more about the region, a guided tour might be ideal. Tour companies, private hire guides, and group holidays are available. The range is extensive – from budget day trips to extravagant luxury trips that take you through all of France’s wine country. If you want to be the master of your own visit, plan to drive yourself, but keep a few key items in mind – not all wineries accept visitors and you should have a designated driver. Those planning to do self-tours should connect with regional tourism boards to get maps and visitor information.
When to Visit
You can visit France’s wine country throughout the year, but some of the best times to visit are in the spring and fall. These seasons coincide with some of the most important times in the annual growth cycle of grape vines. Budbreak, the first significant event in the annual growing cycle, usually occurs during the month of April, with flowering in May. Veraison (the changing of color of the grapes from green into the final purple or yellowish-green color) occurs later in the summer, during July and August, with final ripening and harvest in the September / October time frame. These months can be the most scenic for a visit to the wineries, as you can see the grapes through their cycle in the vineyards. One benefit of visiting during the winter and early spring is that many of the wines will be in later stages of the production cycle during these months, so you can have a first-hand opportunity to taste and purchase wines from the current or prior vintages then.
What is your favorite wine? Would you like to take a tour around France's wine country?