For anyone with a passion for wine, it’s the ultimate fantasy: working your way through the cask and cru of France’s greatest wine regions.
Traveling in France the importance of wine to French life is impossible to miss, as vineyards carpet the landscape from top to bottom of the country. But, more than that, wine is etched into the French psyche. It is a source of intense pride, considerable wealth and income, employment and political wrangling. It is the fuel that fires great passion, inspiring winemakers and wine lovers the world over and it demands a great understanding.
I am lucky to have a sister who is a Language Professor who teaches at Cambridge University and who went to university in Paris so I have had an expert guide for many of our adventures. Here is a quick guide to exploring two of the most famous wine growing regions.
The enjoyment of Champagne, the pinnacle of sparkling wine reaches right around the world but the proximity of the Champagne region to Paris means that a visit is a temptation foolishly resisted.
Once you have negotiated the Peripherique ring road, it’s a relatively easy 90-minute drive along the autoroute, or the high speed TVG train will get you there in less than an hour. Although Champagne conjures up a generic image of celebration, flutes and bubbles, its home turf reveals unexpected diversity and interest. The main center of this wine region is Reims in the north, and Espernay, which is in the middle. In both you will find history, gastronomy and the headquarters of the large Champagne houses. The most important vineyard areas fan outwards from Epernay, the Montagne de Reims to the north east, the Cote des Blance to the south and the Marne Valley running far out to the west.
Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Ninot Meunier
These are blended together in varying proportions and combinations to create Champagne. The first and most important wine for every Champagne house is the non-vintage cuvee, or NV. In order to maintain consistency and market share across a number of world markets, these wines are blended across the style of each harvest to achieve an identifiable house style. The term, blanc de blancs, indicates a Champagne made entirely from Chardonnay grapes.
Visit Monet and Chandon, Epernay and Taittinger, Reims.
Arguably the world’s most difficult and confusing wine region but richly rewarding. Burgundy is a must-do for anyone who has ever felt the siren allure of great Pinot Noir but Pinot is only half the story mostly found along the northern half of the Cote-d’Or escarpment known as the Cote de Nuits. The other side to Burgundy is great Chardonnay and its stronghold is in the southern arm of the Cote-d’or, the Cote de Beaune.
The town of Beaune is the easiest place from which to mount your assault on this hallowed stretch of southeast-facing vineyards. Some larger domains, Jabot, Bouchard, have cellars there, with some great small scale producers.
The white and red wines of Burgundy are all classified under the same system of vineyards-designed status. Therefore, unlike wines from Australia, Bordeaux and Champagne the predominant words on Burgundian labels refer to the vineyard, not the producer. The joy and obsession of Burgundy is in the detail. Pinot grown at the northern edge of the Cote de Nuits in Gevrey-Chambertin has a distinctly different style to Pinot grown a few miles south in Vosne Romannee. Grapes from high on the hill to the middle of the slope or at the bottom make a big difference to the wine.
Visit La Maison d’ Oliver LaFlaive.
The minute scale of production from small winemakers means that only those with enough wine to sell will open their doors for tastings so look for the "Degustation-Vente" signs as you pass through each picturesque village.
Maureen Jones is president of All Horizons Travel at 160 Main Street. Members of her staff are experts in business travel, cruises, and all types of leisure.