On a recent trip to France, my husband and I rented a car to go wine tasting through the French countryside. We used to live in California and spent many a weekend winding through rolling hills of sun-dappled grapes, sipping on reds and whites as we absorbed the flavors at each little vineyard along the way. In France, we envisioned a variation of what we experienced in Napa Valley. We were in for a surprise.
Wine tasting in the French countryside is much more down to business, driven by the admiration and deliberate purchase of an artisan’s craft. Save your flowing dress and espadrilles for another time — at least in September which is when we traveled. It’s a casual affair that calls for jeans and a nice shirt. As far as the weather goes, we were comfortable in pants and short sleeves, with a light sweatshirt or jacket.
Bonjour, Merci Beaucoup
One of the more difficult aspects of our travels is we didn’t speak any French, and in the remote countryside with limited service there was no hope of using an app. I was impressed by the number of English-speaking locals — ‘for my job,’ many of them explained — which makes sense in a tourist industry. It was a skill that we greatly appreciated, but quickly realized not to treat as the expectation. The few times we entered a winery and immediately began communicating in English, we were met with disapproving stares — they didn’t even try. So instead, we used our strongly accented ‘bonjours,’ then smiled awkwardly until someone said hello in the language associated with the country that we were unmistakably from. It was a polite gesture that got us off on the right foot and led to a friendly experience.
Chocolate or Vanilla?
As we wound our way through wineries in Loire Valley, Burgundy, Rhone Valley and Provence, there were no tasting menus. Our question of ‘What do you have?’ was served back to us as ‘What do you like?’ So it’s best to have a rough answer at the ready.
In France, tastings are somewhat like asking for samples in an ice cream shop. You wouldn’t ask to try every flavor in the store. Instead you’d have a mood in mind — let’s say rich and chocolatey — and go for spoonfuls of double mocha fudge, peanut butter caramel swirl and hazelnut crunch. At this point, it would just be weird to ask for raspberry sherbert.
Wine tasting in France takes a similar approach. Do you prefer reds or whites? Dry or sweet? Something heavy or something light? Pick a general direction, then sample what’s available in that lane. And buy a few bottles of whatever you enjoy the most. You wouldn’t leave an ice cream shop empty handed.
No Such Thing as a Pinot Noir
In France there’s no such thing as a glass of Pinot Noir. Or Cabernet Sauvignon. Or Merlot. You get the picture.
Wines are categorized by region and one just knows — presumably from lots and lots of experience that I would like to attain — which region produces which kind of grape. Burgundy, for instance, grows primarily Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. So if you ask for vin rouge in Burgundy, chances are you will get that Pinot Noir. So there actually is such a thing as a Pinot Noir, it’s just filed under a different name.
Favorite Vineyards + Wines
While all the places we visited were wonderful and unique, two vineyards in particular rose to the top.
A family-owned business for more than 500 years, this Loire Valley winery stood out in terms of taste and charm. It’s known as a favorite among locals, which is what drew us there. We had an excellent tasting, then purchased a bottle of white to drink on site. They packaged it up for us and we carried it up a beautiful hillside path for a picnic in the vineyards.
Wine Pick: Les Ménigottes
With floral and spicy aromas of violet, pepper and a hint of gingerbread, this 100% Cabernet Franc is aged in oak barrels for complexity and balance.
This vineyard was recommended during a wine tasting in Paris. From the moment we parked our car on a mountain road with sweeping views of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape région, it did not disappoint. We had a fun and informational tasting, got to explore the underground barrel cellars located just off the cozy tasting lounge, and even met owner Gaston Brunel, who comes from a long line of winemakers dating back to the 17th century.
Wine Pick: Générations Gaston-Philippe
With roasted notes, a strong blackberry undertone, and a long finish, it features Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre grapes. They're harvested by hand from only the oldest vines and aged for 12 months in new French oak barrels.