Insider tips on visiting French wineries beyond Bordeaux and Burgundy
More and more vineyards in France are opening up to visitors, says a French wine tourism expert.
Of France’s 87,000 vineyards, only 13% were open to the public five years ago, said Martin Lhuillier, head of wine tourism at Atout France, the country’s tourism development agency.
Now many more have opened their cellar doors for tours and tastings, he said.
“Since our last estimate, the number of wineries open to visitors has increased by more than 10%,” he said.
This is a growing trend in an industry that once resisted the friendly, open-door policies common at wineries in California, South Africa and other “New World” wine regions. The idea was that French wineries – or chateaux – were on a mission to make serious wine, not woo families with on-site playgrounds – a common practice in parts of Australia.
But that started to change years ago when wineries started setting up guest-friendly tasting rooms, revamping their cellars and hosting wine tours, turning working estates into small-scale tourist attractions.
Activities quickly followed, with visitors able to book picnics, harvest workshops and scavenger hunts for children in the areas. as distinguished as Bordeaux.
The trend has moved up the ranks of French winemakers, from small independent estates to large producers in the country. Now the “vast majority” of France’s most prestigious chateaux are also open to visitors, Lhuillier said.
There are four main types of wine tourists in France, Lhuillier said. The largest group (40%) are “epicureans”, he said, who aim for pleasure and “please their senses”.
They are followed by the “classics” (24%) who consider wine as one experience among others on vacation. “Explorers” (20%) value deeper knowledge, he said. They want to meet the winemakers and explore lesser known aspects of wine. The remaining visitors (16%) are “experts” who want to master the science of wine, he said.
Wine tourism in France generates around 5.2 billion euros ($5.9 billion) a year, Lhuillier said.
Before the pandemic, the country welcomed around 10 million wine tourists each year, who spent an average of $1,430 per stay. Most of these visitors came from France (58%), but the growth of international visitors was greater than that of domestic visitors.
“The average growth rate of wine tourism in France over the past six years is around 4% per year, with the growth being higher for foreign tourists,” he said.
Lhuillier said he divides French wine regions into two camps:
- “classic” destinations, where wine plays a decisive role in travelers’ decision to visit the region, such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne and Alsace; and
- regions where wine plays an important, but not essential, role in the choice of visit, such as Provence, Occitanie and the Loire Valley.
Visitors primarily want to taste and buy wine, although the desire to experience a region’s “landscapes, cultures, heritage and gastronomy” is not far behind, Lhuillier said.
Les Sources de Caudalie is a five-star hotel and spa located on the Château Smith Haut Lafitte vineyard estate near the city of Bordeaux.
Jean-Pierre Müller | AFP | Getty Images
Others come to participate in wine-related activities, from winemaking workshops and grape-based wellness therapies to wine festivals and family activities in the vineyards, Lhuillier said. He called all these “growing trends” in France.
There aren’t many differences between French and foreign wine tourists, Lhuillier said.
However, the French tend to look for more “authenticity” when touring, he said. They generally want direct contact with a winemaker, he said, while foreign visitors have fewer qualms about being guided through a winery by an estate staff member.
The Mediterranean Sea from Chateau Maravene in Provence, France.
@Atout France Thibault Touzeau
“Another difference…is that French wine tourists are less likely to pay for a tour and tasting than their foreign counterparts,” Lhuillier said. “Some French wine tourists still think that… if they buy wine, they shouldn’t have to pay for the visit.”
But that’s changing, he said, especially as “visits have increased dramatically in content and quality.”
“Generally, the bigger the brand, the more foreign wine tourists are likely to visit,” Lhuillier said.
However, “an American wine lover who has taken several wine trips to France is much more likely to try the Jura…than a Parisian who has had only one wine-tasting weekend in Champagne.”
The Jura is one of the six “well-hidden secrets” that Lhuillier recommends. It is one of the smallest wine regions in France and home to some of its most beautiful villages, he said.
The “heart and soul” of the estate is its yellow wine, celebrated the first weekend of February during a massive festival called La Percée du Vin Jaune, he said. This year, the event has been moved to April.
Martin Lhuillier of Atout France has designated Château-Chalon du Jura as one of the most beautiful villages in France.
@Atout France Gilles Lansard
Corsica is a well-known tourist hotspot, but its “spectacular island vineyards aren’t as famous,” he said. The same goes for the Ardèche, a sub-region of the Rhône Valley, which has “larger-than-life wines and… amazing wine tourism experiences, like its underground tastings.”
Between Burgundy and the Rhone Valley lies Beaujolais, which is known for its Beaujolais Nouveau wine, produced from the Gamay grape.
The area is “locally known as the Tuscany of France for its landscapes and lifestyle,” Lhuillier said. “It’s less than an hour’s drive from… Lyon, which happens to be the capital of French gastronomy.”
Beaujolais is home to 10 crus, or best villages and wine regions, such as Saint-Amour, Fleurie (seen here) and Chiroubles.
@Atout FranceOlivier Roux
Finally, the South West of France, called “Sud-Ouest” in French, is a huge wine region with big names and “off the beaten track” gems, Lhuillier said. He recommends two areas not far from the Spanish border: Juranconwhere “the region’s Indian summer and warm wind provide exceptional sweet wine”, and Irouleguy“the smallest mountain wine region in France, deeply rooted in the Basque Country”.
He also recommends the vineyards around Bergerac and Duras, south of Bordeaux. Lhuillier called the area a preserved “natural gem” and a “growing destination for wine tourists rooted for sustainability.”