France has nearly two million acres of vineyards, spread across more than 300 appellations, that produce roughly eight billion bottles of wine per year. Long story short, there’s a lot of vin in France for a tipsy traveler to explore. Yet most wine tourists stick to the well-trodden path: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace, Rhône.
Not that there’s anything wrong with those world-class regions. But if you’re the kind of person who’s willing to try rare and unique grapes that you can’t always pronounce, the kind of drinker who’s unafraid of natural wines recommended by tattooed sommeliers, and the kind of traveler who likes to venture away from the masses, then consider the following wine itineraries.
For lovers of obscure grapes who want an alternative to show-offy Bordeaux
When I think of interesting but affordable wines, I think of Southwest France, and places like Tarn, Haute-Garonne, and Gascony. These regions are only a few hours’ drive from Bordeaux, but instead of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and sauvignon blanc, the best wines here are made from négrette, tannat, mauzac, fer servadou, and petit manseng. No, I’m not just making up gibberish. Those are the names of grapes that come from Fronton, Madiran, Marcillac, and Gaillac. You might not have heard of those places, but these are not upstart, up-and-coming nouveau regions. They’re actually quite ancient. Winemaking, in fact, flourished here with the Romans, long before it did in Bordeaux.
Perhaps the most convenient appellation in the Southwest is Fronton, a perfect day trip from the city of Toulouse. Made with négrette, a delicate red that’s perfumed like a Mediterranean garden with exotic dried herbs and wild plums, Fronton wines can be red or rosé. One of my favorite Fronton producers is Domaine Roumagnac, located in the village of Villematier and dating back to 1880.
For centuries, people have been making big, jovial, rustic reds around the Gascon village of Madiran, where the tannat grape is king. Tannat had a small blip of notoriety in the mid-2000s when scientists found that it contained the highest, most potent levels of polyphenols, those antioxidants that prevent an array of health problems. Madiran wines are muscular, dark, and juicy, perfect for when the weather turns cold and leaves begin to fall. Bottles of Madiran wash down the decadent meals of Gascony, where I was fed so much rich foie gras and pressed duck that I feared my hosts might be forcing me toward the same fate as the geese. A classic producer in the village of Viella is Château Viella.
At the other end of the spectrum are the lighter-bodied, blood-purple wines made with the fer servadou grape, which is called braucol in the town Gaillac and mansois in Marcillac, its two main growing areas. The small town of Gaillac, in particular, is a wonderful base for exploring the Southwest.
Where to Stay:
- Hôtel/Restaurant La Verrerie, Gaillac
Where to Taste:
- L’Enclos des Braves, Gaillac
- Domaine du Moulin, Gaillac
- Domaine des Terrisses, Gaillac
For laid-back wine drinkers who love good value and natural wines
“Visit the Loire because it’s one of the home bases of natural wine,” says Rachel Signer, editor of the new wine magazine Terre and a Loire fanatic. “People are fighting to make what they believe is authentic wine that really represents terroir, and they are open-minded and unpretentious.” Signer suggests traveling with the same unpretentious spirit: “Don’t think too much. Email some producers for appointments, grab a French dictionary, book some random hotels, and go.”
Loire wines range from white (muscadet, chenin blanc from Vouvray and Savennières; sauvignon blanc from Sancerre) to rosé (the famed Anjou) to red (cabernet franc). Signer adds, “The Loire is interesting because it offers unique heritage varieties only found there, such as pineau d’aunis, Romorantin, menu pineau, and others worth checking out.” Cabernet franc from the Loire will be a particular revelation for American wine drinkers weaned on big, oaky, fruity reds. It still remains a bit of a mystery here in the U.S. Give most American consumers a label that reads Chinon or Bourgueil or Saumur-Champigny and their eyes will glaze over. “Are those medical conditions or characters on Game of Thrones?” someone once asked me. But as novice wine drinkers evolve toward more savory wines, cabernet franc is the gateway. In French bistros, Loire Valley cabernet franc has for decades been a traditional house red, underscoring how well it pairs with so many different dishes.
Where to Stay:
- Auberge du Centre, Chitenay
Where to Taste:
- Catherine & Pierre Breton, Bourgueil
- Olga Raffault, Savigny-en-Veron
- Nicolas Joly, Savennières
SAVOIE AND ISÈRE
Alpine wines for those who love mountains, tasting, and exploring
Stretching from Grenoble to Chamonix, the famous names in skiing also boast a vibrant wine culture. Combine tasting with trekking through the mountains, where winery and café stops afford amazing views of Mont Blanc.