Wine and Waterways
France is the most renowned wine producer in the world and traces its history to the 6th century BC, with many of France’s regions dating their wine-making history to Roman times. The wines produced range from expensive high-end wines sold internationally to more modest wines usually only seen within France.
France is the source of many grape varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot noir, Sauvignon blanc, Syrah) that are now planted throughout the world, as well as wine-making practices and styles of wine that have been adopted in other producing countries.
Two concepts central to higher end French wines are the notion of ‘terroir’, which links the style of the wines to the specific locations where the grapes are grown and the wine made, and the ‘Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC)’ system. Appellation rules closely define which grape varieties and wine-making practices are approved for classification in each of France’s several hundred geographically defined appellations, which can cover entire regions, individual villages or even specific vineyards.
As can clearly be seen from the map, the vast majority of wine regions, terroirs and appellations follow the river and canal network very closely. Throughout the nineteenth century one of the main cargoes, carried in large barrels on barges along the canals, was wine.
What this means for anyone experiencing a cruise on the French waterways is that all along the route there are opportunities to enjoy delicious local wines, whether AOC or those more modest in their ambition.
Wine along the waterway
In a number of places vineyards will not just be visible from the waterway (on adjacent hillsides for example) but will lie right next to it.
This is true of the Canal du Midi, for example around Ventenac, where there is also a Cave (a wine cellar or producers’ co-operative store) selling local Minervois and Corbieres wines from an historic building right by the canal. At Buzet-sur-Baise (Canal de Garonne) there is local co-operative cave a short walk away and they will deliver your boxes and bottles to the port quayside. One of the highlights of mooring in Reims, Epernay or Chalons-en-Champagne is the collection of nearby Champagne Houses – Mercier, Moet et Chandon, Castellane, Bollinger, Krug, etc. – whose visits are exceptional pleasures.
And local to many areas are wine-derived liquors – for example, Armagnac and Floc de Gascogne in south-west France surrounding the Canal de Garonne and the River Baise.
It’s all very satisfying, adding immeasurably to one’s immersion into the waterside locality, its life and culture. Every vineyard/winery will offer visitors the opportunity to sample their products, without obligation – this is Degustation in French.
Prices ‘from the cellar door’ are naturally highly advantageous and of course, even if there isn’t a vineyard itself adjacent, local shops and supermarkets will feature local varieties. Some villages even have a small cave that will fill up your own container with a litre or two of the local Vin de Pays.
Wine away from the waterway
Hotel barge guests will often be taken by luxury coach to wine-growing and producing chateaux and vineyards in the vicinity. Very often, too, these private guided visits will offer a unique insight into a vintner family, its history and its Appellation with the opportunity to wander through the vines, observe wine-making and talk directly to family members.
Depending on proximity, barge guests in Loire or Burgundy will visit Sancerre, Chablis and the world famous constituent wine areas of Nuits, Beaune, Chalon and Macon. And for independent self-drive hire boaters there’s always a trusty bicycle on board and a chance to get even closer to the grapes, pedalling in the fresh air.
Wine at School
A number of hotel barges offer wine-appreciation courses, with tuition from respected sommeliers. A morning’s enlightenment aboard the boat will be followed by vineyard visits and then a sumptuous evening meal, perfectly complemented by a superb selection of appropriate wines.