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, and her wine-making practices and styles of wine have been adopted in many other wine 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.
Ten experiences to best enjoy French wine
Waterways and wine go hand in hand in France and no lunch or dinner, on land or afloat, would be complete without a glass or two from one of the eight main wine-producing regions. Combine all three – waterways, wine and food – to reveal ten of the best days out with French wines.
1. In Burgundy – discover the very best
Alongside Bordeaux, Burgundy disputes the title for the best wines in France, if not the world. The Route des Grands Crus offers la crème de la crème. The 60km route takes you through the finest vineyards in Burgundy with plenty of stops in the Côte de Nuits area, home to no less than 24 of the 33 Grands Crus in the region. Aim to be in Beaune for lunch and/or dinner where you can combine a Grand Cru with some of the best cuisine at one of the town’s six Michelin-starred restaurants.
In Burgundy – look to earth and sky for the climats. Climat describes the parcel of vine growing land, each uniquely defined by its soil, position and inclination. The Mois de Climats takes place between the beginning of June and July. Join a vineyard guided tour, take a walk through the vines, watch a vintage car rally, take in an art exhibition… as well as tasting magnificent wine from one climat after another.
Take a Wine Cruise
A number of hotel barges cruise along the Canal de Bourgogne and the River Saone, all of which include wine related visits and experiences. In particular, l’Impressionniste which travels the pretty Ouche Valley near Dijon, offers special wine appreciation cruises. Just ask us for details.
2. In Bordeaux – try the first and from the barrel
This day out with French wine showcases the first made from the previous harvest’s grapes. During En Primeur week at the beginning of April, over 300 vineyards throughout Bordeaux open their cellar doors and barrels for tastings. Known as the “wine futures” event, En Primeur reveals the best wines of the last season and presents a opportunity to invest in the best wines before they are bottled and sold to market.
The annual Bordeaux Wine Festival takes place over a weekend in mid-June along the banks of the River Garonne. Wine takes centre stage – the 2km open-air wine trail along the river is packed with tasting stalls – but there’s plenty of room for other entertainment too. Bordeaux Music Festival runs at the same time with evening fireworks and a spectacular son et lumière show in the Place de la Bourse.
At Buzet-sur-Baise on the Canal de Garonne there is a local co-operative cave a short walk away and they will deliver your boxes and bottles to the port quayside. And local to this area are the wine-derived liquors, Armagnac and Floc de Gascogne.
Take a wine cruise
Hotel barge Saint Louis offers special wine experience options focussed on St Emilion. All of the riverboats that cruise in the Bordeaux locality include vineyard excursions and professionally curated wine tasting opportunities. Just ask us for details.
3. On the Canal du Midi – by the Canal
In a number of places vineyards are not just visible from the waterway (on adjacent hillsides, for example) but will lie right next to it.
This is true of the Canal du Midi at Ventenac, where there is also a Cave (a wine cellar or producers’ co-operative store) selling local Minervois and Corbières wines from an historic building right by the canal.
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.
4. On the Canal du Midi – visit Saint-Chinian
Saint-Chinian’s big wine event is on the last Sunday in July. The Fête du Cru celebrates the best of Languedoc wines, one of the up-and-coming labels in the world of French wine. The day starts with traditional mass before continuing with a musical parade, entertainment and lots of wine-tasting, paired to perfection with traditional local cuisine.
Take a Wine Cruise
There are many opportunities to savour the wines that border the Canal du Midi whether cruising in a hotel barge or on a self-drive boat. Two barges in particular offer specific wine appreciation cruises – Enchanté and Savannah. Just ask us for details.
5. In Champagne – follow the bubbles
There’s no better way to sample champagne than on the designated Champagne Route that takes in 80 independent producers over its 700km. Choose one of the eight trails and discover the world of fizz. Moor in Reims, the headquarters of the world’s most prestigious champagne houses, or Epernay or Chalons-en-Champagne, to explore the famous Champagne Houses of Mercier, Moet et Chandon, Castellane, Bollinger, Krug and many more. And, why not create your own label champagne?
Visits afford exceptional pleasures amidst the stunning vineyard landscapes along the banks of the Marne.
6. In the Rhône Valley – try the most famous label
The picture-perfect town of Chateauneuf-du-Pape is home to the hallowed wine of the same name, the preferred tipple of popes and the most famous Côte du Rhône label. Discover the many wine cellars in the town, set on a hill amongst a sea of vineyards. If you’re there during the first weekend in August, don’t miss the Fête de la Véraison. The town returns to its medieval origins for two days of pageantry, music and of course, red wine tasting.
Take a Wine Cruise
Only a select few hotel barges cruise in Provence along the Rhone – both Le Phenicien and Napoleon (which also cruises the Rhone from north to south) provide excellent wine experiences. Of course, the riverboats that travel the Rhone between Burgundy and Provence also provide opportunities to visit and taste Rhone wines. Just ask us for details.
7. In the Loire Valley – do the longest route of all
The long and picturesque Loire Valley includes the third largest wine-producing region in France and a total of 50 AOC wines. The official Loire Valley Wine Route meanders its own way down river through the vineyards, pretty villages and majestic chateaux on the river banks. The section between Chalonnes-sur-Loire and Sully-sur-Loire is so beautiful that it has been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status.
8. Upper Loire – Sancerre and Chablis
Depending on proximity, hotel barge guests in the Loire or Burgundy regions will visit Sancerre, Chablis and the world famous constituent wine areas of Nuits, Beaune, Chalon and Macon. And for independent self-drive hire boaters a trusty hire bicycle on board gives you chance to get even closer to the grapes, pedalling in the fresh air.
Take a Wine Cruise
On the lower Loire the sole and very special opportunity to combine cruising with wine is the riverboat Loire Princesse.
Further east, the Loire-Burgundy wines of Sancerre and Chablis can be experienced and savoured aboard hotel barges Renaissance and Luciole, both of which offer special wine appreciation cruises. Just ask us for details.
9. In Alsace – see the prettiest of them all
The village of Eguisheim ranks among the prettiest villages in France and has a long list of accolades to prove it. It also happens to be the heart of the Alsatian vineyards and home to four Grand Crus. Coincide your visit with the annual Fête des Vignerons held over the last weekend in August in honour of the area’s winegrowers. Many wine cellars open their doors and there are plenty of opportunities for tastings and pairings with hearty Alsace cuisine as well as enjoying traditional music and dance.
Take a Wine Cruise
Two hotel barges in particular cruise the route west of Strasbourg on the fabulous Marne-Rhine canal, offering opportunities to taste and appreciate the wines of Alsace – Lilas and Panache. Just ask us for details.
10. In Provence – treat all of your senses
This quintessentially Mediterranean part of France produces some of the world’s best rosés. Try them at the annual Aix en Provence wine festival held on the last Sunday in July. Dozens of wine stalls flank the elegant Cours Mirabeau boulevard where you can also taste the region’s fine olive oil, almonds and honey. Add some of the Provence summer sunshine and perfumed lavender fields and you’ve got a real feast for the senses.
Every day out with French wines
Cruising in France gives you the chance to enjoy a day out with French wines every day of your trip. Not only is there a cruise route for hire-boats in most major wine-producing regions, fine wining and dining is part and parcel of a hotel barge experience and a riverboat cruise. You’ll sample the best of vin on and off board. All you have to do is pick your wine and the waterway to go with it.
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.