What to know about French wine
Sampling good wine is an activity synonymous with French culture. Whether you want to incorporate a little wine tasting into your holiday, or it's the sole focus of your trip, it's easy to sample some of France's finest vino.
You don't have to be an expert on wine to get involved in tastings – learning is all part of the experience! But knowing a few things before you go will be handy. To start, it's important to be aware of AOCs - that is, appellation d'origine contrôlée (controlled designation of origin). French wines are particular to the region in which they are produced.
As for the tasting itself, that's the easy part. Each winery will have a sommelier on hand to tell you about the way the wine is made, and what to look for when you taste it. But we've got a few top tips to help you get the most from your experience:
- Swirl the wine in your glass; the longer it clings to the side of the glass, the higher its alcohol content.
- A short, sharp sniff will give you an indication of its intensity; take a sip and suck in a little air to power up the flavours of the wine.
- Close your eyes to concentrate on the different tastes; notice the difference between what you taste at the back of your tongue compared to the tip.
- You can swallow the wine you taste, but professionals will spit into the bucket provided. Certainly drivers should take care not to swallow! Just taste and spit, be sure to drink some water and leave a good hour before getting back on the road. Take the time to wander around the area and take in the beautiful wine region – you'll want to bring your camera.
Planning your trip
From Eurotunnel Le Shuttle's terminal in Calais you can get to some of the country's best wineries and châteaux in a matter of hours. Although châteaux is a term commonly used for any wine-making estate, even if only small, most châteaux will feature grand manor houses, and are almost always breathtakingly beautiful!
The question is, what kind of wine-tasting experience are you looking for? If you just want a day trip from Calais, then your best bet is to head to the Champagne region, just 2 and a half hours away from Eurotunnel Le Shuttle. Or, if you are planning a more in-depth wine-tasting holiday, and would like to sample the best of various regions over a number of days, it's worth considering how long you want to drive each day and plan your route that way. Keep in mind that many châteaux are closed on particular days (Sundays are common closure days) so check ahead to ensure you're not disappointed.
Here are a some of the best wine regions in France:
The closest region to Calais, you can leave the terminal and be in the Champagne district in less than three hours. The little town of Epernay is at the centre of the region, and home to the major Champagne names including Veuve Clicquot, Moet et Chandon, and Dom Perignon.
Reims is just 269km from Calais, heading south east on the A26. Epernay is a 30 minute drive south from Reims along the Voie de la Liberté.
South of Champagne, Burgundy wine estates tend to be smaller than in other regions, although it lays claim to well over 3000 – as such it is the region with the most AOCs in the country. Although the two major types of Burgundy wines you'll get here are reds made with pinot noir, including Beaujolais and whites made with Chardonnay, such as Chablis.
Dijon is the biggest town in the region and a five hour drive from Calais, heading south east on the A26. To reach Dijon from Reims, it is just under a four hour drive along the same route.
South-east of Champagne, Alsace is a lesser-known wine region with some excellent vintages. Here the AOC is simply Alsace, and interestingly, wines made here are the only ones in France which are labelled by their grape type, rather than their estate. Varieties to look for include pinot gris, pinot blanc, pinot noir, muscat, Gewurztraminer and Chardonnay.
Alsace is a six hour drive from Calais heading south east on the A26 or the A4. The drive from Champagne to Alsace on the A4 takes approximately three and a half hours.
The Loire Valley
With nearly 90 areas of AOC, the Loire is France's second largest wine region after Champagne, and produces almost as much sparkling wine. Historically the wines of the Loire have long been some of the most coveted, and it remains one of the world's most esteemed wine-growing regions. In particular, this is the place to go for good white wines, including Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc.
Head to Le Mans, which is a four hour drive from Calais, heading south west on the A28.
Leaning nonchalantly against the Swiss border, the wines of the Savoie (or Savoy) region are grown in a distinctly alpine climate. The mountainous setting makes this the place to go if you're keen on going hiking in addition to picking up some great French vintage. Due to the special growing conditions, wines from the Savoie region are best for drinking sooner, rather than for keeping in a wine cellar.
From Calais, head south east on the A26 (a 7.5 hour drive) to reach Chambéry. To get there from Dijon, it is just under a three hour drive on the A6.
The largest wine-producing region in France, Bordeaux is something of a household name, at least in terms of good wine. Its success in cultivation is largely due to the calcium-rich limestone ground base and gravelly soil. There are over 8,000 châteaux in Bordeaux, and almost 90% of wine made in this region is red wine (or claret), typically made from a blend of different grapes, although other varieties (white, sparkling etc) are also widely available.
Bordeaux city is 867km from Calais (about 7 hours 45 minutes driving time), heading south west on the A10. To get there from Le Mans, it is 446km (four hours driving time) on the same route.