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9 tips for enjoying a French vineyard tour (and wine tasting)

Genevieve Mansfield
Genevieve Mansfield - [email protected]
9 tips for enjoying a French vineyard tour (and wine tasting)
Vineyards are pictured at sunrise in the Alsatian village of Nordheim, northeastern France, on October 18, 2017. (Photo by PATRICK HERTZOG / AFP)

If you are a fan of French wine and you are looking to plan a vineyard visit in the future, here are our tips for planning the trip and making sure you have a great time.

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Each year millions of tourists visit France with hopes of enjoying a wine-filled holiday, and as well as drinking it; many people enjoy seeing how it is made.

Luckily, the country has several wine-growing regions and thousands of vineyards, many of which offer tours - foreign clientele represent almost half (42 percent) of those visiting French vineyards.

Types of visit

Not all vineyards offer tours, but anywhere that has a sign up advertising dégustation will be happy to welcome you for a tasting and maybe a tour.

The exact vineyard experience varies depending on where you are - some of the bigger vineyards offer highly professional tourist experiences with multi-lingual guides, tours around the vine-growing areas and the caves (cellars) ending with a tasting session. Some also offer meals with each course paired with one of their wines.

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At the other end of the scale, smaller producers will break off from work to open a few bottles and tell you about their wine-producing operation.

Costs also vary - a proper tour and tasting will probably cost between €50 and €100, more if food is on offer. Some vineyards offer free tastings - in this case it is considered polite to buy at least a couple of bottles to compensate your host for their time.

In general there are two types of tour; cave and vignoble.

A cave is the wine cellars - you will usually be shown around the cellars and told a bit about the wine produced there and the production methods.

The vignoble is the vineyard itself, so you'll get a chance to see the grapes growing on the vines, as well as the production area. Both types typically include dégustation (tasting).

The vineyards, naturally, tend to be in the countryside so if you either don't have a car or don't want to drive so that you can enjoy their product, make sure you check the exact location of the vineyard you are visiting and how to get there. Some vineyards offer transport as part of the tour package (more on that below).

Choosing the region - France is home to many different wine growing regions, each with their own culture and tradition. Some popular locations are Alsace, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Provence, Languedoc, Champagne, the Loire Valley, and the Rhône area.

To start off your research, consider looking into the route des vins (in French). These are specific wine routes, available for most wine-growing regions in France, that criss-cross vineyards and offer stopping points along the way. The best known is the Alsace wine route, taking you from outside of Mulhouse up to Strasbourg. You can see the map HERE.

Operating hours and language - Most vineyards are only open to the public at certain times. Many also close completely to the public in August, September or October (depending on the region) as this is the busiest time of year when the grapes are harvested.

If you don't speak French then you will also need to check the languages available - many vineyards do offer English-language tours but there might only be a couple of these a week.

Consider the size of the winery - While smaller wineries might not offer as many amenities as the larger ones more adapted to big groups and tours, family-owned vineyards can be a great way to have a more intimate experience. In fact, if you are in a wine-growing region in France, when walking around the village you might notice a sign that simply says "Dégustation de vin" (wine tasting). If you opt for this route, keep in mind that it is polite to buy a bottle or two as a thank-you after a free tasting.

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If you are looking for a full tour, which will include the vineyard, then you will likely need to make a reservation in advance. Some popular tourist destinations for wine tourism, like Saint Émilion, list a few places on their website each day that allow entry without prior appointment. 

READ MORE: How to taste wine like a professional (according to French experts)

Travelling with kids - Travelling with children does not mean you cannot enjoy French vineyards. Many accept children, and some even have activities for them - like sparkling grape juice tastings and other kid-friendly activities. It is, however, always best to double check that children are permitted.

One great option for families is the "Cité du vin" museum in Bordeaux, which offers exhibits, some interactive, for people of all ages. At the end, adults can enjoy a wine tasting in the rooftop bar which offers spectacular views over the city. 

Check online for bookings - there are quite a few websites that specialise in listing wine-tasting experiences. We like Rue des Vignerons - available in English, and it gives you access to an interactive map with plenty of options in any wine producing region of your choice. You can specify parameters to ensure that you find a tour in English, or a winery with a children's area. For those with mobility issues, you can also see whether the location is disability-accessible. You'll also be able to get a price estimate.

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Think about transportation - Before booking your wine tour, consider the location. Naturally enough, most vineyards are in rural areas or on the outskirts of villages, making them less accessible on foot or by public transport.

Many wineries will be able to recommend taxi services to help get you to and from your visit, and some may even offer a shuttle service (keep an eye out for this when booking). 

If you do decide to drive, the designated driver will have to be very careful about their consumption at the usually generous tasting session at the end of the tour, as French drink-drive limits are strict.

Learn some French wine vocabulary - Before heading off to French wine country, you will want to brush up on some of your wine-related vocabulary. On a general level, a red wine is a rouge, a white is a blanc. The grape is called the raisin in French (not to be confused with the English word for dried grape - raisin). The French term for vineyard is vignoble

When describing the flavour or taste of a wine you, you might hear the sommelier say sucré (sugary); l'acidité (acidity); l'amer (bitter) and salé (salty). 

When describing smell, someone might say that it smells like un bouquet. This is not a reference to flowers, but instead it describes the smell that a wine gives off when you taste it.

A tasting is called a dégustation, and you can wish someone a 'nice tasting' by saying 'Bonne dégustation'. 

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You may have noticed that some wines have the term "domaine" on their label, while others have "château". Generally, the difference is that a château is a single estate, while a domaine might be a collection of several smaller vineyards. You are more likely to hear the word domaine in Burgundy, rather than Bordeaux.

Spit or swallow? You might have heard that it's the done thing to spit your wine out after tasting it - although in truth it's usually the professional tasters who do this.

If you're at a tasting session, however, you will notice that a small bucket is usually provided at the tasting table - this isn't to spit into, but to empty out the dregs of each glass.

Your host will usually pour you out a good-sized glass of each wine, so that you have the opportunity to appreciate its bouquet and have a couple of mouthfuls to discover the different flavours. However most tastings include at least six different types of wine, so if you drank the full glass of each wine you would be quite convivial at the end of the session.

For this reason, people often take a couple of mouthfuls and then empty the rest of the glass into the slop bucket. There's nothing to stop you drinking the whole glass though, you're there to enjoy yourself after all!

We think that a nice compromise is to empty out some of the wine and drink the full glass if you find one that you really like - and remember that most hosts start with the cheaper wines and then move to the best vintages at the end of the session.

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