France’s wine country isn’t all sprawling châteaux and rolling hills—venture off the beaten track to find the country’s most rewarding tasting experiences.
French wine rightly has a reputation as among the world’s best. Winemaking techniques pioneered here centuries ago have gone on to influence viticulture around the world. Yet the image that typifies the country’s vineyards doesn’t always ring true. In some places parcel upon parcel of lush vines really are punctuated by little more than slate-gray castle turrets, but in others vineyards sit on the edge of once-industrial cities and in the foothills of little-known mountain ranges.
Then there are the wines themselves. Fantastic fizz isn’t made just in Champagne; deep and complex reds don’t solely hail from Bordeaux and the Rhone; not all great white cuvées are oaky burgundies; and there’s more to rosé than the big names in Provence.
It’s time to raise a glass to France’s underrated alternatives. These regions are delightful to explore, whether you want to get into a serious tasting tour or simply stop off to sample a glass or two.
Limoux might just produce the greatest sparkling wines you’ve never tried. The world’s first fizz was thought to have been made in this bucolic subregion of the Languedoc in France’s far southwest the early 1500s, yet today the wines aren’t really exported.
Start with blanquette de Limoux: made with the local grape mauzac, it’s said to have been a favorite of Thomas Jefferson. Then there’s some superb crémant, made from chardonnay and chenin blanc, aged to the same exacting standards as champagne, including at least nine months in bottle.
These wines deserve a spectacular setting—and this is where Limoux seriously delivers. The countryside is dotted with ancient fortifications built by the Cathars, a semi-Christian sect that flourished here in the 12th century. You can even stay in a castle at the Château des Ducs de Joyeuse, which dates from the Middle Ages, or go back further in time inside the honey-hued walls of UNESCO-listed citadel city Carcassonne.
The perfect pairing: Crémant is an ideal apéritif, sipped as you snack on plump green olives.
You’ve not seen a chocolate-box town until you've visited Alsace. In the shadow of the Vosges mountains near the German border are Europe’s finest fairy-tale villages: Obernai, Ribeauvillé, Riquewihr, and Colmar to name but a few. Even the capital city, Strasbourg, has its share of half-timbered houses and sleepy canals.
Completing this storybook landscape are vineyards planted with some of France’s most aromatic white grapes, gewürztraminer, pinot blanc, pinot gris, and riesling. The latter holds the undisputed crown and tends to be used in dry and steely wines, although even those with a little sweetness still have enough acidity to get your pulse racing.
Harvest is one of the prettiest times to embark on the long-established Alsace Wine Route, one of the county’s oldest wine trails. When the vines start to be flecked with gold and amber, you know it’s time to gorge on the region’s hearty specialties like coq au riesling and choucroute garnie.
The perfect pairing: Dry riesling and tarte flambée (somewhere between a pizza and a savory tart, usually topped with crème fraîche, bacon, and onions).
In the 1980s everyone knew about beaujolais nouveau, the release of the region’s youngest wines on the third Thursday of November mere months after harvest. Celebrating these bubblegum reds, made from gamay grapes and designed to be drunk straight away, became something of a cult. Then beaujolais fell out of fashion, trashed as cheap and cheerful, and vintages were increasingly shipped abroad—even as far away as Hakone, Japan, where they’re still used to fill spas at a hot springs resort.
Now beaujolais’s image is being transformed. Alongside great wines from the region’s 10 crus, those produced by natural winemakers fly in the face of convention, shunning mass production for an emphasis on terroir-driven viticulture. Lyon, France’s gourmet capital with more than 2,000 restaurants, is the spot to start tasting. When you’re ready to explore the vineyards themselves, eschew lengthy cellar tours for a trip by Citroën 2CV—after all, this has never been a region to follow tradition.
The perfect pairing: Chilled beaujolais with crusty bread and rillettes.
Rugged and independently minded Corsica—closer to Italy than France—might not spring to mind as a destination for wine lovers. But as well as some of Europe’s finest white-sand beaches and toughest mountain hikes, this small island also has a long winemaking history.
Patrimonio is the pick of the island’s wine regions for first timers, just inland from the ritzy harbor town of St. Florent, and within easy reach of scrub-backed bays like Plage de Saleccia. Here you can stop by a handful of domaines to sample glasses of the mineral white vermentinu (elsewhere known vermentino or rolle) and robust reds and rosés made from nielluccio (almost the exact genetic match of Tuscan superstar sangiovese). Better still, go easy on the tastings and wind your way back along twisting roads to the coast, uncorking a bottle at the perfect sunset spot.
The perfect pairing: Herbal Corsican rosés are perfect with soft goat cheeses and the ricotta-like local cheese, brocciu.
France produces far more light and zippy white wines than just sauvignon blanc and chardonnay. If you prefer a cool, crisp glass at the end of the day, head to the vineyards of the Pays Nantais, surrounding the industrial city of Nantes just inland from the center of France’s rugged Atlantic coast.
This is not a wine capital as you know it. Nantes is principally famous for two things: its large student population and the one-of-a-kind Machines de l’Île, a lovably dystopian collection of interactive machines housed in an old dockyard—including a rideable mechanical elephant the size of a small house.
By contrast, the wines of the Pays Nantais are restrained and traditional. This is the home of muscadet, made from the grape melon de bourgogne. Its best expression is muscadet Sevre-et-Maine sur lie, which is aged for six months allowing the wine’s fresh and apple-y flavors to mellow and soften. It’s traditionally drunk with seafood, and you can find France’s best an hour’s drive away on the Breton coast; Nantes was once capital of Brittany and the two remain closely linked.
The perfect pairing: Just-shucked oysters and muscadet are a match that simply can’t be beaten.
Like malbec? You’ll love the so-called black wines of Cahors, intense and inky reds that were made with malbec (known here as côt) long before the grape took hold in Argentina’s Andean vineyards, where most of the world’s malbec is now grown.
Here in the Lot region of southwest France, some 60 miles or so inland from Bordeaux, it reigns supreme. Dark, complex wines are fitting amid the Lot’s dramatic landscapes, where rivers have carved monumental steep-sided valleys and complex cave systems over millennia. The town of Cahors itself, dating back to Roman times, might be the best base for tastings and tours, but leave time to visit ancient towns like St. Cirq Lapopie and Rocamadour; their precipitous locations atop rocky crags might just leave you in need of a glass at the end of the day.
The perfect pairing: Meaty wines can take rich flavors—splurge on some locally foraged black truffles.