If you go walking in France it is only a matter of time before you happen across a vineyard. And while the New World upstarts may well have flooded your local supermarket with gallons of very drinkable – and well-priced – wines, nothing quite matches up to sipping your beverage of choice in the very vineyards where the grapes were grown. And that is exactly what you can do in numerous locations in France, from Champagne to Provence, Bordeaux to Alsace, you will be very well catered for irrespective of your preferred tipple.
Two of the most fascinating and rewarding wine regions to visit when exploring France on foot are the Loire and Burgundy.
The regions sit side by side in the middle of the country, and while both are best renowned for their world-famous white wines (Chablis in Burgundy, Sancerre in the Loire) there are some excellent reds and rosés produced in both areas. When going on a walking holiday to Burgundy you will be able to visit some of the many smallholder vineyards that are easy to miss if driving. Passed down through the generations, some of the vineyards in the region date back almost two thousand years.
The vineyards of Burgundy cover an area exceeding 25,000 hectares and there are 99 appellations d’origine controlee split between the five main areas of production in the region: Chablis/Auxerrois in Yonne, Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune in Côte-d’Or, Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnais in Saône et Loire. But aside from the wine itself there are numerous walking routes that allow visitors to enjoy some of the most enchanting countryside France has to offer. Poppies carpet the landscape and gently rolling fields of wheat and wooded hills separate the quaint riverside villages and the numerous gastronomic and grape-related delights that reside within.
For real aficionados of two-footed travel, taking in a section of the famous – and very well-trodden – pilgrims’ path to Santiago di Compostella, the purported resting place of the mortal remains of the apostle St James, is worth the effort. The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Vézelay, meanwhile, marks the starting points of journeys in the other direction: the 12th Century basilica was used as the launching point for two Crusades. With the beauty and charm of the mediaeval city of Auxerre offering an excellent starting point for a trip to the region, it makes a great contrast from the rusticity of the surrounding area, with some top-class restaurants, all of which serve many of the region’s most drinkable and satisfying wines.
So switching attention to the neighbouring Loire Valley region, and some things are very similar: beautiful rolling hills awash with flora and supporting a good variety of birds and mammals; many small but intriguing towns and villages built aside picturesque river; and, almost going without saying, a vast array of wines, many full of subtle complexity.
The high mineral content in the soil of the Loire region gives a sharp freshness to the famous whites of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume, both of which use the Sauvignon Blanc grape variety. The crisp and surprisingly complex wines also offer excellent value for money when compared to some of the more prestigious – but prohibitively expensive – options from the top end of the Bordeaux wine spectrum. Like in Burgundy, there are very many vineyards of the Loire Valley which you can visit, often to stroll around the grounds and get in amongst the vines themselves, but always to sample – and perhaps purchase – the wines produced there.
Of course, there is plenty more to the Loire Valley than just the wine. While you can’t go far in France without finding a vineyard, you can’t hang around the Loire region for long without finding one of the many châteaux for which the region is famous. From the refined architecture of the Château de Cheverny to the magnificence of the Château de Serrant, there are literally hundreds of the castles, stately homes and palaces which reside under the umbrella of châteaux. Many also have their architectural splendour mirrored in the gardens in which they are set, with plenty of scope to amble away the afternoons in some of the grandest and most intriguing botanical collections in the whole of France, if not Europe.
So with walks that will stretch the legs rather than break the bones, undulating countryside pockmarked with pretty villages and dissected by meandering rivers, the Loire Valley is another great place to enjoy a walking holiday where relaxation is the order of the day. As for the night? Well, that’s when the wine really comes into its own.