With France’s wine tourism industry going from strength to strength, Sandra Haurant takes a look at some of the wine-themed holidays on offer
It’s no longer just about a tasting or two. Visit a vineyard for a new experience.
Think wine travel, and you may imagine visiting a selection of châteaux, following informative guides through vineyards, taking a look at the vats where the grapes ferment, peering at the barrels where the wine sits before being bottled, and rounding off the visit by sampling a few glasses in a quiet tasting room.
But the wine world is changing. France is the most visited country on the planet, counting some 89 million visitors in 2017, and is also consistently one of the top global producers of wine by quantity – just after Italy with around 45 million hectolitres in 2016, according to the International Organisation of Vine and Wine. It makes perfect sense to bring those two themes together and create something even more special, and that’s just what is happening.
Of course, as Marc Jacobs, a consultant in wine tourism says, vineyards have not historically been tourist attractions: “Winemakers are, above all, interested in making wine. They are working in agriculture; they are close to the soil, to the weather.” That is not to say that winemakers do not welcome tourists. “They like to receive visitors and to talk about what they do,” says Jacobs. “They want to share that passion with people, and of course they want to sell their wine. But, traditionally, tourism was not a part of the story.”
Now, though, the country’s trend for oenotourisme, or wine tourism, is really taking off. In 2016, as many as 10 million ‘wine tourists’ came to France, 2.5 million more than in 2009. And many French vineyards are doing all they can to encourage more. From activities for grown-ups wanting a wine-themed holiday, to fun days out that will suit the whole family, there are plenty of choices available for anyone wanting to include a visit to, or stay at, a French vineyard in their holiday.
The options are endless. Want to learn to blend your own wine with the experts? Take the children on a pony trek through the vines? Sip wine from a treetop tasting table? There’s a château for that. “Things are definitely changing,” says Angélique Carballo from the website oenotourisme.com. “There are a huge variety of experiences on offer, from cycling tours to helicopter rides over the vines.”
It’s great news for visitors who are looking for something different, says Jenna Jones of tour company Grape Expectations: “There is an enormous difference in the way wineries in France are approaching tourism today. So much has changed over the past decade,” she says. “There used to be a strong language barrier, for example, but we have seen that the new generation [of winemakers] are taking over vineyards and many will have been to business school and learned English, or have travelled and worked abroad. They understand what visitors want and they are keen to offer something new and fun that appeals to a lot of different people. There is much more of a feeling
of openness than before.”
And as a result, a far wider range of visitors are growing interested in what the vineyards have to offer. “We are seeing different groups of people wanting to try it. In the past, a lot of our clients would have been wine clubs, now a lot of people come to us who perhaps feel they don’t know very much about wine, but they want to find out more, and, importantly, have fun,” says Jones.
For families, too, wine regions have become much more accessible, although there are caveats, of course. As Jacobs says: “Wine is for adults, after all – it is not something that is designed for children, and not every winemaker is happy to have children running around.” But families wanting to experience this important part of French culture need not be put off – there are vineyards across the country who actively encourage families to visit them, providing experiences that appeal to younger children and teenagers as well as their parents.
Across France, winemakers are opening their doors and finding new and exciting ways of welcoming a wider range of visitors than ever, allowing everyone to enjoy what the country’s vineyards have to offer.
For the adventurous
Fancy combining the sedate experience of wine tasting with a little bit of adventure? The stunning Château de Rayne Vigneau in the Sauternes area offers a range of activities that go beyond your average dégustation, or tasting session. Rayne Vigneau makes incredible dessert wines, and when you consider than among its closest neighbours is the iconic Château d’yquem, it’s easy to understand just how well placed the chateau is to create some sensational wines.
Château de Rayne Vigneau offers a dégustation perchée, or treetop tasting, which is open to adults and children aged seven and over. Here, experts harness up visitors and help them to climb up the trunks of the giant pine trees in the entrance to the vineyard. From this superb vantage point on high, with views across acres the Vallée du Ciron, which is lined with sauternes vines, grown-ups are invited to taste a selection of wines from the château. Adults get to taste fantastic wines, while children get to climb a very tall tree. It’s a win-win situation.
LEFT: The beautiful vineyards of Bordeaux in the morning;INSET: The Domaine de Massereau in Languedoc-rousillon; BOTTOM LEFT: Château de Pommard in Burgundy;TOP RIGHT: Château d’agassac in Haut-medoc; CENTRE AND BOTTOM RIGHT: The Cité du Vin in Bordeaux