21 December 2012 by Jessica Boston
French wine holidays, a taste of the good life!
The connection between France and wine
Everyone knows France is famous for producing wine. It is home to vineyards that make some of the most well known and well regarded wines in the world, and even on a more ordinary level a typically French meal without a glass of wine is unthinkable!
As a holidaymaker you can sometimes feel a bit intimidated by the language barrier and a lack of wine knowledge. You may feel uncomfortable about visiting vineyards that you see signposted from the road, unsure of what to expect. Even buying wine in a French supermarket can seem daunting – you want to take advantage of the bargain prices but what on earth will a €1 bottle of wine taste like?
From the wine trade to wine holidays
Chris Blakeman has been involved in the wine trade all his working life. He started in hospitality, quickly discovering a talent for wine and gathering an impressive array of qualifications. After working his way up, Chris became a wine buyer and educator for Whitbread specialising in Champagne. This position came with opportunities to visit prestigious wine producers all over the world, but in 1996 he traded the jet-set existence for a more balanced, family-orientated lifestyle managing holiday properties in France.
“Living in London and all the travelling wasn’t as glamorous as you’d think in the end, and when the opportunity came to manage and rent out properties owned by my wife Wendy’s father we jumped at the chance. It was a big change but we’ve never looked back”.
The properties are situated in the beautiful Charente Maritime countryside, a very rural area that’s close to the Bordeaux wine producing areas and Cognac. “Bordeaux was practically a home-from-home anyway but it’s very different being a local instead of a visitor. I only had school French when we moved here and I volunteered to help out the local winemakers to get to know people.”
Wine tasting holidays
It was important to Chris that he continue to use his wine knowledge and they soon began offering holidaymakers wine tastings, tours of local vineyards and advice on buying wine in France. “It’s great to be able to share my love of wine with guests and I believe 99.9% of people can be excellent wine tasters with a few tips and pointers. It’s about your personal preferences as well as recognising characteristics and it really doesn’t matter whether you’re a complete beginner or a seasoned wine buff”.
Chris and Wendy offer wine tasting evenings to compare wines from all over the world “I like to offer wines from a range of countries, but maybe made with the same grape variety so people can see how different the same grape can taste depending on where it’s grown and how it’s produced and aged”.
Chris’s wine tasting tips
“The only way to find out about wine is to really taste it,” says Chris. “You don’t have to go on a course or know all the correct terms to describe it, just really think about it as you drink; the smell, the flavour, the aftertaste. People need to leave any wine ‘snobbery’ behind – you might try a wine that cost £10 and genuinely prefer it to one that cost £1000 – that doesn’t mean you’re a philistine, it can just be the truth! The cost of wine doesn’t necessarily reflect how good it is”.
“A great way to exercise your wine taste buds is to go to a French supermarket and buy a selection of six different €1-2 wines and take them off for a tasting session. Inevitably some will be horrible but you’ll probably find a gem or two that you can stock up on and take back to the UK. And at those prices the ones you don’t like can just be tipped down the sink”.
If you are on holiday in the wine-producing regions of France and are interested in visiting some vineyards it’s really easy to do.
“If you see a vineyard sign on the road inviting you to buy wine you can just drop in. Some will just offer the chance to buy their wine, whilst others may offer informal tours and tastings. It definitely helps if you speak a little French but don’t be put off if you can’t – they are advertising for custom and you will be made welcome”.
It’s a good idea to ask around about which vineyards in the area are best to visit, holiday property owners or local businesses will be able to help.
“Our local vineyard is run by a man called Eric Cartaud. He’s been growing vines for about 25 years since inheriting the farm from his father. He had begun planting vines to try his hand at wine production when he received a chance call from Hennessy the famous cognac producers telling him his farm was in the perfect area for growing grapes for making their cognac. Hennessy supported him in setting up as a producer and he now supplies them with 40,000 litres of wine each year. He’s a good friend and I often take our guests to visit his vineyard and taste the wines, Pineau and Eau de Vie de Cognac produced from his grapes”.
Visiting small local wine producers is a completely different experience to seeing the big brand vineyards. Organised wine tours are the easiest way to visit major Champagne or Bordeaux producers. You’ll have an itinerary of appointments at different vineyards where you’ll be able to see the vines and taste some wines. It’s a much more tourist orientated experience with many brands offering gift shops, museums and restaurants.
Wine is an important part of French life, it shapes the landscape and culture and has a proud heritage that deserves celebrating. A French holiday is the perfect time to explore and enjoy some wonderful French wines!
Chris’s top tips: getting the best from wine in France
- Have a ‘taste de terroir’ evening. We do this for our guests but you could recreate the experience by sourcing wines and food produced within 20km of your holiday home for a true taste of the region.
- Buy Bordeaux from 2009/2010. Wines from these Bordeaux vintages priced under €10 are superb value for money so look out for them in the supermarkets.
- Include the family. Not suggesting you give the kids wine of course, but children love exploring vineyards. We do family vineyard walks where I talk about wine, the vines and the local countryside and wildlife. You can all taste the ripe grapes too, they are full of pips but very sweet and tasty.
- Take a wine tour. For me the ultimate wine tour would cover the regions of Champagne, Alsace and Burgundy. Champagne will always be a love of mine and the big brands offer a great day out for wine tourists. Burgundy is a real treat too with opulent food and wines to match.
- Buy wine by weight. Small producers often sell wine by weight, you take a 10 gallon container and they fill it straight from the barrel! Ask around to get a recommendation for a local supplier.