My clients for my Lyon Wine Tastings are always asking me for recommendations on visiting vineyards. It’s hard for me to answer these questions, because I get my wines from local vineyards, and they don’t speak English! Here’s how to create your own wine tour in France.
I’ve been thinking more and more about how to better help people get the vineyard experience they’re looking for, so this blog post is my attempt at trying to address the question:
How to Make your own Wine Tour
1. Understand Wine Tours in France
Most wineries in France are not built for tourism.
Unlike in the states, where a big income source is visits and direct sales, French wineries are often old and haven’t fully adapted to doing business this way, much of their sales come from exports and most good producers are not struggling to get rid of wine.
They are also often very small operations, consisting of a few family members.
What this means is that you can’t just rock up and be served in a fancy tasting room that has a full time member of staff.
Ok, so that’s kind of annoying, but it’s also great because it means a couple things:
You are very likely to be guided and served by the winemaker themselves, with their full attention
Tastings are free
2. Choose your Wine Region
Not all wine regions are as easy to visit as others.
Some factors to consider are:
Is it up crazy mountain roads?
Can you get there easily from a freeway?
Is there any other stuff nearby?
Is it a well known region internationally?
The bigger, better known regions will have better infrastructure for tourism. Come visit Lyon, we are within reach of many major regions that are easily accessible!
For example Bordeaux and Champagne will have plenty of information and options for things to do in English, and places to visit. They are much more likely to have big tasting rooms where you can go and have a more American experience.
Personally I think that’s kind of lame and would rather have an authentic French experience at a tiny place.
Luckily my local regions of Beaujolais, Burgundy, and the Rhône are composed largely of tiny family businesses!
3. Make a List of Vineyards You Want to Visit on your Wine Tour in France
Choosing who to visit can be challenging, and you may not be able to visit whoever you want.
Make a list of potential winemakers to visit, and then contact all of them and see who you have luck with. Your list should have triple or quadruple the number of wineries that you expect to visit.
Not everybody will have someone who speaks English and can help you, not everybody will be available, and not everybody will even be interested in dealing with you.
Plenty of winemakers, particularly prestigious ones, are very busy and don’t have time for you.
They don’t have time for me either, they don’t know who I am and I’m not particularly important. I get turned down for visits from time to time and I know it’s nothing personal, everyone is busy as hell and they have to allocate their time wisely.
Where to look to find who to visit:
Wines you’ve drunk and enjoyed
Restaurant wine lists that you respect
Your favorite local wine shop
Wine magazines online
4. Plan your Wine Tour Ahead of Time
You want to plan your winery visits no more than a month out, ideally one to two weeks before.
Choose the day or days you want to visit, and ask for either a morning or an afternoon appointment.
French winery websites are often… unfortunate. But they should have a contact page with a phone number and an email address or contact box.
If you can speak French or know someone who speaks French who will help you, then the phone is best.
If not, then you’re on to email.
Honestly, google translate should be fine. You should ask for the specific date, but make sure to say that you do not speak French, and ask if there is anyone at the domain who speaks English.
You may not get many replies, that’s why you made such a long list!
5. Pace Yourself
Two visits a day is the right amount.
More than that, and you risk rushing your winemaker, which is not good. Do a morning visit, have lunch, then do the afternoon.
Some visits will be short and sweet, some may be short and brusque, but often you strike gold and get incredibly kind people who are enthusiastic about sharing this part of their lives with you.
This is why it’s better to allocate more time than less, if you do get someone who really wants to take you around and give you lots of their time, you will get an incredible experience that may last for an hour or two.
6. Be Polite
But most winemakers are very busy, and let’s be honest you’re not going to tip the scales for their sales, so any time they are giving you is a privilege. Treat it as such.
Many wineries are attached to the family home, these are family businesses after all. So you’re literally in someone’s sacred space.
Be polite, listen, be respectful of the space, ask before you take photos, don’t be a drunk bitch.
Even if you thought the wine was crap, pretend to like it.
Even if they don’t speak English, they surely understand enough to know if you’re talking shit about their wine.
Save any criticism for after you’ve left.
7. Use Proper Wine Tasting Technique
If you’re the one driving, you should spit your wine like the pros do. I shouldn’t have to tell you this, drunk driving is bad. Many wineries are on tiny sketchy mountain roads.
8. Buy a Bottle
Tastings are free, but you should buy at least one bottle.
You don’t need to buy more than that, but since the winery has allocated time to you, the expectation is that you should buy something.
Bring cash, it’s easier.
9. Eat Lunch
Make a local lunch reservation or ask for a recommendation from your morning visit.
Lunch is vital to not being a drunk bitch!
Be open to eating somewhere that looks kind of crappy and is full of clearly local old people. The food might look awful but it probably tastes great.
TripAdvisor is not a great tool for finding restaurants in France, if you must, use Google Maps, but real recommendations from actual people are likely to be better.
10. Book a Wine Tour
If you can’t be bothered to do the above, find someone like me who does multi-region tastings in the heart of a fabulously wonderful city to visit, or book a vineyard tour.
Just kidding, there is nobody else like me!
TripAdvisor is useful for finding that sort of thing, but please book directly through any independent tour operator’s website, that way TripAdvisor/Viator/Airbnb/GetYourGuide doesn’t get 20-30% of your money. Yup, that's how much they take.
A tour guide will take you to multiple wineries that are set up for you, they’ll speak English, and they’ll drive so nobody has to spit. Win/win for everyone!
Good luck organizing your very own wine tour in France!