When my daughter and I traveled through western France last year, we participated in a wine tour. We had a great time and learned about the difference between winery practices in the Bordeaux region of France and other places we have sampled wine.
We used a company called Ophorus Excursions and Tours, – who I would highly recommend – so when I traveled to France this year with my other daughter and son-in-law, we looked at tours by the same vendor. Again, we learned a lot while having a wonderful time.
Alsace Wine Route
The Alsace Wine Route goes from Mulhouse to Strasbourg, France, a distance of a little over 100 miles. Although you may be able to drive the area in a couple hours, it’s better to drive slow and enjoy the winding roads through villages and vineyards. In addition, stopping at any of the over 1000 wine producers, could extend the trip significantly.
Vineyards in the Alsace region have long been producing excellent wines. In 1953, the route was established as a tourist destination. For 65 years, vintners have been welcoming visitors to their charming villages and homes near the foothills of the Vosges Mountains.
Our tour started in Strasbourg, although Ophorus also has options to begin the tour in Colmar. On the organized tour that we took, we visited three wineries along the route. We also stopped in the cute town of Ribeauville for lunch and a little (20 minutes) shopping.
Although the tour we took in the Bordeaux area differed significantly from tour in the states, we found this one to be less different. Instead of just one or two wines, we were able to taste several, as the wineries in this area of France produce a larger variety of wines.
The first winery we visited was a small one owned by a woman. When we arrived, we first walked out to see the vineyard. Vines in this area grow much taller than the ones in Bordeaux – and looked more familiar. The owner then invited us to sit at an outdoor table under a canopy where she poured the wine for us to taste. She told us about each wine and we were able to ask questions as we tasted. It was very interesting.
The second winery one was a bio-dynamic one. The rules for bio-dynamic wineries are even stricter than for organic wineries. We enjoyed hearing about the particular conditions under which the vines were grown – soil, moisture, and pruning all play a part. The wine was very good, so it is apparent that the processes they use work.
The third winery was actually a large company. They distribute in 62 countries around the world. We were not able to visit their facilities or vineyard, but rather, a tasting room in a small town. The company is still owned by the original family, so we were treated personally.
When we finished our last tasting, we again had a few minutes to shop. I don’t shop much for souvenirs (other than yarn) but I enjoyed browsing in the small towns we visited on the tour.
Planning your own Tour
Is it possible? Yes, it is possible to plan your own tour of the Wine Route in Alsace – the Alsace Tourism website gives some advice. I’m not sure I would recommend it, however, mainly because France has a zero tolerance policy for drinking and driving.
My suggestion? If you have a car, by all means, explore the area. Driving through the vine-covered hills and valleys, and visiting the small towns for shopping or eating, is a delightful way to spend a day – or several. If you are staying in one of the small towns, you can sample local wines with dinner at a restaurant within walking distance.
If your goal is to taste several of the local wines in a short period of time, take a tour. The guide will do the driving, so you don’t have to. I don’t know what the consequences would be for drinking and driving, but I wouldn’t take the chance.
Reims – Champagne
Later on the same trip, we visited Reims, a prominent city in the Champagne region of France. The city is also home to several champagne houses – companies that specialize in the production of the alcoholic beverage, champagne.
Many people call all sparkling wines champagne, but legally only wines produced in the region and under specific regulations can be labeled champagne. The primary grapes used in the beverage are pinot noir, pinot meunier, and chardonnay, although a few others may be used for blending.
During the production, champagne is stored in underground chalk caves. Reims has an elaborate network of these caves beneath the city.
Visiting Champagne Houses
In Reims, we did not take an organized tour, but later wondered if we should have. Ophorus offers tours, but we hadn’t investigated them. We planned to visit a couple champagne houses on our own in the afternoon – most don’t open until 2 pm.
G. H. Martel and Company, was the first champagne house we tried to visit. We had contacted them via email before we left home. They were doing some construction so we wouldn’t be able to see the caves, but we could still taste. When we arrived, though, they were closed for “urgent reasons.” We were disappointed, but tried our second choice.
Taittenger’s is a larger company, located in the same area as Martel’s. The company was established in 1932 and, although it had changed hands, it is again owned by the Taittenger family.
We did not have a tour scheduled with Taittenger’s, but we tried anyway. The champagne house offers English tours throughout the day, but unfortunately, they did not have one that would fit our schedule.
We had pre-purchased tickets for a tour at Mumm Champagne, but we arrived early since our other plans hadn’t worked out. We checked, but there were no spaces on the earlier tour, so we sat in the comfortable lobby and relaxed until our tour began.
Champagne Cave Tour
Finally, it was time for us to tour the Mumm Champagne House. The tour was great! Our guide brought us down to the cellars, or caves, as they are called in France. She explained the history of the company which began in 1827. The guide told us in detail how champagne is made – from choosing the grapes, to pressing, fermenting, blending, bottling, and a fermenting a second time. She explained the historical processes and how they have evolved into the modern ones used today. Champagne is still riddled, or racked, for fermentation – that part cannot be rushed, even through modernization.
When the tour was finished, we had a taste of champagne. Mumm also had a gift shop where we could purchase champagne, glasses, and other gifts.
Wine and Champagne in Northeastern France
Touring wineries and champagne houses is interesting and enjoyable. I would recommend an organized tour or a visit on your own. If you enjoy drinking wine or champagne, they will be especially memorable. Imagine the joy of drinking a souvenir bottle of wine long after your trip – a great way to savor the memories.