Immerse yourself in the Wines of France
by Nancy Laforest
Wine is serious business. For the French, it’s also often a family affair, sensual art and technique passed on for generations. And because successful family business demands full time investment and an innate passion for the trade, the transmission of savoir-faire must flow like wine. The livelihood of one family member is the bread and butter of another.Here, spotlight on seven winemaking families, each as deeply rooted in its region as the vines from which they live off. The story of each family, and region for that matter, is a unique assemblage, with its own body and bouquet. Each has its distinct character and aging process, yet all share one noble mission: to produce quality wines and bring their unique goût de terroir to your glass. Like Proust’s madeleine, one sip of terroir can transport you right back to the land.
The wines highlighted here all bear the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée), or name of origin stamp, which guarantees they’ve been elaborated in a specific area using approved methods. Because wines are not often designated by their varietals in France, the AOC is your key to knowing which bottle to choose.
As you prepare your trip to France, we encourage you to revel in the opportunity to try blending your own wine, or to become a grape picker for a day -- to spend some quality time with these lovely people.
Let’s begin with bubbly, shall we?
Michel Drappier, Master of Bubbles,
Home: Champagne Drappier, Urville, Aube in Champagne
Origin: In 1808, François Drappier obtained vines near 12th-century Clairvaux Abbey. After WWII, the Drappiers bought its vaulted cellars.
Popular varietals: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir
About the vineyard: www.champagne-drappier.com
Traveling there: www.tourisme-champagne-ardenne.com
Michel, who officially joined the family business at 15, was vinifying his first wines at barely legal drinking age. Today, three generations take part; even the 86-year-old Drappier patriarch, André, is still active on the grounds. Everybody knows him for his charm with the ladies, rosy cheeks and all, and he exudes a joie de vivre we can only dream of experiencing.
To taste the region, Michel suggests visiting nearby villages boasting surprising local cuvées. For culture buffs, a small detour will take you to Musée Renoir in Essoyes and to Charles de Gaulle’s home and memorial in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises. En route to Champagne’s big houses in Reims, don’t forget to stop in Troyes to admire the 16th-century half-timbered houses still standing.
Sophie Cinier, Madame Artisan,
Home: Domaine Sophie Cinier in Fuissé, Mâcon, in Southern Burgundy
Origin: Sophie took over her grandfather’s vieilles vignes in 2000.
AOCs: Pouilly-Fuissé, Pouilly-Vinzelles, Saint-Véran, Mâcon
Varietals: 100% Chardonnay
On the vineyard: www.domaine-sophiecinier.fr
Traveling there: www.macon-tourism.com, www.burgundy-tourism.com
Twelve years on the estate and Sophie still wakes up each morning positive and ambitious. She works hand-in-hand with her mother, Madeleine, 72, who has passed down all of her knowledge about the vineyard. When it comes to making wine, however, Sophie is self-taught, testing and developing her own technique since 2005. The most precious thing she’s learned: when all goes well in the vineyard, there’s much less work in the cellar!
After picnicking on the estate with a glass of Cinier’s 2007 award-winning white, the women of the house suggest getting down with nature at the Rock of Solutré, a limestone escarpment and natural phenomenon known as the cradle of the Pouilly-Fuissé wine appellation. After, go north to historical Cluny, or head south to Le Hameau du Vin in Romanèche-Thorins, a recently opened theme park dedicated to Beaujolais wine.
Philippe Chavet, Wise Winemaker,
Val de Loire
Home: Domaine Chavet in the hills near Sologne and Sancerre, south of Paris
Origin: Ancestors were cultivating vines in 1710.
Popular varietals: Pinot Noir and Sauvignon
On the vineyard: www.chavet-vins.com
Traveling there: www.visaloire.com
Like Obélix, the fictional Gaul of the Asterix comic book series, Philippe Chavet fell into the magic potion very young. He’s been playing winemaker since, and recalls autumn afternoons in the schoolyard pretending to press grapes like his parents by stuffing dried leaves into the hollow of an old chestnut tree.
It’s more complex than that, he now knows, after studying wine technique then joining his parents in 1976. Mother Madeleine, still fiery at 80, refuses to retire. Having inherited her taste for hard work, Philippe and his brother recently built the cellar themselves from the angular stones of the land.
For Philippe, the Loire is about getting to know the wines you already love by visiting their chateaux. He suggests following the wine route along the Loire River from Sancerre to the Atlantic to savor great appellations like Sancerre, Touraine, Saumur and Muscadet. The landscapes and historic architecture, classified world heritage by UNESCO since 2000, will satisfy your other senses.
Jean and Pierre Trimbach, 13th-Generation Vintners,
Home: Maison Trimbach in Ribeauvillé-Riquewihr, central Alsace
Origin: Jean Trimbach moved from Switzerland to Riquewihr in 1626.
Popular varietals: Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc
On the vineyard: www.maison-trimbach.com
Traveling there: www.vinsalsace.com, www.tourisme-alsace.com/en
You’ve probably seen the yellow label at your local liquor store. One of Alsace’s small producers, Trimbach’s elegant dry white is also one of the best known in the USA.
Witty and light-hearted, the brothers compare their work to a restaurant: Pierre runs the kitchen, or the cellars, while Jean pampers clients in the dining room. Around table, they attribute their international success to the perfect pairing of their wines with world cuisines.
Their Cuvée Frédéric Emile Riesling was served to President Obama in Oslo in 2009, when he received his Nobel Prize. After toasting this success with the Trimbachs along the Alsatian wine route, delve into medieval history in Colmar or Bergheim, or tackle Taennchel Mountain, classified as a zone of silence and tranquility.
Michel Bernard, Father of Vines,
Vallée du Rhone
Home: Château Beauchêne in Piolenc, Vaucluse in Provence-Alpes Côte d’Azur
Origin: First vineyard acquired in 1794; run by the Bernards since 1971.
AOCs: Châteauneuf du Pape, Côtes du Rhône Villages, Côtes du Rhône
Popular varietals: Grenache Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne
On the vineyard: www.chateaubeauchene.fr/en
Traveling there: www.vins-rhone.com/en, www.tourismepaca.fr
It’s hard not to love what you do when you’re doing it in Provence, and the Bernards are no exception. For Michel, his wife Dominique and daughter Amandine, living so closely with nature is a blessing. Michel, who grew up in the vineyards, is always surprised by the influence viticulture has had on the landscape, similar to that of wine on gastronomy.
So much so, that he encourages guests to visit and hold receptions in the Château courtyard, where they can feel right in the heart of all wine activity. With the clement climate and idyllic location, friendly faces and some of the world’s best wines made from 100-year-old grapes, what could be a better natural setting?
Other must-sees: the amphitheater in Orange, the archaeological ruins in Vaison-la-Romaine and the Palais des Papes in Avignon. Oh, and the world famous bridge, of course.
Benoit Hillion, Vintner in Bloom,
Home: Bas Armagnac Dartigalongue in Nogaro, Gers, in Midi Pyrénées
Origin: Pascal Dartigalongue established one of the first maison d’Armagnac in 1838.
AOC: Bas Armagnac
Popular varietals: Baco, Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche
On the vineyard: www.dartigalongue.com
Traveling there: www.tourism-midi-pyrenees.co.uk/en
Benoit’s story is slightly different. First, it’s about the oldest wine based eau-de-vie in France. Then, it’s about Benoit, recently married into the family vine and having to learn everything from scratch.
Two years ago, the ambitious 32-year-old exchanged fast-paced Paris to work with Françoise, his new aunt, a grande dame of Armagnac and a 5th-generation Dartigalongue. Blending niche Armagnac products keeps them on their toes, working with the cellar master to obtain balanced spirits. Benoit’s specialty: taking time to make guests feel at home, with tasting an essential part of the visit.
What else to do in d’Artagnan country? Tour the Dartigalongue Museum, of course, but indulge in other regional specialties like confit de canard, foie gras and black truffle. Savor local white wine in Côte de Gascogne, liven up your summer with the Jazz à Marciac festival and explore some of Midi Pyrénées’ great sites, such as historical Auch. And, well, you’re but a short drive away from la ville rose, beautiful city of Toulouse…
Florence Cathiard, Lady of the Land,
Home: Château Smith Haut Lafitte, Bordeaux Martillac in northern Graves
Origin: In 1842, the Mayor of Bordeaux inherited the 1300s vineyard and turned it into Grand Cru.In 1990, the Cathiards made it their family affair.
AOC: Grand Cru Classé Pessac Léognan
Popular varietals: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc
On the vineyard: www.smith-haut-lafitte.com
Traveling there: www.tourisme-aquitaine.fr/en
Florence and Daniel, a ripe, business-minded pair, dropped their ventures 20 years ago to make big wines. With a winning combo of Gunzen soil, sunshine and ocean air, plus centuries of savoir-faire, the acquisition was a risk worth taking. And, like any green thumb will tell you, Florence says part of their success comes from talking to her vines. Today, the family exploits all of grapes’ virtues.
Heard of Caudalie? A unit to measure the duration of a wine’s finish, yes, but also a vine-based spa and cosmetic line run by the Cathiards’ older daughter. Their younger daughter meanwhile manages Les Sources de Caudalie, the luxury hotel and spa snuggled into the vines on the Chateau property. Oui oui, you’ve come to the right parcel of land!
After pampering yourself with vinotherapy, head south to the Basque country to glamorous seaside Biarritz, or to the Arcachon Bassin for oysters. And you can’t leave the region without seeing the pearl of Aquitaine, Bordeaux. This UNESCO-classified architectural gem is also the ideal starting point for visiting prestigious areas like Saint-Émilion, Médoc, Sauternes, Graves…