Lifestyle & opinion

Tour de France

Wine writer Andy Neather takes us on a trip around France and selects his favourite bottles from the Loire, Alsace, Beaujolais and the south of the country.

The Gers region, South West France, with the Pyrenees as a stunning backdrop
The Gers region, South West France, with the Pyrenees as a stunning backdrop

As we pulled into the mountain wine village of Irouléguy last year, I was reminded of France’s sheer variety – both in landscape and in wine. We had arrived on that road trip from Spain among the towering, green peaks of the western Pyrenees; next we headed north into the baking-hot South West, tasting near Bergerac; and then up to the lush valley of the Loire and a completely different set of wines again. 

Getting lost in the French hinterland and tasting local wines is one of the country’s joys. Yet drinking wine in the UK, it’s often easy to forget those regions, given the prominence here of Bordeaux and the Rhône. But they’re really worth exploring, offering a very different sense of place. The following are just a taster of some wines off France’s beaten track. 

Loire – beautiful and diverse 

I’ve enjoyed tasting in the Loire more than anywhere in France: it’s beautiful and there’s lovely food and an intriguing range of wines. Those change a lot along the 600-mile course of the river. We can start an imaginary road trip near the Loire’s mouth in the Atlantic, with The Wine Society’s Generation Series Muscadet 2022. Muscadet used to be known as a neutral white; that has changed with classy bottles like this, adding a little weight to the wine’s trademark salinity. 

Upriver, just east of the gorgeous medieval town of Saumur, comes perhaps the Loire’s greatest cabernet franc red: Saumur-Champigny. Domaine Ratron Clos des Cordeliers Tradition 2021 is a nice example: green pepper on the nose, firm tannins in your mouth, yet it’s only 12.5% alcohol. Then pushing east towards the big bend in the river, you’re in sauvignon blanc territory. Sancerre is best known but neighbouring Menetou-Salon offers better value – like Domaine Pellé Morogues 2022, with classic Loire sauvignon flinty notes, fresh and beautifully balanced. 

Alsace, with its vines nestled in the folds of the Voges mountains and impossibly pretty villages, is the driest region in France and a winelover’s dream
Alsace, with its vines nestled in the folds of the Voges mountains and impossibly pretty villages, is the driest region in France and a winelover’s dream

Alsace – distinctively different 

Heading east to the German border, Alsace is wonderfully contrary: sometimes it doesn’t feel very French at all. The half-timbered buildings in the narrow streets of towns like Colmar seem more German; the tall, slender wine bottles look German, too. But like everything else here, they’re distinctively Alsatian. 

The Society’s Vin d’Alsace 2022 is a fine introduction, made by Hugel, one of the most respected family producers. A blend of half-a-dozen typical Alsace white grapes, it’s dry, fresh and very slightly spicy – good value. The Wine Society’s Generation Series Gentil Alsace 2021, also by Hugel, is a step up. Made partly from white grapes harvested from top-ranked grand cru vineyards, this is complex and elegant. 

And don’t forget that Alsace also makes red wine. Its pinot noirs tend to be on the lighter side but can be delicious. Leon Beyer Pinot Noir 2022 is earthy and savoury but well balanced and elegant – and a better pinot than many pricier red Burgundies. 

Beaujolais – gamay at its best 

To the south, in the hills north of Lyon, Beaujolais gained an unfortunate image with 1980s’ marketing stunts around the annual arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau. But those just-bottled, thin wines aren’t representative of the best red gamay grapes grown here. For a better, affordable Beaujolais, look for ones labelled Beaujolais-Villages – such as Château d’Emeringes Vieilles Vignes 2022. It boasts bright, sweet fruit and more weight than you might expect. 

If you spend just a little more, you can choose wines made in Beaujolais’s ten better-quality ‘crus’, named after individual villages. Confusingly, they’re labelled with the village name – such as Fleurie – although nowhere does the label mention Beaujolais. The Society’s Exhibition Fleurie 2022 offers floral fragrance and pretty red berry fruit. And for an idea of how serious good Beaujolais can be, choose The Wine Society’s Generation Series Moulin-a-Vent 2019: savoury, complex with real length.  

South of France – vast and with huge variety 

Driving south-west again, France stretches on to the Mediterranean, including some of its most productive wine regions. Minervois Plaisir d’Eulalie, Château Sainte Eulalie 2022 is a fine example of the sort of affordable quality coming out of the Languedoc today, one of my go-to gutsy reds (their rosé is lovely, too.) For a little more class, you could head south west towards Spain, into neighbouring Roussillon. Côtes-du-Roussillon Les Aspres Cavalcade Château de Corneilla 2019 is a warm, spicy syrah/grenache blend. 

But French winemaking doesn’t end at the Mediterranean’s edge. The French island of Corsica, Napoleon’s birthplace, is producing better wines than ever, such as Corse Calvi Clos Columbu Blanc 2023. There’s some weight and fat to this but it’s refreshing and citrusy, too; I recently enjoyed it with kedgeree. I’m sure that would mystify the French – although perhaps no more so than an Alsace winemaker tasting Corsican white. France’s regional wines are endlessly entertaining like that. 


Andy Neather blogs about wine and food at The View From My Table. He was the London Evening Standard’s wine critic from 2005 to 2015. 


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