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A Wine Taster’s Holiday for Less

Story by Laura Bradbury & Franck Germain
As published in France Today, January / February 2000

What pops into your head when someone mentions a French wine holiday? Most people think of an organized group tour with an exorbitant price tag. Wine lovers, take heart. If you are prepared to strike out on your own, you can explore France's wine regions on a modest budget.

There are many ways to enjoy a wonderful but inexpensive wine holiday in France. All it takes is some independence, willingness to talk to strangers and a few information resources. Most organized group wine tours of France don't cater to the budget minded traveler. All-inclusive itineraries usually involve staying in luxury hotels and eating in exclusive restaurants. Traveling with a group also means spending most of your trip with other foreigners. Traveling independently not only saves money, but also provides you with real opportunities to meet French people, practice your language skills and return home with an authentically French experience under your belt. Here are a few tips to get you started dreaming and planning your trip.

The tourist offices (offices de Tourisme) possess a gold mine of free information, so use them as much as possible. You'll find information on everything from available accommodations to the names of winemakers who host lunches at their homes.

The Internet is also a great tool for planning an inexpensive wine holiday. Using the Internet you can choose accommodations, find addresses of small rural winemakers and plan your trip around wine festivals.

Resources
Guidebooks

The big green and yellow guide of Gites de France, Chambres et Tables d'Hôtes, is available in the travel section of most good bookstores, or you can order it at Maison des Gîtes de France et du Tourisme Vert, 59, rue St-Lazare, 75439 Paris Cedex 09

Also widely available in bookstores, Patricia Wells's Food Lover's Guide to France highlights worthwhile culinary stops in each region of France. This popular book is wonderful.

The French view the green "Guides Michelin" as the definitive reference for restaurants.

The Guide Hachette for wine (available in English) does a superb job of listing and rating small rural producers.

It you are comfortable reading French have a look at the Guide du Routard for the region you are in. The French swear by these budget travel guides, which contain a wealth of reliable and inexpensive out-of-the-way addresses.

Web Sites

The Gîtes de France accommodation network, at gites-de-france.fr, is a traveler’s delight. Most of this Web site can be read in English. It allows you to search accommodations by region. Prices, ratings and contact information are supplied. I have found their rating system (one to four épis de blé, or wheat sheaves) to be well researched and accurate.

At the official site for the network of tourist offices, tourisme.fr, you should be able to find the address, phone number and tax number of the specific tourist offices you would like to contact.

To research winemakers at franceguidevinscaves.com, go to the region you are interested in and you should find a list of small rural producers. I was impressed that even our favorite winemaker (located in a tiny village of 200 people) is listed.

For investigating wine and/or food festivals, globaltest.com is unsurpassed. You can find festivals by region, date and area of interest (in this case, wine).

I also recommend consulting travel guides in your local library. Guidebooks can be an immense help for creating lists of good winemakers, producers of local specialties, markets and restaurants to visit.

Although it is always necessary to do a little bit of planning ahead, your wine holiday itinerary should leave room for improvisation. Once you reach your chosen destination, your best sources of information on wine tastings, restaurants and activities are the locals. This is no time to be shy: Ask advice of the people who serve you in stores, the operator of your gîte (rural lodging) or winemakers you meet at tastings. You'll be happy to discover that the French love giving advice— especially about food and wine.

You'll want to rent a car for at least part of your stay. If you book your car rental from North America rather than France, the rental fee may be up to 30 percent cheaper. Big rental companies such as Avis, Hertz and Budget have agencies all over France.

It's wonderful to spend a night or two in one of the major wine cities (such as Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Beaune or Chablis). However, it is in the small villages that form the backbone of France's wine regions that you'll find the real bargains—charming, clean and inexpensive places to stay. For example, a night at the Hôtel de la Poste in Beaune can cost you anywhere from 680 F ($ 113) to 1,000 F ($ 166). In contrast, you can find accommodations 13 km from Beaune, in the lovely village of Arcenant, for only 220 F ($37) a night (including breakfast). There are essentially two options in the French countryside—stay in a gîte or rent a self catering house (an independent home with a bathroom and fully equipped kitchen). In either case, book ahead. The high season for all types of accommodations inns from early May to late October, and spaces fill up quickly. Confirm that bed linens and towels are supplied; vacation rentals that cater mainly to Europeans often do not supply these.

Self catering houses are abundant in France’s wine regions. A great place to start your search is in the classified advertisements at the back of this magazine—look under Short Term Rentals. You might also want to scour the classified sections of national and local newspapers. Look for flyers posted on bulletin boards at travel bookstores or the nearest French cultural center. Finally, word-of-mouth remains one of the best methods of finding great bargains. Ask other Francophiles; you will surely be amazed at the addresses they suggest.

One out of three gîtes offers an enticing option called La table d'hôte, in which the gîte operator serves meals to guests. This system is a fantastic way to enjoy rustic meals for a very modest price. Gîtes that offer this meal service are called chambres d' hôtes.

Another one of the many benefits of staying in rural accommodations is that you will probably have the possibility of preparing your own food. Before you reserve, ask whether there are facilities for independent cooking. You can save a lot of money by alternating restaurant outings with home cooked meals. Shopping for food in France is an experience not to be missed. Grocery chains such as Intermarché, Carrefour and Géant are good places to stock up on the basics inexpensively. Then you can discover the towns and villages of France's wine regions by going to an outdoor market for the remainder of your purchases. The nearest tourist office can provide you with a list of all the outdoor markets in the area; there is usually one almost every day of the week.

With all the money you've saved by eating in, you may be able to splurge on a few restaurant meals. Good restaurants proliferate in areas that produce wonderful wines. Guidebooks are a handy starling point for restaurant information. Once you're armed with some ideas from your guidebooks, don't forget to consult with the locals. I recommend that you stay away from the main squares of the big towns when searching for a restaurant—this is where the overpriced tourist traps tend to group.

In most wine regions there are a few hardy winemakers who offer home-cooked meals along with a dégustation (wine tasting), either in their homes or in their wine cellars. This opportunity is often a great deal, not to mention an utterly unforgettable experience. The local tourist office or syndicat d’initiative (similar to a chamber of commerce) can provide you with some addresses of winemakers who offer meals.

Every wine-producing area has a few well-known wine companies. Self guided wine tastings at these establishments can cost anywhere from 20 to 100 F ($3.50$ 17). At these somewhat impersonal tastings you generally find yourself among hordes of other tourists. However, many of these big companies have Spectacular buildings that make a tasting on their premises worthwhile. For example, Patriarche Père & Fils in Beaune has cellars that run for miles underground and date back to the 13th century.

The soul of France's wine regions resides in the small, rural wineries and the unique and inexpensive wines produced there. Wine tasting is almost always free at these family-run businesses. More often than not the person who conducts the tastings is the one who made the wine. The winemakers' pride in their work is obvious, and often, if you hit it off with your host, you'll find yourself tasting some very special vintages. Ask about good restaurants nearby before you leave: Winemakers have a legendary appreciation for good food.

Almost every local will be able to suggest one or two favorite addresses for wine tastings. If not, go into any local bookstore and consult the winery guides, which you can probably find in English as well as French. Also, don't hesitate to make a spontaneous stop at any winery that looks enticing as you drive along.

Be aware that during the vendanges (grape harvest) in September or October the small wine producers are busy working and greatly curtail their wine tastings. However, what better (not to mention inexpensive) way to immerse yourself in wine culture than joining in? If you have a work permit or a passport from a country in the European Community, the best way to get involved is to walk through the vineyards and ask it anyone needs your help. This is a common practice among adventurous travelers of all ages; and many people travel from southern to northern France working in the vineyards. As a worker you are supplied free accommodations and meals. This once in a lifetime experience is well worth the sore knees you will have at the end of the day.

Wine tasting isn't the only enjoyment in France's wine regions. Biking is a popular option, and every large town (of over 50,000 inhabitants) should have at least one bike rental shop, as do many of the smaller villages. The prices are competitive, and nobody knows the local hiking as well as the people who own and run these bike shops. They can provide you with maps, directions and invaluable tips.

Seek out wine festivals such as the Aix Wine Festival in Provence in July, the St- Vincent Tournante in Burgundy in January and the Obernai Grape Harvest Festival in Alsace in October. Not only do these include free or very inexpensive wine tastings, they also offer an opportunity to participate in the lively French winemaking culture. The Internet is a great place to find out about these festivals before your departure.

There are also many things to taste in France besides wine. For example, have you ever considered a cheese lasting? There are good places to taste cheese in almost every wine region of France. Also, take time to explore the other local products a region produces. Did you know that Burgundy specializes in the production of the world famous Dijon mustard and creamy fruit liqueurs such as cassis, or that Alsace makes wonderful sausages and clear fruit brandies? Take time to learn about and find producers of the local specialties.

There you have it! With a little bit of ingenuity and a big smile, wine holidays in France can be done on a budget. You will surely find, as I have, that saving money can add authenticity and spontaneity to your trip, not to mention a whole lot of fun. Cheers!


Laura Bradbury and Franck Germain are a freelance writing and photography team. They own a house in Burgundy that they rent out. They are always on the lookout for new ways to help their guests enjoy a wonderful and inexpensive wine holiday.

© 1999, Laura Bradbury & Franck Germain - All Rights Reserved

 
For more information, please email us at laura@myburgundy.com


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