A Week in French Wine Country
When we planned this vacation, I had no idea we would be celebrating our engagement with a week in French wine country! I may be biased, but it was the ideal way to spend our first week as an engaged couple. I hope this guide helps you determine which wine regions you would enjoy, and in which cites you’d like to base yourself. We had a one-way rental car from Geneva, Switzerland to Colmar, France, and took the train from Colmar to Reims, France. While you can certainly spend more time in this historic region, I think a week in French wine country was the perfect amount of time for us to spend drinking our way through the country.
Lyon is the gastronomic capital of France, and the northern entrance to the Côtes du Rhône wine region of France. It’s a great place to start a week in French wine country, because they have a relatively large airport, making flights more affordable. Lyon is also a 2 hour TGV train from Charles de Gaulle, the Paris airport, or a 90 minute drive from Geneva, Switzerland, which also has affordable flights. (We flew into Geneva and spent time in Lausanne, Switzerland and Annecy, France before our week in French wine country.) Lyon is divided by two rivers, the Saône (Seine) and the Rhône.
To the west of the Saône is Vieux Lyon, Old Lyon, filled with pedestrian streets and the stunning Lyon traboules. The traboules are hidden passageways between streets. They were originally built as early as the 300s to allow easier access to fresh water sources. From 1466 to the 1800s, Lyon was a silk capital, and the salesmen set up trading rooms inside these traboules. The silk industry is notable in Lyon’s history because it was the highest employer in the region. Lyon’s location between two major rivers, gave them a built-in distribution model to the Mediterranean Sea and other parts of Europe. The city has been pushing to make more of these historic traboules public! So, through the help of a phone app and our guidebook, we were able to treasure hunt and discover a few. The name stems from the Latin word “trans-ambulare” meaning “to pass through.”
Fourviere Hill also lies to the west of the river, which you can reach by funicular. Take it from Vieux Lyon straight up to the cathedral to see panoramic views of the city. The views during sunset were beautiful – see the first photo above. In between the two rivers, lies Presqu’ile, the modern district of Leon. You’ll find it filled with shops, hotels, and government buildings. To the east of the river is the 3rd arrondissement, a residential area filled with many traditional bouchons.
Lyon is one of the only cities I know that has a unique name for its restaurants! Bouchons serve traditional Lyonnaise specialties, and are known for ambiance and character more than for fine dining or gourmet food. We did lots of research on which to visit, but I found there’s no right answer. Each restaurant is worthy of a visit and has its own unique characteristics. The 23 certified bouchons can be found here. I listed a handful on my map above which were recommended to me personally, or that stuck out to me.
Dinner at Paul Bocuse's L'Auberge du Pont de Collognes
Our favorite restaurant experience was dining at Paul Bocuse’s namesake restaurant, L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges. It’s the longest standing 3 Michelin starred restaurant in the world, maintaining the coveted ranking since 1965! The first iconic dish we enjoyed was the truffle soup, created for the French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1975. It has been named in his honor, and is even served in a special bowl with the initials VGE. The second iconic dish was sea bass, stuffed with a mousse of bass and scallops, encased in a fish shaped and scaled pastry. Every detail was perfect, from the wine recommendations, to the service, to the decor in the rooms. The room we dined in used to be Paul’s mother’s bedroom!
If you can justify a splurge on a meal here and there, it’s definitely worth the 20 minute taxi ride. We were celebrating our engagement during this meal and it was something we’ll never forget! I was disappointed that the adorable tea cup in the third photo that housed the amuse bouche wasn’t for sale. I was enthralled by the tiny picture on its side! Instead, they offered us a menu, which started the mini collection of menus we now have hanging in our kitchen.
A Week in French Wine Country: Côtes du Rhône
The first wine tour of our week in French wine country was in Côtes du Rhône. I became enamored with this appellation after my friend Elizabeth’s father, who was raised in France and lived there for decades, served me some during dinner at their home. I always gravitate towards Côtes du Rhône when I see it on a menu, and I’m rarely disappointed! Joe and I went on a full day small group wine tour with Kanpai Tourisme out of Lyon. We considered exploring this region on our own with our rental car, but since we wanted to visit Lyon anyway, it made sense to join a tour which left from downtown. That eliminated the worry of researching, translating, and having to limit our wine intake in order to drive!
Lunch at Auberge de la Source
Our guide Olivier was very accommodating to open up the tour for us on a holiday, Pentacost. He made a special itinerary based on which wineries were open. I enjoyed learning about the geography of the region on the driving portion of the tour almost as much as I loved the tasting! Our day tour included lunch at the beautiful Auberge de la Source. This lovely glass-walled restaurant is perched above miles and miles of Cotes du Rhône wineries. Due to the holiday, the restaurant was filled with generations of families dressed in their Sunday best, ready for a leisurely holiday lunch. The wine was flowing, of course.
When our tour guide Olivier translated that “cuisses de grenouille” meant frog legs, I was all in! (There are no English menus, so bring a translation app or a French speaker!) Although frog legs were eaten in Britain and China centuries earlier, they are often associated as a French delicacy. Within France, the dish originated in the 12th century in Dombes, just north of Lyon, and only an hour from where we sat! Frog legs did not become a common dish in the rest of France until the 1800s. I was pleasantly surprised with the breaded fried bites, mainly due to the herbed butter sauce they were soaked in. I am glad I tried it from the source, but they set the bar high! The meal was certainly the highlight of the day. I don’t think a week in French wine country would be complete without Côtes du Rhône!
A Week in French Wine Country: Beaujolais
We spent one full day driving from Lyon to Beaune, getting lost and exploring along the way. The fourth photo above was the view out of our rental car window as we twisted through tiny villages, looking for vin dégustations and photo ops. We saw castles, windmills, cathedrals, and stumbled upon a walk-in wine tasting where no one spoke English, and dined with locals on their lunch break. Even though we could have zipped down the highway in less than two hours, exploring these villages was much more memorable and spontaneous.
Our lunch stop was at Auberge La Vigeronne. I’m so glad we ambled in, solely at the direction of a chalkboard showing the daily menu. It was one of the only healthy meals we had during our trip! (Chicken and veggie skewer on rice – becchette de pocket, tomates et basilic.) I guess even the French can’t eat every meal drenched in butter! The meal was refreshing despite a generous helping of lunch dessert, mousse á la mandarine. The spot had plenty of seating and an adorable back patio overlooking a cathedral.
The language barrier
This portion of our week in French wine country was a bit challenging, because we were off the beaten tourist path and people did not speak much English! I am spoiled in Central and South America because I can communicate in Spanish which is extremely helpful. Unfortunately neither Joe or I speak any French aside from hellos and thank yous. The latter half of our trip in Reims, Colmar, and Beaune, most people we encountered in hospitality industries spoke fluent English. But in Annecy, Cotes du Rhône, and Beaujolais, we couldn’t communicate much. As a traveler who loves learning all about our surroundings, the meals we eat, and the wine we drink, it was a little challenging to not be able to understand!
Going into it I thought, “Oh, it’s France, it will be fine.” However, since France is such a large country, there are plenty of tourists who do speak French. Hospitality workers in smaller countries in Eastern Europe are required to learn English, as its the common language between any tourist who visits from outside their own country. It made me realize I take my Spanish for granted, and refreshed my desire to become fluent. Joe and I already know we want our hypothetical kids to be multi-lingual, and I am looking forward to having them translate for us!
Beaune is a wonderfully quaint town, filled with wine tasting rooms and restaurants. It is a perfect home base for a bike trip through the Pommard region to the south (there’s one outlined in Rick Steves’ France guide) or a drive through the esteemed Côte de Nuits region to the north. Most people visiting Burgundy will choose between basing themselves in Beaune or Dijon. After much research (there are endless articles on the subject) we chose Beaune. It’s smaller, pedestrian friendly, and has better access to the vineyards. Dijon is supposed to be great, but is a much bigger city. Since we were planning to visit Lyon and Reims, we preferred something smaller in Burgundy. (By population, Paris is the largest city in France, followed by Marseille, then Lyon. Reims is #12, Dijon is #17, Colmar is #71, Annecy is #118, and Beaune is far smaller at #402!)
Make sure to stop by the hospices de Beaune, built in 1443. The tiles you see above are traditional in the Burgundy region and are glazed 3 times. First to harden them, second to seal in the color, and third to give them a shiny glazed finish. The hospices is one of the only hospitals in the world funded by wine! How, exactly? Well, most wealthy Burgundians made their living from viticulture. So, to pay for their medical bills, and to show their gratitude for being cured, they often gifted sections of their vineyards to the hospital! To this day, the largest charity wine auction in the world is held by the Hospices de Beaune every year in November.
A Week in French Wine Country: Burgundy
Burgundy is the home of Pinot Noir, and was the region of French wine country we were most excited about visiting! Joe and I have visited various regions known for their pinot such as Napa, Oregon, and New Zealand. When planning our wine tour days in these regions (among others) I’ve always had trouble finding a winery serves lunch. To me it’s a genius idea, because eating is a necessary staple of any wine-filled day, so why not do it in a beautiful setting, accompanied by intentionally paired wines? Finally I found the perfect spot, in the heart of Burgundy no less! The wine tasting lunch at Domaine Comte Senard was just what exactly I’d been searching for these past years.
We started out with a private vineyard tour on a perfect sunny day, then circled to the ancient cellar that looked straight out of a fairy tale. Can’t you just see Rapunzel hanging her hair out of that tower? The cellar had a unique story behind it. It was built around year 1300, and was used for about a generation, until its owners and the residents of the whole town fell victim to the bubonic plague. The only method believed to be effective in stopping its spread was burning the infected village to the ground. So, the cave sat abandoned under rubble for over 500 years! The winery started in 1857, and the cave wasn’t even discovered for decades! Someone was doing lawn work and ran into it, and making the serendipitous find. Every winery needs a cellar!
Wine Tasting Lunch at Domaine Comte Senard
Next it was time to head indoors to be seated for lunch in their beautiful dining room. We chose between three packages, ranging from 75 to 130 Euros per person. I was driving so I elected the sober menu for 45 euros, and Joe chose the top Grand Cru flight (Don’t worry, I was able to sample a bit!) The 5 courses were: gougères, cured ham, beef bourgignon stew in red wine sauce, cheeses, and a final course of coffee and Burgundian spice bread. I wish I could replicate this meal every single day. I really hope more restaurants start adding chalk board cheese labels – it was genius!
You can probably tell from my three paragraphs of ramblings that Comte Senard was our favorite Burgundy experience, but we also had an excellent half day tour with Safari Tours from Beaune. Our guide was gregarious and knowledgeable, and we were accompanied by fellow wine lovers. This was a great option for our week in French wine country as neither of us had to be the designated driver, and we avoided the high costs of a private driver.
Sometimes I’m afraid that touristy spots will be too over-hyped by Instagram and I won’t be as impressed once I arrive in real life. Well, Colmar was not one of them! It seriously feels like you are walking around a fairy tale, and the “cute” picturesque part is the whole town, not just a block or two!
If you have a few days in Colmar, I highly recommend a bicycle trip to the quaint village of Eguisheim (last photo.) There are no activities you need to do there, or sights to check off a list, you simply need to walk around with your eyes open! If it was in a more commercial area, the tranquility of the adorable town might be ruined, but luckily it’s in a fairly isolated corner of France. Driving, it’s 15 minutes from Colmar, 30 minutes from Germany, and an hour from Switzerland.
Make sure to keep an eye open for the half-timbered houses that are common throughout the region! In medieval times when Alsace was established, stone was the preferred material if you were wealthy. The poorer families were left to fend with timber. They would build a frame with the beams, fill in the walls with a homemade “cement” made of hay, mud, and dirt, and once it dried, would plaster over it. At the time, the exposed beams were not trendy, and some say they were covered for fire safety.
Today, the beams have become popular, and most homes like the one pictured above chose to remove the plaster, reveal their structure, and accessorize with these adorable pastel colors! If you’re looking for a way to pick out these rich vs. poor houses, check out the window sills. Stone sills mean the rest of the house is stone as well, and wooden sills mean it is Half-Timbered. Ignore the base of the house – all houses were built on a stone base no matter how poor their owners, to prevent from fire and keep the wooden timbers from rotting. Thanks to my forever literary tour guide Rick Steves for the info!
A Week in French Wine Country: Alsace
We had a very quick half day in Colmar before we left to take the train to Reims the next morning. We certainly could have spent more time here, but since Joe and I strongly prefer red wine to white, this was an area of the trip we decided to cut. It’s definitely a challenge to fit 4 distinct regions into only one week in French wine country! If we had more time we also could have driven to Reims instead of taken the train – we looked at spending a night in a wine town in the Alsace wine valley, and could have stopped at the WW2 battlefields of Verdun on the way to Reims.
If you decide to train to Reims like we did, and are looking to visit the Alsace region as a day trip from Comar without a car, I will point you to the recommendation of Jaime, and her review of a day trip with L’Alsaciette.
During our week in French wine country, we only spent 24 hours in Reims! We arrived on the train from Colmar at 9:30am and spent the night. Even if you only have the chance to visit Reims as a day trip from Paris, you should do it. The high speed trains only take 46 minutes so you have plenty of time to explore and drink and make it back to Paris by evening.
My favorite charcuterie spread of the week was at Au Bon Manger. It’s a deli and wine bar where the servers encourage you to step outside your comfort zone and try a wine you wouldn’t usually select! First they ask questions about your usual preferences. When they found out that we always drink red wine, they suggested a Chablis from northern Burgundy. The refreshing glass of white was the perfect combination with the charcuterie.
The most famous landmark in Reims is the Notre Dame Cathedral. If you’ve seen Paris’s Notre Dame, then you will recognize it! Construction in Reims began in 1213, only 48 years after the Parisian original. Of course the facade is the most famous angle, but it was the side view that really caught my eye! See the third photo above. Reims’s Notre Dame differentiates itself with the rose stained glass window that you see in the last photo. Sculpture is one of my favorite art forms, and I could’ve spent hours examining the figures alongside the window.
A Week in French Wine Country: Champagne
There are two sides to visiting the Champagne wine region – the large champagne houses located in downtown Reims, and the smaller boutique wineries in the countryside surrounding the city. The houses downtown can be visited on-foot or via taxi. Some require reservations, and some you can just stop in for a glass, like we did at Veuve. I felt a little touristy visiting the Veuve Cliquot winery as it was mostly filled with Americans, but I didn’t care – it’s the champagne that always marks a special occasion whether it’s a holiday dinner, congratulatory gift, or a toast to a celebration! The other big name champagnerie we visited was Tattinger, because we read it had the best cellars. It was a large group tour with 30+ people, so if you have to cut something, I’d skip this in favor of the smaller houses outside of town.
Half day trip with Sparkling Tour Reims
To visit these boutique champagneries, you either need to set up appointments in advance and drive there with a rental car, or arrange a tour. We booked a half day tour through Sparkling Tour Reims and were lucky to have the founder Valentin as our guide! Even though you only visit two wineries on the half day tour, the pace was perfect. We did a tour at the first champagne house, Gisele Devavry, where we learned the process. Normally, this is where I get a bit bored with the tour having taking so many, but sparkling wine has a completely unique process in order to create the carbonation! We learned a lot and loved seeing the process in a small cellar rather than on our mega group tour downtown at Tattinger. After, we had time to enjoy many glasses in the courtyard.
Our second stop was Waris Hubert, a small family run winery. We saw the tasting room but did not repeat the tour, and instead enjoyed bottles on the patio in front of the gorgeous house you see in the second picture above. Since this trip, in March 2020, we encountered Waris Hubert in Michelin starred Oriole at home in Chicago! We were shocked to see it be poured as the first course of the wine paring since it’s such a small winery. The day ended with a scenic overlook surrounded by vineyards (last photo) and a visit to the cathedral that houses Dom Perignon’s grave. Did you know he was a French Benedictine monk who made important contributions to the production and quality of champagne? Moët & Chandon owns the monastery where he spent his adult life, which is why they named their cuvée (highest quality wine) after him!
A Week in French Wine Country: Conclusion
During our week in French wine country, we took three formal wine tours. At every vineyard, our tour guides were the ones who poured and explain the tasting. My understanding of this is because each winery is so small, they can’t afford to hire a dedicated staff member to greet visitors and pour tastings, or spare a pair of hands form the labor intensive work in the fields. The symbiotic relationship allows small wineries to reach a new audience, and gives the guides an occupation. Nearly every winery I’ve visited independently, the price of the tour or tasting is waived if you buy a bottle or two. When you join a prepaid tour that is not the case, since you pay one fee for the transport and tastings. I assume the guide receives that kickback instead, but at least that motives them to bring their guests to wineries they love!
Whether you decide to take guided tours or explore on your own, I hope this post gave you an excellent structure on how to divide your time during your week in French wine country. I would love to hear more about whether you have an upcoming trip booked, or are just dreaming of the next adventure in the comments below! If the latter, make sure to check out some of my other itineraries.
Disclosure: I paid full price for all wine tours, wine tastings, meals, and hotels I mention above, except for a 25% media discount at Hotel Le Cep in Beaune. All opinions remain my own.