My love affair with France started when I was 9 and began taking French class every day. Shockingly this was at a public school! Total immersion, no English allowed. After all, if babies can learn their native language by hearing nothing else, why couldn’t 4th graders? And learn we did. Soon we were speaking French, almost like a French toddler!
Learning French meant seeing lots of photos of France and my favorite was the mysterious Mont-Saint-Michel off the Normandy coast. You could walk to it when the tide was out, but when it came back, the Mont became an island.
I vowed to visit France one day, and finally did when I graduated college. We happened to arrive on July 14—Bastille Day—which is France’s Independence Day. Seeing the Eiffel Tower for the first time was thrilling, and the fireworks display was magic. It wasn’t until my 2nd trip about 3 years later that I made it to Normandy and the Mont-Saint Michel. France became my happiest place and I’ve returned some 15 times over the years.
Now that I’ve seen so much of France through wine-colored glasses, here are some of my favorite memories:
Rhône Valley - Vacation like the Popes
Fun fact. Did you know that seven popes, from 1309-1376, were exiled from Rome to France? Actually, more of a reward than a punishment considering they lived like kings in a magnificent palace in Avignon, in southeast France on the banks of the Rhône. Then in the summer, they moved uphill to another castle, the Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
Better still, this was and is a remarkable wine region, abundantly planted with Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre, the predominant varietals in Southern Rhône wine. The popes drank well! Today, Wine Lovers Travel can take you to the best producers, including the finest vintages of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. This is a very specific wine, which is predominantly Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre, but can be blended, as long as it’s with only the 13 designated varietals, including Roussanne, Counoise, and Picpoul. This is a luscious wine, full of strawberry, licorice, and leather notes. Other wines you’ll find in the region include Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône Villages, all fruit-forward medium-bodied reds.
Northern Rhône and Lyon—steep hills to work off the calories
Heading north, the slopes of the Rhône riverbank become extremely steep, which is perfect to grow sturdy Syrah, which is the main varietal in northern Rhône wines. It’s also perfect for calorie-burning hiking, which is much needed when eating and drinking the amazing finds in the region.
More expensive than their southern neighbors, Northern Rhônes have to be hand-harvested because the hillsides are too steep for picking machines. To my palate, these are the best of the Valley. Predominantly Syrah, and often 100% Syrah, the Northern Rhônes are a gorgeous dark red and are peppery and tannic. They pair perfectly with classic beef dishes of this region. Names for the northern wines include Crozes-Hermitage and Côtes-Rôtie For a real treat, try a Northern Rhône that contains a tad of white Viognier—up to 5% is permitted. It softens the tannins and makes for a smooth yet robust flavor.
A little further north is majestic Lyon, at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône Rivers. Sometimes called “Little Paris,” Lyon is a gastronomic wonderland, due largely to its native son and world-famous chef Paul Bocuse. Father of “nouvelle cuisine,” Bocuse’s restaurants earned numerous Michelin stars and in 2011, the Culinary Institute of America named him "Chef of the Century.” Although Bocuse passed away in 2018 (at the age of 91!), you can still enjoy his food genius at several restaurants in Lyon, including the one I dined at, Le Nord.
What I love most about the food in Lyon is that it is earthy, inventive, unafraid. No organ meat is left behind, and if you can suspend your fear of meats you never thought you’d eat, you will experience some of the best food ever. Amazing beef tartare with an egg crowning it. A timbale of kidney, sweetbreads, and tongue. Your cholesterol level will return to normal levels later—don’t miss these treats.
Are we in France or Germany?
Riquewihr. Eguisheim. Colmar.
What happened to stories about France? Well, these are towns in France, in the Alsace region that had previously been a part of Germany. These are just some of the story-book towns on the French side of the Rhine River, all known for their half-timbered houses with flower-boxes, the lacy spires adorning the cathedral of Strasbourg, and France’s take on Rhine wine, such as Riesling, Sylvaner, and Gewürztraminer. Generally dryer and less fruit-forward than their German counterparts, Alsatian whites are crisp and dry, perfect for summer sipping. Or you can age them, and enjoy with such great Alsatian foods like choucroute, which is a casserole of many sausages on a bed of sauerkraut.
Riquewihr is especially charming, more so to me because it was here where I first tried Crémant d'Alsace, which is Alsace’s sparkling wine. We went for a tasting at Dopff, one of the original producers, and their story was fascinating. The original Monsieur Dopff went to the Champagne region to learn how to make their bubbly wine, back when Alsace was still part of Germany. Upon returning to Riquewihr, he made his own version and labeled it Champagne. The French authorities told him to cease and desist because only wine produced in Champagne can use that name. To which he replied, “I am in Germany,” and can call my wine whatever I decide.”
That worked until World War I when Alsace was returned to France. M. Dopff could no longer call his bubbles “Champagne,” so he came up with “crémant,” the name it retains today. We loved it so much, we purchased a case and shipped it home to enjoy as a reminder of our wonderful time in Riquewihr.
Want to know how you can bring back some of that wine with you safely home? Download my guide on how to bring home wine.
In all my visits throughout France, I have never visited what is probably the most famous version of all, BORDEAUX. That is about to change. I will be spending a week in Bordeaux at the end of August. I will be reporting back on all the fabulous places I visit, including all of the wine and food. Want to know how you can join me? Click here to find out more!