Cycling the wine regions of France

There are so many French wine areas to explore by bike – winemaker Caro Feely has this guide to help you decide where to start.

Saint-Emilion

The vines of Saint-Emilion as autumn arrives. Photo: Freewheeling France

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Let's state the obvious from the start: cycling is a magical way to discover French wine country. Favourites areas include Alsace, greater Bordeaux, Burgundy, Cognac, Champagne, the Languedoc, the Loire Valley and Provence-Rhone valley. This is an introduction to these regions (ordered alphabetically) with landscapes and cultures as varied as the wines.

Our introduction to cyling the wine routes of France includes where to base yourself, the advantages of the region, key city(ies) and the wines you can expect. We'll add additional links to more in-depth regional overviews as time permits.

Alsace

Alsace is most famous for white wines and particularly the noble varieties of Gewürztraminer and Riesling but is also making some great reds from Pinot Noir.  

The 170km Alsace wine route offers a great playground for cyclists. You can plan a one-way route staying in places along the way or base yourself in a key town like Colmar, a heritage town like Riquewihr or a small village like Katzenthal and cycle out. Colmar is a good option – it's big enough at 70,000 people to have everything you need and it's ideally placed in te heart of Alsace wine country.  

The Alsace wine region itself is around 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres), making it relatively small and easy to get around. Not only that, the Alsace Wine Route is famous for its charm, great wine and easy access. The same is true for the bike route, which curves around the eastern slopes of the Vosges Mountains, passing through almost 100 wine-producing villages. The route also takes in about 50 AOC. Alsace Grand Crus – the vineyards designated as having the highest potential for quality in the region. The route follows railway tracks, parts of the old Roman road, and vineyard paths – all the time staying close to the main 'car' wine route and its landmarks, amenities and wineries. 

The scenery includes scenic villages and hillsides that offer super views down onto the valley. The culture, food and wine are a fascinating mix of France and Germany.

For planning your trip the Alsace wine route and Alsace Tourist office offer useful tools including a GPS file and a PDF file with detailed routes and distances. There are wineries offering tasting around every corner. It pays to do your research in advance to plot the wineries you want to visit to experience the best the region has to offer (see our overview in the links below for more info).

More on cycling the Alsace wine region

Greater Bordeaux

The greater Bordeaux region, which stretches from Bordeaux to Bergerac, is not as simple to plan as Alsace with its clear single line main wine route. However it'll be worth the effort when you discover the delights of villages like St Emilion.

Bordeaux is the largest appellation (that is, designated and protected named wine region or 'PDO' protected designation of origin in EU regulation English) area in the world. It boasts 118,000 hectares (about 292,000 acres), around 10,000 wine producers and 54 appellations.

Add the Bergerac appellation – part of the Bordeaux Basin but not a Bordeaux appellation – and its 12,000 hectares (about 30,000 acres) and you have a lot of wine region to cover.

Bordeaux is most famous for its reds made primarily from Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Other red grapes can include cabernet franc, malbec, carmenere and petit verdot. The region also produces great dry and sweet white wines from primarily sémillon and sauvignon blanc.

Saint-Emilion

Saint-Emilion, the UNESCO-listed wine town to the east of Bordeaux. Photo: Freewheeling France

A key part of understanding the reds from this area is Left Bank (Medoc and Graves) versus Right Bank (appellations to the right of the Gironde estuary and the Garonne river). The left bank has a layer of gravels (over limestone and clay) that came down from the Pyrenees with a glacial melt millions of years ago; the right bank is limestone and clay hence cooler than the gravels.

Cabernet sauvignon prefers warm conditions hence it tends to be the primary red grape on the left bank, while merlot prefers the slightly cooler limestone and tends to be the primary red grape on the right bank. From your bike you will see the terroir up close and really experience this difference in a way that is impossible from a car.

La Cité du Vin

La Cité du Vin, Bordeaux's 'city of wine' museum. Photo: Arnaud Bertrande/Bordeaux Tourism

A trip to the region wouldn't be complete without Bordeaux city, which has become cycle friendly in recent years. Lanes in the old town have been closed to cars and opened to bicycles and pedestrians. It's a picturesque city worth visiting and has many wonderful cavistes (wine shops) and a very active Maison des Vins (opposite the main tourist office). The riverside promenade bike path will take you from the magnificent architecture around the place de la Bourse and the water mirror to Les Chartrons, the wine museum (Musée du Vin et du Négoce) and onwards to the magnificent new Cité du Vin where you can lose yourself in the subject of wine for many hours. 

Given the size of the region and the city itself (800,000 people in greater Bordeaux), staying in Bordeaux city and venturing out for day trips is not the best option. Rather, get deep into the winelands taking a circular route for 5 to 10 days going to Cadillac using the Roger Lapébie bike path then onto St Emilion, Blaye and over to Medoc using the Blaye Lamargue ferry, or taking a one-way trip from Medoc to Bordeaux city and onto Cadillac, St Emilion, Bergerac, Saussignac and Monbazillac.

Monbazillac chateau

The sweet wine whites of Monbazillac, to the east of Bordeaux and bordering the Bergerac appellation. Photo: Freewheeling France

In the Bergerac area, a green route cycle path of 35 kilometres running from Gardonne (Saussignac appellation area, which has one of the highest proportion of organic vineyards in France) to Mouleydier (Pecharmant appellation area) is set to open in 2020. 

If you do prefer to stay in one place and cycle out, booking a gite (self catering cottage) in one of your favourite wine appellations and riding out each day using the small rural roads rather dedicated cycle paths is also an option. 

A highlight that should not be missed on a cycle trip to the region is St Emilion. As with most places, taking time to plan your trip, select the wineries you want to visit and booking them in advance is advised. St Emilion is only 5400 hectares but it is home to 820 wine producers, including 82 grand cru classés. A few have a permanent presence and it's possible to 'drop in' but most require an appointment in advance. You could also take the route mentioned above in the opposite direction starting in Monbazillac and ending on the west coast in Arcachon (leave time for a large glass of zesty Entre deux Mers sauvignon and a plate of oysters). 

More on cycling the Bordeaux wine region

Burgundy

Burgundy is France profonde where wine, food and tradition are very much the focus. At 25,000 hectares (62,000 acres) and 84 AOCs – that's around one-fifth the size of Bordeaux but with significantly more 'protected designation of origins' PDOs – it's complicated, but oh so good. 

The upper section of the Burgundy valley, 'Côte de Nuits' is famous for reds made from Pinot Noir, the middle section 'Côte de Beaune' (these two make up the famous 'Côte D'Or') makes both, further south is the 'Mâconnais' famous for its whites made from Chardonnay (also Aligoté in some parts) and the last section is 'Beaujolais' (part of the Burgundy valley but not a Burgundy appellation) with its light reds made from the Gamay grape. The bottom of Beaujolais is very close to Lyon. 

Beaune is the capital of the Côte d'Or and the centre of Burgundy wine trade. If you prefer to base yourself somewhere and take trips out then Beaune is your place. From there you can head north on the route des grands crus (road rather than cycle path) to see the famous villages of Nuits St Georges, Vosnes Romanée and Chambolle Musigny, Gevrey Chambertin and then Marsannay (near Dijon). Make sure you leave time to look around Vosne Romanée and experience the most famous grand cru vineyards in the world close up including the hallowed Romanée Conti, la Tâche and Richebourg. Then head south of Beaune on the 'Voie des Vignes' (Vine Route, a marked cycle path) which takes you through the famous villages of Pommard, Volnay, Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet, and Santenay. The route continues to Nolay and includes the villages of the Maranges appellation. 

We cannot speak of Burgundy without including world famous Chablis, an appellation for steely chardonnay based white wine that is north west of the main Burgundy valley and 133km from Beaune. It is possible to cycle Chablis to Beaune taking in Dijon en route from but there is no dedicated cycle path in this section.

More on cycling the Burgundy vineyards

Champagne

Champagne is a wine region covering around 30 000 hectares (74 000 acres) thus of similar size to Burgundy. Everyone knows Champagne, celebratory sparkling wine made from pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay. It starts life as a still dry white wine and through the process of a second fermentation in the bottle ends up sparkling and with a lovely biscuity character from sitting on the lees of the second fermentation. The 'dosage' at the end of this second fermentation means it can be rose, and from extra dry (nature or extra brut) to sweet. 

Champagne vineyards

Vines and vines and more vines. Photo: Phovoir/Champagne Tourism

The Champagne houses are an important part of the ecosystem here thus there are not as many individual producers selling wine as you will find in other parts of France. Cycle from Reims to Epernay as a one way route over 5 to 10 days using the new velo route of the Marne Valley or locate yourself in Reims or Epernay and take day trips. Big names in Reims include (among many others) Mumm, Krug, Veuve Clicquot and Louis Roederer while those in Epernay include Moet et Chandon and Pol Roger. Like other parts of France it is best to book your visits in advance - many of the champagne houses offer online booking making it easy to do.

But to experience the 'real' vibe Champagne it is worth venturing into the villages and meeting smaller producers. Try planning your route to stay with wine producers that offer B&B rather than taking the easy option of the big cities and the major Champagne houses - with these small producers you'll often find champagne that is better value and more characterful than the big names. 

More on cycling the Champagne region

Cognac

Cognac is a sort hop from Bordeaux (just over 100km to the north) and can easily be combined with a Bordeaux trip. The world reknowned spirit is distilled from white wine then matured in barrels, sometimes for over a hundred years. The vineyard region of Cognac is divided into six different crus with the top cru being Grand Champagne (13,000 hectares) and the second Petit Champagne (15,000 hectares of vines). There are other larger areas further out but these two provide the best quality and surround Cognac town, which offers offers a great base from which to take day trips north to Grand Champagne or south to Petite Champagne. Cognac is also on the Flow Velo bike route, making it an ideal stop on a ride from the Atlantic Coast to the Dordogne. Major Cognac houses like Hennessy and Remy Martin offer visits which are easily booked direct. Try also the local pinneau (white or red) on your visit. It's sherry-like sweet wine that's unique to the Poitou-Charente region. it's made by combining grape juice with Cognac. It's worth searching out local producers who make this truly local tipple.

Cycling in Cognac

More on cycling the Cognac region

Languedoc

Languedoc is a massive wine region with 228,000 hectares of which 89,000 are AOC. You'll find fresh zesty whites on the coast (think Picpoul de Pinet and Rivesaltes blanc sec) and heavier herbaceous reds in the hills (like magical Minervois, Corbières or Fitou) and down to the luscious vins doux naturelles (port style) dessert wines of Banyuls and Maury. If you're cycling the Canal du Midi, you'll be going throgh the heart of Languedoc and perfectly placed for detours through the vines. The Eurovelo 8 bike route will link Languedoc to Provence, providing a super cycling corridor for wine-lovers on two wheels. The region also as dozens of other bike ride ideas, most of them passing through the vines.

More on cycling in Languedoc

The vines in the Gard area of Provence, just to the west of Provence. Photo: Gard Tourism

The vines in the Gard area of Provence, just to the west of Provence. Photo: Gard Tourism

Loire Valley

The Loire Valley cycle route covers more than 800 kilometres that include famous wine country from the fabulous Sancerre to the far western Muscadet. The Tourist office of Loire Valley has made a 'Loire à Vélo' app that can be downloaded from their site and you can find many online resources for it.

This is a large territory 75000 hectares (185000 acres) with diverse wines. The Loire Valley is most known for its fresh whites starting with Sauvignon Blanc from famous commune appellations including Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and Menetou-Salon. Start at the inland starting point of the 'Loire a Vélo', a tiny place called Cuffy (near Nevers), and stop in Sancerre (or overnight) for a lovely glass of their signature sauvignon blanc. You can also find fine Sancerre reds from Pinot Noir. 

From there the cycle path will take you upto Orleans and the lesser known Valencay wine region before dropping back down Touraine region and its very famous commune appellation of Vouvray (made from Chenin Blanc) and its 'little brother' Montlouis which offers similar style wines to Vouvray at lesser prices. Then onwards to the other Touraine commune appellation Chinon known for reds from Cabernet Franc and some Gamay and Malbec. Bourgeuil and St-Nicolas-de-Bourgeuil appellations north of the river are worth a visit if you can take the detour. After Touraine comes the sub-region of Saumur Anjou with famous dessert wines like Coteaux du Layon, cremants (sparkling wines) from Saumur Champigny and Saumur, and the outstanding dry chenin blancs from Savennières just south of Angers with its single farm appellations of Coulée-de-Serrant and La-Roche-aux-Moines. Saumur town is a good place to locate yourself if you prefer to base yourself in one place and ride out. 

The last leg takes you through Muscadet with its refreshing zesty acidity that so perfectly matches the seafood of the region. Ride on into the final stop at St Brévin-les-Pins (Loire-Atlantique) for a round of oysters and a large glass of Muscadet sur Lie. You deserve it.

More on cycling the Loire wine region

Provence and the Rhone Valley

The ViaRhôna is an ambitious 815km cycle path from Lake Geneva to Sète on the Mediterranean. Using it you can discover the wines of the Rhone valley and Provence from north to south and then connect down into Languedoc.

Provence wine route

Northern Rhone Valley

The ViaRhôna takes you through this narrow valley that produces less than 5% of the total Rhone Valley's wine from the hallowed appellation of Côte Rôtie in the north to Hermitage and its larger less prestigious neighbour Crozes Hermitage in the south. The website of viaRhôna offers a handy planning tool to see wine tasting venues on your route. Northern Rhône reds from Syrah (Shiraz) and whites are made with Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne. The commune appellation of Condrieu produces whites exclusively of Viognier, rich oily wines with aromas of exotic and citrus fruit. In this tiny region (under 3000 hectares (7400 acres) with a big reputation and steep vineyards Tain l'Hermitage, a small town of under 10,000 people, offers a good base.

Harvest in Provence

Provence - Southern Rhone Valley

Ah Provence! Lavender fields, honey, luscious melons, hilltop villages and Mediterranean seascapes. Provence includes the large wine area of the Southern Rhone producing large quantities of Côtes du Rhone and Côtes du Rhone villages and the Provence wine appellations. Reds are made from Grenache, Syrah (Shiraz), Cinsault, Mourvèdre, whites from Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne and rosés from all the red grapes but primarily Grenache.

The Southern Rhone is over 70,000 hectares (173,000 acres) – with such a large area there are many options. You could select your favourite appellation and centre yourself near that or you could continue with the cycle path of ViaRhôna. Between Orange and Avignon don't miss the appellation of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, known for rich, spicy, herby reds made from upto 18 different varieties including several white grapes. The principal grape is usually grenache. 

Off the ViaRhôna cycle route and worth visiting if you have time are other famous appellations Gigondas, Vacqueras and Baumes-de-Venise (sweet wine). There is a wealth of cycling potential off the viaRhona in Provence too – for example along the Mediterranean through appellations like Bandol located between Marseille and Toulon. It offers magical coastal views and delicious reds and rosés. 

If you have taken on the ViaRhôna to its end then finish with a lively mouth-puckering Picpoul de Pinet and seafood in Sète. Santé.

Harvest time at the Cave de Gigondas cooperative

Harvest time at the Cave de Gigondas cooperative. Photo: Freewheeling France

More on cycling the Provence and Rhone Valley vineyards

Why not cycle a French wine route this summer?

Cycle a French wine route this summer and enjoy the food and wine: fruits of France's grand and diverse terroir with glee. There is little to beat that delicious first glass after a few hours in the saddle especially when you have been riding through the vineyards that produced it. 

About our contributor
Caro Feely is a wine teacher and wine writer specialising in French wine and organic/ biodynamic wine. She is co-winemaker/winegrower at Château Feely, a biodynamic and organic wine estate with accommodationwine tours, vineyard walks and a certified Wine Spirit Education Trust wine school. Subscribe to her newsletter packed with stories, wine info and seasonal magic at [email protected], or connect via FacebookTwitter and Instagram. Caro’s book series about life in France and the development of the organic vineyard includes Grape Expectations, Saving our Skins and the latest Glass Half Full.

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