What could be more French than sampling the fruits of the vine? And where better to do it than the enticing vineyards of Beaujolais? The picture-book Beaujolais Wine Route is a dream-come-true for oenophiles. Swinging from Villefranche-sur-Saône to St-Amour, this route is like a ‘greatest hits’ of Beaujolais, with its bucolic views, patchwork of immaculate hand-groomed vines, splendid estates, atmospheric wine cellars, attractive stone villages and scenic roads that twist like snakes into the hills.
Kick-start your epicurean adventure with a stroll in Villefranche-sur-Saône, the capital of Beaujolais. An excellent starting point for oenophiles, the tourist office (www.villefranche-beaujolais.fr; 96 rue de la Sous-Préfecture) houses the Espace des Vins du Beaujolais, where you’ll have the chance to learn about and sample the Beaujolais’ 12 AOCs (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée). Once you've left Villefranche-sur-Saône, a rural paradise awaits and a sense of escapism becomes tangible.
A few kilometres to the northwest, the village of Vaux-en-Beaujolais emerges like a hamlet in a fairytale – this picturesque stone town is perched on a rocky spur ensnared by a sea of vineyards. After enjoying the fruity aroma of Beaujolais-Villages (the local appellation) at La Cave de Clochemerle (www.cavedeclochemerle.com), housed in atmospheric cellars, take the scenic road that leads to Mt Brouilly (485m), which affords an eagle-eye panorama over the entire Beaujolais region.
It’s worth spending a little time in Beaujeu, the historic Beaujolais wine capital. It’s an ideal spot to sip some excellent Beaujolais-Villages and Brouilly, with producers handily scattered around the village. A good starting point is the Caveau des Beaujolais-Villages (place de l’Hotel de Ville), a cellar representing several winemakers.
If you like peace, quiet and sigh-inducing views, you’ll love Morgon, a nearby village famous for its eponymous appellation. Splashed around town are a dozen domaines selling superb reds, but an essential port of call on any wine-tasting itinerary is the vaulted Caveau de Morgon (château de Fontcrenne), which occupies a grandiose 17th-century château in the heart of town.
Beaujolais’ rising star, Fleurie red wines offer a combination of floral and fruity notes. It’s worth visiting the Château du Bourg (www.chateau-du-bourg.com), run by the Matray brothers (ask for Denis, who speaks passable English), which offers free tastings in a cool bistro-like setting and can arrange vineyard tours.
One of the gems in Beaujolais is the delightful village of Moulin à Vent, which is well known for its heritage-listed Moulin à Vent (Windmill) and its local appellation. Caveau du Moulin à Vent, across the road from the windmill, provides a prime wine-tasting opportunity.
Wine connoisseurs also swear by Juliénas, nestled in a small valley carpeted by manicured vineyards. You can attend tastings at various cellars around town but, for many wine lovers, a visit to the superb 16th-century Château de Julienas (www.chateaudejulienas.com) is the ultimate Beaujolais pilgrimage. Its cellars are the longest in the region. Tours of the estate can be arranged.
St-Amour makes a grand finale to your trip. This bijou appellation is revered thanks to its robust reds. At the award-winning Domaine des Vignes du Paradis – Pascal Durand (www.saint-amour-en-paradis.com), a domaine run by the fifth generation of vintners, you can sample (and buy) various local reds in intimate cellars.
When to go
The best season is from September to November, for a symphony of colours. An ideal time to visit Beaujolais is around the third week in November when the cherry-bright Beaujolais Nouveau is celebrated. In the town of Beaujeu, a giant street party kicks off the day before Beaujolais Nouveau. Expect five days of wine tasting, live music and dancing, and free Beaujolais Nouveau for all.
Allow at least two days to cover the whole stretch (96km). And of course, factor in plenty of time for wine tasting.
Eating and sleeping
In Vaux-en-Beaujolais, make a beeline for Auberge de Clochemerle (tel 04 74 03 20 16; www.aubergedeclochemerle.fr; rue Gabriel Chevallier; double rooms from €78-85). This tranquil mansion houses seven elegant rooms, some with vineyard views. Its Michelin-starred restaurant serves regional staples with a creative twist.
For the ultimate château experience, you can’t do better than Château de Bellevue (tel 04 74 66 98 88; www.chateau-bellevue.fr; Bellevue; doubles from €95-160), which is nestled amid seas of vineyards. Genteel Françoise Barret presides, and has cellars perfect for wine tasting. In Fleurie, Auberge du Cep (tel 04 74 04 10 77; place de l’Église) does traditional cooking at its best – think pike-perch, snails, frogs’ legs, and rosy tenderloin of beef – in a country-style dining room.
In Juliénas, Chez La Rose (tel 04 74 04 41 20; www.chez-la-rose.fr; Le Bourg; doubles from €85-110, suites from €110-170) is a charming inn featuring 13 rooms in various buildings scattered around the village. Its restaurant is known for its hearty dishes made with fresh local products. In St-Amour, opt for Beaujolais’ iconic inn, L’Auberge du Paradis (tel 03 85 37 10 26; Le Bourg; doubles from €140-240), which occupies a tastefully renovated village house. It delivers top service and classy comfort, and there’s a fantastic on-site restaurant.