Following one of the great French wine routes is the perfect way to leave the autoroute behind and explore some of France's smaller back roads. With beautiful scenery, clear signage and, of course, excellent wine, the Route des Grands Crus takes you right to the heart of France.
The name of Burgundy, in the east of France, is synonymous with fine wine. Within the region, the Cote d'Or departement produces some of the most exclusive and strictly controlled vintages in the world. The mild climate and gentle, south-facing slopes make this ideal country for vineyards.
The Cote d'Or itself is further divided into two areas. The Cote de Beaune, in the south, is most famous for its white wine, while the Cote de Nuits in the north produces mainly red. The reds are made using black Pinot Noir grapes, the whites from the green Chardonnay variety. You'll find plentiful Grands Crus and Premiers Crus, the pick of the crop, along with little local gems not often encountered outside their native region.
With Paris to the north and Lyon to the south, both less than two hours' drive away, it's easy to reach the region and make the Route des Grands Crus part of your French experience. Look for the brown tourist signs, depicting a bunch of grapes, to keep you on course.
Driving the route, you experience mile after mile of rich, rolling countryside, the vineyards interspersed with deep forests. On one side of the road, look down on rows of ripening grapes, on the other, look up to the distant mountains. Towns nestle in the valleys, while castles command the view from strategic high points.
At the north of the route is Dijon, famous for its mustard and home to the finest in French gastronomy. The principal town of the Cote de Nuits is the charmingly named Nuits-Saint-George, while that of the Cote de Beaune is Beaune itself. Beaune is rich in traditional architecture, museums and art galleries, and its cobbled streets conceal plenty of wine cellars. Pommard, with its square church tower, and Santenay, with its castle and windmill, are also worth a visit.
Most vineyards offer tastings and sales on the premises, while many will also give you a guided tour and some may have a restaurant where you can stop for a meal. Pick up a map from the tourist information centre to find out what facilities are available and plan your lunch stop. Wine is not only cheaper when purchased from the source, but seems to taste even better when you have seen the manufacturing process for yourself.
At sixty kilometres, the route is an easy day's drive by car. For a longer adventure, consider hiring bicycles and taking a more leisurely tour, staying overnight in one or two of the many picturesque towns and villages along the way. There may be a limit to the number of purchases you can cram in your panniers, but the ability to taste plenty of samples might make up for it.