As sure as the grapevines turn golden each autumn, tourists heading to France's wine trails without doing much research are likely to end up in must-see destinations such as Bordeaux, Saint-Emilion and the Loire Valley.
Just as a pretty label on a wine bottle goes a long way in influencing a novice tippler's purchase, so too do the big wine regions, with their easily recognizable names attract would-be connoisseurs en masse.
In peak tourist season, a foray into the limestone caves of Bordeaux can feel something like being shuttled through a wine-centric theme park. And a stroll down Saint-Emilion's cobbled streets can conjure Epcot's faux France more than the real deal.
With a little planning and a dash of wanderlust -- not to mention a Eurail pass or rental car to make getting around a cinch -- you can access some of southern France's lesser-known wine regions for a trip that feels more like discovery than cliche.
Think pastoral places where crimson-hued poppies are more prevalent than people in the perfectly radiating rows of vineyards and chateaus. Imagine vineyards where you're likely to meet a descendant of the family that has been tending the vines for generations. Get off the beaten tourist path where your dollars are going to have a better chance of stretching their worth against the ever-powerful euro.
Join Travel Channel for a wine-oriented romp through the small villages and vineyards in the southern French region called Languedoc-Roussillon.
Wine Destination: Languedoc-Roussillon, France
Despite a lack of name recognition by the world's general wine-quaffing populace, this south central region of France -- hinged between the Mediterranean Sea, Rhone river delta and Spanish border -- is the most productive wine region in the world.
To travel through Languedoc-Roussillon's myriad small villages and vibrant city centers is to be a spider navigating an ever-expanding web of vineyards. Through vast areas of the countryside, the vineyards stretch like seas of green to the horizon; the grape-growing industry surrounds you at every turn.
Visitors to the region will likely arrive at its capital, Montpellier, a vibrant university city with bustling cafe life and an endless lineup of summertime festivals. After exploring Languedoc-Roussillon's cosmopolitan heart, make a break for the countryside to get into your wine-tasting groove.
Less than an hour southwest of Montpellier is the village of Pezenas, a medieval market town surrounded by small wineries, where the Hotel de Vigniamont seems straight out of a fairy tale -- rooms center on an interior courtyard, complete with stone arches and draping plants. Base yourself here to explore the winding streets of Pezenas' historic center and the markets before making tracks for nearby vineyards such as Chartreuse de Mougeres, where wines with spicy bouquets made from Grenache Noir, Syrah and Mourvedre grapes are proffered.
A few miles south of Pezenas is Beziers, a town with strong Catalan influences that sits along the Canal du Midi, a waterway linking the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Tour Beziers' medieval center and impressive cathedral, where you'll have views of the vineyards surrounding the town. For lunch, you'll get theater with your meal at La Maison de Campagne, near the bull-fighting arena, where the owner, Pierre Auge, is likely to sing for you during your meal and top you off with a sample of Armagnac, a strong digestif of distilled wine. A great place for a casual dinner is Le Chameau Ivre -- in English, the restaurant's name means "drunken camel" and the proprietor, Phillipe Catus, takes much pride in suggesting perfect wine pairings from his vast cellar to go along with tapenades from the local market, fresh oysters and Basque Country trout.
Just a few miles outside of Beziers is the impressive Chateau de Raissac, where you can stay in an authentic chateau that has been in the Viennet family since 1828 and boasts a wine cellar dating to the 17th century. The chateau's rooms are resplendent with period antiques and artwork by the proprietors (she is a master potter and he is a painter), and the beautiful grounds are surrounded by gardens and towering plane trees. It's worth pulling yourself away from the pastoral setting to make the short drive to the Viennet family's vineyards, where you can sample the Pinot Noirs, Viogniers and Chardonnays that have evolved from the property's wine heritage, which date back to Gallo Roman times.
Thirsty for more? Visit France Guide, the official website of the French government's tourist office, to learn more about France's lesser-known wine regions.
And here are a few more fabulous appellations in Languedoc-Roussillon to put on your tasting itinerary.
Red wine reigns in this appellation where the terroir is split between the departments of Aude and Herault. Grapes have been grown since Roman times in the Minervois. And while Syrah and Grenache figure heavily in Minervois wines, the region's chalky grounds are also fabled for producing the unique Muscat de St. Jean de Minervois -- a sublimely sweet white wine, perfect for accompanying a summertime picnic.
Considered by many sommeliers to be in the same class as the Burgundy and Bordeaux wines, blends from Corbieres are predominantly red and tend to be of the full-bodied and spicy variety. Driving through this region takes you back in time with views of Cathar castles perched atop craggy peaks, Romanesque abbeys and ancient churches.
Coteaux du Languedoc
France's oldest vineyards, dating to 5 B.C. and started by the Greeks, can be found in the renowned appellation, Coteaux du Languedoc, that encompasses much of Languedoc-Roussillon.