Santé! The world's favourite holiday destination is synonymous with wine, but it produces plenty of other tempting tipples from calvados and cognac to cider and beer. Cathy Packe raises a glass in appreciation of a nation's love of drink

THIS SOUNDS LIKE A CHALLENGE

THIS SOUNDS LIKE A CHALLENGE

There is no end of choice when drinking in France. The country is one of the world's main wine-making countries, producing around seven billion bottles a year; this is less than is produced in Italy, although the French consume more wine than the Italians. However, if you're searching France for something quaffable, there's more to choose from than red, white and rosé - and some of it's even good for you.

WHAT DO YOU HAVE IN MIND?

Take chartreuse, for example, one of France's oldest alcoholic exports. This was first made by the Carthusian monks in their monastery near Grenoble, and follows an ancient recipe for "an elixir of long life". The ingredients remain secret, although the drink contains more than 100 leaves, roots and other plant parts, soaked in alcohol, distilled, sweetened and matured in oak casks. The original recipe produced a drink that was 71 per cent alcohol, so the monks can't have been too surprised that it became more popular as a drink than a medicine.

Since those early days it has been refined to make it slightly less strong, and now green and the sweeter yellow chartreuse are produced commercially. The distillery is at 10 boulevard Kofler in Voiron near Grenoble (00 33 4 76 05 81 77; www.chartreuse.fr) and is open to visitors: daily April-Oct 9-11.30am, 2-6.30pm; Monday-Friday Nov-Mar 9-11.30am, 2-5.30pm).

The Carthusian monastery itself (00 33 4 76 88 60 45) is close to Voiron, up in the mountains in St Pierre de Chartreuse, a village that is often cut off by snow in the winter. Its museum is open daily between April and October; hours vary according to the time of year, but this month it is open 10am-noon and 2-6pm, entrance €3 (£2).

POUR ME AN APERITIF

The obvious thing to start with is a glass of champagne, which is produced around the towns of Reims, Epernay and Ay, just under 100 miles east of Paris. The big champagne houses all have their headquarters in the area, many of them in Reims and Epernay; most will show you round if you make an appointment, but several open daily offering tours in different languages.

These visits vary enormously, from Maxim's at 17 rue des Creneaux in Reims (00 33 3 26 82 70 67; www.champagnemartel.com; open daily 10am-6pm, entrance €4.50/£3), where visitors walk around the cellars cut deep into the chalk, to Mercier at 68 Avenue de Champagne in Epernay (00 33 3 26 51 22 22; www.champagnemercier.fr; open daily 9.30-11.30am and 2-4.30pm, closed Tuesday and Wednesday from Nov-Mar, admission €6/£4) where a panoramic lift takes you down through layers of history, to meet up with a laser-guided train which glides through some of Mercier's 12 miles of cellars. Most of these tours end with a glass, or sometimes several, of champagne, and - probably because you will have paid anything from £3 to £8 for the visit - there is no obligation to buy.

THIS ALL SOUNDS A BIT IMPERSONAL

If you have a smattering of French, and an interest in tasting champagnes you can't buy at home, visiting some of the smaller producers is an interesting pastime. These are found all over the region: there are 40 champagne-makers in the aptly-named village of Bouzy, for example, which is only 15 miles south-east of Reims. Since there are no buses you will need a car, but the drive through the vineyards is a pleasant one. When you reach the village, look out for Jean-Marie Bandock at 4 rue de Louvois (00 33 3 26 57 00 72); if the gate is open, go in and express an interest and you will be offered a glass to taste.

WHAT ABOUT WINE ROUTES?

All the main wine regions have wine routes, a well-signposted "route du vin" which connects the wine-growing villages to the main towns. Information about the route is usually available from the local tourist office, as well as from the French Travel Centre, 178 Piccadilly, London W1J 9AL (09068 244123, 60p per minute; www.franceguide.com).

However, the drink-driving limit in France is lower than ours - 50mg of alcohol, around one glass of wine, rather than our 80mg, So let someone else transport you around to allow for a little more drinking. A number of companies offer wine holidays in France, among them Arblaster and Clarke (01730 893344; www.arblasterandclarke.com). It offers a wide range of holidays, including weekend breaks in the Champagne region, a walking tour of the Alsace vineyards, and, for those who are determined to take their own car, a self-drive tour of Burgundy. All these trips include winery visits and tutored tastings. Wine expert Stephen Barrett runs regular wine tours through Wessex Continental Travel (01752 846880; www.wineholidays.com). All this year's trips have already taken place, and next year's tours are in the planning stages, but destinations are likely to include Burgundy, Alsace and Languedoc.

WHICH ARE THE BEST REGIONS TO VISIT?

That really depends on your taste preferences, and what else you are hoping to do while you are there. The easiest to reach from Britain is the Loire Valley, accessible from Tours, which makes a good base for exploring the region's châteaux, as well as the vineyards. From there it's a short hop west to the vineyards of Burgundy and Beaujolais, which spread south from Dijon almost as far as Lyon. But many would regard the vineyards around Bordeaux as the finest in France. Here there is plenty to explore around the Dordogne and Garonne valleys, north towards the Pointe de Grave and south as far as Sauternes.

WHERE CAN I LEARN MORE ABOUT WINE?

Anjou. Brian Barcroft is a retired wine-buyer living in this region near the Loire Valley. He and his wife provide accommodation and, when required, tailor-made courses, offering an introduction to wine-making in the region, advice on how to taste, and visits and tastings at local vineyards. Currently based at La Perriere in the Layon valley (00 33 2 41 50 24 69; www.frenchconnections.co.uk), the Barcrofts will soon be moving to different premises, but will continue to run their courses.

Vitis Vinifera (00 33 5 49 95 15 38; www.la-perriere.com) offers long-weekend courses at a renovated château hotel near Poitiers; wines and grape varieties from all over the world are included, and the intention is to give wine-lovers a systematic introduction to wine-tasting and the main regions of the world.

At home, the Wine Education Service (020-8423 6338; www.wine-education-service.co.uk) runs introductory courses and workshops in London and, from this autumn, in Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh and Aberdeen too. It also arranges escorted trips to different wine regions; there are still some places left for a long-weekend visit to the Champagne region departing in November; the two-night trip costs £299 per person.

CAN I WORK FOR MY WINE?

Picking grapes can be back-breaking work, but there are plenty of opportunities to take part in the "vendange", as it is called. Most of this year's grapes have been safely gathered in, but if you have any agricultural experience or qualifications you could apply early for next year to Sesame, at 9 Square Gabriel Faure in Paris (00 33 1 40 54 29 65; www.agriplanete.com); otherwise wait for next summer and chance your luck at the vineyard of your choice.

HOW CAN I ESCAPE THE GRAPE?

Normandy and Brittany are (more or less) grape-free areas, and one of the main industries in these regions is cider-making. The first Breton cider to be classified with an AOC (appellation d'origine contrôlée) in recognition of its quality was from Fouesnant in Cornouaille in southern Brittany. Several of the producers open up their properties (although some are only open during the summer), and there is usually a chance during the visit to wander through the orchards, before watching the production process. The Cidrerie du Manoir du Kinkiz, at 75 chemin du Quinquis in Ergue-Armel, near Quimper (00 33 2 98 90 20 57), is open Monday-Saturday throughout the year, from 9.30am-12.30pm and 2-6.30pm; entrance €2 (£1.40).

Apples can also be made into a stronger drink than cider, and in Normandy, the production of calvados, a distilled apple liqueur, is an important industry. Calvados is part of a French culinary tradition called the "trou normand": a small glass is drunk in the middle of a meal to clear the palate so that the diner can continue eating. One of the main calvados houses is Boulard, at Moulin de la Foulonnerie in Coquainvilliers (00 33 2 31 48 24 00); it offers guided tours, with an explanation of the production processes of its cider, calvados, and pommard, an interesting mixture of calvados and what is left of the apples after the cider-making process. Tours take place daily from 10am-noon and 2-5pm (Wednesday-Sunday in winter), ending up with a tasting; the visit lasts about 45 minutes and costs €1 (70p).

I'M GASPING FOR A BEER

Aim for French Flanders, along the Belgian border, or for Alsace. Purists maintain that the Flemish brews are best (especially those from across the border in Belgium). The best place to decide is in Lille at, for example, Les Brasseurs (00 33 3 20 06 46 25), a well-stocked bar opposite Lille- Flandres station (10 minutes' walk from the Eurostar station).

Kronenbourg, the only French brew that most British people can name, hails from the village of Cronenbourg in Alsace (it was renamed with a "C" after the region was returned to French control). You can visit the brewery at 68 route d'Oberhausbergen in Strasbourg (00 33 3 88 27 44 88; www.brasseries-kronenbourg.com) as long as you book in advance. Tours, which last nearly two hours, take place Monday-Friday, between 9am and 3pm, as well as on Saturdays during the summer and in December; entrance costs €3 (£2).

I'LL NEED A BRANDY AFTER THAT TOUR

I think you mean cognac or armagnac: brandy is a distilled grape-spirit that comes from other countries, and anything from France that is labelled brandy will be an inferior product.

Armagnac is the older and lesser-known of the two spirits, and is produced in Gascony, south of Bordeaux. There are small producers all over the region, but if you want to find out how the spirit is made, and taste a glass or two, a good place to head for is the Domaine de Lagajan-Pontouat (00 33 5 62 09 81 69) in the small town of Eauze, one of the centres of the Armagnac industry, 35 miles north-west of Auch.

Far more widely drunk is cognac, produced in the western French département of Charente, with the town of Cognac at the centre of the industry. The main cognac houses have their headquarters here, including the oldest, Martell (Place Edouard Martell, 00 33 5 45 36 33 18; www.martell.com), which was founded by a former smuggler, and Hennessy (Vieux Port, 00 33 5 45 82 52 22; www.hennessy-cognac.com), whose founder was a French army officer.

Cognac is a charming small town. Perhaps unsurprisingly most of its attractions have some connection with the production of cognac: the old château, birthplace of the future king Francois I, has some elegant rooms, while its cellars are used to house the casks belonging to Otard.

Down the road is the town's museum (00 33 5 45 32 07 25), which contains an interesting exhibition on the history of the region's wine-making industry. The tourist office is at 16 rue du XIV Juillet (00 33 5 45 82 10 71; www.tourism-cognac.com). Several of the larger cognac houses are open to visitors, among them Rémy-Martin at Domaine de Merpins on the route de Pons (00 33 5 45 35 76 66; www.remy.com). About three miles outside Cognac itself, a small train takes visitors through the vineyards, cellars and coopers' shop, where the coopers can be seen at work on the barrels.

THE SPANISH AND PORTUGUESE ADD BRANDY TO WINE TO MAKE SHERRY AND PORT. WHAT DO THE FRENCH DO WITH IT?

An interesting aperitif, Pineau des Charentes, was invented in the region by accident. According to legend, a careless wine-maker accidentally tipped some crushed grapes into a barrel of cognac; the resulting fortified wine turned out to be extremely drinkable, and is now a regular by-product of the cognac industry. Year-old cognac is taken from the cask and added to the must - skins, seeds, stalks and pulp - left over when the grapes are crushed at the beginning of the brandy-making process. The mixture is left in the cask for a few months until it produces a fortified wine that is chilled and served as an aperitif; it can be either white or rosé, according to how long it is left in the oak barrels to age.

I WANT TO GO AND STOCK UP

Buying French-produced alcohol in France is much cheaper than buying it in England, and regulations allow you to bring back as much as you want as long as it is for your own personal consumption. In practice, if you have more than 90 litres of wine, 110 litres of beer, 20 litres of fortified wine or 10 litres of spirits you are likely to have difficulties in getting through customs.

If your main interest is to buy at competitive prices, the best option may be to go on a day-trip to one of the hypermarkets clustered around the main Channel ports: they all offer extremely good deals. One of the best - unless you feel that you don't go to France to shop in a British supermarket - is Tesco in the Cité Europe centre in Coquelles, near the exit to the Channel Tunnel on Boulevard du Kent (00 33 3 21 460270, www.cite-europe.com). Tesco is open Monday-Saturday 8.30am-10pm, but closed on Sunday; a list of the wines on sale, and their French prices, is available at www.tesco.com/vinplus. A day-trip ticket for the Tunnel (0870 535 3535; www.eurotunnel.com) costs £39 for a car and as many passengers as it is insured to carry.

Drunken women?

How some of the best-known brands got their names

Veuve Clicquot

Synonymous with fine champagne, the widow Clicquot, or Nicole Ponsardin as she was born, took over her husband's champagne house at 1 Place des Droits de l'Homme when he died, renaming it Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin (00 33 3 26 89 54 41, www.veuve-clicquot.fr; visits by appointment only). She is believed to have invented the system of remuage, the riddling process in which the bottles are shaken and turned to dislodge the deposit.

Stella Artois

Although she is one of the best-known names in drinking circles, she was neither French - the Stella Artois brewery is based in Leuven in Belgium - nor a real person. The Artois in the company name is Sebastian, an 18th-century master brewer. Stella was a Christmas beer first brewed in 1926; the name, from the Latin for "star", is thought to have been inspired by the stars in the crisp, clear night sky.

Marie Brizard

This young woman from Bordeaux dedicated her youth to looking after the needy, and one of her patients gave her a recipe for an aniseed drink that allegedly cured any number of ills. So popular was the recipe - and not just among the sick - that Marie Brizard had to enlist help from her nephew to keep up with demand. Their company now produces a number of liqueurs, although the original anisette drink is still known as "Marie Brizard". The company is based in Bordeaux at 130 rue Fontdaudeuge (00 33 5 56 01 85 70); visits are free of charge, but an appointment must be made in advance.

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