(AFP) - Sporty wine lovers are exploring the vineyard paths and private forests of France's historic wine region in marathons and bike rides, complete with zany costumes, live music and wine tastings de rigueur.
In Bordeaux, the Medocaine mountain bike ride in May drew 6,500 pedalling wine enthusiasts for its 14th edition, organised by hundreds of local volunteers to promote tourism, nature and, of course, wine in a convivial setting.
"It's a terrific, dynamic event for the region. We could easily have 10,000 cyclists, but it becomes a question of organisation and safety," said Jose Sanfins of Chateau Cantenac Brown, one of the event's long-time organisers.
"What's fabulous with this event is that we bring together the municipalities, private businesses, winegrowers and the local population. The locals help us enormously as volunteers."
Bordeaux also organises the internationally touted Medoc Marathon, its 28th edition slated for September 8, and just to the south of Bordeaux the sweet wine growers hosted their second Sauternes Marathon on Saturday.
Popular demand for less arduous routes has also led the marathons to offer scenic fun walks.
"We're offering the 10 kilometre (six mile) fun walk due to demand from the people accompanying the marathoners. They want to participate in the festive atmosphere and enjoy the landscape and chateaux," said Alice Biscarrat at Chateau Guiraud, which was the departure point for the Sauternes event.
Good, healthy fun and accessibility are the key themes -- whether it is opening the natural beauty of the vineyard region to tourists or broadening the event.
"The idea for the Medocaine came from three people who did the marathon. They wanted to do the same thing but by bike, which opens it up to a wider number of people. It's been fabulously popular," noted Sanfins.
Creative costumes are more important than a sweaty race to the finish line, adding humour to the day.
During the Medocaine, waves of Gauls, Smurfs, prisoners, hirsute ballerinas and a listing, two-wheeled six-foot-long Costa Concordia cruise ship pedalled through the estate's forest.
"We do it for the fun, the festivities, and ambiance -- it's super," said Josiane Gasteuil, a teaching assistant from Merignac, riding in her 12th Medocaine with a group of friends and family.
Participants come from as far away as Hong Kong, Luxembourg, Britain and Belgium, with a decent showing from Bordeaux and France's other regions.
"We are the Violets of Toulouse," said Isabelle Thomas, a pharmacist from Toulouse, riding with 11 other violet-clad cyclists.
"We visit the chateaux on other occasions -- it's really the sporty and festive side that attracts us. The setting is splendid, magnificent, the wines excellent," she said.
While the wine marathons are run according to international standards and follow one route linking chateaux, the bike rides offer staggered starts and eight routes of varying lengths to keep riders from traveling in packs.
At the pit stops, the usual fare of water, multi-grain bars and orange wedges is supplemented with wine tastings and live music. Sanfins told AFP that Cantenac Brown opened 350 bottles of wine for the thirsty riders.
While the direct impact of wine tourism on selling wine is difficult to measure, the real value comes in sharing with locals and visitors the side of wine country they do not often see.
"What's important is that in the space of one day we see the vineyards, the wetlands, forests and exceptional architecture and terroirs. We have this sample of our region in the space of 50 kilometres," said Sanfins.