“Du pain, du vin, du Boursin…” This slogan for a popular brand of cream cheese (my personal favorite is Boursin au poivre), reveres one of the exquisite pleasures of French life – bread, cheese and wine. Probably why these spots became a cult favorite here.
Wine – the tradition and availability of the grape – is one of the undisputed advantages of living in France. Yet despite, or perhaps because of, the immense history of the vine and the huge variety of vintages, buying wine can be rather compliqué.
Wine brings together art and science, simplicity and snobbery, geography, meteorology, sense and, several glasses later, insensibility. Winemaking was the original biotechnology. It’s a complex subject. And this is a country where people enjoy all of those things.
I appreciate the interest that wine connoisseurs and historians take in understanding the finer points of the noble grape. But sometimes, fairly often in fact, I just want to buy a nice bottle of red. Not something that will knock your socks off. Or a grand vin that requires careful decanting. Just a good, basic wine.
While good French wines are very good indeed, the lowly vins de table can be barely drinkable. The challenge, in my view, is finding a reliably good wine for everyday consumption. There’s nothing more disappointing than to be served a glass of watery red or a white with notes of lighter fluid in a country whose wine-making tradition is epic.
The fact is, you can spend a lot of money on a wine whose value is determined not by how good it tastes but by where it came from. There is no quality-price guarantee with wine. A cheaper bottle can taste much better than a higher-priced one.
Sometimes we’ll go to a good restaurant, fall into the sommelier’s hands, spend more than we intended and find the wine, well, uninspired.
That’s when I feel the sour grapes coming on. But far be it from me to whine. Instead, I put together this fool-proof guide to buying wine in France:
Forget the rules
Why should you let someone else dictate what’s good for you? If you like red wine and want to have it with fish, go for it! Who cares what the wine snobs say? I like Merlot, critics be damned! And no matter what anyone else says, I don’t care for the sweeter whites. So there. The first (and only) rule is: please yourself. (This article says it better than I could.)
Know thy wine-growing regions
Everything you could possibly need to know about French wines is summarized very nicely here. So I won’t repeat it. But pay attention to where the wine is from. This is the only thing you need to know. French wines are identified by their origin, not the grape, but there is a correpondance between the two. Personally, I like the Côtes du Rhone, which are more accessible (price and taste-wise) than the stuffier Bordeaux and temperamental Bourgognes.
Don’t buy wine from supermarkets
This is a ‘do as a I say, not as I do’ guideline (like parental advice, meant to be ignored much of the time). So don’t buy wine at the supermarket, unless:
a) You’ve studied the wine guides and have the inside edge on which ones to buy
b) You have a tried-and-true favorite that’s regularly available on your local supermarket shelves
c) You have no other choice
Obviously, bad and/or overpriced wine is better than no wine.
Find a local ‘caviste’
Why not let someone else do the work for you? The specialty retailler will preselect good value wines and make them available to you, the customer, at a reasonable price. He or she will also be a source of advice if you want to expand your palate, or offer a special bottle as a gift.
Think global, drink local
As a general rule, we always try and drink the local vintage. Why? The less industrialized and more natural a wine is, the better it will be. French wisdom has it that it’s ‘plus sain’ (healthier) to drink a simple wine grown and bottled at the local vineyard than one that’s been blended and added to and shipped around the world.
The down side of that is that the offering of anything but French wine in France is poor. You will find a few basic Italian and Spanish bottles. The wines of the new world are virtually unknown. By the way, if you go to Switzerland, do drink the local wines. They are excellent – which is probably why the Swiss don’t export them.
Good year, bad year?
‘Millésime’ describes the year in which the wine is grown and harvested. Thanks to the ever-evolving skills of the vintner, young wines are increasingly drinkable. That’s a good thing as they don’t tend to age very well in our household. Or age at all.
Whether or not a particular year will yield good wine is a complex question largely influenced by the weather (a sunny growing season with sufficient rain is ideal). That’s a lot to remember. So if you want to buy good millésime you’ll want to get help on that. Check the experts: http://www.bbr.com/vintage-chart
An app for that?
It seems there’s also a multitude of apps that let you find out what wine to pair with what food, share what you’re drinking with friends, discover wines of one region or brand…all fairly useless IMHO.
How about a ‘wine advisor’ rating of vintages and millésimes with a label scanner? Actually, no, what I really want is a divining rod, that will let me pick up a bottle and just know that it will please me. That it won’t be corked. That I will have a good quality price experience. And a good time drinking it.
Does anyone have an app for that?