While we were on our summer holiday, staying near St. Emilion in the Bordeaux region, the topic of bringing home a few bottles arose. We had driven to France, so it would be churlish to return empty-handed to Ireland. We Irish suffer penal and recently hiked taxes on our wine purchases. This has led to the wine choice on our little island being reduced along with both the quality and value for money. With that in mind, here’s my personal guide to buying wine in France.
What! A guide to buying wine in France, you must think I am mad. If you don’t, let me explain why you should. First, France is a big country. Not big as in Texas type big (nothing in Europe can be considered big in relation to anything in the Lone Star State) but big enough to have a few different climates. Add “terroir”, a range of grape varietals and an almost infinite number of small producers to the mix and one has a bewildering choice. But, it doesn’t stop there. Most producers have a number of wines and at any time will also have a number of years’ stock for sale.
Let me simplify it a bit. Let’s stick with the Bordeaux region. There are more than 7,000 producers there, outputting over 10,000 wines per vintage. Let’s assume that they have wine from just three years for sale at any time. The choice is then from more than 30,000 different wines.
Picture us. The Wife and I, in our summer mood, with limited space in the car, not a lot of time and an even more restricted budget. We drove past vineyard after vineyard. Very fancy looking facades would cause me to assume that the offering within might be beyond our reach.
I also assumed that anybody who saw fit to plant fancy ‘Chateau This or That’ signs in amongst their vines would not be running a bargain dungeon in their castellated abode.
Any place with a ‘Vente Direct’ sign also got a wide berth. Not because of any price thing. But, a deep-rooted feeling that if they can’t get a ‘negotiant’ to find a market for their wine, it might not be worth the drinking. I also suffer from a fear of the contract that tasting a range of wines implies.
It’s hard to look the poor French farmer in the eye, belch softly and say “Non”, after swilling numerous samples of the best he has to offer.
Remembering the names of all the places one passes is a big problem too. Could you remember that it was ‘Haut’ not ‘Vieux’ or vice-verca?
No, this is not an easy task. One could revert to the supermarket. They have big ones over there (reprise the Texas thing above) where the staff go around on roller skates. The wine sections are huge with a region by region system. However, I can’t go with this either. Firstly, there is just too much choice. Secondly, I just can’t drive from Dublin to Bordeaux and then buy some wine from the Loire Valley or the Languedoc in a chain store. It’s just not right.
A drive up to St. Emilion was little assistance either. The whole area is a world heritage site. The town itself is beautiful. It is also packed chock full with wine shops.
St. Emilion is a major tourist attraction (trap) with hundreds of thousands of visitors passing through it each year. There are caves to visit, wines to taste and even vines to be bought.
The choice, even in St. Emilion, is bewildering. There are over 100 St. Emilion vineyards that are open to the public. Many more that are not.
I have previously purchased from a small St. Emilion Chateau, Petit Gravet. They have some pretty old-looking gateposts and a nice label.
We have enjoyed the Petit Gravet but should we not be trying something else?
Side note on aperitif prices: On previous trips to France, we have got a taste for the aperitif, Lillet. It is sold quite widely. The gulf between the sale prices is pretty wide too. I picked up two bottles in the supermarket for less than €8 a bottle. The same stuff retails for €13 just off Rue St. Catherine in Bordeaux. It is an eye watering €21 in one of the ‘wine specialists’ in St. Emilion.
There was nothing for it but to get some local advice. Our genial host David Furniss, with over a decade in the region, gave guidance. He gave us options without burdening us with an array of decisions. He gave us hope! Our first port-of-call was only a short walk from our gite.
Chateau Des Illarets produces a dry white, a pleasant red, a sweet white and, when weather conditions allow, a very special sweet white. They also have a very good “cremant” sparkling white produced in the traditional method (as in Champagne) for little more than one would pay for a large coffee in Dublin. From there, a short drive into the hills to Chateau Moulin Caresse revealed more top quality white and red wines.
A couple of days later, we were on a roll. We were out near Bergerac and only a short drive from Chateau Monbazillac. A quick detour and we were at Monbazillac. The chateau itself is really beautiful.
Thankfully, they sell the wines in half bottles.
Following a delightful and great value salad lunch with a glass of sweet Monbazillac wine, we hit the wine shop.
This stuff is perfect with salty blue cheese. I will be posting about it soon.
So, back to St. Emilion. Truth is, I love the wines from that region. There has to be a way to buy without falling into the total confusion of the tourist town wine shops. There is. I took us up to the UDP, just outside the town. L’union des producteurs de Saint-Emilion (The Union of Producers of St. Emilion) carries a range of locally produced wines, across a spectrum of qualities from great to really, really great. They have an informal showroom and tasting area with knowledgable staff. There is no pressure. Prices are very reasonable for the quality of wine. We made some room in the car, adjusted the household budget for the foreseeable future and got our hands on a few bottles. We even got a discount.
In summary, if you find yourself in France with space in the car, get local advice before getting totally befuddled. Preferably from somebody you know and who’s judgment you trust. If you have a budget, try to stick to it. Only buy direct, if you are prepared to say “Non, merci” and walk away from the guy who grew the grapes. Buy in St. Emilion town if you want to come away having paid tourist prices. Truth is, no matter what you pay, it will be a lot less than we pay here in Ireland. That is a taxing issue and a real pity.