On buying wine in France…

Wine edition

So much wine. So much choice. So little room in the car.

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.

You know you are in amongst the expensive vines when.....

You know you are in amongst the expensive vines when…..

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.

We don't see the Irish farmers planting signs like these. Expensive!

We don’t see the Irish farmers planting signs like these. Expensive!

Sorry folks. This just looks too expensive for my blood.

Sorry folks. This just looks too expensive for my blood.

Break out the credit card! This one borders the St. Emilion town car park.

Break out the credit card! This one borders the St. Emilion town car park.

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.

I also gave the 'Vente Direct' places a wide berth. I am undoubtedly a neurotic .

I also gave the ‘Vente Direct’ places a wide berth. I am undoubtedly a neurotic.

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?

"Bonneau. Yes, but which one?

“Bonneau. Yes, but which one?

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.

Rooftops over St. Emilion. Should we go downtown and buy some wine?

Rooftops over St. Emilion. Should we go downtown and buy some wine?

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.

Very attractive. But am I getting value?

Very attractive. But am I getting value?

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.

If not that place, what about here?

If not that place, what about here?

I have previously purchased from a small St. Emilion Chateau, Petit Gravet. They have some pretty old-looking gateposts and a nice label.

Do old gateposts mean a good wine?

Do old gateposts mean a good wine?

We have enjoyed the Petit Gravet but should we not be trying something else?

A pleasure from times past. The 2006 was pretty excellent, from memory.

A pleasure from times past. The 2006 was pretty excellent, from memory.

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. Fig Galette

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.

Wine edition (1 of 1)

This looks far too ordinary. Could they be retailing nice wines?

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.

A very impressive chateau. An equally impressive wine.

A very impressive chateau. An equally impressive wine.

Thankfully, they sell the wines in half bottles.

A big enough overhead means the wine won't be cheap. "C'est la vie", as they say.

A big enough overhead means the wine won’t be cheap. “C’est la vie”, as they say.

Following a delightful and great value salad lunch with a glass of sweet Monbazillac wine, we hit the wine shop.

They know how to do lunch in France....

They know how to do lunch in France….

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.

A decent haul, including the budget priced Lillet.

A decent haul, including the budget priced Lillet.

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.

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Latest comments
  • Delightful and funny article. I did vacation in this area a lot, years ago. And when it comes to wines: my husband loves the dry red wines from this region!

    • As do I. I love the region and the wines. Thanks for the kind comment.
      Best,
      Conor
      (I still blanch when I think of how I read your Avatar -Old, Country Girl when I saw it first).

  • Good.

    • Thanks Rosemary. One has to love the place.

  • Having visited all the big Parisian supermarket chains with a serious wine buyer friend in the September wine fairs, several years running, I was surprised and disappointed to be informed that in most cases the supermarkets sell cheaper than vineyards direct. It’s also worth noting that in my experience, French supermarkets sell some very good and bad wines. They don’t seem to have the same philosophy as UK supermarkets who send buyers to search for wine of a reasonable standard and above, so that most wines will be acceptable to most customers. Some of the bad wines can be in the higher price bracket too! It pays to buy what you know and to buy in bulk at the wine fairs, where you can taste the wines and have someone on hand to tell you about it – this often someone from the Chateau. Otherwise, when buying from a Chateau direct, at least they will provide a tasting, but it is worth checking the local supermarket prices. There are some phone apps that do that these days.
    It’s definitely worth buying in bulk on visits to France, Spain, Italy, etc. – in theory no duty is payable on any amount of wine and spirits between EU countries. The UK government consider 90 litres of wine, 20 litres of fortified wine and 10 litres of spirits to be a reasonable personal allowance:
    https://www.gov.uk/duty-free-goods/arrivals-from-eu-countries
    BTW I’m no fan of supermarkets and I do appreciate seeing where the grapes are grown.

    • All great advice MD. The supermarkets, generally, just confuse me. I did manage to find some seriously underpriced Clos du Marquis 2010 in a supermarket near where we were staying a couple of years ago. Needless to say, I bought the lot. It is now only a fond memory. I should have tried to hang on to it for a while. I can imagine trying to fit the reasonable personal allowance into the boot of the car!
      Best,
      Conor

      • It’s not very clear in French supermarkets. They separate everything by grape variety, if I remember correctly. I was very grateful to have had French guidance from a friend, though I think these days there would be English speaking staff at the wine fairs, not to mention lots of tastings 😉

        • I’m just home from a charity wine tasting. Hard to stay in control.

          • Ha ha – sounds like you had a good time 🙂

  • It is a minefield, isn’t it? We were in St Emilion a few years back and the prices in the touristy shops were eye-watering and the wines sometimes less than mouth-watering. Overall I’d say good advice, Conor, thanks. Although I have sometimes (not in Bordeaux) bought en vrac direct from the producer to bottle up at home, but only based on trusted advice (my big sister).

    • In my own experience, the advice of the big sister should never be ignored. That is my big sister, not yours. I have never even met the woman!

      • She likes food and wine.You’d get along fine. 🙂

  • I find it also helps to look at a wine guide first, and look for a winery with good ratings and reasonable prices. We already have a few cases in the camper, with space for more…

    • Bringing the camper is a dangerous move Stefan. There certainly is a lot of room to bring back quantity. When you combine that with a quality wine guide, you inevitably end up having to take out a mortgage to fund the trip home.

  • We figured that France and Italy keep all the good stuff there so we plan on having luggage space to bring it back with us! Love this post. A lovely trip.

    • It’s true Virginia. They only send the dregs over to the States. You need to visit more often to taste the lovely stuff.
      Best,
      C

  • My husband , who has bought French wines for several decades agrees with what you say. In America there are some terrific buys on quality French wines at Costco ( a warehouse store) and it may be also true in France. He has bought classified Bordeaux at favorable prices ( his ancestors are Dutch ) in French supermarkets .

    • Thanks for the visit and thanks for the helpful comments. I will be in NJ in a couple of weeks. I might pop in to a Costco and see what is going on over there.
      Best,
      Conor

  • Reading your fantastic tale and being peagreen with envy just wish I had the opportunity to travel regional wine districts in Europe with a car or campervan [double claps for Stefan : space and accommodation if needed!!]. And can’t believe how civilized you people are regarding ‘personal allowance’! It sounds as if you returned with some enviable purchases to go with future cooking . . . prices: it is SO frustrating to read what Americans pay for OUR lamb at their supermarkets and what we are asked in ours to make those extra export dollars!!!

    • In fairness Eha, you do have some pretty good wines down there. However, the relative youth of the country means you don’t have the rich heritage stuff that makes it all so much fun.

      • Conor dearHeart . . . Agree, but methinks we have an awful lot of that thing called ‘fun’ even tho’ we are but babes!! And our wines are ‘good enough’ for me to be awfully ambivalent about spending the extra dollar 🙂 ! But have had ‘that other stuff’ and CAN appreciate . . .

        • Fun is where it’s at, for sure. The way the better French stuff is going, it will all end up in vaults in China anyway. Not that I could afford it anyway. Still, it’s nice to press ones face through the bars of the gates of the beautiful chateau and wonder….

        • You and me both, tho’ we may be at different ends of the globe . . . to you and yours and yes, I’m kind of following the ‘Vuelta’ . . and trying very hard not to say things about . . . and not to press my nose in certain places . . . cannot afford to much less than you . . .

          • Hoping for our Dan today. Hopefully his time has arrived. He could celebrate with some Spanish wine. But, that’s a whole different story.

  • I have found the 8€ is the limit that I pay for a bottle in a French supermarket and I never look at Bordeaux or Burgundy. Living here, I would opt to buy Loire wines which I believe to be greatly underrated. Before I left England I had cellars with 3 or 4 merchants in England (Nickolls & Perks for claret, Lay & Wheeler for drinking and New World, etc)and to my mind it is much wiser, safer and cheaper to buy from good merchants in UK than to chance your arm in France. Then I had no money and auctioned it all…sadly never tasting much of it:)

    • I try to drink everything I buy. Not literally, but you know what I mean. Anything that I have ‘laid down’ ends up going down the sink or down my gullet in an ill considered foray into the ‘wine room’ (the unused dining room). €8 seems like a pretty good budget.

  • worthed!!!

  • Why not simplify the process… try them all

  • Oh the dilemmas of what to bring back when traveling on holiday. Wine certainly is a great choice and it sounds like you made some wise choices. Nice post. 🙂

    • Thanks Karen,
      I appreciate that it is not practical to bring much back when you are flying across the Atlantic. My apologies if I over-tantalised you!

      • Your posts always tantalize me…usually it is your food, this time the wine. 🙂

  • Well done Conor! It is hard to know where to go, and what prices will be. Here in El Dorado County in CA, we have over 60 small wineries and some excellent wines. Some not so excellent too.

    Have been off the grid for a bit and have lots of catching up to do. Been down with pneumonia and was hospitalized for two weeks. Looking forward to reading on and checking out your new recipes. May you and yours all be in good health! ^..^

    • Goodness Barb! That is not good news. I hope you are recovered and can bring the Sierra Foothills back to life again. I got a 4th Anniversary notice from WP today. That’s how long we have been corresponding. It has given me a lovely window into your world.
      Take your own advice and be well.
      Conor

      • I am getting better every day. Tomorrow I get to venture out. We are taking a road trip and I get to see more of the world. More of my world. 🙂

        • Great to hear it Barb. Be well. Get better.
          Conor

  • As one who lives in perpetual fear of being found out (being a culchie fraud fits in so well in the finance industry, but not so well when it comes to proper food and wine) I am often also the one lurking in the supermarket, buying effluent in mispriced bottles. When I am President of the World, I will have a Minister For Fraud Prevention who will keep my cellar stocked (and my Cabinet bursting). I have it all planned out.

    • And I shall be He. On condition that I get to go to all the places I can’t afford now and spend the ‘budget’ in some fine syrup.

      • Already in the Manifesto, Conor. Along with 2 Ard Fheis a year in Mauritius and military service for anyone using the word ‘like’ more than three times in the one sentence.

        • I was about to hit the “like” button because I like this, like…

  • Just getting back from a nine day camping trip with no interwebz. Glad you stuck to your gut feelings. No sense in buying overpriced wine. (Your method of passing expensive signage sounds like good enough methodology to me!) Looks like a nice haul, Conor!

    • Thanks Kathryn
      You should be seeing them feature over the winter. I look forward to including them in and around recipes.
      Best,
      Conor

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