How to find the best wines in France

If you're off on a cross-channel jaunt, here are our six tips on finding the best wines

With so many famous wine regions to choose from, you don’t have to travel far to find award winning wines once you’ve crossed the Channel.

But while French supermarkets offer great wine deals, the shelves can also be stocked with unpleasant surprises. Follow these six expert tips and you’ll be pulling those corks with confidence.

Visit local producers

As a rule, wines in French supermarkets tend to be entry-level offerings from big-volume brands, so it’s worth going straight to local vineyards or co-operatives for a taste of the local vin.

“You won’t find wines with much in the way of personality or typicity,” says Natasha Hughes, Master of Wine.

“Instead, seize the opportunity to explore the quirky, characterful byways of French winemaking by buying from local producers. With the exception of northern France, almost every area of the country produces wine. Take advantage of your holiday to go and visit a local producer and buy your wines direct.”

You can find local producers either by just looking out for signs as you drive along the country roads, or you can do some research in advance via the generic wine bodies of each region. Google ‘interprofession vin’ and the name of the region you plan to visit,” advises Hughes.

Richard Bampfield, Master of Wine, who currently tastes and assesses the French wines for Lidl, agrees: “If in a wine producing region, make the most of the Degustation/Vente and the opportunity to taste before you buy, and have some fun in the process.
“If you are generally wine-interested, invest in a copy of the Guide Hachette, a really good up-to-date guide to French wines and vintages.”

Don’t be afraid to ask

“By and large, producers in French wine-producing regions don’t tend to offer much information about grape varieties on their labels, and many French wines are made from blends of grapes rather than single varieties,” says Hughes.

“Exceptions include wines made in Alsace, some of the wines produced in Touraine in the Loire and IGP wines, many of which come from Languedoc in the south of France.

“If you feel more comfortable knowing about grape varieties, though, there’s nothing to stop you asking what goes into any particular bottle when tasting at the winery.”

Buy in bulk

To get the best prices, buy your wine by the litre or the case.

“Use your holiday to snaffle a bargain,” says Hughes.

“My favourite French purchases include aromatic white wines from Alsace (made from grapes like Riesling, Pinot gris and Muscat), and grower Champagnes - champagnes made by small producers who often own their own vineyard, rather than the big volume Grandes Marques Champagne houses - Cru Beaujolais (Beaujolais made from the very best sites in the region), delicate Provencal rosés and hearty reds from Languedoc Roussillon.”

Avoid tourist traps

“Avoid the main tourist centres as even the local wines will be overpriced – about the most expensive place to buy St Emilion Bordeaux is in St Emilion itself,” says Esme Johnstone, director of From Vineyards Direct and one of the founders of Majestic Wines.

“Beaune is much the same with Burgundy.

“The way to buy wine is to go to a vineyard you like the look of – or have been recommended – knock on the door and ask if you can buy some of their wine. You will be surprised at the positive reception you get nine times out of 10. Alternatively, ask the sommelier at a restaurant to recommend their favourite local producers,” says Johnstone.

“To summarise, ask, be brave and knock on doors!”

Styles to snap up

Wendy Narby, senior lecturer at the École du Vin in Bordeaux and founder of InsiderTasting, says there’s a lot more to Bordeaux than the region’s famous reds.

“Special offers in September and October during harvest are some of the best deals to be had in France and represent the lion’s share of supermarket sales.”

However, for summer drinking, Narby recommends rosé – it's in fashion and goes with everything.

“Not everyone knows about Bordeaux Rosé, but hunt it out; it's very user friendly. Keep your eyes open for Bordeaux Clairet too, a darker rosé that’s great with pasta.

“If you want to push the boat out, but do not want to hurt your wallet, look out for Crémant de Bordeaux, made in the same way as Champagne but from local sauvignon and sémillon grapes. You'll find it from €8-10 a bottle.

“For whites, check out Bordeaux Blanc and Entre-deux-Mers: light, fresh and aromatic, perfect for sipping by the pool and again, [it’s] easy to find lovely wines from €5-6 a bottle.

“With regards to reds, go for merlot-driven wines from young vintages, therefore fruity and early-drinking, for good value. Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur from recent vintages (2011 and 2012) and Côtes de Bordeaux wines for something a little more powerful, often with a bit of oak – perfect to go with your BBQ.”

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