Buying wine in France

  • Sunday 1 September 2002

If you're sick of paying top prices for French wine in the UK, the place to go is France, whether to vineyards, maisons de vin or supermarkets. RACHEL BRIDGE has useful advice on how to plan your shopping trip

If you're sick of paying top prices for French wine in the UK, the place to go is France, whether to vineyards, maisons de vin or supermarkets. RACHEL BRIDGE has useful advice on how to plan your shopping trip

The rough track winding its way up to the crumbling château. The sun beating down on the vines. The idea of touring France's vineyards with an empty car boot and a wine guide to hand is an alluring prospect. There can be little to match the thrill of standing in a cool cellar tasting a glass of wine with the person who has lovingly nurtured it from grape to bottle.

The good news is that given patience and advance planning, it is possible to discover a wide selection of small producers throughout France making and selling highly drinkable wines – and make big savings. Simon Field, buyer for UK wine merchants Berry Brothers & Rudd, says: 'There are some fantastic small producers out there who only produce 200–300 cases a year. Their production may be quite small because they are concentrating on the idea that the intrinsic value of the wine comes from specific soil and climate characteristics.' He points out that in the Rhône many individual growers are producing small quantities of Côtes du Rhône that are at least as good as the wine produced by the region's largest producers. He does warn that finding the good ones without help can be a hit-and-miss affair, however: 'But equally there is some less good stuff being produced. It is a lottery and it can be hard to separate the two without some forward planning.'

WHAT TO BUY

Forget the idea of stocking up on the best-known labels and famous names – this is not the moment to buy fine grand cru wines. So many British fine wine merchants specialise in these areas that it is usually just as cheap to buy them in the UK. The biggest savings are to be had on everyday drinking wines costing less than £20. Head for the good but lesser-known wine regions such as Languedoc-Roussillon, Alsace and Provence. And seek out the small producers who have gained AC status but are overlooked by UK importers simply because they do not produce wine in sufficient quantities.

HOW TO BUY IT

There are three ways of buying wine in France. Direct from the grower at the cellar door; from a wine information bureau known as a 'maison des vins'; or from a French supermarket. Buying direct at the cellar door can be a rewarding experience; depending on the size of the vineyard and its enthusiasm for visitors you may be invited to take a tour around the winery and so given an insight into their winemaking techniques, before perhaps meeting the winemaker and trying the wine. There is no obligation to buy, although some of the larger vineyards may make a small charge for tasting. You can get a full list of vineyards in an area from local tourist offices. Some vineyards are, however, more geared up for visitors than others, and facilities – and opening hours – can vary greatly, so if there is a particular one you wish to visit you should phone ahead.

Most winemaking centres have a maison des vins, which represents and sells the wine of local growers. The big advantage of buying from a maison des vins is that you can taste the wines of many different local producers all under one roof – the Vinedea Maison des Vins in Châteauneuf-du-Pape represents around 70 local producers, for example, while the Maison des Vins in Blaye in southwest France represents more than 200. Both hold daily tastings for wine buyers. The other plus of buying in this way is that a maison des vins will allow buyers to put together their own mixed cases containing wines from several different producers. If you intend to buy a large quantity of the same wine, however, an individual grower is likely to offer you a better price for bulk orders.

FOIRE AUX VINS

The best time to hit the French supermarkets is in September, when stores across the country hold an annual two-week wine festival promotion known as the 'Foire aux Vins'. All the big supermarkets mark the event by organising free in-store tastings and by offering a much wider choice of wines from French producers than they would normally sell. The event is also marked by special wine price promotions, for example offering one bottle free with each case bought. Olivia Dupont, a spokeswoman for French supermarket chain Auchan says: 'The Foire aux Vins is a chance for people to discover fine grand cru wines such as St-Emilion which they would not normally expect to find in a supermarket, and at very advantageous prices.' This year the Foire aux Vins will be held on 10–24 September.

HOW MUCH YOU SAVE

The short answer is: quite a lot. The duty difference alone between wine bought in France and in the UK is £1.16 a bottle and in practice a bottle of wine bought in France is typically up to £5 cheaper than its UK equivalent. Which means that even taking into account the cost of getting there, there are still significant savings to be made. As a rough guide you can save around £2 a bottle on wine that sells for around £5 in the UK, and at least £4–5 on wine that sells for around £20. Which means that if you buy 10 cases of decent wine you will save around £600. You will also be able to save £3–4 a bottle on Champagne, normally around £12–14 in the UK, giving you a saving of £48 a case. In some cases the savings can be significantly more: a case of 12 bottles of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Domaine du Pegaü 1999 costs £239.88 through Majestic in the UK, and £141 bought direct from the Vinedea Maison des Vins in Châteauneuf-du-Pape – a saving of almost £100.

GETTING IT HOME BY CAR

Customs and Excise allows each person over 18 to bring 90 litres of wine – roughly equivalent to 10 cases – into the UK without paying additional duty or tax, provided the wine is for personal use, that you personally accompany the goods and have retained proof of purchase. Up to 60 litres – just over seven cases – of that allowance can be sparkling wine. If you wish to bring more than 10 cases back to the UK, for a party or wedding, for instance, you may have to show proof that the wine is for personal use, so make sure you bring with you a wedding invitation or a copy of a letter confirming the party venue (see News and This Month for a cautionary tale). An estate car will carry about 10 cases; if you are planning to bring back more you will need to hire a van. You can also arrange to get your wine sent back separately, although you will have to pay transport costs and import duty. The advantage of this approach is that you aren't then limited to what will fit in your car – and you won't have to spend the rest of your holiday sitting on wine cases or worrying about your purchases deteriorating in a hot car.

Many growers, even small ones, will arrange to transport your wine back to your home address in the UK, which usually takes about a week. At Château Dubraud in the Côte de Blaye owner Alain Vidal will happily arrange transport to a UK address at a cost of around £142 for five cases including duty. Domaine Trintignant in Châteauneuf-du-Pape will also arrange transport to a UK address for purchases up to a maximum of 60 bottles. Sales director Pierre Bermond says: 'We have a lot of English visitors here and are happy to offer this service for individual buyers.'

A third option is to arrange for your wine to be transported to a French Channel port, from where you can pick it up and take it with you across the Channel. The big advantage of this is that you won't have to pay import tax on your wine – and you don't have to lug it around France for the rest of your holiday. At Domaine du Merchien in the Lot valley, for example, it will cost £35 to have 10 cases of its wine transported to a warehouse in the port of Calais where it will be held until collection. There are no hard and fast rules about which growers will arrange transport. Some do and some don't, so ring ahead to find out if it is possible.

BY PLANE

Wine and aeroplanes do not really go well together but if you have no other option then it is just possible to bring back a few bottles of wine this way if you have little other luggage. A case of 12 standard bottles of wine weighs around 17kg, and a spokeswoman for British Airways says that as long as this falls within your baggage allowance – 23kg for British Airways economy class – they will carry the wine in the hold for no extra charge, provided it is well packaged and clearly marked fragile. You should also be able to bring two or three bottles on as hand luggage. You may also be able to arrange to take additional cases of wine in the hold and pay excess baggage charges – likely to be around £80–100 per case – but you should check first whether the airline will do this.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Books

  • A Traveller's Wine Guide to France by Christopher Fielden, (Aurum Press, £9.99). Includes maps of vineyards, information on visitor-friendly wineries and a calendar of wine festivals.
  • Touring in Wine Country by Hubrecht Duijker and Hugh Johnson, (Mitchell Beazley, £12.99). A series of books covering several regions in France including Bordeaux, Provence, Burgundy and the Rhône. Includes wine routes, recommended wine producers and cellars to visit.
  • For details of how to order these books through the Decanter Bookshop, turn to p99.

    WEBSITES

    A useful website is that of wine merchants Berry Brothers and Rudd, at www.bbr.com. It has a guide to producers by region and a comprehensive price list so you can compare prices.

    Other useful websites for wine loving travellers to France include:

  • Jwww.franceguide.com

    The official French Tourist Office site – type 'wine' into the search engine to get comprehensive information about wine events, festivals, and suggested wine routes in French wine country.

  • Jwww.terroir-france.com

    A French wine guide with information on winemaking, grape varieties, wine regions, grapes and tasting

  • Jwww.frenchwinesfood.com

    Information about different varieties of French wines

  • Jwww.bordeaux.com

    (see left) everything you ever wanted to know about buying and drinking wine from Bordeaux

  • TOP TEN TIPS FOR BUYING WINE IN FRANCE

    Do some advance research. Buy a wine guide to the region you are planning to visit – the Hachette Wine Guide (see p99) and Parker's Wine Buyer's Guide list producers by region and contact details – and get a price list from a couple of wine merchants before you go so you can compare prices.

    Always taste before you buy. If you are not able to taste the wine on the spot, for example in a supermarket, then buy a single bottle – or a selection – and hold a personal tasting over a picnic lunch before going back to stock up on the one you like best.

    While that bottle of rosé might taste heavenly watching the sun go down in a Provençal village, back home in cold, rainy Oxford it may be a different story.

    When you have decided what to buy, get it all in one go as generally speaking the larger the quantity, the bigger the discount. At Château la Nerthe in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, for example, the savings work out at around one free bottle for every dozen bought.

    Avoid visiting vineyards during harvest time as the grower and his workers will be busy working in the vineyards and not interested in showing you round or discussing their wines. Harvest is between September and October but varies from region to region so check with the local tourist office before going ahead with the trip.

    Brush up on your French. Few winemakers off the beaten track speak any English so having even the most rudimentary grasp of French – or a phrase book – can be extremely helpful.

    Allow yourself plenty of time. Be prepared to spend a couple of days driving around a region and visiting several vineyards before finding something that you really like. The quality of wine can vary greatly even between neighbouring producers.

    Do not visit a vineyard at lunchtime. The French take their lunch very seriously and they will either not be there at all or will be there but in a grumpy mood.

    Study the wine lists of local Michelin-starred restaurants if you can to see what local wines they recommend.

    Do not be tempted to buy wine in bulk (en vrac) sold in plastic containers. Yes, these are very cheap, yes they taste fantastic with a baguette and brie in the sun, but they don't travel well, they don't keep well, and the chances are you'll end up pouring the wine down the sink.

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