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Ask the expert: 7 tips for choosing the best French wine

Genevieve Mansfield
Genevieve Mansfield - [email protected]
Ask the expert: 7 tips for choosing the best French wine
A wine merchant looks at a display of wine at a supermarket in Paris in 2018 (Photo by Eric Feferberg / AFP)

Looking to choose a reliably enjoyable and affordable bottle of wine in France? We asked a wine expert for their tips on getting the best bottle for your money.

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Anyone who has walked into a French supermarché has likely marvelled at the seemingly unending wine aisle, filled with everything from 'Grand Cru' to cheap bottles for just a couple of euros. 

Some bottles of wine are labelled with gold and silver medals, while others boast an affiliation to a château or domaine. Then there's the grape, the blend or the appellation.

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It can be confusing to know where to start.

The Local spoke with wine expert Caroline Conner, who has worked in the industry for 15 years and runs wine tastings and teaching sessions in Lyon, to find out how to pick a reliably tasty and affordable bottle of wine. 

These were her top tips;

Shop at the caviste

Visiting a wine-merchant was Conner's first tip for finding affordable and reliable wine that you will enjoy, largely because of the face-to-face interaction. 

"Shop at the caviste instead of the supermarket. That's not to say that the supermarket doesn't have good wine - because it does - but there's no one who can help you in the supermarket. 

"At the caviste you can talk to a human, and the caviste will be able to help you.

"They will learn your tastes and be able to recommend things for you. Just because they sell expensive wine does not mean that's all they sell. Even the fanciest wine merchants will have good value wines as well.

"[The good value wines] are also likely to be more interesting and better quality than the stuff at the supermarket because they won't be as mass produced," Caroline added.

If you don't know where to start, you can search 'cave à vin' with your postal code and pick through the options of what comes up nearby.

Conner also advised prioritising wine-merchants over large supermarket chains in order to support local businesses.

"If you are lucky enough to have an independent wine-merchant in your community, that person needs your money a lot more than Monoprix does," she said.

Learn about the different wine regions

When faced with an endless aisle of wine, the second expert tip is to start narrowing your options down based on your preferred regions and tastes.

To figure out your preferences, you will have to taste the wine, of course.

"It takes a commitment to learning, if you really loved something, buy that again or something similar. If you’re having people over for dinner, maybe buy a few wines to taste," she said.

France has many famous wine regions and all of them produce good wines - there isn't one that is 'better' than the others, it's just a question of what you like.

Once you understand what you like, you can look for similar options from nearby regions as well. 

For example, Caroline said: "If you really like Burgundy, you could go for Beaujolais. It has really great wine these days."

Caroline also explained that some wine regions generally offer more affordable options than others.

"In my opinion, Côtes du Rhône are always a safe bet - both the reds and the whites. They are cheap and consistent.

"Anywhere in the Languedoc is also going to have really good value. I know we are all obsessed with Provence rosé, but Provence also has some really good reds and whites too.

"These are hot places where it's easy to have ripeness, plus it's easier to be sustainable because it's really dry so they don't have to use as many fungicides or herbicides down there," she said.

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Know your grapes

When seeking to save money, Caroline also explained that knowing the types of grapes and blends you enjoy can go a long way.

"In France, for the vast majority of wines, the system is that the biggest word on the label is the location not the grape.

"The place refers to the legal designation that refers to boundaries on a map with a set of rules, including grape variety.

"So when you are buying wine, try to answer 'what grape is attached to this place'. It's a bit annoying, but a quick Google search should give you the answer."

Once you have tasted the regions you enjoy, try to keep in mind which grape varieties were included in those wines, as you are likely to find similar-tasting options from other regions too.

"For example, if you loved a Pinot Noir from Burgundy but only have €8 to spend, you should look at Alsace because it's a lot cheaper. Pinot Noir from Auvergne is really good value for money as well." 

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Consider the medals, but act with caution 

If you walk into a supermarket, vineyard or wine cave in France, particularly during a Foire aux Vins (seasonal wine sale), then you may notice some bottles have a sticker signifying that the bottle won a gold, silver or bronze medal.

READ MORE: Foire aux vins: How to find bargains on high quality wine in France

The medals come from les concours, or wine competitions that are held throughout France - some are at a local or regional level, while others might be themed (for example: a concours judging boxed wine). 

Caroline said that when walking through the supermarket, "the medals are a totally legitimate thing to look at. It means that this wine was judged well against its peers. There’s nothing bad about that, but it does not mean that the one its standing next to is not equally as good.

"The reality is that most producers won't submit wines to these competitions. If it doesn't have a medal, that doesn't mean anything."

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Set your budget

When it comes to the amount of money you should spend, this will depend on your own budget and your region of preference.

"In France, wine is very cheap compared to America," said Caroline. 'I think if you are up for spending €12 to €15, then you can get something quite nice from southern France. But if you want to buy Burgundy, then a decent bottle might cost you upwards of €40.

"Start by understanding what your price point is and own that. It's not a big deal. If you don't want to spend more than €8, then you can do that. That being said, if want to be really value driven, then you need to buy from certain regions."

Check point scores on wine magazines

While the concours often involve amateur wine fans, specialised magazines will rank wines based on the points awarded to them by wine professionals.

Caroline explained that for those looking for expert reviews and commentary, these magazines and guides can be a helpful place to start.

"In the US, you could look at Wine Spectator. In the UK, there is Decanter magazine. In France, there's the Guide Hachette des Vins

"When it comes to the prestigious wineries, they care about write-ups, reviews and points awarded in these magazines," she added.

Know the labels, and do not fear 'Vin de France'

When it comes to wine labels, you will see AOC (Appellation d'origine contrôlée) or AOP (Appellation d'origine protégée), which means that a wine was produced in a specific region or location based on a set of rules and grape variety requirements. 

This is not a quality mark, although generally producers who care enough to follow the local standards are producing nice wines. 

READ MORE: What does the AOP/AOC label on French food and wine mean - and are these products better?

You may also see the broader geographic category: IGP or Indication géographique protégée. "This is basically bigger and looser than the AOCs. There are some really good value wines that are just listed as IGPs.

"And then there is the 'Vin de France' label. This does not mean that the wine is not good.

"Vin de France just means that the wine is not following the local rules. At the supermarket, Vin de France may not be the best, but at a wine-merchant you could find some great Vin de France that comes from an appellation but does not follow the standards.

"For example, I work with a really cool 'Vin de France' which is a bubbly wine from Auvergne," Caroline added.

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