Rosemary Kneipp, an Australian translator and writer who lives in France has spent more than 15 years of wine tasting and numerous beginners’ and advanced wine classes. As members of a cercle oenophile (wine buffs’ club) Rosemary and her husband have developed an efficient and knowledgeable strategy for wine tasting as they visit France’s different wine-growing regions. Here are Rosemary’s top tips to help you navigate your way around the various wine cellar doors of France…
For many people, the wine experience is an integral part of a holiday in France but there are so many varieties that they often don’t know where to start and many visitors hesitate to visit a winery (vignoble) on their own.
The cellar door (chez le propriétaire) in France is usually just that – right on the vineyard – except in larger establishments where there may be a store in the closest town. When wines are bottled by the wine grower, Mise en bouteille à la propriété (or au chateau) will be indicated on the bottle.
If you want personal contact and a more authentic experience, it’s best to aim at the smaller vineyards.
Wines by region
Most wines in France are named according to where they come from – bourgogne, bordeaux, chinon, etc., based on an official and very strict appellation contrôlée system, known as AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée), indicating the geographical origin, quality and (generally) the style of a wine. Other categories include AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée), AOVDQS (Appellation d’Origine Vin de Qualité Supérieure), Vin de Pays and Vin de Table, the last of which is very low quality. However, the same wine-grower may market a wine that doesn’t fall into the appellation quota but is less expensive and just as good.
Wines vary in taste and price throughout the country so you need to know a bit about the local wine before you go to the cellar door. A quick visit to the supermarket will give you a good indication of the price range you can expect. You can get a decent Loire Valley wine for well under €10 for example, but will need to go higher for a burgundy or bordeaux.
Wines marketed under the name of the grape (cépage) – merlot, cabernet sauvignon, etc. – are not appellation contrôlée but that doesn’t mean they are inferior. However, with the exception of Burgundy, where only the pinot noir grape is used for reds, the majority of traditional red wines in France include two or more grape varieties. For example, bordeaux wine mainly contains cabernet franc and merlot, with optional small quantities of petit verdot, cabernet sauvignon, malbec and carmenère, for example.
White wines often have a single grape variety – sauvignon, chardonnay, viognier, etc. In Alsace, all white wines are called by the name of the grape – reisling, gewurtztraminer, etc. There is only one red, made with pinor noir, but I would personally not recommend it.
Otherwise, wine can be bottled by a wine merchant (négociant) or made by a coopérative, which is often the case of areas with a lot of small wine growers (vignerons) who can’t afford their own installations.
Beyond the cellar door
Wine co-ops (coopératives) can be a good place to do tastings when you don’t have a lot of experience or time. It’s less personal than a cellar door and there isn’t the same pressure to buy. Sometimes you may have to pay for the tasting. Also most towns in wine-growing areas have wine stores with a sommelier where you can taste the local wine and you won’t necessarily be paying more than you would at the cellar door.
At the cellar door
If you want to pay a visit to a cellar door, though, don’t be worried about not being able to communicate. Vineyards have changed a lot in recent years and most wine growers – or at least their children – now have degrees in oenology and have spent a few months in the US or Australia as part of their studies.
However, it’s a good idea to phone or send an email first, particularly during harvest time in September/October, to check on opening hours and whether there is someone who speaks English.
Wine-Tasting Tips for Beginners
Wine tasting (dégustation) is usually free of charge at the cellar door so you should not taste three different wines and then walk away without buying anything unless other people are tasting at the same time. You can buy a single bottle.
There is usually a price list somewhere in the cellar so check out your budget first. Don’t ask to taste the €30 bottle if you don’t intend to buy it!
Always taste white wines first – sweet, then dry and rosés – and reds afterwards.
You’ll look like less of a newbie if you spit the wine into the bucket provided after swilling. Even if you’re not swallowing the wine, the fumes will quickly go to your head, particularly in the afternoon on a hot summer’s day.
If you like to compare different wines and there are two of you, ask to have one wine in one glass and a different wine in the other. That way, you can go from one to the other without the wine grower having to give you a second glass.
It’s difficult for anyone to taste more than 3 or 4 wines without getting confused. When wine tasting, it’s best to keep it simple. Learn to know what you like and use your own vocabulary to explain and remember taste and smell.
You can obtain a list of local producers and co-ops from the tourist office in the area. Various guide books are available, with Hachette and Gilbert & Gaillard being among the most reliable in French. Most English-speaking guide books usually only recommend the best known and most expensive wines.
At the end of the day, the important thing is to choose a wine that suits your palate. Whether you’re visiting a cellar door or a wine co-op, it’s hard to go wrong when exploring the wonderful wines of France.