A year in a French vineyard: October 2019
How to be a savvy French wine buyer? Jonathan Hesford explores how the French drinker keeps abreast of the wine scene
A Connexion reader sent me an email saying that in the UK he found the recommendations made by a newspaper wine columnist to be very useful in choosing what to buy. He wanted to know if there was an equivalent in France.
I replied that in France many people use wine magazines, such as Revue du Vin de France, the annual guide books or the presence of a medal on the bottle when choosing wines from the supermarket.
The exchange made me think that it would be useful to write an article about choosing wine in France.
First of all it is worth comparing the way most people choose wine in Britain and in France. Britain has the highest percentage in Europe of people buying their wine as part of their supermarket shop.
France has a significantly lower percentage with 25% of people buying wine from specialist wine shops or direct from producers.
Secondly, the UK wine market has a much larger range of wines on offer from every corner of the globe. Whereas French wine totally dominates the selection in France.
The French wine consumer is fairly knowledgeable about the wines that they can choose from. They know the style of wine made by each region and understand to some extent the quality categories of IGP, AOP and Grand Crus.
The British shopper is overwhelmed by the seemingly vast choice of wines that they find almost impossible to understand. In both cases there are high levels of prejudice about what constitutes a good wine or region.
These two factors both have an effect on what advice consumers seek. The French consumer is more likely to have a favourite region and wants information on which wines or producers offer the best value for money, or excellence.
The British consumer is likely to be willing to try something new so long as it fits within their budget and does not seem too weird.
The “shopping lists” put together by UK newspaper wine experts are designed to meet that desire for discovery with an understanding of what is likely to please a lot of people.
They aim to encourage buyers to try a new variety or a wine from a different region that is similar to something they already know. They focus on wines that are widely available and sit within a relatively low price range.
The annual French wine guides are very different. Only a small percentage of people are going to buy the guide and then they are going to use it to find wines from their favoured regions, being very unlikely to step outside their comfort zone and buy a recommended wine from an unknown region or style.
However, the guides will recommend wines which are considered great even if they cost far more than the average person would pay or are hard to source. Also the guides consider the track record of the producer.
The medal competitions are aimed more at the supermarket consumer. It is the producers who decide whether they want to pay to enter a competition. Therefore many wines are not being entered for a medal, notably those which do not need to have one in order to sell.
Each competition has its own peculiarities. Some will have professionals doing the judging and some will invite enthusiastic amateurs. French consumers consider certain competitions more reliable than others, the Concours Général Agricole being the number one, followed by regional ones such as Macon and Orange. Each year there seem to be new competitions appearing with their own market focus, such as female drinkers or rosé wines.
As I wrote a couple of years ago, the presence of a medal is no real guarantee of excellence and it is debatable as to whether a gold medal signifies any better wine than a bronze, but it should help avoid disappointment as the wine has passed an independent tasting panel.
Supermarket chains actively encourage their suppliers to enter and their buyers will often choose wines based on the medals it has won.
The French newspapers also do features on wines but to be honest I have never read one nor have I ever seen any requests for samples from the newspapers. So I have no idea how they decide what wines to recommend or why.
France has a fair number of influential wine bloggers who are active on social media and a lot of wine amateurs, especially younger ones, use the application “Vivino”, which is like a TripAdvisor for wine.
The annual foire aux vins takes place in supermarkets in September and October. It has become a big, heavily marketed event with several large and online merchants joining in to offer the public bargains or harder-to-find wines.
Savvy shoppers will pick up the leaflets in advance and do some research before deciding what to buy for their cellars, often using the medals or guidebook ratings as well as looking at vintage charts.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that a large number of French wine enthusiasts like to buy their wine direct from the producer. The number of vignerons with attractive cellar-doors is increasing every year.
Wine lovers who do not live in a wine region like to go to the “salons” where producers present their wines to the public. The Vignerons Indépendants run a series of such fairs, with the biggest being in Paris and Strasbourg but there are several other organisations putting on salons, including the wine magazines themselves.
In conclusion, I would say that France has a wider range of ways to get recommendations, discover and choose good wines, even though the market is pretty much limited to French wines.
Jonathan Hesford has a Postgraduate Diploma in Viticulture and Oenology and is the winemaker of Domaine Treloar in the Roussillon – www.domainetreloar.com
If you have questions on this column, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org