The season of the French Foires aux Vins is beginning, and with it the question of whether it is worth making a special effort to find bargains.
It is not uncommon for there to be queues of clients, often middle-aged men, outside the supermarkets on the first day of the Foire aux Vins, and for the most sought-after bottles to be sold out in a couple of days, if not hours.
Nearly 50 years of Foires aux Vins
Started in 1973 by Edouard Leclerc (Leclerc supermarket chain), and quickly copied, the first Foire aux Vins caused a sensation in wine selling.
Before, most quality wine in France was sold by specialist cavistes, while less expensive wine could be bought in any grocery store, supplied by wholesalers from whom cafés and restaurants also got their stock.
It was a fairly closed market and did not appreciate the loud supermarket advertising associated with the Foires aux Vins with their promise of cheap but good bargains.
Since then, the Foires aux Vins have become part of the annual shopping cycle, with most running from September to October. The majority of French supermarkets have either started their Foires or will be doing so over the next couple of weeks.
For many French families, it is when they buy their bottled wine for the year.
How much of a saving can I expect to make?
As the concept has evolved, the number of wines ‘en soldes’ during the Foires aux Vins has fallen.
To hold ‘soldes’ (sales), French shops have to have authorisation from the prefecture and be able to show that the discounted products have been on sale at a higher price for a certain time.
The same rules do not apply for goods en promo, which is why some shops have ‘promos’ all the time.
In a typical Foires aux Vins, only a proportion of the wines will be on sale, but the shop will have many more shelves devoted to wine during the period than it usually has.
Another law called the Loi Egalim 2, which came into effect in 2019, and which applies to supermarkets and online sellers, prevents retailers from selling at a profit margin of less than 10% and limits the maximum discount level to 34%.
Each year, there are some well known and expensive wines offered at low prices by supermarkets to bring in the crowds.
But most advice in the French media recommends buying wines you like, using the Foire as an opportunity to get wines you would not normally see in a supermarket.
The catalogues are usually well written, and explain what sort of wine, and what grape types are used in each region.
For wine producers, the Foires aux Vins have become an important outlet.
In the period 2014 to 2018, the volume of wine sold during the Foires rose from 60 million litres to 65 million litres, and the value rose from €375million to €414million.
Important for Bordeaux wines
The sales are and always have been most important for Bordeaux wines, representing 18% of annual sales, and least important for Provence wine producers where they represented 6% of sales.
Exact figures are difficult to find but Le Monde newspaper said its analysis is that sales of supermarket wines, including the Foires aux Vins, are falling slowly year on year in volume, while prices per bottle remain the same or slightly higher due to inflation.
Spokesman for the Bordeaux wines trade council, Christophe Chateau, said people can always find good Bordeaux wines during the Foires.
“The supermarkets and hypermarkets are big buyers of wine from well known producers en primeur,” he told The Connexion.
En primeur is when wine, a year old and not yet ready to drink, is distributed in barrels, to be bottled and sold when it is ready, usually between two and five years later for good Bordeaux wines.
“But in addition to the big name Bordeaux, the supermarket buyers have become very good at finding exceptional wines from smaller producers and selling them and prices which are good for buyers and the producers, because of the volumes they can take,” said Mr Chateau.
Some of the Bordeaux is sold in lots at under €5 a bottle but most are in the €5 to €30 a bottle range, he said.
Sommelier and blogger Emmanuel Delmas, by contrast, told Les Echos newspaper that apart from one or two headline offers: “There are no presents or miracles. Supermarkets and hypermarkets are experts in controlling their costs and the prices are very well adjusted.”
A return to normal after Covid
After a dip in 2019, the Foires aux Vins picked up again in 2020 and 2021, despite difficult conditions due to Covid, but this year will mark the return of ‘normal’ Foires aux Vins.
In some supermarkets this will include having evening tasting sessions for clients with in-house experts, something which was banned during Covid.
“It is a very good opportunity for people to stock up their cellars, which are emptier than usual because people drank at home more during Covid,” said Mr Chateau.
Another factor which might influence wines at the lower end of the price spectrum, is the difficulties growers had in 2021, with late frosts in April, and then torrential rain in June making conditions difficult and yields down 13% nationwide.
White Burgundies, white wines from the Centre-Loire region and Beaujoulais, are in particularly short supply, and most catalogues compensate by offering more whites from other regions.
Quality though, is generally judged to be good, as the grapes which survived had a spell of hot dry weather in late July and August, allowing them to ripen to perfection.