Preparing for the Road Trip – Where to Buy Wine

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Going on holiday to France this year? Here are some tips on the best places to get fuelled up with one of the country’s finest products

When you get to France, the choice can often be too dazzling for the average Irish man or woman to be able to make a sober informed decision. When you get to the first hypermarket, the range of wines in their section is likely to be bigger than the biggest entire wine shop that you will have seen in Ireland.

You’re trying to remember all the details about wines that you learned on that wine course a couple of years ago, but it all tends to evaporate at the dizzying array of choices before you.

The other thing is that it’s only when you go to France that you realise just how much wine France produces. A cursory glance through the wine section in any Irish supermarket would lead you to believe that France is just one of many other countries that produces wine in a world where the Australians and the Chileans are the main players.

Get that into you: Taste is everything, until you taste too much to remember who you are

Get that into you: Taste is everything, until you taste too much to remember who you are

In terms of quantity, France is the world leader. The country produces 6.6 tonnes of wine annually. By comparison, Australia and Chile each produce about 1 million tonnes a year.

French wine is, generally speaking, a lot more subtle in taste and there are stricter rules with regard to irrigation. It’s not allowed in France for at least the first few years in a vineyard’s life (I can’t remember the exact figure – I had some wine at the time), where the vines develop only from natural rainwater, making the roots push deeper into the soil and giving them their distinctive subtle flavours.

So the theory goes, at least. Whatever the benefits or not of nature-only irrigation, there is no doubting the huge range of French wines available and the quality on offer. It is in this area that no other country in the world comes even close to competing with France (notwithstanding the fact that certain individual wines from other countries do compete or even surpass their French equivalents).

So where does one start? And where is the best place to buy?

That is not an easy question to answer because it depends on your taste and on your budget. For the vast majority of people, however, the price factor is the main deciding one. This makes plenty of sense, because it is often the case that a splash-out on a €30 bottle can disappoint whereas a €2 investment might make for a much more enjoyable drink. Furthermore, the price of a bottle of wine is usually a very accurate indicator of its quality. A vineyard has a limited quantity of production every year so going by the old supple-and-demand rules of economics, it’s hard to find a purer model in practice.

For buying wine in France, there are four basic sources to consider:

    1. Direct from the grower
    2. Maison des Vins (local co-op shops, normally run by tourism organisations)
    3. Hypermarkets/Supermarkets
    4. Close-to-port wholesalers

Mmmm... Saint Emilion! One of the most seductive locations in France if you want to experience buying direct from the wine-grower

Mmmm… Saint Emilion! One of the most seductive locations in France if you want to experience buying direct from the wine-grower

1. Direct from the vineyard: This is the most romantic option and if it works out well, you’ll have a lovely time coupled with some good-value purchases. There’s nothing like experience of bringing home in a box the memory-made-real of a wonderful afternoon that started with a drive along a dusty track to a rustic farmhouse of crumbling plaster.
This approach can be very hit-or-miss, however. The best thing to do is to prepare beforehand with a bit of detective work. Pick up the phone (still the fastest way of getting accurate information in this case) and ring the local tourist office and get some recommended names. Ask others who have been to France before. It is sometimes the case that the vineyard is owned by a foreign billionaire producing mediocre wine and selling it and the vineyard tour on the seductive name and location.

2. The Maisons des Vins: This is a very good option in order to get a taste of what is available in the area. They won’t offer the best value available, but they are an excellent source of information and will offer tastings and a full range of what you can buy locally. It’s worth buying a few bottles in a Maison des Vins and getting the low-down on what’s around early in your holiday. This will allow you to make an informed decision when buying larger quantities for taking home.

3. Hypermarket/Supermarket: This is where you’ll find the best value in a staggering range. Everything you want is there and watch out for the special offers, even if it’s something above your budget. Most people tend to go for wines in the €3 region, but something on offer with the likes of Leclerc for €5.80 is likely to be a wine of fine quality that the owners are aiming to sell for about €10 in the coming years.

4. Close-to-Port Outlets: Many people are put off by these places with their loud and brash signage. If they’re located that close to the port, then they must be run by a bunch of chancers – selling to customers who take the ferry and are never seen again. Right? Not so right, as it turns out. They might not always quite compete with some of the larger hypermarkets, but there is a very healthy level of competition between the different outlets. They also do a lot of return business (people who go to France once tend to come back again and again) and they have the ultimate advantage of being close to the port. The Wine Centre in Roscoff, for example, is one that’s located about 1km from the port and they do a good deal in boxes of a perennial favourite of mine Le Petit Pont (red)

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