Bluff your way through a French wine-tasting

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By Anthony Peregrine, a Travel Professional

Read more on France.

Overall rating:4.9 out of 5 (based on 10 votes)
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Inspirational
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Recommended for:
Cultural, Food and Drink, Short Break, Budget, Expensive, Mid-range

There is no better way to buy French wine than direct from the maker’s vineyard. Here’s how to swill, sniff, spit and talk like an expert, and the best hotels to stay in

Visiting French vineyards can be a testing experience. Like as not, you’re in the middle of nowhere, with a potholed lane to negotiate. On arrival, you will be greeted by a collection of farm buildings and at least one, and probably two, bounding dogs.

But that’s ok. The car will survive, the dogs will be friendly and the vigneron will shortly emerge to shoo them away if they’re not. More daunting is the fact that you are now in the heart of the world of wine. It is a world that – unlike the worlds of beetroot, carrots or other farm produce – comes with nuances that, you may fear, will make you look a fool.

So let us be clear. Wine is a drink, not a cultural hurdle or a divine revelation. The ability to distinguish a St Emilion from a Châteauneuf-du-Pape does not make you a better, or more interesting, person. The entire point of the stuff is to fuel conviviality, so you may tackle it on any level you like. (After three glasses, the levels fuse anyway.) You will only look a fool if you do something really foolish (see 9 below).

Bear this in mind and you’re halfway to a successful vineyard trip. Follow these 11 steps and success will be complete.

Step 1
Be exacting in the matter of the welcome you receive. Winemakers in France are on the rack at the moment, their sales challenged by New World competition and Old World puritanism. They should therefore be delighted to see you. If they are not, turn round and leave. There will be dozens of others nearby.

Step 2
You will be ushered into one of the stone buildings, where there will be either a proper tasting counter or a gap between vats and barrels. Remember: this is not a church. It is a farm shop. There’s no more need to be reverential here than there is at the fishmonger’s.

Step 3
A tour of the winemaking set-up may be proposed. Accept it on a first visit, but refuse all subsequent offers. Once you’ve seen one viticultural operation, you’ve seen them all.

Step 4
The “Dégustation Gratuite” (‘Free Wine-Tasting’) is the reward for slogging round the technical stuff. Once there’s wine in your glass, hold it up to the light and say, “Belle robe!” This usually means “Nice dress”. Here it means “Nice colour”. Now tip the glass over slightly. Then tip it back again. A decent wine will leave pronounced streaks on the glass, and you will say, “Belles jambes!” which means “Nice legs!” These phrases serve only to indicate how easily Frenchmen scramble their pleasures of the flesh.

Step 5
Now swirl and sniff… which doesn’t come naturally to Britons, who consider sniffing drinks a rather precious practice. But in France it’s expected, and anyone can smell fruit and flowers in various white wines, vanilla or tobacco in some reds. It takes but a moment’s concentration.

Step 6
Time for a sip - and do try all the chewing, sucking the wine across the palate and joggling it about in the mouth that you’ve seen on TV. It really does bring out the flavours.

Step 7
Spit it out you must – unless you want to be carried from the place singing 'Eskimo Nell'. It’s easy, like spitting out after brushing your teeth – though I do urge accuracy. During a tasting in Bordeaux, I inadvertently spat out over my host’s infant child. He’d come up silently on my blind side in a pushchair pushed by his mum.

Step 8
Meanwhile, the vigneron will have been talking at length about his vines, the earth and his family’s deep roots therein – the mystical alchemy of all three explaining the excellence of his wines. It’s easy to mock. I’ve done so often. But it comes with absolute sincerity, and the chap will now be searching your faces for signs of approval. Give them.

Step 9
Avoid, though, flights of wine-buffery (“I’m getting generous notes of a warm night in Tuscany, with just a hint of elderflower”). These indicate that you’re insane. If you have liked the wine, “delightful” (“un régal”) is quite sufficient. If you have doubts, try “it needs a little more time fully to express itself.” (“Il a besoin d’un peu plus de temps pour s’exprimer pleinement.”)

Step 10
Now you must buy something. Good manners require nothing less. If the wines haven’t impressed, buy a couple of bottles of the least expensive. They will solve the problem of what to take back for the in-laws. If they have, buy a case.

Step 11
If you’ve not been spitting out, hand the car keys to someone who has.

Where to stay

France’s three most famous wine regions – Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne – have any number of excellent hotels. Here are three of my favourites.

Bordeaux
The chateau of Cordeillan-Bages is the place to stay for a real treat among the vineyards of the Médoc. It has excellent rooms, a very good restaurant and an exceptional wine list. Rooms from €199.

Burgundy
Difficult to imagine a finer wine location than the Hotel de Vougeot (doubles from €74). In among the aristocrats of the Côte-de-Nuits, it overlooks the Clos-de-Vougeot vineyards – doing so with a stone-built style and warm contemporary comfort.

Champagne
Reims remains the best HQ for a champers trip, and the Hôtel de la Paix (doubles from €155) does the city-centre welcome with modern design chic, a fine cocktail bar and, not least, private parking.

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More information on Bluff your way through a French wine-tasting:

Author:
Anthony Peregrine
Traveller type:
Travel Professional
Guide rating:
4.9
Average: 4.9 (10 votes)
Total views:
2503
First uploaded:
15 June 2009
Last updated:
4 years 46 weeks 4 days 10 hours 55 min ago
Destinations featured:
Trip types:
Cultural, Food and Drink, Short Break
Budget level:
Budget, Mid-range, Expensive
Free tags / Keywords:
wine, vineyards, wine-tasting

Anthony recommends

Hotels

Price from Rating
(out of 5)
1. Chateau Cordeillan-bages
£354
N/A
2. Hotel De Vougeot
£50
N/A
3. Best Western Hotel De La Paix
£70
N/A

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Community comments (12)

Rating:
5
2 of 2 people found the following comment helpful.

Just what I needed to help me steer between tongue-tied embarrassment and pretentious idiocy. I have almost convinced myself that the confident use of "Belle robe" and "Belles jambes" will disguise my otherwise shameful ignorance. Well done, Mr Peregrine, another gem

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Rating:
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0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

Wine tasting has never been something I would have contemplated doing in France, but armed with this guide I might feel brave enough to try.

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Rating:
5
1 of 1 people found the following comment helpful.

Thoroughly enjoyed the article - just would have liked a sample of the prices you might get asked.

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Rating:
4
1 of 1 people found the following comment helpful.

So engaging and informative. I really enjoy this writers use of words and humor. More like this please!

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Rating:
5
0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

Besides being well written (adore the image of the bounding dogs and the pothole marked roads), this guide is practical. To be precise, it is indispensible. I would rather face a firing squad than admit to a highly-cultured Frenchman that I know nothing of l'eau de la vie. I shudder to imagine his haughty countenance, the upturned nose, the lifted brow, the heady whiff of disapproval and disgust emanating from his pores.

I would definitely read this, memorize this, before heading to a vineyard. Merci!

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Rating:
5
1 of 1 people found the following comment helpful.

This is Anthony Peregrine on top form. The French wine industry, which has faced increasingly robust challenges from other wine producing countries in recent years, should trumpet this article far and wide. Certainly, as someone who has strayed with greater frequency from the French shelf to New World products, this is a timely wake-up call to me to renew my acquaintance with vineyards across the Channel. I had quite forgotten how beautiful French wines can be. Just so long as Monsieur Peregrine is the guide!

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1 of 1 people found the following comment helpful.

Anthony Peregrine's name always guarantees an excellent - and often very amusing - read. This one hits the spot yet again - informative, encouraging (how many times have you pondered a degustation only to be put off by fear of the unknown?) and funny. Next time I'm in France I'll take it with me!

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Rating:
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0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

Anthony is not "bluffing" in his article but telling us how to be true amateurs at wine-tasting so we don't embarrass yourselves or our friends. Good wines deserves our respect as do the men who make them and I believe these tips will help us negotiate better prices too. Great article; very helpful...thanks Anthony.

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2 of 2 people found the following comment helpful.

Having completed two wine courses in the past I empathise with AP completely. Wine is to be enjoyed and not necessarily taken too seriously. There is a lot of pleasure to be had if approached in the right frame of mind. Those who get too intense about what they imagine lurks bneath the surface of a glass will never enjoy the benefits of drinking one to many, and probably have too few friends.

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Rating:
5
1 of 1 people found the following comment helpful.

Anthony Peregrine's seemingly effortless prose and self-deprecating humour never fails to engage and inform. This guide made me laugh out loud. It has also ensured that I will look beyond the supermarkets on my next visit to France.

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Rating:
5
1 of 1 people found the following comment helpful.

I really enjoyed this. Whilst I think I know a little bit about wines, Anthony Peregrine provided a no nonsense approach which will help me to gain confidence. He is witty as well as knowledgeable.

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Rating:
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3 of 3 people found the following comment helpful.

What a lovely demystification of the winetasting ritual. Anthony pitches it perfectly: not too cheeky, nor too devotional. Would that I could write as well...though I'm trying.

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