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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.