Bluff your way through a French wine-tasting

by Anthony.Peregrine

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.

 

Anthony.Peregrine

For generations, the rich, noble and celebrated among English-speaking peoples have had their foot-holds in the South of France. In 1988, I was among a subsequent wave of the poor, common and unknown. I arrived as a freelance journalist, working for the wine and food press, then the travel pages of the Sunday Times  and Daily Telegraph. None of these materially altered my condition but, frankly, I'd had no choice in the move. My French wife had insisted. She loved England and, more particularly, Lancashire – where we lived. Still does. But, after a few years, she’d forgotten what the sun looked like. “That’s acceptable in November, not in August,” she said.

So we left in search of heat, and found a lot more besides. Space, for a start. (France is two and a quarter times the size of the UK, for roughly the same population). And crystal-clear light. Long meals, longer beaches and a lifting of restraints. The kids could play outside pretty much all the time, and we, too, felt freer.

Of course, the French authorities can be as meddlesome as any but, as I discovered, French people will only put up with so much. On a micro-level, they insist on being left alone. Heaven knows what a British local council would make of the bulls which charge through our village streets at festival times. Or the mountain roads where barriers are placed, at best, whimsically. Or the summer friskiness for which certain remoter beaches are famed. There are busybodies in France but they get less of a hearing than in health-and-safety-crazed nations.

Felicity Kendall

Over two decades of reporting from the country, this is something I have come to appreciate quite as much as I appreciate grandeur of the mountains or of the beauty of a sunset over the sea. I also admire the French respect for their past, its protagonists and the sites which history has left. This can get out of hand; sometimes it seems that every wall more than 20 years old has a preservation order. But both landscape and the nation are deeper for it.

In Provence – even amid the glitz of the Côte-d’Azur – you’re never far from a reminder that man has been on this land for millennia. It’s a great sub-plot to pleasure-seeking. Talking of which … sometimes, the finest pleasures are the simplest. A good day for me would involve a decent walk in the hills or along the coastal path, followed by a early-evening dip in the sea. Then on to town for dinner on a warm evening terrace. We might later take in other terraces for a night-cap or two, safe in the knowledge that we shall not be inconvenienced by excitable youths falling into flower tubs, showing their bottoms or vomiting upon us.

By and large, Southern French cities remain the preserve of everyone – grandparents, strolling couples, kids – until well past the time that I want to go to bed. It’s the Latin way, and quite a surprise after Friday nights in Lancashire.

There are elements of France which drive me nuts. (Only innate decency stops me mowing down French civil servants whenever I’m called upon to deal with them.)

And there are aspects of Britain I miss – Sandwich Spread, Felicity Kendall, Preston North End and, not least, the newspapers. No paper in France has the variety, depth, wit and colour of the Sunday Times or Daily Telegraph, to pluck two examples at random. (By an astonishing coincidence, also the two I tend to write for.) The stilted tedium of most French papers tells us a lot about public life in France, but you’ll not want to hear that. What you want to hear is that France in general, and Provence-Côte-d’Azur in particular, are terrific places. As they are. I’ve been roaming all over them for 20 years and wish I’d started earlier.

I would return to GB only if Felcity Kendall beckoned me back to play for PNE, a jar of Sandwich Spread in her hand. And even then it’s not certain.

My Provence

Where I get a coffee: To do it for me, a French café needs to be a French café and not a lounge bar. It needs the scrape of metal chairs on a wooden floor, blokes at the bar talking horses over mid-morning beers and photos of an amateur soccer team c. 1974 on the wall. It’s an extension of the street by other means; local life must flow through. No point in picking out a particular favourite. They’re all over the south of France, usually called Café du Commerce, Café des Sports or Chez Juju. Coffee’s much cheaper too, especially if you stand at the counter.

Favourite stroll: Tempting to say that the best walk is wherever you happen to park the car; it’s hard not to have an uplifting amble on this outstanding coast. But a real favourite? Well, if you can tackle the coastal path from St-Tropez village round the peninsular via the Rabiou headland and not feel the world is a better place, I’ll be surprised. You’ll have deserved Tahiti beach by the time you arrive, mind: it’s a tidy trek.

Literature for inspiration: The most perceptive account of Provence remains James Pope-Hennessy’s 1952 classic, Aspects Of Provence. The much more recent Seeking Provence by Nicholas Woodsworth comes pretty close, though neither really touch on the Côte-d’Azur.

The best coverage of the Côte that I know is Robert Kanigel’s High Season In Nice. It has its faults but gets the story told eventually. Fiction-wise, you shouldn’t miss Marcel Pagnol. His My Father’s Glory and subsequent My Mother’s Castle may be soft-filtered but they’re mighty heart-warming. For grittier coverage of Marseille, I turn to the crime novels of Jean-Claude Izzo. One Helluva Mess is a stirring place to start.

Breathtaking view: Just open your eyes pretty much anywhere: this coast was created by the Almighty to show what he could do when he really tried. The panoramas from the top of Castle Hill or Mont Boron in Nice, or from Notre-Dame de la Garde in Marseille are the ones I expect to see when I’m ushered through the Pearly Gates myself.

Peace & quiet: Head out of Cannes, along the Esterel corniche towards St Raphaël. The land grows wild. Red porphyry rocks drop direct to the Med. Tales of the over-development of the Riviera suddenly seem absurd. Here, humanity hangs on where it can. Stop when possible: there’ll be a little-populated creek below and, behind the Esterel mountains. I’ve walked this untamed, savage massif in July and met no-one. You’d never guess you were 30 minutes from a cornetto.

Shopaholics: Bad question for me. I hate shopping more than I hate folk-dancing, and that’s saying something. Except if it’s for food, and except if there’s a market on. You may leave me among the North African uproar of Marseille’s Capucin market, or the sensual promise of the Provençal stalls on St Tropez’s Place-des-Lices for as long as it takes food-lust to overcome me completely.

Soundtrack: There’s a lot of rap from Marseille and Italianate balladeering further along the coast. But a quiet southern mood is best accompanied, I reckon, by jazz-crooner Henri Salvador. The music isn’t specifically Provençal but has a gentle sipping-in-the-shade vibe that’s quite irresistible. Try the Chambre Avec Vue album, recorded in 2000 when old Henri was 83. (He checked out finally in 2008, still performing.) The man is a legend in France. Even in the unlikely event that you don’t like the album, say you do: this will enhance your popularity immeasurably.

Favourite place for regional food: I have a soft spot for the Voyageur Nissart in Nice (19 Rue Alsace-Lorraine, 0493 821960). It’s not hip, star-rated or impressive to look at. And it’s in an indeterminate district, not far from the station.

All it has going for it is an outstandingly friendly welcome (the young owner speaks English better than I do) and the best traditional Niçois food at prices significantly lower than you’ll pay in the Old Town and other busier tourist zones. Fifteen euros sees you fed admirably. I discovered the restaurant only recently. Now it’s my Nice staple.

Don’t leave without…glancing at the gardens: The Côte-d’Azur has horticulture like Venice has canals. It’s a distinguishing feature. Our green-fingered British forebears started gardening down here in the 19th-century – it’s what noble residents did back then – and locals have taken up the trowel with gusto. Pick of the lot is, I’d say, the Domaine du Rayol at Rayol-Canadel (between St Tropez and Hyères, www.domainedurayol.com). Staggering steeply to the sea, the 48-acres are coated in flora from every region of the world sharing a Med climate. It’s a wonder-world. I took my garden-crazed wife there last year – and had to return two months later to find her.

Sport: Along the coast, one may take part in every sea-related activity known to man, short of whaling. But there are times when only a big, professional sporting event will do. For soccer, I go to Marseille and the Vélodrome – the only stadium in France which generates an atmosphere comparable to that at Anfield or the Emirates. For rugby, it has to be Toulon – where our own Jonny (known locally, if oddly, as “Sir Wilkinson”) has punted standards up-field with panache.

Where to be seen this winter: As Sigourney Weaver said recently, real A-listers never go where A-listers are supposed to go, because they only get mobbed and fawned over. I’d suggest you follow this advice. The best place to be seen this winter is, then, wherever you actually want to be. It’s even better if you’re with a loved one – and don’t care a toss whether you’re seen or not.