In Great Spirits: Becoming a French wine 'spécialiste'
Wine educator Sharona Tsubota lists the best ways to get acquainted with the world of French wine, from French wine fairs and wine tasting classes to self-guided wine tours in France.
Are you a wine-loving expat living in France? Perhaps you travel to France frequently but live elsewhere? Or maybe you’re planning a long vacation in France and you want to immerse yourself in the world of French wine? Whether you already know a little or a lot about French wines, there is always more to discover – from the varietals to vintages – that keep wine lovers so passionate. Here are some suggestions for taking your French wine knowledge to the next level.
There are many regional wine events in France, most of which can be found via the local Office of Tourism. Most regions have websites with info about upcoming and past events, and all have email contact info. Don’t hesitate to send off a note asking for info about upcoming events, especially if your time in a given region will be limited.
The Champagne Route Fair
'La Route de Champagne en Fête' is a great way to get to know a wide variety of champagnes. This annual event is held in the Aube (the southern region of Champagne), just a couple hours’ drive from Paris. Dozens of small champagne producers open their doors, giving visitors a chance to taste their cuvées.
Held over a late July weekend in different adjoining villages each year, it offers a rare opportunity to delve into the world of 'grower champagne' and enjoy a weekend in the countryside at the same time. There are many local gites or guesthouses, but they do book up in advance, so I recommend making reservations well ahead of time. My story on last year’s event gives you a good idea of what to expect. Find out more about this year’s Route, to be held on the 26th and 27th of July 2014, on their website.
Independent winegrowers fairs
Wine fairs, known in French as 'Salons du Vin', can be a delightful way to taste a wide variety of wines from every region in France, all at the same place. For the best discoveries of small wineries, and to meet the winemakers in person, visit one of the many Salon des vins des Vignerons Indépendants. Held annually in 11 different wine regions of France, you will find small producers from every region at every salon. This is where many French consumers buy their wine for the year, so you’ll often see carts stacked high with cases of wine to replenish the family wine cellar. A bonus: many small producers will speak some English, and are eager to have their wines known by a larger audience.
Wine fairs in Paris – The Grand Tasting and Salon RVF
The Grand Tasting, held in Paris each December, offers many seminars with special wine tastings, given by leaders in the French wine industry. I recommend visiting any salon on a weekday during business hours, as it can be a real zoo after 5pm! If you’re interested in the big names, look for larger events such as the Salon du vin de la Revue du vins de France (Salon RVF), held in Paris and Brussels every year. You can sample wines from a hundred producers, from the very small to the grand, internationally-known brands such as Taittinger Champagne.
Wine expositions: Speciality wine tasting
Each year in the spring and autumn, all the major supermarkets and big wine shop chains offer their 'Foire à Vins' sales, when they bring in wines they don’t normally sell and offer excellent discounts. Some also have free tastings the evening before the start of the sale, though you must register in advance. They offer a limited number of wines for tasting, sometimes with delectable little snacks such as gougeres. If you discover something you love, you can buy a bottle or a dozen cases on the spot, at the sale price! If there is a particular wine you’d like to try, you can ask if they would be willing to open it. They did that for me last year, and I liked it so much I bought a case. You can find details about the wines for sale in their printed advertising ('publicité'), so take the time to review it in advance.
The French website Vitiplace offers a wealth of information about the dates of upcoming sales (they haven’t yet posted the dates for this autumn), the wines for sale and prices, and detailed suggestions on how best to prepare for these enormous events. If you live near a wine shop chain such as Nicolas or Lavinia, or any big supermarket, check in to find out details about their next Foire. You can also shop online during the Foire, and get the same discounts (plus shipping, of course).
Private wine tours
Private wine tours provide an intimate, customised, often luxurious way to discover a new wine region, or to get an insider’s view of one you already love. There are hundreds of wine tour companies in France, some connected with the local Tourist Office, but many which rely on word of mouth and recommendations from past clients. If you decide to book a private tour, be sure to communicate well in advance what it is that you’d like to see and do. Talk with the tour guide about the kind of wines you like, or you might end up having wine tastings that leave you with a sour taste in your mouth.
Self-guided wine tours
Self-guided tours are always an option, and there is a huge amount of information available online, once you choose a region and fix your dates. I highly recommend setting up one or two visits per day in advance, with several hours in between, so you don’t have to rush around or cut a visit short in order to get to the next place. Please keep in mind that the small wineries are normally family-run, and although they will do their best to accommodate you, they have lives outside of work just as you do. They have friends and plans, they may be tired in the evening, or they may have a wedding or family event at the weekend. Please be considerate and punctual. Then, if you find yourself with a couple hours between tasting appointments, that’s the perfect time to stop into a place with an 'open' sign.
Wine tasting classes
In many large cities, you can find organised wine classes held at wine bars or even at hotels or restaurants. If you’re really serious and have both time and money to spend, you can register for wine programmes at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.
Alternately, you can hold your own 'disorganised' tastings with a group of friends. Pick a theme, buy a few bottles, put out some neutral nibbles (no olives or strong cheeses!), grab some pens and notebooks, and have fun! If you spend a little time online beforehand researching the varietal(s) and the region chosen, you can share that info with the group and all learn a little something.
Voila! You’re an expert on French wines!
Sharona Tsubota, In Great Spirits / Expatica
Sharona Tsubota is a wine educator and export consultant currently living in Champagne. She shares her French wine and food adventures on her blog 'In Great Spirits'. She also helps expats and visitors discover hidden gems in various French wine regions through small, personalised tours. Originally from California, she spent 10 years in Tokyo and has lived in France for over two years.
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