Venturing into French vineyards

Frenchmen tasting wineOne of the joys of touring France is the opportunity to go about Tasting wine at a French Vineyard. In every wine region you’ll pass roadside signs to “degustation”(tasting) and “caveau”(cellar), or “vente direct” (direct sales)but it can be a daunting prospect if you are not a confident wine bluffer or fluent in the francais. Yet often such visits can be memorable, informative enjoyable and great value for money.

The key thing to remember is that most vignerons are delighted to welcome visitors – especially if you are genuinely interested. You do not need to be particularly knowledgeable. Remember that in France wine is an everyday commodity for most people, and only in the rarified atmosphere of the top flight Bordeaux and Burgundy cellars is it treated with the hushed reverence exhibited in an old-fashioned London wine merchant’s emporium.

Certainly the wine will be good value – you may well be able to get a local wine cheaper in the supermarché, but that will be a mass-produced product, usually from a cooperative. At the vineyard you’ll almost always get better quality – and you’ll get a memorable experience of people, place, smells and taste which you can recall when you open a bottle on a bleak winter day back home. Wine is, after all, more than just alcoholic grape juice – the wines I remember are recalled as much by the occasion and the company or food as by the actual taste of the wine.

So, how to go about it? There are some rules that apply to any wine tasting – i.e. avoid cigarettes, heavy perfume or sweets – they will obscure the taste and smell of the wine. Your taste buds are brightest in the morning – especially if you’ve only had a light breakfast rather than the full fry-up à l’anglaise– although avoid tasting on an empty stomach. Try wines in a sensible sequence – whites before rosés and reds; younger wines before older wines; and sweet wines last of all. One of the joys of wine tasting is the opportunity to compare different wines at the same time.

How to go about Tasting wine at a French Vineyard -I have a simple rule of 5 “S”s for successful tasting:-
See – hold the glass up against a white or light surface – look for brightness, clarity. The more purple a red, the younger it will tend to be.
Sniff – your nose is your best asset! – fill the glass no more than half-full- swirl the glass carefully without spilling – a quick, deep sniff will quickly tell you if the wine has any faults – and will reveal nuances of flavour which your tastebuds often just confirm. Rely on that first reaction.
Slurp – take a small mouthful and slosh it around the mouth – this will expose all parts of your tongue to the wine – different parts of the tongue detect sweetness, sourness, bitterness etc. Do not feel complelled to down the whole sample in one go – no-one will be offended if you leave some wine in the glass – and you can always come back again to contrast and compare.
(Swallow) – if you must, but only after your mouth and tongue has had the chance to savour the wine fully – and don’t swallow if you have more than a few wines to taste – it will cloud your tastebuds – and your brain. Better to…….
Spit – this can be optional. Although it may seem undignified, it is perfectly acceptable and eminently sensible if you are halfway serious about tasting wines. However there are some precautions you need to take. Find a spittoon (crachoir).Spitting is more of a skill than you might think, as I know from bitter and messy experience. So, beforehand make sure that you are wearing something that you can afford to get splashed – avoid white shirts and posh frocks! Secondly, before sipping the wine do make sure you know where you are going to aim for with your spitting – asking with a mouthful of wine can be difficult. Often there will be a spittoon or a sink – otherwise use a gully or step outside and treat the weeds. Another precaution is to try to ensure that no one is likely to make you laugh – this can be disastrous – ending in an unseemly splutter over you, the floor and anyone within range – and the total loss of any composure or dignity! If in doubt, avoid eye contact!! The key is to project the wine away from yourself without drenching others. Purse your lips, draw in your cheeks and expel the wine in a jet of liquid in the desired direction. Experiment with some water for safety – then the dreaded dribble will not result in an expensive laundry bill. Effective spitting (cracher) will impress everyone and improve your ability to appreciate a range of wines.
So – draw some conclusions from the experience – did you like it? Was it better/drier/fruitier/more complex than others you’ve tasted. Did it remind you of blackcurrants or rhubarb? Use trigger words that mean something to you – anything that helps you to identify the styles of wine which you like. Making some short notes will always impress and could prove useful to you when later trying to recall which wine was which. There is no “correct” description of a wine

Even if your French is no good – simple gestures for tasting (déguster), spitting (cracher), and great! (bon!, formidable!) are not difficult to improvise. Slightly more complicated may be finding out the vintage (millésime) or grape varieties (cépages).
And finally, you don’t have to buy – although buying the odd bottle is courteous, especially if you have been well-entertained – and not expensive compared to UK prices and with a generous exchange rate. If you buy 6 or more you will often get a discount too!.

Getting the wine home

Do bear in mind that wine bottles can be relatively heavy! A 75cl bottle will normally weigh about 1.2kg (2.7lbs) although some wines, Champagnes and Sparkling wines come in heavier bottles.

Subject to local customes regulations and airline restrictions:-

  • If travelling by car then the main problem is space.

    2-bottle wine hug protector
    Wine bottle protectors
  • If travelling by train your main constraint will be the weight you’ll have to carry/push to the station.
  • If travelling by air then you can usually only carry bottles of alcohol in your checked-in hold baggage, not in your cabin baggage!
  • In all cases you need to ensre the bottle(s) are securely packed and will not break and spill over your own belongings or those of others
  • To keep your bottles safe see Lazenne for a variety of options including simple bottle protector pouches, styrofoam boxes and purpose-made wine luggage for up to 15 bottles
    Above all – enjoy!