I spend much of my time drinking wine and thinking about food, or eating food and thinking about wine. Over the last few years I’ve sought out wines for our wedding list, studied with the Wine & Spirits Education Trust, and spent a not inconsiderable amount of time hosting others and drinking. This all comes at a cost, and I’ve been searching for cheaper ways…
A strategy for value
When looking for good value in France, I go for two things:
1) Location: search out areas I know to be good value, and ignoring those that – at the low end – aren’t (don’t touch Chablis, Pouilly-Fume, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, etc). Aim for the best wine from a little known area, rather than a cheaper wine from a well renowned area.
2) Brand: The producer has a tremendous influence on wine quality and style, so in France it’s often best to find a négociant (producer who buys grapes from smaller producers and blends and sells them under their own label) you’ve enjoyed wines from in the past and keep trying their products.
A few great regions for whites
Almost all exported Burgundian whites are chardonnay. As an aside, if you come across someone who ‘can’t stand Chardonnay’ offer them a Chablis from Northern Burgundy where oak isn’t used, and the vines are grown on a clay-like soil. The character is very similar to that of the sauvignon blancs from Sancerre, in the Loire Valley, to the west.
The Mâconnais - around the town Mâcon – is the largest wine producing area in Burgundy. A bottle marked Mâcon-Villages is one up from a standard “Burgundy” white, and is often great value. Similarly Saint-Véran, one of the villages in Mâcon, is another quality level up again, and makes both good value, and some beautiful whites.
Muscadet is a great value region in the Loire valley, to the far West, on the Atlantic coast. The grape used is ‘melon de bourgogne’, which makes wines which are dry, light and often feel give slight ‘spritz’ on the tongue. As with many seaside wine regions, Muscadet is perfect for light summer drinking, with fish and shellfish. The wines are made for drinking young, and production is high, so they can be incredibly good value. I always seek out Muscadet sur Lie where ‘sur lie’ means the wines have spent a little longer in the barrel, in contact with the dead yeast cells (a by product of fermentation), giving the wine a little more of a rounded character. Helpfully, only the better quality Muscadets are permitted to be described as this; though many good quality Muscadets are not ‘sur lie’. Most frequently you’ll see “Muscadet de Sevre et Maine” (the most productive of the three appellations in Muscadet): I tend to opt for this one – sur lie – of course.
Languedoc is traditionally associated with poor quality bulk wine production, not least from its history as the largest contributor to the European wine lake. However, its reputation is starting to change. Wine makers moving away from the limitations of the French labelling system have brought new energy – and quality levels – to the region. However, for a consumer choosing between different qualities of wine, they can be harder and harder to tell apart.
Traditionally, just seeing AOC, or Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée was a reasonable guarantee that a wine would be of good quality: for a wine to gain this accreditation it needs to be grown in a specific area, produce a maximum yield of grapes from each vine (producing more from a vine can dilute the quality), and – most relevant – must a specified type of grape (for example, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, etc). Now, many high quality producers are trying innovative blends of different grapes, to create some really great wines; but can no longer write AOC on the bottle because the grape variety is not native to the area. Here, finding a trusted wine merchant to guide you is important – or without that – a trusted négociant or brand.
In terms of AOC whites, Picpoul de Pinet (from the Picpoul grape) is a good value, and frequently one of the most drinkable cheap whites in London gastropubs.
So with a quest for value in mind, it’s impossible not to consider traversing The Channel…
The booze cruise was a stalwart of British culture in the 80’s and 90’s: cheap ferry crossings from Dover to Calais, with the sole aim of buying huge quantities of incredibly cheap booze. At the Euro’s inception in 1999, one Great British Pound was worth 1.75 Euros. Yet, over the last ten years it has plunged to 1.20; making French goods nearly 50% more expensive for us Brits. The absurdly named “Eastenders” supermarket – familiar to any Brit driving through Calais – is no longer. Similarly, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Oddbins all closed Calais stores in 2010, to headlines like “Sunk: The Cross-Channel Booze Cruise” (Daily Mail), blaming tough exchange rates.
So, yes, exchange rates are no longer a reason to go, but with directly comparable wines you’ll save £1 to £2 on duty alone. Perhaps not worth the trip for that alone, but there is one wine that is absolutely worth travelling for. And whilst you’re there, why not add a few more to the basket…
Three of the hypermarkets I’ve visited:
Calais Wine Superstore www.calaiswine.co.uk – focus is on low-priced wines, most ranging from £2 to £7 a botttle, from across Europe, and a few of the New World brands. They have a reasonable selection of wines from lesser known French regions. And if the trolleys pre-loaded with advance purchases were anything to go by, the £2 Agoston Grenache Syrah is their biggest seller*. If you buy £200-£400 of wine online in advance (depending on time of year) they’ll pay for your ferry or Eurotunnel travel.
Majestic in France http://www.majesticinfrance.co.uk – Range is similar to Majestic in the UK, but skewed to the lower priced wines. Far broader range of New World than Calais Wine Superstore, and not so much French wine. They mark many of the bottles with how much you’d save versus buying the same in the UK, which is usually £1 or £2 different.
Calais Vins – http://www.calais-vins.com/ Incredible diversity of French wine: a wonderful place to browse. However, with the mid-priced wines – unless you’re an expert (and I’m certainly not!) – I’m not sure there’s much value in choosing from here rather than buying from someone you know well at home.
I picked up a few wines from Majestic, but all the below are from the Calais Wine Superstore (as disclosure is increasingly relevant, I’ll point out it’s not appropriate here: I paid for all the wine, and the shop has no idea I’m writing this).
Go for this alone:
Crémant de Bourgogne, Cave de Lugny, Blanc de Blancs NV £5.99
This is the wine that prompted our inaugural noughties ferry crossing. For a big bash last year, we sampled 8 or 9 different bottles of crémant (French fizz), cava (Spain) , and prosecco (Italian, made from the Prosecco grape) from UK supermarkets ranging from £8 to £15. This crémant was the outright winner, and head and shoulders above many of the entry-level champagnes. In the UK, it retails at £11.39 at Waitrose, and £11 at Oddbins, and is reasonable value at those prices. But at £5.99? Since the discovery, it has appeared at friends’ weddings, a 30th birthday, a 60th birthday, and will be the dead cert choice for the launch party of Sous Chef. We’re getting through litres of the stuff.
They also have a rose, at £6.99. Not yet tasted, but a beautiful salmon pink. I came away with 6.
La Roche Brut, £1.69
This wine is neither from a negotiant I know, nor did I even look at the region. However £1.69 for fizz is value you can shake a stick at. Fond University memories of questionable €1 fizz, transformed into something enticing with a little kir, led me to race down the aisle for this. Plus you really can’t go all that far wrong at £20 a case. Eminently drinkable, even by itself. Oh, and – for the record – it’s cheaper than lemonade.
Louis Latour, Ardèche Chardonnay, £4.99
My fabulous, and enthusiastic wine-drinking friend always feels the ‘nipple’ in the base of a bottle as a check of quality. Logic being that bottles with greater indents cost more to produce, and therefore only worthwhile for better quality wines. I can vouch for the fact that this is a reasonable guide, but is in no way infallible. Either way, this is a Good Wine, with a Large Nipple.
Louis Latour, Le Grand Ardèche £6.49
A beautifully balanced buttery Chardonnay. More oak than the standard Ardèche, and a larger nipple still. To revive Gregg Wallace from Masterchef “I could drink this all day…”. Great value.
Muscadet sur lie Grand Réserve Domaine du Landreau Village £4.49, and a Muscadet de Sevre et Maine, which was cheaper. Both are untasted.
Plus, I can never help coming away with wines from AOCs I know little of: a few bottles of wine from Lirac at £5.99 (eminently drinkable with a hunk of cheese, from the Rhone Valley), and a Fitou (as yet untasted, from Languedoc)
Thoughts on other great areas for value? Please do leave a comment below
I end by inserting a photo of “Things to Look at Whilst Drinking”. Today, a pansy in the garden. As with last year, I am insisting that if it isn’t edible, it just don’t get planted.
* If you’re someone who is tempted to trade down to the £2 Agoston (ok, so we did buy 24 bottles for a Street Party, but I wouldn’t recommend it), you may be interested in an article on why you’re getting better value when you spend a quid or two more on a bottle, from Thrifty Fifty.