There is something about shopping for wines at one of Paris' neighborhood markets that evokes feelings of romance and sophistication. This feeling generally lasts until you're confronted with the task of choosing an appropriate bottle, and the wine seller professes not to understand a word of your high school French.
Here are a few tips for picking the perfect bottle, and perhaps even impressing the seller with your sophistication and savoir faire.
1. Know what you want - Are you buying wine for a picnic, a gourmet dinner or a celebration? There are certainly many more options, but the point is that the reason for buying the wine determines which bottles are most appropriate. A nice rosé is perfect for a summer picnic, but isn't going to stand up to chateaubriand. Once you know why you want a wine, it's a lot easier to find the right one.
2. Don't let the stopper stop you - The jury is still out on the long term effects of screw caps and synthetic corks on wine's aging process. So if you're buying a wine you want to stash in the cellar for ten to twenty years, I wouldn't recommend buying anything with a screw cap. Most people, however, buy wines because they want to drink them, generally in the very near future. That being the case, screw caps should not make a difference in your decision making. The days when they were only used for cheap, inferior wines are long gone.
Choosing the right French wine can be a challenge. — Photo courtesy of Jorge Royan
3. Shop for regional values - When you buy bottles from one of France's best known wine regions - particularly Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Champagne - you're paying more than you would for wines from lesser known regions. In some circumstances, this is completely understandable. There are no substitutes for the top-tier wines. When purchasing wines for everyday drinking, however, the best values often come from areas with less marketable reputations. Think Roussillon.
4. Don't buy the marketing - A disconcerting number of people believe they can discern quality from the design of the label. That's why so many Australian wines have cute animals on their labels and so many French ones have gold lettering and regal looking crests. There is valuable information on French wine labels, but it has nothing to do with the design.
5. Read the label carefully - This is the single most important tip. The French appellation system is a thing of wonder, and they have a tier system which delineates the quality level for virtually all their agricultural products, from wine and cheese to butter and honey. For buying purposes, the most important information is the classification level (before your trip, learn what the letters VDT, VDP, VDQS, and AOC mean). Establish what your price point is, and look for the highest quality wines available at that price.