Buying wine can be daunting. The selection is sometimes overwhelming; in France alone, there are some 472 distinct appellations or wine regions and thousands of often very obscure producers.
As a result, we all too often fall back on the supposed safety of the familiar, mass produced, characterless wines, whose names have been drilled into us by the well-financed marketing departments of international corporate brands.
At Hosted Villas, however, we approach wine as we do travel. When traveling we are delighted most often when we take a risk, when we deviate from the beaten path (though always based on educated decisions). We rarely regret following the locals’ lead – whether its jumping onto a crowded ferry or wandering into a busy backstreet restaurant whose menu is only in the local language.
We take the same approach to our wine choices. We are always looking to surprise and expand our palate.
Alas, even in a good wine store you can rarely sample the wines before you buy. Tasting notes and reviews are usually limited. And the staff might not share your tastes and simply cannot have tried everything. So, how can you make an educated guess as to the quality of what’s in the bottle from the clues found only on the outside of the bottle? And maybe more important, what are the telltale signs on a label that a wine should be avoided?
Labeling rules vary widely around the world, so let’s focus on one country. While Italy has apparently surpassed France as the world’s largest producer of wine, France has the longest viticulture tradition as well as some of the most rigorous and consistent (though some would say draconian and archaic) wine packaging laws.
Understanding who did what?
Continuing our food analogy, we always prefer a small Mom and Pop restaurant where it’s clear who is doing the cooking, rather than an anonymous corporate chain restaurant staffed by indifferent workers. Similarly, it is helpful to understand who does what in making a wine. Fortunately the various roles behind a wine are clearly indicated on a French label. The main ones include:
- viticulteur (“grape grower” but not necessarily “wine maker”);
- vigneron (literally “vine keeper,” but commonly understood to encompass both grape-growing and wine-making”);
- recoltant (harvested the grapes);
- eleveur (matured the wine before bottling);
- proprietaire (owns the vines and is assumed to have grown and harvested the grapes and made the wine, but may sub-contract all the manual tasks).
The differences can be subtle. And matters are further complicated since these terms can be combined (e.g. proprietaire-recoltant or negociant-eleveur if that person fulfilled multiple roles).
More important though is to understand two other terms – “Cave co-opérative” and “Negociant” – because in our experience they are big red flags to avoid.
The Cave Co-operative
Since wine making is complicated, time-consuming and expensive, most villages or wine regions in France have a cave co-operative or “co-op,” usually a large industrial-looking building near the center of town. A Co-op allows the various wine making tasks to be subcontracted and costs shared. Traditionally this allowed farmers who might grow many crops -- such as asparagus, peaches, cherries as well as wine grapes -- to limit their involvement to grape growing. They then deliver their grapes to the Co-op, which pays them by weight and by quality (determined by sugar content.)
Because of the large volumes they process, a Co-op can also afford expensive wine making and lab equipment and a staff of professional chemists and oenologists that would be out of reach for most small producers. The separation of duties between grape growers and the wine production team allows a Co-op to produce far greater quantities of wine, often with a dizzying array of brands and labels, than most individual producers ever could.
But, just like the old axiom that a camel is a horse designed by committee, the downside of this division of labor at a Cave Co-operative is that as a general rule (though there are exceptions), Co-op wine is rarely of high quality. When grapes from different growers are all combined into large batches, quantity usually trumps quality and the distinctive taste of a small parcel of vines and soil (known broadly as “terroir”) is lost. So too are the individual winemakers’ impact on the wine (when to harvest to balance ripeness against risk of rot, how aggressively to prune to balance yield and concentration etc). Co-op wine often tastes over-manipulated, bland and lacking in the clear vision of a single cellar master.
So, in short, we try to avoid Co-operative wines.
A Co-op by any other name…
Unfortunately, avoiding Co-operative wine is harder than one might think. For one thing, Co-ops typically have bigger marketing budgets and so have the clout and contacts to aggressively work the international distribution system. It’s easier for a buyer to choose 10 wines from one co-op supplier than one wine each from 10 individual wine makers. Hence the proliferation of co-op wine products on North American shelves. Co-op wine is ubiquitous.
Furthermore, the Co-ops (since they know people like us are prejudiced against their products) now go to considerable lengths to disguise their Co-Operativeness. Instead of calling themselves a “Co-operative,” they often use such oblique and misleading terms as “Cave des Vignerons” or “les Vignerons Reunis de ...” (the Associated Winemakers of...) or “les Producteurs Groupee du …” (the Collective Producers of…)
The next red flag term we suggest you watch out for on a wine label is “Negociant.” “Negociant” means “dealer” or “trader” and instead of growing, harvesting and crushing the grapes and making the wine, a negociant buys the wine (either early, as just pressed juice, or as a finished product) from smaller producers. To say all negociant wine is to be avoided is of course unfair. Occasionally, in the case of a dedicated wine professional with a keen eye and palate, or such prestige wine houses as Guigal in the Rhone area and Louis Latour in Burgundy, negociant products can be excellent.
Usually though negociant wine is substandard (or at least uninteresting). Why? First, the negociant only controls the tail end of the process. Second, they usually do not get the pick of the crop. During our frequent wine tasting visits in Europe, we have heard stories, for instance, of individual producers only selling to negociants during the poor-quality years (when it might have been cold and rainy) or only selling a lower quality portion of their production in order to finance their higher quality, privately-bottled wines.
Furthermore, a negociant can often be located hundreds of miles from the point of production and harvesting, requiring transportation and repeated pumping; neither of which is good for a fragile product like fine wine. A Côtes du Rhone (which comes from the 84000 region in the South of France) should not have a label saying it was “Mis en Bouteille” (put in the bottle) at Angouleme, postal code 16400 (see above), a seven hour drive west of the Côte du Rhone region.
Enough bottle bashing though. Let’s wrap up our intro to packing clues with some things that we DO look for when choosing a wine.
Limited English translation
As silly as it might sound, Mom and Pop wine producers (the kind who can put their personality into their product) rarely have copy writing or translation departments. Too perfect of an English translation is a warning sign that a corporation is behind the endeavor.
It seems obvious that there’d be alcohol in wine, but a certain minimum alcohol content (which varies by region, climate and grape variety and is measured in degrees by volume and shown on the label as a percentage), usually separates premium wine from vin ordinaire .
Since sun exposure usually results in ripe fruit, which means more sugar to convert into alcohol, in sunny southern France we look for a 13.5% minimum and a 14+% is very common. In cooler, rainier southwest France (Bordeaux area) and Burgundy, 13% is exceptional and 12.5% is normal. In northern Europe (Alsace and Germany) some very respectable wines only achieve 10% alcohol.
But a feeble 11% alcohol wine from the sunny southern Herault region of the Languedoc must have been made from unripe, watery grapes and so will likely taste thin, green and unpleasant.
Family not Familiar names
It's natural to gravitate towards a familiar name that we’ve enjoyed in the past and so trust (we, for instance, always liked the Alary family wines from Cairrane in Provence). But, familiar names can be traps too. Families like the Perrins in the Rhone and Moueix in Bordeaux have grown from small family producers into behemoth negociants whose marketing muscle -- rather than product quality -- assures them premium shelf space in North American wine stores.
Indeed, since wine enjoyment is as much a process of discovery as anything, we often look for unfamiliar names --underdogs who might have just one shot at the North American big time and who deserve a try.
What does a telephone number have to do with making wine? Not much maybe, but we figure that anyone who puts their personal telephone number on their bottle must be proud of what’s inside.
And we just like the idea of being able to call them up some day and say “Mr. Serge Chastan? We really enjoyed your work from last year.”
Of course, the best way to understand what goes into a wine is go to the source. Hosted Villas' properties in France, Italy and Spain are all located in premium wine-producing areas that are chock-full of small producers whose wines are unavailable back home. And our team of Local Hosts, with their knowledge of the region and network of local contacts, can introduce you to their personal winemaker friends and arrange a very special vineyard visit and private tasting. For lovers of wine, there truly is no more an authentic experience than this.
To truly immerse yourself in the fascinating (and delicious) world of French Wine, we suggest a stay at our newest villa - Manoir Meurette. This superb 17th century winemaker’s establishment, complete with its original cellars, is ideally located in the center of Meursault and makes the perfect base for exploring Burgundy's world-famous vineyards.