The first time we walked into a French wine shop, we were paralyzed by options. In an American wine shop we know how to find a good wine, but we don’t know what to look for in France. Paralyzed by indecision, we settled on the 20 euro bottle with the prettiest label.
When we poured it for our host that night, she was scandalized that we’d spent so much for a bottle of wine. “I would never pay more than 5 euros unless it was a very special occasion,” she said.
We were skeptical. It’s almost impossible to get a really great bottle of wine for $5 in the United States. So she decided to prove it to us. The next day, she took us to the grocery store and showed us all the things to look for in a bottle of wine. We bought two bottles for under 10€ combined. To our shock, they were as good as a US bottle of wine in the $15-20 range.
“Every French person knows what to look for,” she said. But we didn’t, until she told us. And now we’ll share with you the French secret to finding a great bottle of wine, dirt cheap.
6 Things To Look For (And 3 to Watch Out For) To Get a Great Bottle of Wine For Under 5€
Don’t try this at home, unless your home is in France! These tips will not work if you’re buying French wine outside of la République. Some of this information only appears on bottles that are staying within the country.
- Récoltant: You will find this word on the foil that goes over the top of the bottle. You can also look for the letter “R,” which means the same thing. Récoltant means that the wine producer grew their own grapes rather than sourcing them from elsewhere. If it has an “N,” it means the person who bottled the wine doesn’t own the vineyard; an “E” means it was produced by a business that buys grapes in bulk from a variety of wineries and is not a sign of quality.
- Mis en bouteille au chateau / au domaine / a la propriete / par le Propriétaire [person’s name]: This refers to the bottling; they’re only legally allowed to say this if they comply with certain specifications. It essentially means “Bottled at the chateau/estate/property/by the proprietor.” It indicates that they used their own grapes and their own bottling facility, rather than sending them to a third-party bottler.
Watch out for Mis en Bouteille dans nos Caves and Mis en Bouteille dans nos Chais; these are indications that the wine was made from grapes sourced elsewhere, and often means it is of lower quality.
- Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) or anything with appellation and contrôllée (such as appellation Cote du Rhône contrôlee, appellation Bordeaux contrôlee and so forth): These wines are expected to fit the terroir of the region that they come from. Unlike appellations in the USA, New Zealand or Australia, these wines are actually taste-tested in order to ensure they measure up – and wines that do not pass the test won’t get the coveted AOC label.
- A gold, silver or bronze medal from a wine competition: We were pretty surprised at this one. In the US it’s unusual to see a medal on a cheap wine, and when you do it’s some made-up or low-competition medal like “Gold in the Van Nuys Airport Wine Competition.” In France, however, they are pretty legit. Particularly prestigious wine competitions include the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, Concours General Agricole de Paris and the International Wine Challenge. The Councours de Feminalise is a competition for wines that allegedly appeal to a female palate.
Watch out for: Medal-esque things that aren’t actually medals. Some American wineries may give themselves fake awards. The French don’t do this, but they do put images on their wine labels that look like medals. Look closely and don’t be fooled!
- Something that says it was chosen by a magazine, guide or a cellar. Le Guide Hachette du Vins is particularly prestigious. If it has a tag or sticker that says “Sélection de le Guide Hachette du Vins,” it will very likely be a tasty wine.
Watch out for: Anything with text in English on the back. If there’s English there, it means the bottle was meant for export. When it comes to cheap wine, the French keep the best for themselves.
- If you are in a wine growing region (shockingly, there are a few regions of France that don’t produce much if any wine!) you’re likely to get more of a selection of good wines from that region than from others further away.
Now, are there bottles of wine that don’t comply with one of these rules and are still tasty? Yes. But if you follow the above rules when looking for a bottle of wine under 5€, you can be confident that the wine you drink will be excellent.
Fall: The Best Time for Wine Deals in France
The tips above will serve you especially well in September or October, the time of the “Foire des Vins.” Grocery chains like E.Leclerc, Intermarché, Carrefour and larger wine specialists like Nicolas have giant sales. The discounts are so impressive that the shops sell 25% of their wine for the year during this sale. And because so many people are buying daily drinkers, there are a lot of options at the low end.
Shops often set aside a large section of the store for the wine. Our local E.Leclerc hypermarché (French for “omg, this is the biggest grocery store I’ve ever been in!”) actually sets up a giant tent outside with all the wines.
Okay, So Where’s the Chardonnay?
If you’re used to wines from the US, Chile, Australia, New Zealand or many other places, you may shop for wine by varietal. That’s not how France categorizes their wines. French wine is generally categorized by region, because wines are expected to express the particular mix of soil, water and air where they’re grown in addition to the grapes. This combination is called terroir. You’ll also hear that term used for cheese and other foods.
This concept is so inherent to French wines that they often don’t put the varietals used on the label at all. However, because certain regions are expected to use certain varietals, the region can be a guide to the varietals of wine in the bottle. Serious Eats has a good overall guide and French Wine for Dummies lists what varietals are associated with what regions.
For you Chardonnay-lovers, white Burgundy is generally made from your fave grape.
Vintage and Cépage?
A serious oenophile may question the above guide. They’ll tell you that you need to look at the year and cépage. Cépage has to do with the grapes used in the blend; certain designated regions get to use certain blends, and certain years are better than others.
But those serious wine people are looking at a price point somewhere between what we pay for our rare hotel stays and what we pay for intercontinental airfare. We’re Cheapskate Nomads, and we want you to have the best experience for the least money possible. (Although if you’re one of those serious wine people and want to buy us a bottle of something expensive, we’ll take it!)
Cheap Wine Can Make a Great Gift
Now that you know the secret for buying good cheap wine in France, you can even use it when buying gifts for others. The bottles won’t have price tags, just beautiful French labeling and a sticker that says it’s won an elite award. Tell them that you got the last bottle of a celebrated French wine. The price will be our secret.
This article was written with the assistance of a 3€19 bottle that seriously tasted like a $25 bottle of wine.