Drinking wine in Paris. Any basic guidelines? "do's vs. dont's vs. don't miss"
I am going to Paris for a week.
Recently, I've become a "wine person".
In terms of wine, what can I expect there?
Should I focus on something vs another?
Will there be wines not available in the USA?
Is there an obvious "do's vs. dont's vs. don't miss" ?
I have had plenty of French wine in America, but will it be different there?
Burgundy, Bordeaux, Chablis, Pouilly Fume, Pouilly Fuse, etc.
My 2 cents on this. I grew up in France, but have been living in the US for 35+
years. Grand clus classes of Bordeaux and top burgundies are snatched
up by US and British buyers (Bordeaux) or German and Belgian buyers
(burgundy) but just below the top wines you can find great bargains because
as a rule of thumb the French are a thrifty lot when it comes to wine buying.
So you can find great Chinon, Sancerre, Vouvray, St Emilion, Pomerols,
Cahors, Cornas, Saint Joseph or Bandols in stores in the 10 to 20 euros
range. Avoid Nicolas, which has definitively low end wines. Go to neighborhood
wine shops. The choice will be limited, but the wines will have been
well selected and if you engage the owner, he/she will have great suggestions.
I also think markups in restaurants are not quite as steep as in the US.
Among the oldest wine stores in Paris is Cave Auge, on Blvd. Haussmann (8th Arrond., near Galleries Printemp). I think Marc Sibard still runs it--and he speaks very good English. Excellent selection in a wide range of pricing...if he's in a good mood, he will take a lot of time to explain what's new, what's worth trying. In not-so-pricey restaurants, I have found that red wines from the Loire (Chinon, Bourgeuil) are much more likely to be available than in the US, and of course the owner/chef's style of cooking will influence the carte du vin...
Patricia Well's "Food Lover's Guide to Paris" has excellent information about wine bars, wine stores, etc, broken down by Arrondisements...
First. You will likely not see any US wines, and if you do, you'll most likely do better with FR wines, than with anything that you know from the US. Neither FR, or the UK, has much in the way of good US wines, and the prices are killer. Open your senses, and allow yourself to explore a wonderful world of wine.
Things will be a bit different, than the mainstream wines in the US. That is being said, with no knowledge of your experiences, or tastes, but in very general terms, Old World wines are different from New World wines. They are usually more food friendly, and are much more subtle. Fewer will be "in your face," but that is a good thing.
Smile, and open your self to the suggestions from the servers. Utter, "merci," often. Depending on the restaurant, you might have some fun peasant wines, to much higher offerings. Still, if the waitstaff does a good job, they should pair perfectly with the food.
Take notes, especially if you like it. Do not be too surprised if some are not quite up to your normal standards for just sipping, as many have grown up with certain cuisines, and come into their own, with the food form those areas. I find the same with most Italian wines - food-friendly, but maybe not the ultimate sipper alone.
Most of all, enjoy and relax - do not forget to smile. Many servers can speak and understand perfect English. Many will not try, however, so your attitude and attempts to speak French, even with a book in your hand, will earn points. Oh, did I forget to mention - smile?
A basic corner cafe in Paris will identify their offerings by varietal (i.e. Sauvignon or Cabernet) and also by appellation such as Cote du Rhone. Many bistros however will list wines overwhemingly by appellation so do your homework; or you'll find yourself settling for just things you know already. We stumbled upon Passe-tout-Grain and Fronton; and drank both all week as both were wonderful and affordable. And I'll also add that although France is considered by many to be the greatest of all wine countries wine there for most is still merely an everyday pleasure that isn't expected to be high art in a glass every time. For example I was in a corner cafe for lunch there once and witnessed some men who were working underground who during their break entered the cafe and wearing wife beaters and with hairy shoulders enjoyed sandwiches with glasses of rosé.
One place in Paris that will provide an easy introduction and good food is Willi's Wine Bar:
It's owned by an English ex-pat, so it's accomodating of Anglophones and has a very nice selection of wines by the glass, especially Rhones and Loires.
Some gems from all of the above:
"... walk in with LOW expectations."
"Most of the restaurants in the tourist areas have sub par wine "
"I have been disappointed, in general, with so-called house wines at bistros and small restaurants in France. Especially the transparent red plonk that are served in carafes."
"do not expect to recognize many labels"
Over all, take it nonchalantly.
I remember going back to a Nicolas shopkeeper complaining the low-priced burgundy he sold me was undrinkable. His reply: "Pour un bon bourgogne il faut monter très haut, Monsieur!"
Or sitting at a bistrot in Avignon, I asked for a bottle of local wine.
The waiter's reply: "Appellation ou château?"
(Nice compact way to represent the two basic tiers)
I responded "chateau" (period). And that was it.
Some good comments here regarding wine at dining establishments. Adding to that...
If you purchase a bottle in a market to enjoy either in your hotel room or at a picnic in a park, do not expect to recognize many labels. The same could probably be said for wine lists in restaurants that aren't ultra high-end. So just look at this is an opportunity to expand your wine knowledge. :o)
You will find a lot/most of wines from known regions but from tons of different producers that you might not find in the US, usually will be the same quality, so not really a big change from what you're used to.
Skip the chain wine merchants (like Nicolas) unless you know exactly what you want and can find it there.
Skip expensive wines unless you find a very good deal on something you really want (anyway, the price for top-of-the-line wines will not be very different form what you can get in the US), don't be frightened by "Vin de Table" or "Vin de Pays" there are _very_ good wines that do not have "appelation controlée" (AOC)
Locate smaller wine stores that specialized in "vins natures", it's where you will find wines from new small young producers that try to create something different from either the know regions or new "undiscovered" regions (stores like La Cremerie, Le Verre Volé, Racines, Papilles, la muse du vin, Willi's ...)
Well, don't be scared to go beyond the so-called simple, value wines, especially with the Euro softening against the USD.
I have been disappointed, in general, with so-called house wines at bistros and small restaurants in France. Especially the transparent red plonk that are served in carafes. More often than not, we end up ordering half-bottles or by-the-glass that are relatively more expensive than endure drinking the rest of the house wine.
During meals at good bistro or brasseries, I tend to peruse the wine list and at most times have found nuggets of, say, good Burgundies and/or Rhones that are still priced lower than what I would normally find them in restaurants here in NYC. You'd be plasantly surpised with some very good village-level or even 1er Cru Burgundies or some Rhones beyond the basic CdRs that are in some of these bistro's wine lists.
Assuming you are staying in Paris and not going to wine country, I highly recommend that you walk in with LOW expectations. Especially if you are new to wine.
And no, there isn't much difference between USA and France unless you are willing to dig in and find an expert to help you. But one thing Paris is better at is simple value wines -- more of them and at better prices, especially when the euro is where it's at.
Most of the restaurants in the tourist areas have sub par wine in my opinion. Nice restaurants deliver, and will have a wine steward that speaks enough English to handle you.
Many wine shops have cheese and bread. Half my meals in Paris are a bottle for about 10 euros, plus a baguette and cheese to die for. Eat it in a park.
Grocery stores have amazing budget wine at times. Check out Cotes du Rhone and Bordeaux for great red values. Alsace and Loire for great whites.
At the local bistrots, or restos, just ask for a demi-pichet (500mL) or a glass of their "house" wines. They'll have appelation level Cotes du Rhone, Bordeaux, Bourgogne Rouge, Chinon, etc... Perfectly quaffable with your meal. The "low" end wines in France are better than the low end swill in the states.
It's only if you want to buy a bottle for $25+ euros at store like Nicolas, will you have to do your homework if you want to find a bottle you can't buy in the states. I wouldn't stress too much about what wines to buy unless you're a hardcore collector. Ask for help from the wine shop employee. Of course it always helps if you speak even a little French.