The traditional autumn retail wine sales in France provide a great opportunity to restock your cellar, provided you approach with caution.
Supermarket chains understand better than anyone that the French enjoy a bargain, even more than they enjoy their wine, so their traditional autumn foires aux vins are immensely popular throughout the country. Around 20% of supermarket annual wine sales take place at this time.
Even though it may yet be a bit early to deck the halls with boughs of holly, the stores are full of bunting, shelves heave with a vast array of wines, and experts are often on hand to offer advice. In selected stores a flavoursome morsel of foie gras, cheese, or pâté often accompanies wine tastings.
To help buyers make a choice, the supermarkets also send out to all households a catalogue of wines on sale. It is well worth the effort to spend an evening studying all various offers and then checking them out on the internet before venturing out to buy. A Google search for foires aux vins will offer up plenty of websites offering you advice on what to buy.
Many of the wines on offer will be generic brands from large producers. Although this does not mean they will be poor quality wines, it generally means they lack distinctiveness or character.
There is also a dominance of wines from Bordeaux on offer, in a large number of cases simply because the producer is unable to sell them by any other means. Despite the fortunes amassed by some Bordeaux wine barons, many producers in the region barely earn a subsistance income.
Wise buyers need to be careful about wines from Burgundy, always a risk at the lower end at the best of times, and which are likely to hold few real bargains or interest in a wine fair. Property owners in the region may be in the best position to get the best of what is on offer, as their stores are likely to hold a wider selection.
Vintage selection is also important, for wines from poor years or past their best are frequently among the offers. By all accounts the 2013 vintage was a particularly poor one in most areas of France and one where a buyer needs to tread with great care.
But it is far from simply offloading slow or surplus stock.
Some good producers put their wines in the sale as a means of becoming more widely known to consumers, albeit they are often only available in small quantities.
In addition, supermarkets realise that the favourite tipple of most consumers is wine from their own region, so you will find that there is usually a wide selection of good local wines on offer.
Paul Strang, wine writer of South West France - Wines and Winemakers says "I find the most interesting wines are those which come from smaller independent producers, especially in my own home patch in the South-West and Languedoc. These wines usually sell out fast, so don’t let time run out."
Other potential wines of interest are those on sale as 'coup de cœur' offers. As the sommeliers engaged by the supermarkets stake their reputation on such choices they rarely disappoint.
And if you do not like what you find in the supermarkets, then it is worth trying the growing number of wine merchants who operate in France. Most participate in the autumn wine sales.
You are likely to find their wines more expensive and there is of course the cost of delivery to meet, but the quality of the wines will in general be better.
Leading merchants are Vinatas, Lavinia, WineandCo, and Nicholas, but there are many other good quality regional based merchants.
In the end, however, there is always good wine on sale in France throughout the year, so the foires aux vins, like the wines themselves, are best enjoyed in moderation.