by Ian Blackshaw
One of the delights of living in France is going out to eat. In our region, there is such a wide choice of eating places to suit every taste and every pocket from the humble Estaminet to the Michelin Starred Restaurant, of which there are many. Someone one said – and I would heartily agree! – that there are three decisions to be made each day: where to eat; what to eat; and what to drink!
Choosing a wine in a restaurant need not be such an intimidating task. Of course, one can always rely on the recommendations of the sommelier, who, if he or she – and there are some well-trained, knowledgeable and experienced female sommeliers around – is worth their salt, they will not, generally speaking, rip you off! After all, they – and their bosses – will want you to enjoy their choice and for you to come back. However, don’t be intimidated by them. Some can be quite pushy and condescending. Also, they are usually in a hurry rushing from table to table. In such cases, get their attention and keep it until your questions have been answered satisfactorily!
The first tip is to take your time looking at the wine list (la carte des vins). Depending on the establishment, this will be well laid out and informative. In some places, it is voluminous and known as ‘la Bible’! If you like wine from a particular region, say, Burgundy, then look at what is on offer. If, by chance, there is no vintage indicated, ask the sommelier to bring you a bottle and check the year for yourself. Remember, generally speaking, with reds the older the better; and with whites the younger the better. Never be rushed into making the final selection.
Again, if you are not sure of a particular wine that takes your fancy on the wine list, ask the sommelier to tell you about its particular characteristics, especially whether it will go well with what you have chosen to eat. Matching the wine and the food is so important, if the culinary experience is going to be satisfying and memorable!
Don’t go, necessarily, for the cheapest bottle in the category selected. For example, in the Burgundy category a ‘Passe-Tout-Grains’ may well be the cheapest, but is usually pretty horrible compared, for example, with a ‘Gevrey-Chambertin’! Also, ask about the year in order to compare prices. Why is one bottle more expensive than its counterpart? There will be a reason for this and you will need to find out what it is to make an informed choice! Incidentally, when the French dine out, they generally tend to choose the best wines irrespective of the price. They are out to enjoy themselves! Perhaps we should follow their example and leave ‘Scrooge’ behind!
In some restaurants, they feature the ‘wines of the month’, which are usually offered at a reasonable price. Again, find out about them before choosing one of them. But also, don’t be guided solely by price.
As far as an aperitif is concerned, a glass (coupe) of the house Champagne is often a good bet! And talking of ‘house wines’, again depending on the standard of the establishment, these often represent good value for money and should not, necessarily, be shunned! Once again, ask about them and don’t be embarrassed in doing so and choosing one.
As for dessert wines, which can be expensive, be careful and ensure that they are available by the glass and, depending on the number of takers, compare the price of a glass with that of the bottle.
One final word of warning: wines in French Restaurants – as, indeed, is the case elsewhere – are subject to high mark-ups. It is often said that the profit of the Restaurant is in the alcohol! Realise this and don’t let this hold you back or spoil your enjoyment of the wines you choose.
In some French Restaurants, the practice is growing of bringing your own wines to drink with the meal. Known in the trade as ‘BYOB’ – bring your own bottle! There is always a small fee (corkage) for this privilege. Always find out in advance whether this is permitted and what the charge is. This reminds me of a story of the Theatre Royal Stratford in East London. At the beginning of the interval, an actor comes onto stage to announce that the bar is now open, whereupon there is a cheer from the audience. He then makes a further announcement, with a great flourish, that the drinks are free! This produces an even louder cheer from the audience! Following this, the actor then announces that a nominal charge, however, is made for the use of the glasses!
Enjoy choosing your wines and quaffing them!