Wine Bottle Blues

May 26, 2009By Nick WoodsTales of la Ville
Wine Bottle Blues

High expectations for French wine are not always

It’s hard to believe, but taking visitors out for dinner and drinks in Paris has become something of a potential embarrassment. It isn’t to do with the cost – though I do tell visitors to bring a suitcase of cash …

Wine Bottle Blues
High expectations for French wine are not always

It’s hard to believe, but taking visitors out for dinner and drinks in Paris has become something of a potential embarrassment. It isn’t to do with the cost – though I do tell visitors to bring a suitcase of cash with them if they want to eat and drink properly – but with what you are getting for your money. Expectations of French food and wine are naturally high, and while the dishes served up in most of the restaurants are winning suitable praise, there is general disappointment about the wine.

I take the situation personally as most, if not all, of my friends who visit me are lifelong winos and they/we always enjoy a few good bottles around the table, but the bouteilles we are choosing from menus for around €18-24, a price that would seem to suggest highly drinkable, are failing to hit the spot. Though the fault clearly lies with France, I feel indirectly accused of having chosen to live in a city that doesn’t serve decent wine.

The last couple of guests, who have been necking bottles of vino since before my first bottle of baby milk, were so cheesed off with the lack of flavor in the bottles we were ordering that by day three they had started going for beer instead, especially in bars, where quality doesn’t seem to be much of a consideration at all.

Maybe we were not spending enough on a bottle, maybe we were just choosing the wrong type or years, or maybe it is in fact just a matter of personal taste. I stopped drinking French red wine regularly in my early 20s after I discovered tastier treats served up in Spanish, South African and Argentinean bottles (though for white wine a crisp, dry Sancerre still rules). Many of my friends that have gone down the same wine-tasting route, but then France does have a well-deserved international reputation as a wine producer and should be fairly reliable as long as you don’t opt for the obvious bargain basement bottle on the menu.

I know that there are some splendid French wines around as I once worked as a night porter in a luxury hotel in the Alps, and the waiters would always hide half-empty bottles of Margaux, Pauillac, Saint Julien, etc. from the dinner service for the staff. Admittedly, these were vintage flasks and in some cases cost hundreds of francs per bottle, which the guests could well afford, but there has to be a happy medium somewhere.

On the weekend party scene, I am used to drinking whatever battery acid is served up in bars and clubs, as keeping the cost down of going crazy in Paris is more important than the quality of whatever cheap liquid is (momentarily) in the glass. But in restaurants you want to spoil yourself, and you should be able to get a nice little number for a reasonable outlay, even if you are no connoisseur.

My guess is that Paris restaurants are now having to pay such extortionate rents that the necessary markup on wine has blown any idea of a price-quality ratio out of the water. Maybe restaurateurs are relying on the reputation of French wine to up the price of bog-standard bottles. What do foreigners know about wine, anyway, eh? Or is the idea among restaurant owners to make it commonly known that you can forget anything below €30 to encourage people to spend more? Whatever the reason, the consequences aren’t going unnoticed. “Nice food, shame about the wine.”

I like to think that my guests benefit from staying with someone with an insider’s knowledge of France, but it looks like I am falling down when it comes to recommending wine. So, for the benefit of research, I am going to buckle down and drink a lot more of it.

Nick Woods

Reader Daniel Gaujac writes: “I agree and disagree. As in any capital city, prices may be inflated (check out London or Milan, for instance), but a discerning consumer should be able to find good wines in most places I know in Paris. Let me share three places I like with you. You may like them, too.

“First, I suggest two places where you can discover great organic wines for the prices you wish to spend: Café de la Nouvelle Mairie (19, Rue des Fossés Saint-Jacques, 75005 Paris; tel.: 01 44 07 04 41‎) and Les Fines Gueules (43, Rue Croix des Petits Champs, 75001 Paris; tel.: 01 42 61 35 41‎).

“At Les Fines Gueules, you even have takeaway for the wine at great prices. And, since most of the organic wines don’t meet appellation regulations, they sometimes have incredible names – try “Vitriol,” for example!

“Also, you should check out Les Papilles, which has a €32 fixed-priced menu worthy of two Michelin stars. You can choose your own wine from the shelves. You won’t find a single bad bottle in this restaurant.” May 28, 2009

Reader Jeanne Govert writes: “I think your friends have an American palate is all. We have found the French wines very tasty and very different from U.S. wines. It will be hard for us to return to the U.S. after two years due to this fact. I think there is great quality for little cost here – not so much in America. Yes, over €30, the bottles are better, but that is true of most things – you get what you pay for. However, we have not found that to be true of the wine. Sorry you don’t agree.” May 28, 2009

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