It is best to concentrate on middle-priced wines in the pounds 4- pounds 10 range from quality-conscious growers. The Medoc, Bordeaux's best known fine wine district, is distinctly customer-unfriendly with Chateau Prieure-Lichine the only top estate to encourage direct sales. Champagne and Saumur are tourist traps in the summer. Avoid vin de table all year round. Beaujolais, rose and most vins de pays are rarely worth a look. Anything with a vente-degustation sign, particularly burgundy, should be treated wlth caution. Much the same is true of the Hermitage and Cote Rotie areas of the northern Rhone. The best areas are the lesser known French regions such as the Loire, Jura, Savoie, Languedoc-Roussillon and the south-west.
Following up a local wine enjoyed in a restaurant, hotel or cafe is often a useful lead. A tip-off from the restaurateur or hotel owner is another short cut to the best local wines. A letter of introduction from a reliable UK wine merchant to one of its growers could work wonders. And take some wine lists (useful for price comparisons), an up-to-date wine guide and the Michelin map for the local area. Failing an introduction, a prior telephone call does not go amiss.
If you are intending to make several visits, you can contact the local syndicat or comite in advance, who can provide a list of growers' names and addresses and give you some idea of who will be around. It can also supply details of wine fairs and festivals in July/August where you can taste without feeling any pressure to buy.
Dedicated wine shoppers should not miss Leclerc on the outskirts of Paris, the only French supermarket I know which is exclusively devoted to wine. Failing that, there are always the Channel ports. Travellers returning via Calais might take in the Calais Wine & Beer Discount House, an offshoot of Marco's Wines outlets in south London. Battersea's Grape Shop in Boulogne has by far the best Channel port selection, including New World wines.
Useful names and addresses: Leclerc, 98-102 rue Jean Jaures, 92300, Le Vallois Perret, Paris (telephone: 1 42 70 33 22); Grape Shop, 85-87 rue Victor Hugo, Boulogne (21 33 92 30); Calais Wine & Beer Discount Warehouse, rue de Judee, Zone Marcel Doret, Calais (21 97 63 00).
For local syndicat/comite addresses, write to Food & Wine from France, Nuffield House, 41-46 Piccadilly, London W1V 9AJ.
For UK wine merchants, see the 1993 Which? Wine Guide. Vineyard guide: Le Guide Hachette 1993 des Vins (Fr159).
Vineyards to visit:
Loire Valley: Paul Filliatreau, Chaintres, Dompierre sur Loire, 49400, Saumur (restaurant, insect house; 41 52 90 84); Daniel Jarry, 99 rue de la Vallee Coquette, La Caillerie (cellars tunnelled into rock; 47 52 78 75).
Provence: Mas de la Dame, Les Baux de Provence, 13520 (good scenery, organic produce, olive oil; 90 54 37 33); Commanderie de Peyrassol, Flassans sur Isole, 83340 (charming setting, warm welcome; 94 69 71 02); Chateau de Pibarnon, La Cadiere D'Azur, 83740, Bandol (classy wines, highest estate in port of Bandol; 94 90 12 73).
Corbieres: Chateau de Lastours, Portel des Corbieres (superb setting, restaurant, vineyards run by disabled; 68 48 29 17).
Roussillon: Chateau de Jau, Cases de Pene, 66600, Rivesaltes (art gallery, restaurant; 68 38 90 10).