A rite of autumn in France: Foire aux Vins wine sales

by Tom Fiorina on September 16, 2009

foire-aux-vinsThe leaves are changing colors, August tans are starting to fade, the September back-to-school Rentrée mania is over, so there’s only one fall tradition remaining in France: the Foire aux Vins wine promotions that are held each autumn in French supermarkets.

This tradition, which started over 20 years ago in just a few supermarkets in a few French metropolitan areas, has now spread throughout the country, and each supermarket chain has its own distinctive marketing approach that includes elaborate catalogs and websites. I noticed this year that some of the supermarket chains have moved their sales to October and even November, setting themselves apart from the others. I appreciate this new sales tactic as researching and preparing for two or three simultaneous Foire aux Vins would challenge even the most brilliant military strategist.

It’s essential to do your homework before heading to the supermarkets, as most Foire aux Vins have between 400 to 800 wines on display. This is big business, as approximately 25% of the supermarket’s annual wine sales will occur during the two or three weeks of the sale. Around 50% of the wines are from the Bordeaux region, around 30% from Burgundy, 15% from Champagne, and the remaining 5% will be from other French wine regions (the region where the store is located will have the best representation in this small percentage). One or two Italian wines, perhaps something from Chile or Argentina, or Australia, and maybe a lone, dusty bottle of California wine will be placed on the minuscule Vins étrangers shelf. Despite the national motto of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” the French are not big on equal opportunity (or maybe it’s a direct result of that motto; if everyone’s equal, why make any effort?), so I believe that this is less about choice, and more about giving the supermarket an international image.

Remembering back almost 20 years, when I visited my first Foire aux Vins, I can safely say that more bargains were evident then. Each supermarket states in its catalog that its group of buyers (numbering in the hundreds for the largest of what in France are called hypermarché–think Walmart on steroids) tastes eight or ten wines for each one selected. But each year, there are the same large cooperatives or what one might call “industrial” chateaux overwhelmingly represented. Living in southwestern France, I’m not really interested in buying expensive Bordeaux wines (which are not, in my mind, a good quality-for-value wine when compared to the many good wines that are available from lesser-known French wine regions). What I really want are some good whites (a rarity in southern France). Short of traveling to the Loire Valley, Burgundy or maybe Alsace to shop at some of their supermarkets, I’m forced to camp out on the supermarket’s doorstep to be there when the doors open for the first day of the Foire. For example, my local Carrefour had advertised an interesting white wine in its Foire aux Vins catalog: a 2007 Chablis Premier Cru from Domaine Brocard. The few bottles on stock were gone within the first day. I know this, as I was in the store the second day of the Foire, and there was a group of four or five of us gazing forlornly at the empty spot on the shelves where these bottles had been. Some lucky wine enthusiasts got a bargain, as Carrefour was selling this Chablis for €9.95 a bottle; a loss-leading 100% discount from its normal €19 or €20 retail price.

I did come home with two bottles of a lesser-quality Chablis from Domaine Brocard—a 2007 Domaine Pierre de Préhy, and several bottles of Crémant de Limoux to sample, along with an €8.50 bottle of Rosé Château Vannières from Bandol that I saw listed for almost double that price on an online wine site.

In addition to doing my price comparison research online before heading to the Foire, I also have learned some other important lessons over the years:
•    Don’t expect to receive any assistance from the sales staff. Customer service is a somewhat foreign concept in France. If there is any staff around, they’ll be discussing football scores or what they plan on doing the coming weekend.
•    Don’t expect to taste any of the wine before making a purchase. Heaven forbid that you should confuse a wine promotion event, like a Foire aux Vins, with a Dégustation.
•    Don’t forget to bring your own cartons to haul home your bottles. My first few Foire aux Vins, I had loose bottles rolling around in the trunk of my car like bowling pins at a bowling alley. Any empty cartons at the supermarket are immediately crushed and carted away, lest any customer try to get his or her hands on them.

All that said, I still enjoy the Foire aux Vins season, the thrill of finding the occasional good buy, and locating that rare bottle of wine from a small, interesting producer who managed to get his or her wine noticed by the supermarket’s buyers. Come to think about it, when I think back to the surly state employees, and meager pickings at the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board Stores where I used to shop for wine, a Foire aux Vins isn’t that bad in comparison.

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Wink Lorch September 17, 2009 at 10:16

Good sum-up, Tom. A few points:

In stores I’ve been too, they often emply an extra person as a ‘wine expert’ for the duration, but it’s true their wine knowledge is very hit and miss (though inevitably they are wearing a wine apron, usually with some sort of sommelier/grape badge!). this one is really luck of the draw.

I have on a couple of occasions been able to taste a small selection from what’s been offered at a Foire du Vin – I guess it depends on the store, the day and the region. In addition, most of the big stores actually hold an official pre-Foire tasting by invitation only. To get an invitation you need to befriend someone who either has an account at the shop or is a known big buyer – so in the Alps, some of the chalets buy their wines for guests from the supermarkets and they get an invite.

You’re right to suggest doing the research – all the major French wine magazines (along with supplements in the newspapers like Le Figaro) cover the Foire aux Vins in their September issues – Revue du Vin de France, Gault et Millau and Cuisine et Vins have quite extensive coverage. It certainly pays to take the latest Hachette guide with you on your trawl. In the end, with my nearest supermarket (in France), I tend to go down to buy 6 single bottles of what I’m interested in, taste them back home and then hope there are still some left to buy on the next day (which as I have non-mainstream tastes, there usually are!). I’ve had some good successes – last year there were still some of the universally excellent 2005 wines available to buy, some from domaines that simply have too much stock. I’ve been amazed by what it’s possible to hunt down amongst the rubbish!

Tom Fiorina September 19, 2009 at 12:48

Thanks, Wink, for your comment and suggestions. I have to admit that there have been, on a few occasions, knowledgeable people at a Foire aux Vins to answer questions about the wine on stock (but this is more the exception than the rule). You’ve cleared up the mystery about who gets those pre-Foire tasting and purchasing invitations. I’ll need to find out who has the biggest wine cellar in my vicinity. Your tip about buying single bottles of different wines to taste, and then returning later to buy additional bottles, sounds like a good plan. I’ll need to do this on the sly, however, as my wife monitors with a critical eye the growing collection of wine in our cellar.

donnie October 15, 2009 at 02:46

Hey, watch what you say about the “state stores” back home, I’ve got some warm memories of them! All kidding aside, keep up the good writing. I am learning, slowly, bit by bit. Thanks much.

Tom Fiorina October 15, 2009 at 10:09

You must have shopped at another State Store than I did, Donnie. Hey, did you hear about that crazy idea of installing State Store vending machine kiosks? I can just imagine people putting in their coins to purchase a bottle of Vosne-Romanée…

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