You are here: Home
So why buy wine direct from producers - and why en vrac?
There are a number of advantages.
First, of course, you are transporting thin polythene instead of thick glass, so for a given amount of space - and, more important, weight - you get a lot more wine.
Then there’s cost. Even buying from the grower, wines are a lot more expensive in bottle than en vrac. There’s the cost of the bottle, the cork (a good natural cork costs about one franc - over 10p), the capsule and the label, plus the labour of bottling, corking, capsuling, labelling and boxing.
Typically, a wine that costs a modest 20 to 30 francs a bottle - say £2.75 at the time of writing - will cost you an absurd 10 or 11 francs a litre in bulk. 22 litres costs about 220 francs, with another 28 for a semi-rigid cubitainer. That’s around 250 francs (about £26) for 29 or 30 bottles, or about 87p a bottle. Needless to say, a wine costing £2.75 per bottle from the grower would be well over a fiver by the time it had found its way to a British supermarket (except that these wines rarely do), so this is a very attractive proposition.
Of course the opportunity to taste the wine before you buy means that you are far less likely to end up with something you don’t like than if you load up with cheap bottles at the hypermarket on the way home. However, you need to bear in mind that on a summer holiday you will be tasting wine less than a year old - very young for high-alcohol wines - and it will improve enormously with a few months in bottle. So it’s worth asking to taste the previous year’s wine, now in bottles, to see how last year’s is likely to develop.
Finally, it’s immensely enjoyable, because it gives you a real sense of where the wine comes from and brings you into contact with the people who actually make it.
I’m deadly serious about this. I get excellent everyday-drinking wines at ridiculously low cost for relatively little effort. In April 1995 Jeff and I did a one-week trip to buy wine (and to celebrate both having had the good sense to take early retirement from the beleaguered state education service). We brought back 230 litres en vrac in my little Citroën ZX estate. At an average of £3 a bottle in a UK supermarket this would have cost us £920. Our way, it had cost just £220. The saving of £700 paid for the ferry, the travel and breakdown insurance, the diesel, our food for the week and a couple of decent meals out - and left us with a healthy surplus.
This game has actually become a lot simpler (if a little more expensive) with the widespread use of the bag-in-box package - the same as the wine-boxes you can buy in our supermarkets, with a collapsible plastic bag inside a corrugated cardboard carton. This technology works fine for quantities up to ten litres. Beyond that, you move on to semi-rigid polythene cubes in boxes (cubitainers). 22-litres is a good size - you can get 33-litre cubitainers but I can’t lift a full one! I used to re-use cubis, but they’re cheap enough to use once and discard, avoiding the trouble of sterilising and the risk of contaminating wine that has cost £30 but is worth a lot more.
The easiest places to start are the caves co-opératives . You’ll find one in virtually every village whose name appears on wine labels. The wines won’t be the best in the area but they will be reliable, because this is where all the smaller growers who can’t afford to make their own wines bring their grapes. Each grape variety is pooled and the wine is made in huge batches, levelling out any variations in quality and giving you a good average wine of the particular type.
These establishments are hard to miss because they often bear the name of the village and are called things like Cave des Vignerons (just to confuse everyone, the co-op in Caromb is called Le Caveau St Marc!). They are usually large, impressive buildings designed to reflect prestige on their villages.
In any co-op, you can taste the wines sold, buy plastic containers and have them filled from what look suspiciously like petrol-pump nozzles (except that they have long plastic pipes that reach to the bottom of your container to minimise the amount of air that is mixed with the wine). A little oxygen is a true friend to wine at drinking time but can do untold damage if the wine is stored for a long period after the air gets in. Like almost everywhere else in France, wine co-ops accept the full range of credit cards (as indeed do most of the individual growers, however mediaeval their premises might be).
If you insist on re-usable containers, make sure that they’re made of food-grade plastic. I feel safer with translucent uncoloured polythene, but many growers sell brown plastic barrels that stop the light getting to the wine. If in doubt, to be sure they’re wine-friendly, buy your containers from a grower or a wine co-op.
It seems that new food-grade containers can be used without washing, but once they have been used you need to be absolutely fastidious about cleaning and sterilising them. It would be stupid to travel all the way from the UK to Provence, spend a hundred pounds or more on wine and cart it all the way home - a total of 2000 miles - only to discover that it has been ruined because your containers were dirty.
I clean everything used for wine with Chempro SDP, which you can buy at any Boots branch with a homebrew counter. This is what the professionals use. It’s powerful and reliable and smells a lot less unpleasant than either bleach or the metabisulphite sterilising solutions so popular with home winemakers. Be sure to follow the instructions to the letter, though: use the right concentration for each kind of container and only soak for the recommended time, or your plastic containers could be damaged. Rinse well after soaking in Chempro: I fill my wine bottles with mains water and empty them twice, then drain them thoroughly before filling with wine. If you want to be absolutely sure about your plastic containers, clean with Chrmpro, rinse thoroughly and then put a little metabisulphite sterilisjng solution in each before you leave home. Don’t forget to rinse it out just before you buy your wine (caves de dégustation usually have a convenient tap and drain).
When the containers are full of wine, squeeze them to get all the air out and screw the caps down tightly.
Generally speaking, wine can be kept in bag-in-box containers for about four months and in cubitainers and jerrycans for about a month before you need to bottle it. If in doubt, ask at the place where you buy your containers - and take the advice seriously. A couple of years ago I left four new 22-litre cubis - two of Chardonnay and two of Rosé de Syrah from the Domaine du Rieu, for too long. When I bottled the wine it had the characteristic woody smell of oxidation - reminiscent of sherry but not as nice. Being an eternal optimist I bottled it all anyway (it was £90-worth of wine, after all!) on the basis that at least it could be used for cooking - though it would make an awful lot of gravy. Miraculously, it gradually improved to the point where I’ve actually drunk some recently. I wouldn’t risk it again, though.
Bottles and bungs
I bottle in second-hand wine bottles of all shapes and sizes, carefully treated every time with Chempro. When they are rinsed, the bottles go on a marvellous plastic construction bought from Leroy Merlin (the French equivalent of B&Q or Do-It-All, but much better) for just over £10. It’s like a polythene Christmas tree, and will drain 100 bottles on a couple of square feet of table-top.
10-litre bag-in-box containers are easy: just unseal the tap and run the wine straight into the bottles. Cubitainers can be fitted with taps (buy just one for all the containers in a consignment), but a siphon bought from a homebrew shop is a better bet with big containers. Don’t forget to sterilise taps and siphons too.
Where possible I use a superb type of French plastic stopper (bouchon plastique). This is a hollow cylinder with a lip on the open end and a screw thread inside it. They come by the hundred with their own all-plastic corkscrew (tire-bouchon) which is also used for pushing the stoppers into the bottles. The stoppers can be used over and over again, and can be bought in many wine co-ops and caves de dégustation. Clean them with Chempro, rinse thoroughly and then immerse them in hot water so that they are soft enough to push into the bottles easily.
Unfortunately the necks of wine bottles come in a wide range of diameters and plastic stoppers are less forgiving than corks. Some necks are so wide that the air-pressure caused by pushing the stopper can blow it halfway out again. Others are so narrow that, while the hot stoppers go in easily enough, they become so compressed that the corkscrew won’t fit. Then the only way to get these out is with a Stanley knife and a pair of pliers.
Sadly, I have to use real corks in such bottles. Those sold by Boots are fine. Some others, possibly of higher quality, will not compress enough to fit into the narrowest necks even with extended soaking. Corks need to be sterilised with metabisulphite and soaked to soften them, and mine are inserted with a lever-operated corker inherited from my Dad. If you store the bottles upright the corks dry out, shrink and let the air in, so you need to keep them horizontal. Then to avoid seepage and mould, you need to seal the corks with capsules. These used to be made of foil and were crimped onto the bottle neck by rolling a thick rubber ring over them. Now they are heat-shrink plastic. The recommendation is to hold them over a pan of boiling water to shrink them, but I find it all too easy to scald myself that way, so I prefer a delicate touch with the butane blowlamp I keep in my kitchen for making crème brûlée. I push the capsule down with a finger and shrink the bottom first with a fast blast from each side. Then I rotate the bottle with one hand while playing the flame rapidly up and down the capsule with the other. I occasionally melt a capsule, but not often, and they seal a lot tighter than with steam.
Recently (it’s 2003 at the time of this edit) I’ve opened some bottles with corks and plastic capsules that have been stored on their sides for three or four years. I’ve found mould, grot and general nastiness between the capsule and the top of the cork, and the wine has tasted pretty grim. I’m now discarding bottles that won’t fit the plastic stoppers and desperately collecting others that will!
Co-ops and growers will normally supply you with labels (étiquettes - same root as ’ticket’!) when you buy en vrac, but I prefer to print my own on the computer so that I can record when the wines were bought and brought home and when they were bottled. My name on the label also impresses friends to whom I generously give the odd bottle (I would never dream of selling the wine, obviously).
Either way, the easiest thing to stick them on the bottles with is ordinary milk (no, I didn’t believe it either, when Jeff first told me!). Just dip the backs of the labels in a saucer of milk and lay them face-down on the worktop - say ten in two rows of five. Use the first row of five, then replenish it before using the second row. This gives the paper time to swell so that it shrinks down nice and flat onto the bottles, like wallpaper. I smooth the labels down with a damp cloth which removes any surplus milk. When you clean the bottles the labels rinse off very easily - unlike some of the commercial ones, which have to be scraped off with a knife. Some bottlers have now started using labels with that appalling rubbery contact adhesive - I’ve even resorted to smelly paintbrush cleaner to get that off bottles!
Don’t fall into the trap of leaving your bottles unlabelled. In spite of what you think, in a year’s time you won’t be able to remember what the wine is, or where it came from. If it matures into something absolutely superb you’ll be heartbroken if you don’t know where to go for some more. And if it turns out to be awful, you won’t know what to avoid.
If you think this all sounds like hard work, just wait ’till you’re looking at several hundred bottles of wine safely tucked away in your cellar (or pantry or wardrobe or garage or wherever) for a fraction of what they’d cost here! It’s a good feeling. You can start drinking the wine straight away, but it’s all the better for at least a few days’ rest. Fortunately, ten litres produces 13.33333333 bottles of wine, and 11 litres produces 14.66666666, so you’ve always got a bit left over to drink straight away unless you’re foolish enough to buy 30 or 33 litres of one wine.
Where to go
There are two basic approaches to this pastime. You can explore endlessly, finding new suppliers on every trip, or you can stick to the devil you know. I prefer a mix - there are suppliers I always go to, but I like to find new ones too.
Three years ago I bought the Guide des Vins de France by Patrick Dussert-Gerber from a Leclerc hypermarket. It cost me 140 francs at a time when that was almost £20. In it, while exploring the Dordogne, I found details of a grower named Michel Prouillac in the village of Sigoulès, near Bergerac. We visited, met Mme Prouillac and bought half a dozen bottles each of Bergerac Blanc Sec and Bergerac Rosé at 16.5 francs a bottle, and two 10-litre bag-in-box packs of Bergerac Rouge at 100 francs each.), That’s 38 bottles, worth (using Marsden’s Magic Formula - an average wine in Sainsbury’s costs £3 a bottle) £118. They cost me £54, saving the price of the book and another £35 besides.
You need to be able to decode written French to get the benefit of this book - GCSE-failed and a good dictionary will probably get you by.
...or follow me!
One domaine that I would never miss is Rieu Frais, tucked up in the foothills of the Alps...
But I’m getting ahead of myself...
Personal site for Paul Marsden: frustrated writer; experimental cook and all-round foodie; amateur wine-importer; former copywriter and press-officer; former teacher, teacher-trainer, educational software developer and documenter; still a professional web-developer but mostly retired.
This site was transferred in June 2005 to the Sites4Doctors Site Management System, and has been developed and maintained there ever since.