The annual wine fair concept was invented in 1973 in Brittany by Edouard Leclerc, from the supermarket chain of the same name.
Forty years later, E. Leclerc is still the market leader when it comes to wine fairs, with a turnover last year of 92.7 million euros - in the midst of an economic crisis. The second in line is Intermarché with a turnover of 72 million in 2015, up 7.5% on the previous year.
The Foire aux Vins concept is not, however, just about wines at the cheaper end of the market. It is possible to find a very wide range of wines at extremely reasonable prices from all regions of France, but the fairs also present excellent opportunities to stock-up with champagne, fine Bordeaux and fine Burgundy. Such is the offer of high quality Bordeaux wines from many of the top chateaux that, although there is a whole series of wines at less than €5 per bottle, the average price is approaching €30. This is, of course, all about French wines. If you are looking for the New World, Spain or even Italy, forget it.
Lovers of less expensive wines will find a good range from South-west France, Beaujolais and the Loire valley. Average price here is around €9 (£8.04) per bottle and can represent great value for money, with characterful, high quality examples. Wines from the Languedoc Roussillon region have long featured in the low priced bracket, but recently prices here have been increasing, along with the quality of the wines. In fact, sales in the Foire aux Vins now serve as reliable indicators of the relative positioning of the wine regions in terms of price and quality.
Internet sales are now also increasing significantly in this area in France. Some independent internet wine sites appear to have prices which bare little relevance to reality. They perhaps rely on the socio-professional status of the buyer, sheltered behind his or her keyboard to promote inflated prices, similarly to the independent wine shops, although the latter do offer a higher level of customer service. All the large distributors now have internet sites dedicated to the wine fairs, and here prices are much more reasonable, in line with those in the shops themselves. While their margins are much less than the independent internet sellers or retailers, they are considerably more than margins from the grocery sales.
Last week I visited one of the Intermarché stores, and was tempted to re-stock my cellar - a temptation I found impossible to resist. My purchases consisted of an equal mix of everyday drinking wines, and a few choice red Bordeaux wines to lay down for a few years, such as Chateau Beau Site 2009 Sainte Estephe for €14.50, which should be perfect in three years’ time.
So what are you waiting for? Book the ferry or Tunnel and visit E. Leclerc (28 September to 08 October) or Auchan (running now until 4 Oct) and snap up a wine bargain or two, either for drinking now or to look forward to in a few years’ time.