How to buy wine like a local in Toulouse
Tips for navigating wine shops like a local when in Toulouse
Being an expat is stressful enough – piles of paperwork, language classes, mile-long lists of things to buy and do, unfamiliar surroundings, and – if all of the above wasn’t enough to drive you to drink – the stress of buying the appropriate wine. We’re in France! This should be easy, right?! We’ve all been there staring at a wall of wine in Monoprix or Carrefour, waiting for something familiar to jump out at you while beads of sweat start to collect on your forehead. Finally, you end up grabbing something in your price range with an interesting label.
It may feel like an impossible task to acquire the wine savoir-faire that the French seem to be automatically born with. But what if I told you that all you needed was to find the right person to whisper over your shoulder, to give advice, guide your selections, and lead the way to wine enlightenment? This wine whisperer is your local caviste! One of the first things that I did when we settled in Toulouse was checking out the wine shops near our apartment, and I’m so glad I did!
Establishing a relationship with a local caviste can take the stress out of wine buying, leaving you only the thrill of discovering a well-chosen wine. No more blindly grabbing from the shelves of the supermarché, you’ll soon be confidently picking bottles to take to your next dinner party and knowing exactly what would go with that certain fromage. I’ll show you what to look for and how to build a relationship with your own wine whisperer that will keep you well in wine and happy in spirit for as long as you call France your home.
How to choose a caviste
My number one criteria for a caviste is that the staff take the time to give you recommendations when you ask – which you should always do. Even if you have good wine knowledge, a caviste will know their own selection and choose the right bottles to fit your requirements. If the staff make you feel unwelcome, keep looking. The best wine professionals love to share their knowledge and passion, even if you don’t speak perfect French.
A well-stocked caviste will have a wide range of price points and regions. Make sure you can buy both everyday and special occasion wine. When you’re ready to invest in a really nice bottle, you’ll be able to do so with trust. Many cavistes have quality wines available starting around eight euros per bottle, with the selection increasing when you reach 12-15 euros and above.
Heading straight to an engagement and don’t have time to properly chill your white wine? A good caviste should have a selection pre-chilled in a cooler hidden away in the back, so just ask if they have one that is “frais”. If the environment is a concern for you, seek out a caviste who stocks organic (“bio”), biodynamic or natural wines and can tell you which of their wines are grown using sustainable practices.
Good cavistes prioritize relationships and tend to reward their loyal customers with more personalized service, occasional discounts, product samples, or other special treatment.
As with any relationship, developing a rapport with a caviste takes time and persistence. Search out shops that you pass by regularly, so you don’t have to go out of your way to buy wine. Try a few different cavistes until you find your favorite, then stick with them. Each time you return, take the time to thank them for whatever they recommended to you previously. Once you’ve been there 4-5 times, you’ll be recognized as a regular.
Good questions to ask at the caviste
- “I’m looking for a wine that goes with (insert what you are having for dinner)” (Je cherche un vin qui va avec…)
- “I like…do you have something similar?” (J’aime bien…avez-vous quelque-chose similar?)
- “I’m looking for a wine for (insert an occasion)” (Je cherche un vin pour…)
- Asking for a specific type of grape (“cépage”) is ok, too, but many grapes lend themselves to quite a wide range of styles. It may be easier to ask for a wine by style (light “léger” vs. powerful “puissant”/”fort”, mineral “minéral” vs. fruit-driven “fruité”).
MY favorite local cavistes in Toulouse*
LA CAVE SPIRITUELLE
31, rue de la Concorde
Caviste in Les Chalets since 1994. Excellent advice, warm service, and a wide selection of price points and regions with a focus on sustainably-produced wines. They even stock international wines if you want a change of pace. My go-to caviste just steps from the Marché Cristal. (Pictured at top.)
38 rue d’Astorg and Marché Victor Hugo
This caviste is one of the top in Toulouse, supplying a number of the Michelin star restaurants. Their small outlet in the Marché Victor Hugo is perfect for a pre-lunch apéro with friends or grabbing a bottle to go with your market purchases.
14 Place des Carmes (and soon coming to Place Victor Hugo!)
If tasting is believing, this is the right wine shop for you! L’Envie not only has a great selection of wines with passionate cavistes ready to help you pick, but they also have several self-service machines with bottles “on tap” where you can taste some of their selections before committing to buying the bottle.
Like to try before you buy?
Visit the Maison des Vins in Gaillac or Fronton to try a wide variety of local wines or make a note of the annual wine festivals that showcase their producers and turn a day of sampling into a fun and festive outing where you can come away with a car-load of wine, if you’re not careful. Toulouse also hosts a 3-day Salon Vins et Terroirs twice a year in at the Parc des Expositions. Sample and buy direct from hundreds of producers! Also consider the Salon REGAL and Soiree Vins Nouveaux.
*These are the cavistes I shop at most frequently, both because I find them to offer high-quality, well-priced wines with excellent service, but also because they are convenient to my everyday trips around Toulouse. There are many other excellent cavistes in Toulouse and I encourage you to seek out one (or a few) that are convenient to your daily life so that you can visit regularly without going out of your way. If you have a good caviste in Toulouse, I’d love to hear about it!