You may have heard that the French drink wine every day, and although we usually like to debunk clichés about les français, this one is pretty accurate. In the US, your average adult drinks 12.4 litres of wine per year, whereas in France the number is 50.2. In other words, for each glass of wine an American drinks, a French person drinks four. Why? Well, for one, drinking wine in France isn’t seen as a luxury. Because wine is less expensive, people tend to have a glass of wine or two at lunch and dinner (including Emmanuel Macron!).
But while the French consume more wine than Americans do, that doesn’t mean that all French people are amateur sommeliers. In fact, since drinking wine is so common in France, many buy inexpensive bottles at the supermarket and are far from the wine experts we imagine them to be. (Watch a scene from the classic French comedy L’Aile ou la Cuisse that involves an over-the-top wine expert competition here.) Which all goes to say that you shouldn’t be intimidated by French wine culture! If you read our article and start sampling wines, you’ll be well on your way to impressing les œnophiles (wine lovers).
By Sophia Millman
Choisir la bouteille: Choosing your Bottle
Bottle shapes change depending on the wine
Tip #1: Choose according to the dish
If you’re buying a bottle for a dinner party, ask your host what they’re serving. See our pairing advice below. Generally speaking, red wines go particularly well with red (or dark) meats, white wines with light meats, and sweet wines with dessert. Chilled rosé is ideal for an apéro or with appetizers.
Tip #2: Look at the label on the back of the bottle
On this label, you’ll often be able to see who imports the wine, especially if it’s a natural wine. Choosing importers you trust will allow you to discover a whole range of bottles selected by the same curator. As this LA Times article explains, “It’s helpful to think of importers and distributors as collaborators, working together to create a portfolio that represents a point of view reflected in the juice — so if you like one bottle they bring in, it’s worth seeing what else they’ve put their name on.”
Tip #3: Do not choose according to the price
Price is not a guarantee of quality. You can get a very good bottle of wine for less than 10 euros in France and for less than $20 in the US. This is why you should look up bottles of wine at the liquor store with an app like Vivino to see what other customers think.
Tip #4: If you’re in France, get your caviste’s opinion
Cavistes (wine sellers) are happy to advise you and suggest wines that match your needs and tastes. Some even let you sample wines!
Accords mets et vins: Wine Pairings
One of the best wine scenes in all of cinema can be found in From Russia With Love. James Bond begins to grow suspicious of one of his traveling companions when the man orders red wine to go with his grilled sole. As Bond suavely observes, “One never drinks red wine with fish.” It’s true: conventionally, fish is paired with white wine. But the pairings get pretty complicated and specific. Check out this French site if you want to see a detailed guide to pairing wines with foie gras, caviar, asparagus, escargots…
But what if you don’t have time to research which food pairs best with which wine? If your French is strong, you can enter a wine or food into this French search engine and get a pairing suggestion. You can also check out this great English-language pairing guide that includes a helpful infographic. Finally, keep in mind that there is no exact science to this, as this hilarious “What the Fuck France?” video points out. Feel free to mix and match dishes and wines that you love!
Les variétés de vin: From traditional to natural and original wines
What are les vins de garde
Un vin de garde is a wine that can age for several years in a cellar and its taste will improve. Les vins jeunes (young wines) or vins de primeur are wines that can be consumed right away, such as le Beaujolais Nouveau.
What’s the difference between les vins natures and les vins traditionnels
“Natural wine is… made from unadulterated fermented grape juice and nothing else,” explains this Vox article. The modern natural wine movement was born in France, and natural wine has also become pretty popular in the US in recent years. You can watch this video called “Vin nature, bio, traditionnel etc quelles différences ?” if you’d like to learn more about the importance of natural and organic wines.
Does champagne refer to any kind of bubbly wine?
In France, the word “champagne” is reserved by law only for sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France. The terms “mousseux” and “crémant” refer to sparkling wine not made in the Champagne region.
I’ve heard of orange wine. What is it and is it popular in France?
Le vin orange, often called “skin-contact wine,” is made from white wine grapes. The vintners don’t remove the grapes’ skin for days or even months, which is what gives it its color. Practice your French by watching this video about the increasing popularity of this wine!
Conseils pour bien servir son vin: tips for serving your wine
Glass shapes change depending on the wine
What kind of wine glasses do the French use?
In 1986, Georg Riedel launched a line of affordable wine glasses called Vinum. It featured different styles of glasses that corresponded to different wines, which shocked French consumers. They were used to only one type of wine glass, but, over the years, serving wine in different glasses has become common. In the picture above, you can see which wines are supposed to be served in which glass.
- Note: according to most French wine experts, wine should never be served in stemless glasses! Your hands will warm the wine if you don’t have a stem to hold.
How do you open a wine bottle the French way?
Sommeliers generally use simple corkscrews, press the corkscrew into the cork slightly off center, and cut the foil around a wine bottle at the bottom lip. See this helpful video. Never take off the whole foil capsule around the bottleneck because the French think this is impolite. Once the bottle is open, let the wine breathe for a while.
- Note: red wines in particular are much better served in decanters (carafes).
How much wine should I pour into a glass?
Never fill a glass more than halfway. Many Americans drink from very large glasses of wine, but the French tend to drink from small glasses that are not too full. A third of the way full is generally a good rule. This also makes it easier to hold your wine glass by its stem or base, which is how the experts do it!
Le petit lexique du vin: French Wine Vocabulary
Here’s a small list of French wine words to know:
- Bottle: une bouteille
- Cork: un bouchon
- Corkscrew: un tire-bouchon
- Carafe/Decanter: une carafe (à décanter)
- Grape: le raisin
- Label: une étiquette
- Vineyard: un vignoble
- Wine: le vin or le pinard (slang)
- Wine glass: un verre à vin
- Winestore owner: un/une caviste
- Winemaker: un/e vigneron/ne
Wondering where to drink French wines in the US? Find our wine bar recommendations in NYC and LA here!