Drinking wine in France reminds me of eating lobster in Maine. For many Americans, French wine and lobster mean white tablecloths, snotty staff and confusing methods – Oh, and wallet-busting expensive. But the reality is drinking wine in France or eating lobster in Maine is practically effortless. And, delicious. Of course, delicious.
In France, all wine is good French wine.
In France, drinking French wine is the norm. That seems oversimplified, but it’s the reason you can enjoy a pleasant wine with very little fuss. There’s no stressing over what to choose, it’s as simple as drinking what’s available.
It’s not as if only sommeliers, VIPs and CEOs are able to enjoy, learn about and discuss French wine. Diners at any French café or bistro can choose a simple vin du pays (table wine) in rouge, blanc or rosé. This wine will arrive in a pitcher, half-pitcher or glass. No label, no winemaker, no region. If you order vin du pays rouge and you like red wine, you’ll probably like what’s in the pitcher – unless you are really picky and then you don’t get any French wine… or lobster.
When you first get to France you’ll probably be tired, but excited and hungry, so this easy give-me-the-table wine approach is a nice transition into doing things the French way. But after some sleep and a hot café crème, you’ll get curious and ambitious. You’ll start saying Bonjour Monsieur and très bien even though you didn’t speak French yesterday. When this happens you’ll find yourself ready for the carte des vins (wine list). Before you freak out and worry that this is going to cost you your dignity and a million bucks, understand your options. Many Americans are surprised to find that wine can be purchased in une demi-bouteille (a half-bottle). Of course full bottles are available, and no one will fault you for ordering a full bottle. If the restaurant takes wine seriously – and you’re in France so that goes without saying – trust that whatever wine they serve, from what’s on their list, to what’s in the pitcher, has been selected with great care so you should feel comfortable ordering whatever suits you. Rest easy.
How to know what you are ordering.
It’s true that France’s wine system is complex, precise and meaningful. It’s also true that you don’t need to be an expert in all that to enjoy French wine. Understand that French wine is labeled first by where it comes from, or Appellation d’origine Contrôlée (AOC). Again, think of the Maine lobsters. A lobster from Maine isn’t a lobster from Thailand. Thus, a wine from Pouilly-Fuisse isn’t a wine from Montrachet. But, in this case, if you get a bottle from either region it’s probably much, much better than a Thai lobster (if that’s even a thing).
The label also indicates the winemaker, likely indicated by the words domaine or château. You may also see a winery with the word clos in the name, technically meaning an enclosed vineyard. If you see these terms, or a specific winemaker name, you can attribute the wine to that particular maker. Sometimes it will say, for example, Perrin et Fils. This means Perrin and Sons, a family enterprise.
Other indications are on the label, such as the vintage year, the specific vineyard (or lack thereof) and if the wine was bottled on the estate. Other details for specific wines may also be present. It could read like a book, or a statement.
But let’s say you are the easy-going type, only concerned with your own tastes, or how the wine will pair with your meal. This might come as a surprise, if you believe the traditional talk on French waiters, but don’t be afraid to ask. French people are more formal, as a tendency, and you won’t be greeted with a how-you-guys-doing approach. This is for your benefit, as the customer. The person serving you is trained and compelled to do the job correctly. While it might not be back-slapping friendly, you’ll get an educated answer. Don’t be afraid to ask your waiter or the sommelier for a recommendation, say a bottle for less than 20€ to pair with your Maine lobster (or whatever).
It’s acceptable in Paris and other cities to speak English if you must, just be as friendly as you can en français first, and move on en anglais, if that’s the best you can do. If you are speaking to a person and neither of you speak the same language, do your best to communicate politely. This applies in a busy French bistro or on the beaches of Thailand. You’ll get your lobster, you might just have to use hand gestures and a lot of smiling.
The good stuff is everywhere.
Again, with the lobsters… you drive into Portland and there are little lobster shacks everywhere, you can just get out of your van and grab a luxurious gastronomic treat. It’s no big deal. Every Maine resident can have up to five lobster traps, so that guy at the toll booth, maybe he’ll give you one of his.
It’s kind of the same way in France. In fact, les aires sur les autoroutes, (rest stops on the expressway) even serve and sell wine. Some of them, in wine growing regions, even have grapevines in their landscaping. The official website for the French motorways assures, several times, a pleasant stop. How civilized. Wine everywhere will become an expectation. Bars, hotels, restaurants, wine estates…all of these places will have a selection of wine that represents the establishment. And while this might seem overwhelming, remember that it’s for your pleasure. It’s there to enjoy.
If you see a spot that offers la dégustation des vins, they are offering a wine tasting. Some wine shops offer tastings, and many wine estates do as well. You might need a reservation, but you may not. Yes, there are the big-deal places with the wow wines and with that comes some expectations on your part. But if you’d rather be yourself, learn and relax, you’ll find plenty of welcoming places. The French are taking on a bit of the Napa-style wine tasting approach, but you’ll still find a natural quality, a more serene and personal experience, in France. In some estates you’ll even meet the winemaker, or be shown around the grounds by members of the team.
You’ll also hear a lot about terroir. This is the land, the place, the soil where the grapes came from. It has a big impact on the wine. This is why the label is so important. It’s not just to impress, it’s to impart meaning and history.
But you still need to taste. For yourself.
You might not be French; you might not even be going to France. You might be from Maine or Thailand. You can still enjoy les vins de France without getting a kink in your neck or a hole in your purse. Remember the joie de vie that’s attached to being French? It’s in your glass, whether you know it or not.
Jill Barth writes about French wine. Join her for a sip at her blog L’occasion.