Everything You Wanted to Know About French Wine (And Were Maybe Afraid to Ask)

Like baguette and cheese, wine is a major part of both French culture and of the image France has around the world. When you picture a French person in your mind, it’s probable that they’re either holding a glass or bottle of wine or have one on the café table in front of them. 

But unlike cheese and bread, wine carries a certain cachet that can make it seem intimidating.

The French tendency to use abbreviations and specific terminology on wine labels, not to mention the numerous different varieties of French wine you’ll find even in the most basic corner store in France, can make this iconic drink seem out of reach for the average person. In fact, it’s totally the opposite. In France, a lot of good wines (and of course, not-so-good wines) are totally affordable, and there’s nothing fancy about having a glass with a meal. 

Once you understand the essentials, you’ll be able to enjoy (or at least understand) French wine like a local.  Let’s drink up some information about French wine! 

What kinds of wine are produced in France?

There are roughly ten main wine-growing regions in France: Alsace, Bordeaux, Bourgogne (Burgundy), Beaujolais, Champagne, Côtes du Rhône, Jura, Languedoc, the Loire Valley, and Médoc. But many other regions, like the inland southwest and Normandy also produce wine. You can read lots of interesting information about the wine grown in different regions of France here and here

As you probably guessed when you read that list, most French wines are named for the region they come from – for example, bordeaux, burgundy (bourgogne in French), médoc, and champagne. Note that when talking about a wine, not the region, the word begins with a lowercase letter. 

Those are the major categories of French wine; from there, you’ll have more specific names that relate to a location within a region, like Saint-Emilion, a popular type of bordeaux.

All of this shows one of the most important things to understand about French wine: It’s not about the grapes it comes from (which include chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, and have been cultivated and used in other parts of the world, as well); rather, it’s the type of soil and other conditions in a particular French wine region. This is a concept known as terroir

Each region’ s wines have a particular reputation, some more well-known than others. But there’s no single “best” French wine-growing region; it depends on what kind of wine you like.

The three main varieties, as you may already know, are red (vin rouge), white (vin blanc), and rosé (rosé).  These colors are derived from the color of the grapes used to make them…mostly. You can read all about the fascinating process of winemaking here

Although they may seem highly codified and maybe a bit snobby to someone looking in from overseas, there are no hard and fast rules for French wines. There might be some labels or vintages (millésimes) that are considered excellent, but the average French person is just as capable of enjoying a mid-range bottle you bought from the grocery store, as a pricey purchase from a wine cellar or local vineyard. It’s all about your personal taste.

What is the history of French wine?

vineyard

Since it’s such an iconic part of our idea of French culture, you may be wondering , Was wine invented in France? The answer is…not exactly. The practice of fermenting grapes to produce wine probably first came about in China, around 7000 BC/BCE. But its origins in Europe stem from the country of Georgia, around 6000 BC (or BCE, if you prefer). 

From Georgia, the practice of making wine gradually spread through the continent. It took a few millennia, but by the 1st century AD (or CE, if you prefer), wine grown in what is today France’s Rhône region had quite the reputation among Ancient Roman connoisseurs. 

So, wine didn’t originate in France, but it’s been a part of French history for a very long time, even so.

On the other hand, there is a winemaking process that did originate in France. In the early 16th century, Benedictine monks near Carcassonne probably invented the process of creating sparkling wine. The most famous variety of this white, bubbly concoction is champagne, famously cultivated and elaborated upon by a fellow monk, Dom Perignon, in the 17th century.

Champagne is a sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine can be called “champagne”. Under European Union legislation, the name “champagne” can only be used for a sparkling wine from the Champagne region that follows strict guidelines covering everything from the grapes, to the process of making it. 

This means that there are many other kinds of French wines roughly similar to champagne. Personally, I love clairette de die, a sparkling wine from the Rhône region that’s sweeter and lighter than champagne.  

Although the French appreciate many different kinds of sparkling white wines, champagne tends to be the most popular, especially during the winter holidays, when it’s classically paired with foie-gras.  

Despite the fact that wine’s origins aren’t French, for most French people , wine is an inherent part of French culture – and French national pride. One of the effects of this is that most French people are a bit snobby when it comes to foreign wines. 

So, if you’re invited to dinner, a birthday party, or other gathering at a French person’s house and you want to bring a bottle of wine (a customary thing to do, although flowers are a completely reasonable alternative), always bring a French wine, even if the one you would have chosen has an excellent reputation overseas.

Why is wine important to French culture?

Do an internet search for “Why is wine important to French culture” and you’ll see a number of theories and even academic papers in lieu of a concrete answer. 

This is surprising, but somewhat understandable. I think part of the reason that there’s no concrete answer to the question comes down to the fact that wine has such a long history in France. It seems like habit, pride, and a climate and soil that naturally lend themselves to making good wine, all came together.

Do French people drink  a lot of wine?

With its reputation and cultural status, it’s easy to think that French people drink a lot of wine. And in fact, France is the leading wine-consuming country per person. According to the survey cited here, the French population drinks about 11% of the world’s wine.  

That seems like a lot, but believe it or not, wine consumption has drastically gone down over the past decades. Today, wine producers even worry at how (comparatively) little wine the French drink!

According to this article, the average French adult drinks 51.2 liters (13.5 gallons) of wine over the course of a year. In the year 2000, it was 71.5 liters (18.9 gallons)! 

There are a number of reasons for this change, from health and drunk driving awareness campaigns (the latter often in the form of very disturbing, graphic commercials on TV), to cultural changes like an increased variety in drink options and different ways of entertaining. 

I’ve experienced this firsthand. For example, unless I’m invited specifically for a party or meal, the most common thing I get offered when I’m invited to someone’s place here in Paris is either tea, coffee, or fruit juice. This may at least partly be due to the fact that most of the people I know are in their twenties to forties, since some studies consider reduced wine consumption in France a generational change. When my sixty-year-old mother-in-law has her French friends over, even if they just stop by to say hello, she immediately offers them an apéro (pre-meal drink). Still, I also know some older French people who would rather offer some exotic, high end tea than a bottle of wine to guests, so there are definitely other factors at play, as well.

Although wine and alcohol consumption in France may be less than it was in previous decades, you may be wondering if France has an alcohol problem. Interestingly, according to this recent survey, France ranked 43 on a list of 53 European countries with health issues connected to alcohol. This means that, while alcoholism is certainly a phenomenon in France, it’s not a scourge. I think this is mainly due to the French way of consuming food and drink in general: Everything in moderation. 

Do all French people drink wine? 

Although France has the most wine-consumers per capita, not all French people drink wine. For every French person who likes to prendre un verre (have a glass of wine), there are those who can’t, for religious-, dietary-, or health -related reasons, legal reasons (the drinking age in France is 18), or simply because they don’t like wine. 

I know lots of French people, especially those from the north of France, who prefer beer to wine. And then there are those (like me) who’d rather have water, a soft drink, juice, coffee, or tea. In fact, the most commonly consumed drink in France is actually water!  

Even if you do find yourself at a table or bar with some old-fashioned native French people, I can’t imagine ever feeling pressured to drink. I say this from experience because…I hate wine. I’ve had plenty of time to try and get to know wine – my Italian mother even allowed my siblings and me to drink it at dinner when we were teenagers.  I’ve just never liked it, and the many years I’ve been in France haven’t changed things.  

Regardless of my dislike of wine, no one has ever been more than simply puzzled that I didn’t want any. I’ve never seen a French person pressure someone to drink or even taste wine. I think part of the reason for this may be the French respect for private life. 

So, if you can’t or don’t want to drink wine, don’t worry – you’ll probably never be pressured to do so in France. And there will also always be alternatives at cafes, restaurants, hotels, and even people’s homes. 

What do French people eat with wine? 

wine and cheese

Another big rule of drinking French wine is that wine is rarely something you drink on its own. Instead, it’s intended to be accompanied by food, whether a cheese plate or a full-blown meal. 

Many French etiquette guides will say that, in France, someone drinking a glass of wine without anything else is probably a foreigner or an alcoholic, but I find that a bit extreme. I’ve seen French people savor a glass of wine at a café terrace from time to time without any judgment. My French husband confirms this. He says it’s not the most common thing to see, but if the person drinking the glass of wine looks like they’re not drunk or shabbily dressed, he wouldn’t think anything of it.

Still, wine is generally an accompaniment to a meal. So, what do you eat with French wines?  Generally speaking, French red wine goes with most kinds of meat, while white is drunk with chicken or fish.  Of course, there are exceptions to these rules. For example, since coq au vin is prepared with red wine -typically burgundy – it would be strange to drink white wine with it. 

If you’re confused, don’t worry: even French people might occasionally have trouble with l’accord mets et vins (wine and meal pairings). 

The internet is a godsend for this, offering so many helpful resources. For example, the Guide Hachette des Vins lets you search or browse by wine region, type, bestsellers/recommendations (choose the “Le Guide” tab), or even a specific meal. For example, searching for “coq au vin” allowed me to discover several varieties of red wine that would go best with this iconic dish (not to mention a coq au vin recipe!).

If you prefer clicking over typing, this online guide from famous caviste (wine merchant) chain Nicolas, lets you  lets you click on an assortment of meats, cheeses, or desserts for an idea. 

Do the French cook with wine?

Some famous traditional French dishes contain wine. These include French onion soup,bœuf bourguignon, coq au vin, and moules marinières

In addition to these, both amateur and professional French cooks might decide to add a splattering of wine to certain other dishes. I sometimes make a leek and potato soup with a splash of white wine, for example. But this really depends on a person’s tastes and recipe choice.

Normally, the alcohol in the wine burns off in the cooking process, so indulging in these dishes will only get you “food drunk”. That said, if you can’t consume wine for health or religious reasons, you can look online for versions of these recipes that don’t include it. At some restaurants, you may be able to ask for some of these without wine, or just choose a different option. For example, there are many ways mussels are cooked and seasoned, so à la marinière will probably be only one of several choices on the menu.

What is the best French wine?  

wine barrels in cellar

There may be an annual contest for the best baguette in Paris, but there’s no single, definitive ranking of the “best” French wine. This is mainly due to the fact that there are so many different varieties. How could you compare a sparkling white from Alsace to a full-bodied red from Bordeaux?  Another reason is that different wines have different roles. A red would taste better with meat, while a white is best with fish. And so on. 

You could say that maybe a wine’s quality is implied by its price. But look at any wine-related article, website, or video, and you’ll find that there are some excellent wines that cost about 8 euros in France. 

All right, what about a wine whose label says it won a local tasting competition or something similar? According to wine expert Stephen Cronk, this could be an indication that a wine is good, but many contests are just used to make money, and anyway, what’s being judged is purely based on opinion, so you may not like how that award-winning wine tastes. 

If you’ve ever seen a movie or TV show where a character was supposed to be classy and know their wine, they often order a type of wine followed by a year. This is called un millésime (vintage) in French, and it corresponds to a particular year’s grape harvest. 

Due to characteristics like weather conditions, some years resulted in better-tasting wine than others. If you’re a big wine fan, you probably know the best years for each wine the way I know which film won the Oscar for a given year. But most people don’t necessarily know a good millésime off the top of their head. Luckily, once again the internet comes to the rescue. You can find charts like this one that show how well-rated the wines grown in a particular region were for a particular year (the number listed is the rating out of 20 – 20 being the best and 1 being the worst).

This all seems very calculated, but again, it really comes down to what you like. Sample different wines and see what moves you. If you want, talk to a caviste or someone else who knows wine to get some recommendations – but never take these at face value; no matter how good that wine is supposed to be, you may not like it.

Personally, one thing that I’ve found really helpful is that French supermarkets usually have selections of wines of varying prices and varieties that they recommend. These are typically signified by a cardboard label around the neck of a bottle or just a sign near the price. Whenever I’m invited to a dinner and have to bring wine, I just choose one in my price range that the store recommends. So far, I’ve never chosen a wine that makes people cringe, and the wine often garners praise. This makes me seem like I know what I’m talking about when it comes to wine, which is totally not the case!

How to read a French wine label

Another thing that can help you choose a good quality wine, especially if you’re offering it as a gift, is knowing how to read certain marks, abbreviations, and even codified colors on French wine bottles.

The most famous is the abbreviation AOC. This stands for Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. Essentially, it means a wine has been produced under strict controls regarding everything from the area it comes from, to the winemaking process. It’s also been subject to an official tasting. This site points out that since every year’s harvest  is different, a wine might get the AOC one year and not get it the next. If you’re curious about the AOC, that link has a lot of additional details and information. 

AOP is another abbreviation you might find, though only on more recent wine bottles, since it hasn’t been used for long. Short for Appellation d’Origine Protégée, it’s supposed to be the new highest level when it comes to wine quality control. 

So essentially, if a wine has “AOC” or “AOP” on the label, that’s a sign of quality. You can find explanations of some other abbreviations that signify things like where a wine was bottled, and thus also contribute to a wine’s quality, here

As the site I just linked to points out, even the metal wrapper around the bottle and the seal you’ll sometimes find on a bottle’s cork or screw top, has its own significance. Green means that the wine is AOC or AOP; blue means that it’s a vin de table (house wine – a basic, simple wine, usually cheap), and red is just the neutral color any wine can use.

Although knowing all of this information can help you determine if a wine is good quality, that doesn’t mean you or the person you’re buying if for will like it. Again, remember that wine is based on opinion above all else, so you just might like  a basic vin de table with no AOC or AOP certification better than an award-winning variety.  The good news? It’s an excuse to try all kinds of wine!

How to order wine in a French restaurant

French wine is complicated in many ways, but the basics of ordering it aren’t. You order wine just as you would any other drink. You can see some phrases for that, as well as an example of a typical exchange between a client and waiter here.    

That sample exchange is also useful because it mentions ice. In France, you NEVER add ice to wine. Ever. Unless maybe you’re in the privacy of your home or hotel room, and even then, if you’ve been in France long enough, you might feel like you’re being judged by the very walls.

Aside from the basics, there are a few differences between ordering  most beverages and ordering wine in France. For one thing, most restaurants, cafes, brasseries, and other eateries in France will give you the choice of ordering un verre (a glass), un pichet (a small pitcher), or une bouteille (a bottle) of wine.

For another, when the server brings you the wine, they’ll pour a little into a glass and wait for you to smell and taste it to give your approval (more on this in the section on French wine etiquette).  Don’t be intimidated – just go through the motions, and unless the wine really does smell or taste weird or horrible (very unlikely), just nod with approval and the server will top off your glass and serve everyone else.

Some French wine etiquette

drinking wine with friends

Like any traditional food or drink, wine in France comes with certain “rules”.  

These rules aren’t always followed, though. For example, you’ll probably find lots of articles claiming that it’s considered rude for women in France to pour themselves wine; they should wait to be served by a man. Personally, I’ve never experienced this, or if I did, it was in a way that wasn’t noticeable. For example, I might have had dinner with a very traditional, native French bourgeois family where a man poured the wine, but I just assumed that was because he was the host.

Most of the meals I’ve shared with native French people, whether bourgeois or bohemian, old or young, were more natural. If a woman wanted some wine, she served herself. If she was hosting the dinner, she might even serve other guests – men and women alike. If a bottle of wine was brought out at a picnic, the person opening it would do the reasonable thing and pour it into the plastic cup of whoever wanted some, and afterwards, whoever wanted more would serve themselves.

So this custom may be good to keep in mind if you’re attending a very traditional, old-fashioned, for mal event ,but it’s not necessarily de rigueur in France today. Personally, that makes me glad, since it’s not only sexist, but impractical.

One French wine etiquette rule that is always followed is that if you order wine at a restaurant, the waiter will bring it to you and expect you to smell and taste a little bit of it to give your approval. Since I don’t drink wine, I’ve never had to do this, but apparently a lot of people – foreigners and French alike – find it to be a lot of pressure. After all, not all of us are wine experts, and for most, unless the wine is really horrible, what are you going to say about it? You are allowed to refuse it, but I would imagine that most people wouldn’t be that offended by a wine they were served.

The situation has inspired comedians from France and abroad. Take, for example, this segment on wine in France by British comedian Paul Taylor, and this bit (start at the 1:10 second mark) from a video by French comedian and YouTube star Norman Thavaud. 

How to make a toast in French

Another aspect of French wine etiquette is the toast. You may read that there’s a lot of complicated protocol tied to this, like not crossing glasses with another person, and looking each other in the eye when you make the toast. This is generally true in formal settings. You can read about the surprisingly dark history of these customs in a post by our very own Benjamin, here

Benjamin’s article also reveals the bad news that that the consequence of a poorly executed toast is said to be seven years’ bad luck or bad sex!

Generally speaking, though, whether you’re sharing a casual meal at a bistro or a friend’s house, or a lowkey family lunch or dinner, the most consistently upheld French toasting customs I’ve personally seen is to say a traditional toasting word or phrase and be sure that everyone clinks their glasses (trinquer) with everyone else.

What do you say when you make a toast in French?

make a toast in French

The rough French equivalent of “Cheers” is À votre santé (for someone you don’t know well or address in a formal way, or for a group) or À ta santé (for someone you’re close with). These both mean, “To your health.”

On informal occasions, you’ll probably hear this shortened to À la vôtre or À la tienne (literally, “To yours” – meaning “To your health”), or even simply Santé (Health.)

Another informal French toast is “Tchin” or “Tchin tchin.” Interestingly, most sources I’ve read always show this as “Tchin tchin,” but with my French family and friends, we always say one “Tchin.”  There doesn’t seem to be a difference between using one tchin or two – it seems like it just depends on what people around you say. But either way, you will be understood. 

These are the most common ways to make a toast in French. Obviously, a long speech could also be made if you’re toasting someone for a special occasion. But these short words or phrases are what you’ll hear most often.

French wine vocabulary

There are lots of words associated with wine in France, from ordering it, to drinking it, to describing it in very elaborate ways. You may have noticed Paul Taylor making fun of the latter in his video.

Here are some general words to know:

  • le vin – this is the French word for wine
  • le vin rouge/blanc/rosé – red/white/rosé wine
  • du vin mousseux – sparkling wine (Remember that any sparkling white wine made outside the Champagne region cannot officially be called champagne.)
  • le terroir – the idea of where and how a wine is grown, which is the most important thing about wine for the French. Each region and vineyard has its own terroir.
  • un millésime– vintage (the year a wine’s grapes were harvested)
  • une bouteille – a bottle
  • un pichet – a pitcher (one of the common ways you can order wine in a restaurant in France, it’s the equivalent of roughly 2-3 glasses)
  • un verre – a glass
  • une coupe – a flute (long, thin glass for drinking champagne and other sparkling wines)
  • le bouchon – the cork
  • le tire-bouchon – corkscrew
  • le nez – the smell/aroma of a wine
  • un grand cru – very good wine
  • du pinard – cheap (probably not very good-tasting) wine

un + region – a particular region’s type of wine (note that this doesn’t always apply – for example, you don’t say un alsace. The ones that do follow this rule are probably wine varieties you’ve already heard of, like bordeaux, bourgogne, or médoc.)  For example, un bordeaux, un beaujolais . Note also that in general you can use a definite article when talking about a particular kind of wine where the quantity isn’t specified. For example, J’aime bien les bordeaux mais je préfère les vins d’Alsace. (I like Bordeaux wine, but I prefer wines from Alsace.)

  • une dégustation de vin – a wine tasting
  • l’accord mets et vins – wine and meal pairings
  • trinquer – to clink glasses, to toast, in a larger sense, to drink. 

And if you’re a wine fan and want to get into describing wines in a vivid, poetic way, here’s a great source of vocabulary for that (with some basic wine vocabulary thrown in for good measure). 

A few French wine phrases and expressions 

Here are some common wine-related expressions you’ll hear in France:

avoir le vin gai/mauvais/triste : to be happy/nasty/sad after drinking some glasses of wine./to be a happy/nasty/sad drunk.  Example: Si tu sors avec Barbara, fais attention – elle a le vin mauvais. (If you go out with Barbara, be careful – she gets nasty when she’s had a few glasses of wine.)

un pot-de-vin – a bribe

le vin bouchonné – Wine that’s got bits of cork floating in it, making it taste bad.

un vin d’honneur – a reception. Example : Il y aura un vin d’honneur après le baptême de ma nièce. (There will be a reception after my niece’s baptism.)

Two French sayings about wine

Let’s finish with two common French sayings about wine: 

– Le vin entre et la raison sort. (Wine enters and reason leaves)

– Quand le vin est tiré, il faut le boire. (Once you’ve started something (i.e. pulled open the cork), you have to finish it).

Now you know the basics of French wine. If you’re a fan, why not have a glass to celebrate? À la vôtre!  

Alysa Salzberg
Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.

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