A (Painless) Beginner’s Guide to Uncorking French Wine: Part 1

With this article, I start a series for My French Life™ Magazine about one of my true passions: les vins français (French wines).

Ahhh, un petit pichet de vin rosé—ça fait plaisir. A little pitcher of rosé—so nice. To learn about pichets, scroll on down!

As someone who has already studied for (and happily obtained) the WSET (Wines & Spirits Education Trust) Level 3 in Wines and Spirits, and as someone who is currently a candidate for the Wine Scholar Guild’s “French Wine Scholar” certificate, I know how intimidating, maddening, and just plain frustrating almost every aspect of this topic can be.

But the wines of France offer so many delights—not just the most prized and pricey grand crus, but a whole world of flavor, adventure, and innovation.

So to help demystify French wine a bit, I’ve come up with some objectives for this and future articles about le pinard (a slang term that originates from wine rations for soldiers in the First World War. It mainly invokes the idea of red wine and may come from pinot, but we’ll be inclusive!)

  • I’ll share what I know about some basics in the world of French wine so you can feel more comfortable about the topic
  • I’ll help you think about wines you already love to help you identify other enticing French bottles
  • I’ll give you some tips (and phrases) for talking confidently to a sommelier about French wines
  • I’ll inspire you to choose your own pairings at home for varying occasions

Let’s jump right in. But first, a quick story about how French wine helped me find love ❤️

My study of wine goes back decades, and it has served me well in so many ways, perhaps most significantly when one night in Paris I found myself having dinner with a handsome français. I was working really hard to improve my French (that’s another journey) and I’m pretty sure that same handsome man (who’s now my husband!) fell in love with me a little bit when he heard me chatting with the sommelier en français about the wine list. Merci, les vins ! (Thank you wine!)

OK, on to the essentials.

We’ll approach this delicious subject with small steps, because, en fin de compte, le vin c’est le plaisir ! (at the end of the day, wine is all about pleasure!)

In future articles, we’ll dive in deeper, and if there’s something you’d like to know more about, please scroll allllll the way down to leave a comment at the very bottom of this article. I love connecting and discussing wine, food, and French life.

1. Firstly: The French Wine Quality Pyramid

After centuries of winemaking that largely started with the Romans, when in 1935 France decided to create a pyramid under which French wines are categorized. There is a lot to say about this pyramid (as with everything French wine-related) but in the spirit of keeping things simple, just know, that you will (nearly) always find one of the three indicators on every still French wine label, meaning you will see one of the terms from the pyramid on the bottle.

Now I’ll continue oversimplifying to keep us moving along, but voilà !

From top to bottom of the wine pyramid, standards go from the most to least strict.

With each of the three levels, there are rules to follow that allow a wine to be included or excluded. But while AOC/AOP (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée/Protégée) wines have always had the best reputation (and marketing), it’s increasingly true that you can find outstanding wines, or at least wines of good value, in both of the two lower categories.

Why?

Sometimes a winemaker from a famous appellation makes a fantastic wine using different grapes or techniques that don’t fit the appellation guidelines. So they can’t call their wine “Chablis AOC” or “Faugères AOC” but they may be producing very interesting wines at great value. Winemakers are craftspeople and artists and sometimes they just want to experiment. True wine lovers will seek out those wines.

Just a quick note before we move on: this pyramid is not the extent of French wine classification. Depending upon the region, there are further indications of quality and uniqueness. But that’s for another time, dear wine lovers!

2. French Wine: Location, location, location

With a wide range of different geological features, soils, elevation, and climate influences (the combination of which creates a wine’s terroir), knowing where a French wine comes from will give you clues to its flavor profile (although depending on the region—think Bourgogne— both the terroir and the wine can vary quite a lot in a relatively small area). The French are obsessed with terroir and rightly so, as it is one of the things that gives a wine its unique character, along with the decisions the winemaker makes along the way.

Just looking at a map of France’s wine regions gives us a sense of how different the wines will be and how important their place of origin is to their identity. The Atlantic Ocean influence in Bordeaux and the Pays Nantais, the hot sun and the Mediterranean in the south, the northerly position of the Champagne and Alsace.

Fun Wine Fact: In the famed Bourgogne region, the best wines are classified not for the producer or château, but for the vineyard or climat (a specific parcel of vines having its own unique and revered attributes that distinguish its wines).

3. How Can I Use a Wine’s Location to Decide What to Drink?

Whether you are new to tasting French wines or not, the best advice I can give you if you’re dining in France (or in a French restaurant) is to drink a wine that comes from the same region as the food on the menu.

Pourquoi ? (Why?) Because these foods and wines were created to celebrate the best of their shared terroir, and they are natural partners.

You’ll rarely go wrong by going local, and in sampling pairings de la même région (from the same region), you’ll connect even more with the local culture. And chances are your sommelier will know a lot about the wines of this region, which means, you can hone in on something really interesting.

Tip: Want to ask for a local wine in French? Here’s a simple phrase: “J’aimerais bien essayer un vin local, s’il vous plaît” (I’d really like to try a local wine, please).

4. How Can I Talk to a Sommelier about French Wine?

After years of working in food and wine service (and also dining out a lot!), I can tell you that what is most helpful to a sommelier anywhere is if you can arrange yourself into one of two (or both) categories:

  • Know what you like and be able to articulate it.
  • Be open to trying something new.

In the first case, I’d encourage you to start gathering some words and phrases of reference to describe the flavors or styles of wine you already know you like. In my case, since I’m not a big Sauvignon Blanc fan, I know to be ready to share that when I’m discussing my options. Recently, we were traveling in the Loire Valley, which has two-star white grapes, so I was prepared to say: “Je suis plutôt le chenin que le sauvignon blanc” (I’m more into chenin than sauvignon blanc). This made it much easier for the sommelier to find something she knew I’d enjoy.

In the second case, depending upon how much you like the sommelier and how comfortable you feel talking about the options, it can be interesting to ask for what is of note or worth trying, or to choose two bottles in your price range and ask which one they think might be better with your meal and why.

“Pourriez-vous nous conseiller ?” (Can you give us your advice?)

Above all, even if you don’t speak French, I’d encourage you to take a few minutes to look at the wine list. Note how it’s organized (country/region or grape or flavor profile, for example) and come up with a question or two.

Why? Because when you ask a question, you make a connection, and that always leads to good things. The other night my husband and I were speaking with un vigneron (a winemaker) and he saw how interested we were in learning about his region and local wines. I asked a question about soil in his vineyards and the next thing we knew, we were gifted a taste of a fantastic wine that wasn’t on the list. Our question got us “in.”

5. Help Your Sommelier Help You: French Wine Words and Phrases

Here are a few more phrases (in English and French) you may find useful for describing what you like.

La carte des vins — the wine list

Je préfère quelque chose plus… — I prefer something more…

Léger — light

Frais — fresh

Puissant — powerful, big

Ample, rond — ample, round

Boisé — oaky

Tannique/ moins tannique — tannic/less tannic

Notre budget est

On va prendre une bouteille de (Chablis) s’il vous plaît — We’ll take a bottle of (Chablis), please

Un verre de blanc/rouge/rosé — A glass of white, red, rosé

Une coupe de Champagne — a glass of Champagne

Selon vous, entre ces deux bouteilles, laquelle est plus intéressante pour notre repas ? — In your opinion, which of these two bottles is more interesting for our meal?

Bonus Word:Un pichet — this is useful if you want to drink a wine that’s on the list “by the glass” but you want to have more than one glass (but less than a bottle) at a better price.

Un pichet is, in effect, a small carafe or pitcher of a wine-by-the-glass option. There are sometimes smaller and larger options, so the server might ask you “un petit ou un grand ?” (small or large?)

If you want to hear me pronouncing these words/phrases, I’ve posted the audio— I hope it’s helpful to you!

Bon bref (long story short), I’ll leave you with a few photos below from our road trip in La vallée de la Loire.

Santé les amis, et à bientôt,

Karen


If you like this article, and of course if you have any questions, please, leave a comment at the bottom of this page—I’m powered by interaction and would love to hear what my fellow French wine lovers think.


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About the Contributor

Karen Bussen

Love led me from New York to Paris, where I live and write about food, wine, my French language journey and exploring l’hexagone with my husband. WSET level 3 in Wines & Spirits. DALF C1 diplôme en langue française. For more, find me on Substack: https://karenbussen.substack.com/

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5 Comments

  1. Betty Carlson Jun 9, 2024 at 4:59 AM - Reply

    What a useful post for those unfamiliar with French wine and how it works!

  2. Jenny Jun 20, 2024 at 3:26 AM - Reply

    Thank you for this helpful article, and congrats on your certifications and wonderful journey so far! 🙂

    • Karen Bussen Jun 20, 2024 at 6:08 AM - Reply

      Merci merci ! I am so happy you found it helpful 🙂

  3. Katie Jun 21, 2024 at 1:23 AM - Reply

    Lovely article! My sister lives in Paris & just returned from sister(4!) trip. I don’t speak much French, so I enjoy your gentle take on explanations. I didn’t expect to love France so much….the wine, champagne, the beautiful people and land swept me up. Thank you! I look forward to more from you!

    • Karen Bussen Jun 21, 2024 at 2:57 AM - Reply

      Greetings from Bordeaux! Thank you so much for reading and for your comment. You made my day. And yes, that’s the thing about France–once you fall in love with this beautiful country, you just want to come back and discover more of everything it has to offer. We’ll have another article in this series soon.

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