Like any Frenchman worth his sel, my French host dad loves wine. On any given night we might be uncorking a 1997 Côtes du Rhône or pulling an award-winning Rioja out of the cave à vin. And as someone who once felt that yellow tail was a splurge, I’m not sure I deserve all of this well-aged goodness.
But thanks to my host dad I really have gotten a wine education this year, and have learned a lot about wine pairings, varietals and growing regions. So without further ado, here is what I have learned about wine after a year in France.
1. White wine is better with cheese. In fact, never drink red wine with cheese.
2. When it comes to wine pairings, it’s best to choose a wine that comes from the same region as the dish. For example, if you are cooking a boeuf bourguignon, which comes from Burgundy, pair the dish with a Burgundy wine.
3. When pairing a wine, consider the dish’s sauce- if it’s a white sauce, like blanquette de veau, pair it with a white wine. If the dish has a dark sauce, pair it with a red wine.
4. If wine is used in the dish, serve the same wine alongside it.
5. Wine and chocolate do NOT go together, contrary to common belief.
Map of the principal wine regions in France, source
6. The top five wine regions in France, in terms of quality, are traditionally Bordeaux, Champagne, Burgundy, the Loire Valley and the Rhône Valley.
7. There is such a thing as white burgundy by the way, and it’s delicious. (Bourgogne Blanc)
8. Wine qualifications are extremely complicated, but as a rule of thumb grand cru is a qualification for the best-quality wines in the region. In most regions premier cru is one ranking below grand cru. (Both of which fall into the category of wines I definitely can’t afford.)
9. French wine is much cheaper than American wine because it’s not taxed to death. You can buy a passable bottle of wine here for 2 or 3 euros, and a great one for less than 10.
10. Wine, baguettes and cheese are all completely reasonable pre-gaming selections. In France we rarely pre-drink with beer because wine is worlds cheaper.
11. Only sparkling wine that comes from Champagne, the wine region, should be called champagne. Random fact- French people often refer to champagne as “champ.”
12. On the third Thursday of November the year’s supply of Beaujolais Nouveau is released to great fanfare. And even though it’s sold everywhere on that Thursday, no one actually thinks Beaujolais Noveau is a high-quality wine because it’s young and inexpensive. (It’s good enough for me though!)
13. Serious winos know which years were good wine years by heart. Apparently 2005 was a good wine year, for example.
14. If a French person asks you if you’d like a glass of wine, say “volontiers”, not “bien sûr.” In this context bien sûr means, “obviously”, as in, “Obviously I want some wine, don’t you know I drink allll the time?” P.S. I learned this the hard way.
15. Terroir is the unique combination of natural factors that affect a wine or food product: soil, rock, altitude, sun, etc. Even in the same area, no two vineyards have exactly the same terroir. As Wikipedia wisely states, “In other words: when the same grape variety is planted in different regions, it can produce wines that are significantly different from each other.”
I love that this is such a French concept that there isn’t even a word for it in the English language.
My French Wine Region Cheat Sheet (also known as French Wine for Dummies):
Alsace: Lots of crisp white wines like Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot gris and Pinot blanc, and sweet white wine like Muscat.
Armagnac: Where Armagnac comes from, a brandy I like to use for flambé-ing.
Bordeaux: Very high-quality wines, mostly red. The red wines produced are usually blended, from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and sometimes Cabernet Franc.
Bourgogne (Burgundy): Very high-quality wines, lots of grand cru, both red and wine produced. Chablis and Beaujolais are also produced in Burgundy.
Champagne: Where the best bubbly comes from of course!
Cognac: Where Cognac comes from, the famous brandy.
Languedoc-Roussillon: The largest French wine region in terms of vineyard surface and production, so it is where most of France’s cheap bulk wines are produced.
Provence: Rosé, rosé, rosé!
Loire Valley: Great wines, mostly white.
Rhône Valley: My personal favorite for red wines. The most famous appelation from this region is Châteauneuf-du-Pape.