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Common wine blunders you should really avoid in France

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Common wine blunders you should really avoid in France
Photo: AFP
16:50 CET+01:00
Today is one of France's favourite celebrations -- Beaujolais Nouveau Day. To mark the occasion, here are our lesson on how to avoid any embarrassing faux-pas while drinking wine in France.

The French love their time-honoured culinary customs, and wine is no exception. But the rules around wine in France can be especially tricky for foreigners.

We’ve covered Baguettiquette (bread) and Briehaviour (cheese), and now The Local is here to help you navigate the minefield of drinking wine in France, or as we call it, the Winefield -- a domain filled with traps and unwritten practices that the French seem to understand from birth.

Of course some of these rules are tossed out the window if you’re dining with close friends and family, but they’re still good to know for when you find yourself in polite company and want to impress with your flawless wine etiquette. 

So here are the faux-pas to avoid if you’re looking to become well-versed in the field of French wine-drinking. 

Drinking red wine without a meal

The French have a joke: “How do you spot a foreigner in a café? It’s the one drinking wine.”

This mainly applies to red wine, because for the French, vin rouge goes with food, as simple as that.

It's extremely rare to see a French person enjoying a glass of red wine for an apéritif. Instead, the French will go for a kir (a popular cocktail made with white wine and a sweet, red blackcurrant liqueur called crème de cassis), a glass of Champagne, rosé, or sometimes white wine. 

Don't buy the cheapest wine possible

Eight tips on buying wine in a French supermarketPhoto: AFP

Life is too short to drink bad wine, the French say, and we have to agree. That €2.50 price tag on the supermarket wine might be tempting, but cough up just an extra few euros and you’ll get a much better taste. Here’s our guide for how to buy wine in a French supermarket

Bring wine to a French dinner party?

There are some French cultural gurus who suggest turning up to a French dinner party with wine is a big "non-non" because it implies your French host knows nothing about wine, when of course all French people know about wine.

We would say that in general this is a bit over the top, but it's perhaps best to offer to bring wine in advance and ask for a suggestion, which may well depend on what they are cooking.

And be warned: we've lost count of the number of times we've turned up with bottles of wine only for them to disappear and never get opened. Either they weren't considered good enough or your hosts had drunk enough. Or you insulted them by...

Bringing California wine to a French dinner party
 
Your French friends will laugh you out the door if you bring them an American wine as a gift.
 
In fact, best to avoid anything other than French wine. Although of course good wine is made all around the world, the French are staunch supporters of their own varieties. 

Sticking red wine in the fridge

However sweltering a summer evening it might be, resist the urge to stick a red wine in the fridge before drinking it if you don't want to see French eyeballs popping out of their heads in vexation.

Your typical full-bodied red wine such as those from Bordeaux or the Rhone Valley should be served at room temperature or just a bit cooler.

Some young, light red wines however such as Beaujolais from north of Lyon or Touraine from the Loire Valley, can be served cool, although still not quite as cold as you'd serve a white.

Serving a vin bouchonné
 
Photo: DCQ Gouverneur

If you have French dinner guests, make sure you don't serve them a corked wine.

Any respectable French citizen will be able tell from the first whiff if a wine is corked -- that's to say contaminated with cork. That's why the host of a dinner party should always taste the wine first to make sure it's good before serving guests. 

Corked wine will taste either dull and flat or too sharp and give off the unappetizing odour of mold or a wet dog.

Mutilating the foil capsule to open the bottle

If you're opening a bottle of wine in front of your French guests, you’ll look like an imbecile if you pull off the entire foil capsule from the top of the bottle. That little knife on the bottle opener is not for cutting your steak -- use it to remove only the part of the capsule that’s covering the cork top.  

Be sure to cut right below the lip of the bottle so the wine doesn't pass over the foil.

And although you might love that satisfying pop, try to make as little noise as possible when opening the bottle.

Tradition also says that if you’re a woman, you should never open a bottle of wine. Your delicate, frail arms will likely snap in two and you’ll look ungraceful (or something like that). 

Forgetting to breathe

Trying to remember all the rules of French wine can induce panicky hyperventilation, but just remember to breathe and you’ll be fine. Oh, and let the wine breathe too. Popping off the cork and immediately pouring your guest a glass is frowned upon. 

Exposure to oxygen lets the wine mellow out and lets the flavours blossom (s'épanouir in French - take note of such words in order to further show off your wine knowledge). 

Pouring your own wine

When invited to dinner at someone’s house in France, you shouldn't pour your own wine. Instead let your host serve you. Tradition says that this applies especially to women, who should wait for a man to come to their aid to rescue them from thirst, however old-fashioned and outdated that might seem.

To that we say: times have changed, and women shouldn't feel any qualms about pouring their own wine (or even opening their own bottles) if they so please, but you may get some funny looks.

Letting the wine drip down the pristine label

French winemakers are fiercely proud, and the wine bottle's label is a representation of that pride, so don't be a sloppy pourer and let wine drip all over it.

While pouring, give the bottle a little twist at the end to make sure you don’t get any stray dribbles that will blemish that lovely label.

Photo: AFP

Filling your glass to the brim

Hopefully this goes out without saying, but if you fill up a wine glass past three-quarters full you’ll get some raised eyebrows. Fortunately, as a guest you likely won’t have to worry about this as the host will pour your wine for you.

Drinking white wine with a côte de boeuf
 
Choosing wine has little to do with the season or the occasion in France. Instead, it mostly depends on what you’re eating.
 
The French abide by the following general rules: red with red meat and tomato-based dishes, white with fish, seafood, and dessert.
 
Remember France has its own dessert wines too.
 
Making beef bourguignon with a Bordeaux
 
Think you can get away with making beef bourguignon with a Bordeaux wine? Wrong. Making this quintessential French dish with anything other than proper Bourgogne wine (from Burgundy) could create a scandal in France.
 
Getting too drunk

Photo: Neil Moralee/Flickr

Think delicate sips instead of generous gulps when it comes to wine. It deserves to be savoured. 

Anglos tend to be a bit more eager when it comes to drinking so if you don’t want to be perceived as an alcoholic, take care not to over imbibe your vin. The French drink wine to accompany and enhance a meal, not to get wasted. 

And once the meal is over, don't ask for more wine. You can still drink of course — just ask for a Cognac or another digestif.

Putting ice in it

Diluting French wine is close to sacrilege, but as it sometimes goes in the "Winefield", exceptions are made. When you’re relaxing on a friend’s terrace on a sweltering summer day, no French person will blame you for dropping a cube or two into your rosé. 

Want some more? Just finish your glass

Don’t worry, someone will top you up. No need to ask. A French person will say something like, “Un petit gout?” ("A little drop?") and then fill you up another glass. If you’ve had enough to drink, just leave some wine in your glass as a silent signal that you don’t need a refill. 

Don't give a guest a dépot

As Camille Chevalier-Karfis from the site French Today explains: "It’s like Turkish coffee… Wines often have what is called “un dépôt”, it is ” la lie de vin” (sediment). It’s thick and muddy, it doesn’t taste too good although it’s not toxic…

"So if you are opening a good bottle, be careful when you are coming towards the end: you might want to leave about 1/2 inch in the bottle so that the sediment stays in there."

Again, these rules are to be taken with a grain of salt and the French will sometimes completely ignore their own wine etiquette if it suits them.

But as a foreigner, it's a best to keep these tips in mind if you want to make it out of the Winefield alive. 

By Katie Warren

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