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French Wine Traditions - Explained

The cornerstones of savoir vivre

For thousands of years, the people living within the borders of today’s France have patiently tended their vines. From the fall of the Roman Empire on through the Middle Ages, through the French Revolution, and two World wars, they have picked, pressed, and fermented countless bunches of grapes into the lovely nectar we call wine.

Over these many long years, certain forms and rituals have grown around wine, deeply rooted in the French approach to life: savoir vivre. Literally, it means knowing how to live, but as a general philosophy savoir vivre means knowing how to live well, with enjoyment, appreciation, grace, and a recognition of how beautiful it is to be alive.

While there are many (many) French wine customs, we’ve narrowed it down to three cornerstones that, for us, most clearly encapsulate the savoir vivre tradition.

While many dismiss traditions as pretentiousness we’re better off without, at their heart, the customs I’m about to describe in this article aren’t about pretension but about taking a moment to enjoy and appreciate life—something I think we could all use a little more of!


Choosing the right wine for the occasion

What’s the mood tonight? Classy and sophisticated, fun and laid back? What’s the weather like? What are we eating? 

In France, a bottle is rarely just a bottle, and the French care deeply about the story and history behind their wine. What region it came from, what grapes went into it, how it reflects the terroir—you get the idea.

Now this doesn’t mean that more expensive wines are better or that you should avoid buying wines from the grocery store, as sometimes it really is more enjoyable to avoid the pomp and circumstance of an AOC and enjoy a simple vin de table.

Rather, this custom is about appreciating the unique story and character of a bottle, and tying it into the shared tapestry of life. If you show up to dinner with a bottle of your brother-in-law’s homemade wine that he gave you as a gift last Christmas, it means something that you’re sharing with the table; it’s not just another faceless bottle.

An easy place to start is to look at the weather. Is it hot and sunny out? A chilled white or rosé wine would probably hit the spot. Are the stars out and the bonfire crackling? A red should suit the occasion nicely. 

The important thing is to bring your intention and appreciation to the table, and as you grow more and more familiar with wine, these choices begin to feel a lot more intuitive. 

Another great indicator is to consider what you’ll be eating. Fish, seafood, chicken, or cream-based dishes? White is a safe bet. Red meat, saucy tomato dishes, and other heavy braised foods? Red would probably go nicely.

Which brings us to the next point…

In France, wine is food

Sort of. They don’t eat it, of course, but in almost all cases, wine is consumed alongside food. Good wine always seems to make good food better. Good food, for its part, always seems to make good wine taste better too.

For example, a bold, tannic red stands up to the robust flavors of a grilled steak, blending perfectly with the rich and meaty flavors of the beef. A clean and subtle Pinot Noir can add just the right touch of fruit to a chocolaty dessert, while a crisp and refreshing Chardonnay cuts through the richness of a creamy dish, refreshing your taste buds for another delicious bite.

True to form, most French wine is made with food in mind, tending towards lighter, more nuanced, and food-flexible styles. And just like their meals, which are generally slow-paced affairs more about enjoying good food and good company than about filling up, wine is something to be savored and luxuriated in, not just a source of alcohol (though it’s that too).

Last but not least - Santé!

Santé, short for “to your health,” is the customary toast made when glasses are raised in France. Typically, everyone waits until the wine has been poured and then clinks glasses around the table, ensuring a brief moment of eye contact when the glasses touch.

Some people take this tradition more seriously than others, and often the eye contact is joked about and somewhat exaggerated. But while many frequently joke about it, it’s something they take seriously too. The toast and eye contact are a recognition of the time you’re spending with people you care about and that you’re all present, connected with the others at the table.

That sense of connection is something that seems harder and harder to come by in our busy and distracted lives, which is why I have a feeling that of all the customs, this is one of the most deeply cherished.


True to the savoir vivre form, all three of these traditions are about enjoyment, appreciation, and taking a moment to pay attention to how enjoyable life can be if you give it a chance, which can make the difficult moments in between a little easier to manage.

So, what do you think—stuffy traditions or a touching way of celebrating life and our loved ones? There's really no wrong answer; the decision is up to you!

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