Vagabond Tales: How to wine taste in France without speaking French

For many global travelers there are few languages more useful than French.

In case you aren’t aware, or it’s been a healthy number of decades since your last high school French class, the Francophone world still extends far beyond the borders of France. From the beaches of Martinique to the cloud forests of Rwanda, French is still the default language of choice for tourism and local commerce. Madagascar, Belgium, French Guyana, Morocco, Tahiti, and even Laos and Cambodia to some extent are all global travel destinations where the ability to speak French can make or break your travels.

And then, of course, there is France.

Amongst travelers it isn’t exactly a secret that the French people can be a bit reluctant to speak anything other than French. Although some complain it smacks of arrogance, to be fair, as travelers to another country we should always make the effort to learn the local language, and after multiple visits to France I can attest that effort is often weighted heavier than proficiency. Still, it can be challenging.

So what’s the only thing more intimidating than traveling through France and not knowing French?

Talking about wine, in France, and not knowing French.

Seeing as many French people are immensely proud of their wines and often consider them to be some of the finest on the planet, discussing such a passionate topic in a language in which you claw for the basics can be an overwhelming undertaking. So much so, in fact, that some travelers opt to not go down that road at all, which from a cultural standpoint can be a major faux pas.

So what’s a non-French speaking traveler to do if they want to learn about wine in France but don’t have the linguistic tools to get them there?

Luckily, on a cobbled street corner in Aix-en-Provence, I would find out there is a niche market for people asking themselves that exact same question.Enter Wine in Provence, an American-operated company who specialize in helping native English speakers get a handle on French wine, food, and pairings. Run by a mirthful team of young Americans who are as passionate about the Provence region as they are about the wines which come out of it, it’s a linguistic safe haven for those just looking to learn about wine while in France.

Sure, I suppose you could always search out a French wine-touring company which happens to have an English speaking guide, but for some reason, having a native English speaker who understands where you, and your questions, are coming from is a breath of fresh air amongst a sea of constant struggle.

“The first thing I want everyone to know is there are no dumb questions” ensures our American guide, Brian.

Standing in a tasting room in the legendary Châteauneuf-du-Pape region, Brian, a native of Seattle, has already given us a rundown of the entire region from the storied history to the unique soils and terroir. I’ve learned more on the car ride here than on my entire three previous tasting excursions, all of which, of course, were performed in an awkward French/English combination.

Furthermore, there are only four people in our group, a major plus when considering some of the mass group wine tours I’ve witnessed in the past. Teaching us how to properly swirl our glasses along the nicely polished wood bar, I feel a surge of energy not from the wine, but from the fact I suddenly realize I can ask Brian for answers to all of the lingering questions seemingly always lost in translation.

Why does France mix so many grapes? How do I choose a good bottle in the market simply by reading the label? What exactly is malolactic fermentation and why is this important to me? Which wine won’t give me a headache and turn me into a firestorm of bad decisions? You know, those sorts of things.

The funny part is that up until this moment in Provence, I really had never been interested in wine, mainly because it’s such an overwhelming topic that even finding a starting point seems like an undertaking unto itself. Now, however, with someone here to explain it all to me in plain English, pun completely intended, my genuine interest in international wine touring legitimately began to take off.

More than just guiding you through a fleet of tastings at countryside vineyards, I’d later find out that Wine in Provence can arrange customized food pairing sessions where they accompany you to the fabled outdoor markets of Aix-en-Provence, help you purchase local produce, teach you how to prepare it, and finally instruct you on which wines will best accompany your meal.

Back in the final tasting room of the tour, a strong buzz permeates amongst the group as a bald headed bartender aggressively sniffs a glass of deep purple liquid. He mumbles something in French which causes him to close his eyes and smile, an aura of overwhelming satisfaction beaming from all parts of his face.

“I guess he likes the wine” I inquire to Brian, confident in my ability to read his facial expressions.

“Actually”, Brian translates, “he’s smiling about what it will taste like in five years. Right now he says it’s just alright, but in five years, he thinks it will be one of the best bottles this vineyard has ever produced.”

I sniff along with the bartender and decide to buy a bottle. Though I may not be able to speak directly to him about the nuances of the aromas and the proper temperature for storage, thanks to my English speaking intermediary I’m no longer intimidated, no longer wandering lost in the woods.

So does one day of solid English explanation make you an expert? Far from it. Can it help you learn French? Perhaps. Will you be capable of ordering a proper glass of French wine? Well that’s all most of us can really ask for isn’t it?

Want more stories? Read the rest of the Vagabond Tales here