Liberté, Égalité, Beaujolais

The Symbolism of Wine in France

According to Roland Barthes, wine is the French nation's "totem-drink.” It is the equivalent of tea in Britain and beer in Germany.
© Hervé Pinel

France and wine; now there’s a story! A common French expression effectively demonstrates the social role of this drink in the land of Saint-Emilion and Chablis: vin d’honneur. This term refers to drinks after a wedding ceremony, literally “wine of honor.” As the mischievous Bernard Pivot noted in his 2006 Dictionnaire amoureux du vin: “Would we ask such honor of water, whiskey, pastis, Kronenbourg, or a Bloody Mary?”

In his Mythologies (1957), Roland Barthes wrote: “Wine is felt by the French nation to be a possession which is its very own […]. A totem-drink.” It is the equivalent of tea in Britain and beer in Germany; some 80% of adults drink it. The average annual consumption is more than 11 gallons per person (compared with around 3 gallons in the United States). While this figure is constantly decreasing, it remains the highest in the world (with the exception of the Vatican, which consumes some 13 gallons per person every year!). And it has to be said that the production keeps pace! After Italy, France is the world’s second biggest wine producer in terms of volume, putting out more than a billion gallons every year, including 55% red, 25% white, and 20% rosé.

In a sign of its importance in French culture, wine is associated with a wealth of vocabulary and slang. Pinard, picrate, and picton, along with vinasse, bistrouille, piquette, and bibine (for poor-quality wines), and jaja and rouquin (for reds) are among the most commonly used.

Yet France is hardly the birthplace of winegrowing. Viticulture seems to have actually begun in the South Caucasus as far back as 6,000 B.C. The available evidence shows that winemaking wasn’t introduced to the Massalia region (now Marseille) by the Greeks until around 600 B.C. At the time, the Gauls drank mead and beer, and only began consuming wine en masse after the Roman colonization. Historians and storytellers alike have suggested that red wine was so popular because it replaced blood in Celtic religious ceremonies, which often featured human sacrifices.

The Gauls started importing wine from the Italian peninsula before becoming excellent winegrowers themselves. Originally limited to the South (Languedoc, Aquitaine, and along the Rhône River), the vineyards slowly expanded north up to Ile-de-France around Paris, which many forget was long one of the major French wine regions. Meanwhile, winemaking techniques continued to develop. A decisive change came when growers swapped amphoras for wooden casks – although the first grands crus from Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne did not appear until the 17th century. French winemaking then reached its peak in the 19th century, with a total of 5.7 million acres of vineyards (compared with 1.8 million today).

Through Christianity, wine took on a new, sacred dimension. After all, in Mark’s Parable of the Vineyard, God is presented as the landowner. The nectar produced there is the Spirit, and wine represents knowledge. What’s more, Jesus himself made wine the symbol of life and of communion. This is why winegrowers have long entrusted the protection of their craft to leading Christian figures. Today there are more than thirty patron saints associated with the wine world, including Saint Martin, Saint Vincent, Saint Nicolas, Saint Amand, Saint Rémy, and Saint Geneviève.

© Hervé Pinel

We therefore have communion wine on one side, and Beaujolais, Muscadet, and bistros on the other. And, of course, Champagne for festive occasions. Regardless of the context, the Roman god Bacchus’ favorite tipple is a daily presence for people in France. Key historical figures are even associated with a particular vintage. When Henri IV was born in Pau in 1553, his grandfather Henri II, King of Navarre, supposedly rubbed his lips with a clove of garlic soaked in Jurançon wine. Needless to say, this ensured the fame and fortune of the white wine produced in Béarn, the future king’s native region. While traveling through the Jura years later, the same Henri IV was won over by the iconic vin d’Arbois. He brought it back to Paris, convinced that it would seduce the women of the court!

In 1693, Louis XIV was suffering with multiple health problems, and his doctor prescribed him Burgundy wine instead of Champagne – a still red at the time – which the monarch was drinking by the gallon. Unsurprisingly, this medical endorsement gave Burgundy wines a huge boost. Some years later, while staying in the Côte-d’Or as a young officer, Bonaparte discovered Gevrey-Chambertin. Crates of this Burgundy fine wine accompanied him on his campaigns to Spain, Russia, Austria, and Egypt. But not when he was exiled to Saint Helena. His English jailers refused his request, and the former emperor was forced to drink Bordeaux. And in what connoisseurs would call the height of poor taste, he enjoyed diluting his wine with water!

Many often wonder whether wine is left-wing or right-wing. In terms of the consumer, everything depends on the vintage, the appellation, and of course the price. There is also a reason why wine is sometimes associated with social unrest and even revolution. Winegrowers have long played a major role in French society and historically made up a large – and often very poor – portion of the agricultural community. A family could only just scrape by with few acres of vines and backbreaking work, living far harder lives than those raising animals or growing crops. On many different occasions, winegrowers rebelled against the authorities, especially in Languedoc-Roussillon, the country’s first wine-producing region. These uprisings earned this area the nickname of le Midi Rouge, or the “Red South.”

Another explanation for France’s ties to wine is that clean water was rare, especially in cities, until the 20th century. Drinking wine was simply safer! People were also convinced that it was a restorative drink, and it was even given to children from the age of six or seven to help them grow and stimulate their minds. Believe it or not, it wasn’t until 1956 that Pierre Mendès France’s government banned the distribution of wine in school cafeterias for those under fourteen!

Article published in the October 2021 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.