I've done some research and downloaded some wine lists from restaurants we have reservations for. it's all still clear as mud. :-). I now think I understand that the wine lists are broken down by the region from which the wine comes and it seems that some places serve local wines and some serve wines from distant regions. Since we'll be staying in Marseille, Nice and Paris, the various wine lists I've looked at all seem different.. no help studying just one restaurant. One restaurant told me via email that they will he happy to help us when we're there but I wonder if that can be expected?
Yes, they really will (this is what my husband does for a living).
It will work best if you can give them some idea of your preferences (lighter/more full-bodied, fruitier or more mineral-ly etc) and the amount you want to spend (or the amount you don't want to spend. They have fun putting that together with what you have ordered food-wise and coming up with a recommendation that will make you happy.
Also if you have a wine at one stop that you really like, you can use that as a reference at later places. Not that you have to have that same bottle, but it gives them an idea of what pleases you.
And if you don't feel like ordering wine, that is fine too !
Yes of course they will help you.
Yes, don't make it hard on yourself. Just ask the waiter or if you are in a place with one, the sommelier, to make a suggestion. My husband knows a lot about wine, collects wine, etc. and we often put our selves in the hands of our servers when ordering wine in France.
I think wine in France, and most of Europe throws Americans in that here, you get used to a grape variety, so just about any Merlot or Cabernet will do, with price being a very rough indicator of quality. In France, it is virtually all by region, that taste is a product of geography, which is accurate to the extent that some varieties do better in some regions. The other thing is that many, most?, wines in France are blends of different varieties, making for a more consistent product, in the US, for some reason, blends are frowned upon.
So from all of that, without knowing the regions and what the wine produced there tastes like, you are justified in being lost. If I were you, I would do some homework. Lots of French wines are available in the US...try a few before then, and have a few benchmarks by which to guide you when talking with a sommelier. For reds, maybe get a decent Burgundy, that is one of the few non-blends, all Pinot Noir grapes. It is heavy and tannic, see how that suits you. My favorite region is the Cotes du Rhone. Their wines tend to be lighter bodied and fruitier. Since you will be in Provence, try to find a wine from one of the several wine regions there. For whites, you could do a similar tact.
Basically, do not try to understand all of French wine, too complex and unnecessary, just have a few starting points to guide you, get help there, taste a bunch, and honestly, I rarely find a wine undrinkable, so even mistakes are worth the effort.
The rule I try to stick to is: " Eat local, drink local."
I will ask if there is a local wine they recommend.
I always go for the house wine. Always.
Three reasons for that: it's likely to be local, it's likely to be relatively inexpensive, and it's going to be good.
All three of these are because local wine is always best (can't trust that foreign muck from the next village), people won't stand for massive markups, and all french people claim to know their wine and any restaurant that can't pick a good wine won't last.
This assumes you're eating where locals eat, not dining somewhere you picked out of an English language guidebook.
I'm a "we'll have a carafe of your house red or white" kind of girl.
Otherwise, you can't go wrong with a Cote du Rhone.
I'm with Simon, Frank II, and Estimated Prophet, unless you really want to learn a lot about specific wines.
We almost always just ask for a carafe of red or white, depending on our mood or what we're eating. It will be local, and it will be good. Will it be a "fine wine?" No, but it will be pleasant and go well with food from the region.
If you do want to learn more about specific wines, or are more adventuresome than we, then follow Kim's excellent advice.
Edited to add Frank II.
My problem is, my wife PREFERS a sweeter red. :-)
She will enjoy a sweeter white if not available but doesn't enjoy wines that are dry.
I'm very easy to please.
Well it's not a problem if that is what she likes !
You should either order the local carafe wine, or ask the waiter for suggestion. Then you will try something perhaps that is delightful and a little discovery. A surprise. Otherwise you risk making your own decision and having preconceptions on it and being disappointed.
Your wife should follow this lead with you and branch out from her ongoing love for sweeter wines. This is how you learn new things and find hidden gems that you can talk about later. After all, isn’t travel all about that?
Merci beaucoup! In looking at and translating wine lists I've obtained, I just didn't find much along those lines but I appreciate the helpful feedback!
You won’t get served a sweet wine in France, apart from dessert wine. You’ll be able to get a less dry wine but it won’t actually be sweet.
Provençal rose is very popular right now so I’d try that at some point. Perfect on a sunny lunchtime.
Also, most restaurants serve a small selection of wine by the glass: if you and your wife have different tastes, you can have different wines.
Many places have half bottles (= 3 glasses) or less commonly 50cl (= 4 bottles) if you don't fancy a full one.
"House wine" by the carafe does not seem as common to me nowadays, at least not in urban settings.