The French Have a Grilling Secret and I’m Here to Spill It

Got vines?

Grilled teriyaki flank steak

The Spruce Eats / Julia Hartbeck

France’s wine mecca of Bordeaux may be known for its collectible vintages and palatial estates, but it is also home to a rustic grilling tradition straight out of its prized vineyards. In this region, grilling—or what the French call le barbecuing—often involves an open flame stoked by not traditional wood, but grape vine clippings. And no matter whether they’re cooking steak or poultry, meats cooked this way take on subtly smoky, woodsy flavors and aromas that are unlike any other. 

It’s a secret worth stealing. 

What inspired the Bordelaise to use grapevines in their grilling fires

Every spring, once the region’s grapes have been harvested and hauled away for winemaking, the vines must be pruned back in preparation for the next growth cycle. The twig-like clippings, called sarments, are then dried, stored, and used throughout the rest of the year as fuel for fires. Once in a while, when an entire vineyard must be uprooted, the larger stalks and roots (called pieds de vigne or ceps de vigne) are treated the same way: cut, dried, and stored to use as firewood. 

And while this practice is most commonly associated with Bordeaux, this grilling tradition turns up wherever grapes are grown. When I asked around to find out why vines are a popular choice for grilling, the answer was a pragmatic one. “We use what we have,” says Jérôme Sauvète, owner of Domaine Sauvète in the Loire Valley, who regularly holds barbecues for clients during the warmer months. The grills he uses are not fancy, more like a campfire with a grill. Using bunches of sarments as kindling, Sauvète adds larger pieces from the trunk and roots to keep the fire going, and once it gets a nice glow, the grill is set on top and is ready for use. 

Grilling with grapevines isn’t just for outdoors either. Many older houses in the French countryside are equipped with large stone fireplaces that were—and still are—used for cooking, especially during the colder months. My in-laws, who live in the Dordogne region of France, have one in their living room that dates back a few hundred years and regularly use vine clippings to grill duck breasts, a regional specialty. The duck becomes perfumed with the delicate scent of the charred vines—perfect for pairing with a local red wine.

Tips and tricks for how to grill with grapevines at home

If you don’t happen to live in the French countryside, not to worry— there are more than 250 registered American Viticulture Areas (AVAs) in the US, so chances are high that you may live close enough to a vineyard to get your hands on some clippings

Steven Raichlen, author of the Barbecue Bible and host of Project Fire and Project Smoke on PBS, often cooks with grape vines and offers these tips:

  • Ensure your wood is dry. You want the clippings to be dry enough to snap when bent. “Green or damp grapevine trimmings won’t catch fire or burn properly,” says Raichlen.  
  • Have plenty of grapevine trimmings on hand. Raichlen notes that they burn up quickly and you’ll want enough to replenish the fire, especially if you expect to cook larger quantities.
  • Any varietal will do. In Bordeaux, they typically use Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc vines since those are the most planted varietals in the region, but it doesn’t really matter. (Just be sure that the vines you use are minimally treated—organic vines are recommended.)

And prepare to celebrate the joy of le barbecue!