One of the pleasures of French life is finding renewed enjoyment in a lovely bottle of wine. Toasting a remarkable glass of French wine with loved ones is a most desirable experience, but knowing the history of the wine elevates the moment says Jill Barth…
If you are truly blessed, you’ll taste near the vines – an experience that shrinks the distance between the drinker and the wine. It’s a moment that turns wine drinkers into wine lovers.
For the French, and for those that call French home, good wine is an expectation. It’s a snap to find a tremendous bottle to share with loved ones. But according to the American and British press, the French are cutting back on wine consumption. Why? The chatter points out several reasons: health concerns, the urbanization of wine prices and dreaded globalization which may influence the French to drink beer and whisky.
But nit-picking studies (and the foreign press) don’t have a thing to do with the wine experience. It’s an experience France has embraced for millennia. As in any meaningful moment there is, of course, a history lesson. And as a student, you might find that a field trip will firm up the lesson (and debunk the methods behind those silly wine consumption studies).
Châteaux in France very often bear a timeline tempered by survival, as France has certainly had its share of upset. Battles fought during the World Wars destroyed, damaged and stressed vineyards and the families that grew the vines and made the wine. Even so, the mid-20th century provokes nostalgia and intrigue. What were the realities of wine making during wartime? Was the wine protected and hidden during occupation and unrest? Were the vines able to recover from a battlefield existence? How did the chateaux persist with vignerons burdened or removed by wartime obligations? What is the wine history?
This is where it gets interesting, because you are able to taste all of this in the wine. It’s true, most of us won’t be able to get our hands on a bottle from, say, 1942 in order to test this (there’s always a chance), but you might be able to taste something more recent, from a vineyard that produced the older vintages. For quick lesson in terroir, imagine this:
A lovely late summer day in Provence. The last of your stresses dissolved days ago, when you started this trip through the villages to get closer than ever to your favorite wine. You have an appointment to meet with a fifth-generation winemaker, a gentleman who waits at the door of his stone chateau. You can smell the ripening grapes as he greets you with a friendly embrace. Inside he pours a glass of wine from a dusty bottle, wiping away the label. You’ve read about this wine, studied tasting notes, read articles. As you take your first sip, he waits for your reaction and reminds you of his grandfather’s story: he was a prisoner of war, working in Germany when this wine was made. There were rains that year, and it was women and children that harvested this wine. His grandmother saw this wine to life. You taste again and he reminds you that it was a good year, non, because the family all survived.
Does the wine taste a bit different now? Something deeper has occurred.
Some of the most interesting wine conversations recall vines that bear the impact of history. Any region in France offers the chance to get closer to your wine’s back story with little more effort than a day trip. Wine, and the wine experience, is always a matter of taste of exploration. Gear up your convertible, pack a picnic basket and set off on your holiday with wines and winemakers. Don’t hesitate to change courses, and navigate your own path as you discover what’s most appealing to you. There’s always something new to interpret, even in something quite old… especially in something quite old.
Jill Barth is a wine writer who lives in Chicago.