“Wine is sunlight, held together by water.”
Squeeze the juice from some grapes, throw in a handful of yeast, stick it in a barrel for a couple of weeks and voilà – wine. That process has been refined over thousands of years into an art form. Hemingway put it thus; “Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the most natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing.”
We had a rendez-vous with Cassie Walker recently in Bordeaux to spend some time amidst the pinnacles of wine civilization. Cassie is a former colleague that was left behind in the trenches of NYC architecture. She arrived by train via Paris after a long voyage from the new world to the old. What’s the first thing we did to celebrate her arrival? Open a bottle of wine of course.
Earlier we had stopped by the Marché des Capucins in Bordeaux for supplies. First to the fromager (cheese man) where, in flawless French, I described our current cheese requirements. His immediate response was; “So you’re American?” After our cheese business was concluded we were led by a French woman (friend of the fromager) to the wine seller. It’s likely that after witnessing my mad French skills she was concerned I would come away with a bottle of Fanta rather than the Saint-Émilion red that our cheese deserved.
My mood improved later when we stopped in for ear plugs at a local pharmacy. I delivered my first joke in French and it got a laugh. Take that cheese man!
The earplugs were necessary because we were staying in Centre Ville near the university. You might imagine that French youth have a more mature, sophisticated relationship with wine. You would be wrong. Their Pre-Frontal Cortexes aren’t any more developed than a 20 year old Iowa farm boy on his first weekend away from home. Add to that the (inevitable) discovery of Bob Marley by our neighbors across the alley and voilà – ear plugs.
The French do indeed drink a lot of wine. Wine in France is as ubiquitous as soda in the U.S. The French consume around 60 bottles per person per year of wine versus 14 for Americans.
If that French number is accurate we have several neighbors who aren’t drinking any wine at all…
It’s easy to think of France as an agrarian economy replete with chateaux and vineyards but it’s not the real story. Wine makes up only 2% of the value of France’s exports. Spacecraft, jet engines, medicines, and refined oil each contribute more to the value of total exports than wine.
The Harvard School of Economics has a very cool visualization tool available online. Be warned, I spent hours on this site. Diane finally pulled the plug when I interrupted her photo editing to tell her that preserved fish make up 3% of Papau New Guinea’s total exports.
Even if you combine tourism and wine together you’re talking about less than 10% of GDP in France (most of that being the tourism half). So France isn’t endless vineyards tended by generations of artisanal wine makers (even if it looks like that from the train). France isn’t but Bordeaux is. For this trip we concentrated on Saint-Émilion, known for their Merlot blends. Are you thinking of this right now? (strong language warning)
Miles won’t find any pure Merlot in Saint-Émilion. Here the chateaux make blends that include Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petit Verdot. The world of wine that Miles enjoys in Napa is practically the wild west compared to France. In France the production of wine is a state regulated affair. Species selection, watering, pruning, production methods, everything from ground to bottle must follow a stringent set of rules if the wine maker wants to receive certification as Appellation d’origine contrôlée or AOC. The French use this system to protect the quality of their wine and ensure not just any old grape juice gets called a Bordeaux, Burgundy, or Champagne (there are hundreds more).
We are drinkers of wine, not scholars. People dedicate their entire lives to the study of wine and you can find endless resources online if you want to learn about terroir and what a medium-toasted French oak barrel can add to the depth of a Médoc red. Our recommendation is to experiment. Wine is not expensive in France, have fun. We regularly pick up a €5 bottle of wine from the local market, swirl, sniff and slurp it like experts and then render our opinions to each other, sometimes over a bowl of popcorn.
When we’re feeling really fancy we go to the wine shop next door and ask for a recommendation. I recently asked for a “manly” wine that was bold and complicated. I returned home with a delicious Médoc and shared my triumph with Diane. Her response?
“Really? You used the word “complicated” to describe a man?”