I recently returned from a business (Ok, and pleasure) trip to France. I am a winemaker based in Napa and was there to attend the 2013 SITEVI Agricultural Conference in Montpellier and then, since I was in the South of France already, of course took a few extra days for a little post-conference R&R. Over the course of about a week, my travels took me from Montpellier, to Cannes, to Grasse, then northwest over the Route de Napoléon and down finally into Avignon.
I make wine, I blog about wine and am thoroughly steeped in the subject just about every day of my life. I expected this trip to be no different and was understandably looking forward to sampling French cuvées and experiencing some local flavor. As I traveled, dined and sipped, a few truths and truisms about how the French enjoy wine started to become evident. Though I’ve been making wine since I was a college student, I was pleasantly reminded that, especially when travelling to new places, we can always learn something new. Below are a few lessons the French taught me (or re-taught me) about wine.
1. Wine is truly an everyday luxury
As a winemaker, I am passionate about all things aromatic and one of my hobbies is researching and collecting perfume. The South of France is known for its fragrance industry, which is centered around a cluster of factories and fields in the lushly terraced hillsides of Grasse, near Cannes and the Riviera. Everything seems to smell good in France and everyone seems to care about smelling good. Of course I expected our B&B in Grasse, the Moulin Ste. Anne, to have fine soaps and bath products on hand. What I didn’t expect was the selection at the local chain grocery store. Even laundry soap came in lavender, rose and violet scents! Fine fragrance is a luxury the French seek to enfold into their lives and routines, in little aromatic bursts, throughout their day. So it is with wine. Wine is something enjoyed at lunch, during the post-work and pre-dinner apéritif hour, and bien sur, with dinner itself. Wine is never something viewed as only “for a special occasion,” it is viewed as part of the meal and part of living itself. The French believe that today is a special enough day to celebrate with the added pleasure of a little bit of wine. So get that fancy bottle out of the cellar, already!
2. Always with food
Because wine is so enmeshed in French mealtime rituals, it is rare to see wine consumed without some kind of food. Even if you go into a “wine bar” or café and order a glass at a little table, it’s common to also be served gratis (or to be charged a small amount for) a small dish of olives or little toasts smeared with anchovies. Having some food with one’s drink slows the absorption of alcohol into the system, something that certainly helps during those long Sunday lunches and keeps the witty conversation and famous French joie de vivre alive while not getting too lively. Just as it’s believed food always improves with wine, so it is held that wine also improves with a bit of food. Sitting in Montpellier’s Place de la Comédie nibbling on local olives and drinking a rosé from about ten miles out of town, I certainly had to agree.
3. Always with others
Because I was always with family or friends, I was lucky to never have to drink alone in France. Then I noticed that practically no one that I saw had a drink in their hand unless they also had someone to chat with. I polled some of my French-born friends on the topic and they affirmed that for them, cracking a bottle, even as l’apéro after work, was only as enjoyable as the people they were with. It was the experience that mattered, not the booze. In fact, they wanted someone else there to discuss the wine with, and hopefully a nosh to enjoy it with (see above). Perhaps it may have been because I was in Provence where, after all, the natives are known for being gregarious and prone to (according to certain British travel memoirists) wild hand gestures and hours-long discussions about what to fix for the next grand meal. Though I realize I risk sounding like a Peter Mayle novel, with tales of garrulous Gauloise-chewing, petanque-playing, pastis drinkers (they do exist!), this is one cultural cliché that does appear to be true.
4. Everybody drinks pink
Again, this may be because I was in the South of France, home to Bandol and Tavel, but where I was in France, everyone drinks pink (though based on my previous trip to Paris, I suspect it’s a country-wide phenomenon). Even in the depths of winter. Even with “the guys”. And the great thing is that pink wine goes with just about any food or occasion. Dry, tart and aromatic, a good rosé is the perfect aperitif with nuts or even potato chips. It’s got enough guts to stand up to everything from traditional fare like rabbit braised in white wine or even more-assertive cuisine like grilled lamb or ratatouille. What’s even better about pink wine? It’s usually on the inexpensive side so enjoying a bottle (or three), with your friends and with your food is a little easier to swallow.
5. Expensive doesn’t equal “great”
Or in some cases, expensive doesn’t even equal “good.” During the SITEVI conference one of the most interesting things I did was take a field trip out to a winery (or I suppose we should say “château”). With our guide the group of about 20 of us went through a tour and tasting of the château’s offerings, which included some lovely Rhône varietal blends and single-vineyard wines, both reds and whites. Interestingly, the best wine of the bunch (and not just according to me, but also to the wine writer for an unnamed French publication and other journalists on the trip) was the also the least expensive and billed as their “everyday” blend. I found this to be true not everywhere, of course, but enough times to make me sit up and take notice, and begin to actively seek out what I might call “bargain wine”. It became a bit of a game to see how good cheap wine could actually be, and I found that in fact in France, cheap doesn’t equal bad most of the time. In fact, cheap can mean great! Of course there are lots of reasons why wine is cheaper in France relative to the U.S. government subsidies and low taxes compared to just about everywhere else in the world sure help make wine affordable for your average citoyen. We found plenty of good bottles of wine for 5€ at many supermarkets, and many great wines for 10€.
6. Keep an open mind
France is absolutely a place where it pays to taste around and keep an open mind. No need to be dependent on fancy château names, vaunted histories, or a slave to magazine scores. There are many (affordable!) treasures waiting to be found, even in the U.S. where import duties and taxes somewhat up the price per bottle.
All in all, it was a wonderful, memorable trip. Of course it was great to have a little time off. Spending a winter’s week in the South of France is pretty tough to beat. I returned home energized and ready to apply the above wine lessons to my own winemaking and wine enjoying life here in Napa. Vive la France and the French way to approach wine, wherever you live!
Alison Crowe is the winemaker at Garnet Vineyards, based in Napa, and blogs at www.garnetvineyards.com. This guest blog post (and trip!) would not have been possible without the invitation from Elizabeth Smith at travelingwinechick.com, the opportunity from the SITEVI conference organizers, and their publicist, Philippe Bazin. Many thanks to travel agent extraordinaire Patricia Daury of Premier Vacations. Merci beaucoup!