Wednesday, January 29, 2014

"To know wine, you must know French wine"

To know wine, you must know French wine. That imperative begins a chapter in one of the books in my slowly growing wine library. But why is it so vital to know French wine? Must one know every vineyard, soil analysis, vintage, and "cru"? -- for it seems it doesn't take long before the chapters on French wine, in any book, delve into highly detailed topographical maps with keys to limestone and shale, and tiny hashmarks explaining elevation. Turn a few more pages and a thumbnail sketch of the 1855 Bordeaux classification will be, well, de rigueur.

It seems that one must know at least the basics about French wine for a few very good reasons. All the noble grapes, with the exception of Riesling, are native to France. How anyone can be sure of this is a mystery to me, since the cultivation of vitis vinifera goes back so many thousands of years. How do we know some colonist from Phoenicia did not bring Pinot Noir with him from Tyre one fine day in spring, in the year 643 BC or whenever? Perhaps it would be a little more accurate to say that, once they all arrived and/or were recognized and cultivated deliberately, all the noble grapes (except Riesling) have long been brought to vinous and potable perfection in France. The country's soils and climates happen to be just right for specific grapes, whether in Bordeaux, in Burgundy, in the Loire or Rhone valleys, in Provence, or in Champagne.

Incidentally, ten years ago the French Canadian journalist Louis-Bernard Robitaille, in a book distinctly not about wine -- And God Created the French -- explained, in a joke, France's exquisite physical situation. The land is both Mediterranean and northern, blessed with olives and wine, sunny sea and misty forest, butter and beer. Its rich countryside is laced with rivers perfectly positioned to encourage the growth of busy and sophisticated cities. Its fertility, climate, and ease of access laid its Celtic and Gaulish inhabitants open (shall we say) to millenia of cultural influence from many people: ancient Greek merchants, Roman legions, Britons from the west, Dark Age tribes of Frank and Burgundian from the east, Vikings from the north. All this has led to an incomparably subtle and rich civilization. The only fly in all the ointment somptueux, so goes the punchline, is that of course the place is filled with the French.

But seriously. Half a dozen near perfect grape-growing situations, and possession of all the noble grapes, combined with thousands of years of experience in wine-making, leads on to the second major reason why we "must know French wine." Because the French have learned so much and made so much of the best wine for so many years, practically all the wine you would care to buy in any store or sample at any winery is going to be an imitation, or at least an homage, to what countless anonymous vignerons (simply, grape-growers) have always done. We like chardonnay? That's white Burgundy. We prefer pinot noir? That's red Burgundy. Oh, look, a cabernet sauvignon-merlot blend from Australia, how interesting -- that's red Bordeaux. A sauvignon blanc-semillon blend? White Bordeaux. A chenin blanc from South Africa -- it's the white grape of Vouvray, transplanted. We love a vigorous syrah, a sumptuous viognier, or a rough and quaffable grenache blend? With those, we travel down the Rhone river, drinking something like what troubadours and returning Crusaders might have drunk. Shall we celebrate some fine occasion with a sparkling wine? The French learned how to make them first -- the famed Dom Perignon, for one, was trying to find a way to age his piercingly acidic chardonnay-blend wines without a second fermentation happening in the bottles as Champagne's cellars warmed up in the spring. (The bubbles in the wine were originally considered a flaw.)

In fact, it takes some thinking to come up with a wine that is in no way native to or much influenced by the great thirsty nation of France. Riesling, strangely, is one. Oz Clarke in his New Encyclopedia of French Wines suggests that France's "long standing historical mistrust of Germany" may account for this German grape's -- the noblest of the noble -- being "proscribed, banned, beneath contempt" west of the border. Perhaps the punchline to that joke should be, not that over-blessed France has her scales of blessings balanced out by the burden of the French on one side, but that she has them balanced out by this one missing item. As if the Creator said, you will have all these things and lead the world to the joys of wine too, but you won't have ... riesling. That divine punchline might not be as funny as the human one, however.

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