Magazine | December 17, 2018, Issue

Of Grapes and Gaul

Vineyards in the Loire Valley, France (Julian Elliott/RobertHarding/Getty Images)
Childhood memories from French wine country

‘France?”

“Yeah.”

“France?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay, then.”

This is a conversation I have frequently when discussing travel. It is, I have come to understand, the funhouse-mirror version of the reaction I inspire when I reveal that I enjoy NASCAR or college football or fried alligator — a “but you like this, therefore . . .” non sequitur that is irrational but deeply held.

“Should I not like France?” I like to ask.

“No, I mean, it’s just . . . well, it’s so . . . isn’t it?”

It is so, yes. It’s ineffable, unique, stubborn, and — to me — reassuringly familiar. At the crossing between Dover and Calais, England and France are separated by just 20 miles, which is less than the distance the crow must fly between Boston and Salem. During the First World War, concerted barrages at the Somme or Verdun could be heard in London. Today, it takes just half an hour to cross, sous la Manche, by train, and a few hours more to cross by ferry. Which, for almost every vacation during my childhood, is exactly what we did. Cambridge to Dover. Dover to Calais. And then the long drive south — past Amiens, around Paris, through Le Mans and the Loire Valley, and, as the sun set, on to Saint-Émilion or Bordeaux or Sarlat-la-Canéda.

Why? To eat and drink and sit and watch, and to take in the quiet splendor that is the French wine country, with its curling hills and crumbling houses and fading, sunburned affiches. Over countless centuries, the French have turned wine into a religion of sorts, and, as is the case in other religions, they are keen to catechize the young. As children, my sister and I watched as the exquisitely dressed propriétaire of that night’s café raised her eyebrows inquisitively, tipped the bottle slightly toward us, and asked my parents, “Pour les enfants?” as if it were the most natural question in the world. Then, having received permission, we thrilled as she dispensed a little wine into a glass, added water to a ratio of about four to one, and sauntered off with a “Mon plaisir,” the better to proselytize cheerfully at another table — or, if the local reprobates had arrived, at the bar.

Mercifully for them, my parents were hampered by no such probationary limitations, and so would fall quickly back into that most pleasant of life’s exchanges: the ordering of the second, and perhaps the third, bottle.

“Une autre bouteille, s’il vous plaît.”

“La même?”

“Oui, la même.”

“D’accord!”

And then we were on holiday.

It seemed always to be the case that the houses we rented were both smack dab in the middle of a vineyard and within walking distance of a good restaurant — a combination that did no harm whatsoever to my impression that France and wine were inextricable from each other and that gave me a solid firsthand education in the life cycle of the grape. It was possible in the course of a single day to look out across the fields and see the harvesting process unfurling; to walk past the open gates that led, via a tree-lined path, up to the main plantation, and watch the workers leaving and arriving; and, once the sun went down, to buy a finished bottle in the local café. Talk about farm to table.

I am sure that it is foolish for me to believe this, but I will maintain with an infant’s adamancy that there is something special about the manner in which vines in France attach themselves to the landscape — something that suggests that France is where they are supposed to be. The French certainly believe as much, as you will discover if you allow a winemaker to talk at length about terroir and you listen carefully as he shifts subtly in his explanations from the insistence that a good wine must reflect the place in which it is grown to the insistence that Providence put this vineyard here upon this hillside — and not in Australia or California or Italy — for reasons known solely to heaven.

Divine intervention or not, the traditions that have grown up in this part of the world afford their champions access to a language that is not available to the newcomers and that cannot be applied to the purveyors of industrial plonk. That language is time. As students at Oxford and Cambridge hear tales of the glorious summer of 1923 and can set them against surroundings that have not changed substantially since the Refor­ma­tion, so the patrons of Château Figeac, Château Corbin, and Château Fonplégade can hark back to the year the wine tasted like nectar. Those old men in the cobbled square playing boules? They have memories to go with each familiar label — of the good years, the bad years, and everything in between. They have myths, too — myths that are related with wide eyes and in hushed tones. “My father told me about the 1900 vintage. He said there was nothing else like it. And his grand­father drank this wine with Napoleon.”

Did he, really? Perhaps. And perhaps not. Either way, he could have done so, for, as the photographs on the walls of the local auberges tend to show, the south of France has not changed a great deal of late. The restaurant in the square is as it ever was, its recipes passed down with the mother’s milk. The château on the hill is as it ever was. Nearby Saint-Émilion is as it ever was. They were drinking these wines when the Germans invaded Alsace. They were drinking these wines when Lindbergh dropped out of the clouds. They were drinking these wines when I was three, when I was 13, and when I was 30. As the bell tolls for Mass, so the bell tolls for dinner, and dinner requires wine, now as it ever did.

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