Into the belly of the beast. Though France is the most complicated and difficult to understand wine region (OK so Germany is a close second, but thats only because of the language), it comes before any other wine region we studied. It is, unfortunately the foundation for understanding all other regions. Certainly France must be acknowledged for all of its gastronomical achievements. They remind us Americans that its important to chew your food, choose wines not based solely on high alcohol content, and that cheaper is not usually better when it comes to digestion. They are the standard by which we ought to judge our many cuisine inadequacies. Let the humiliation begin!
Apart from the subtleties of soil, climate and a vast history of vinicultural achievements, the most important, and frightening aspect of French wine culture is its regulatory systems. Yes, here it is, a big turd just landed in the middle of your glass of 1986 Chateau Y’quem Sauternes. Its time to get all touchy feely with French bureaucracy. Really its not that bad, in many ways it helps us to understand where a wine is from and what the vintners were aiming to achieve. There are 4 levels but lets just concern ourselves with the highest level – Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC). If you are a wine producer and you satisfy the requirements of your desired AOC you’ll be able to market your wine as belonging to that Appelation. Often this will allow you to raise your prices even if you are not a well known wine producer. Complying with the rules of an AOC can include restrictions of yield of grapes per vine, fermentation methods, grape varietals used and in what proportions and even harvest time and temperatures. There are over 300 AOCs in France all assigned to specific wine growing regions. My worst subjects in school were geography and foreign languages. I was doomed from the start.
There are of course subtleties within AOC’s to understand. In 1855 Emporer Napolean the 3rd created quality designations for the wines of Bordeaux in preparation for a Worlds Fair. There were 5 levels of designations called “Growths”, with a few 1st Growths leading the way as the best of the best. It is for this reason that today, many centuries later I know that the largest concentration of 1st growths (there are only 5) are in the AOC of Pauillac which is in the Medoc wine growing sub-region which is of course in Bordeaux. One way to remember this is “you’ll pay more for for Pauillac”. Pay though you will quality is not absolutely guaranteed. As I said the French have been know to undermine their own best laid plans. The AOC system is a prime example.
Our France section would be led by another MS, Catherine Fallis. Being the 5th woman in the world to achieve the title of Master Sommelier seems to have given her additional super-powers. She’s got the celebrity thing nailed. If you doubt it, go to her website ( http://www.planetgrape.com ) and watch her open a bottle of champagne with a saber in a full length gown. Her mere presence implies summers spent with royalty dining on foods that would bankrupt most of us. Delightfully, her intellect and elegance are contrasted by a laugh that sounds like Grover the muppet drunk off his blue furry butt. She has worked in the hotel/restaurant industry for many years, in some of the most prestigious establishments. No detail was too small – I know 3 ways to properly remove foil from wine. Catherine would shepherd us through most of the remaining courses, her laughter would offer a much needed respite from the constant stream of wine minutia.
It was with Catherine that I started to pick up on a condition I’ve dubbed the MS Aphasia phenomena(MSA). Its not a traditional aphasia, that prevents you from speaking, but rather some sort of trauma that requires you to offer up facts only heard at the highest level of MS exams. All MS’s have been so thoroughly tested, so tortured by the minutia of the totality of the wine world that they are on some deep level traumatized. Mentioning a test to them is the equivalent setting off loud fire crackers near war veterans. Instantly they’re thrown back into a world comprised of billions of inter-relating facts spanning dozens of languages and a thousand years. They speak as if caught in a category 5 hurricane of information.
You know you’ve triggered the aphasia when their eyes glaze over and the next sentence begins, “You don’t need to know this now but for those of you who are planning on going on to the higher levels…” What follows is a highly complex treatise on a subject only the geekiest of wine geeks would ever have heard of. Its as if they have to get the information out or it will cause an aneurysm resulting in death. Every single MS I’ve ever heard lecture has always exhibited at least one moment of MSA. During my certification exam process MSA was present in the room hourly if not every 15 minutes or so. Obviously my awareness of MSA was made especially acute by the fact I was drowning in information . OK, so I’m a little bitter about my France grade…no I’m not going to tell you what it was. OK, so I got a C.
Complain as I might I had two experiences in this course I will never forget. By this time we were actually tasting wine from the region we were studying that night. We would dutifully arrive early, set out the glasses each of us would need at our place (usually 6-10), and then set about opening wine and practicing our pouring skills. The goal was to split a bottle between roughly 15 people, pouring the same amount, with no leftover and no drips. The night we were studying Bordeaux reds was a special one for Catherine. Rather than having us taste and assess the wines after pouring, she had us pour at the beginning of class and then proceeded with her lecture. As time rolled on the room began to fill with a fragrance that was Shakespearean in its beauty, power and complexity. This aroma did not get you high, it transported you to a new reality altogether. Catherine paused her lecture and with a gleaming far away look said, “this is why I had you wait to taste…there’s nothing like Bordeaux.”
I’m a fan of fragrance. I’ve experienced aromas from expensive oils, lovingly distilled from around the world. I memorize smells because I think they’re important. These scent gifts from Bordeaux were unlike anything I’d ever smelled. Wood, earth, fruit, flower and light, filling our classroom and pressing me back against the wall. I wouldn’t have been surprised if faeries had started dancing about the room and singing in French.
Truly there is nothing like Bordeaux or any other wine region of France. Which brings me to my second point, terroir (pronounced tear-wah). Commonly used to describe the soil and other geographic characteristics imparted to a wine, it can also be used to speak of the more transcendent aspects of wine. As Paul Draper, CEO of the Santa Cruz Mountain’s world famous Ridge Winery has said in his video podcast series “Ridge Vineyards: A sense of place”, wine is a way we modern people can connect to the sacredness of the earth. Another way of saying that is terroir. There were two wines that transfixed me in that evenings tasting. Somehow I felt that I was drinking the spirit of the vineyard magically preserved in a bottle. It contained everything – every drop of rain, passing footstep, bit of compost. These wines had reached a place of harmony. Imagine drinking the sacredness of a place. In that moment wine became for me a way to drink in a moment of life.
Other lessons from France:
* Fine wine requires alchemy of some kind.
* My Irish ancestors were in France centuries ago in search of the best wines. Rock on Winegeese!
* Great wines evolve in climates that suck … at least a little.
* Its all about terroir. I mean its ALL about terroir.