What visit to France could overlook wine? While wine was not a primary reason for our trip, we did participate in several wine tastings--something I have never done before in a schooled way.
Throughout history, humans have used wine. Once again, it is not my intent to try to convey the history of wine-making, and wine tasting--but if you want to learn more, here's an interesting site to explore. The earliest evidence of wine dates back to 7000 B.C. In some ways, it is not at all mysterious why humans would have continually made and consumed wine--or other forms of alcohol, such as beer--frankly, with water not being pure, and in fact many times being contaminated, wine was a safe drink.
The U.S. has a checkered relationship with alcohol in general, and specifically with wine. Obviously, the zenith or nadir (depending on your point of view) regarding alcohol occurred when the 18th amendment was passed, prohibiting the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcohol. Interestingly, it did NOT prohibit the consumption of alcohol. Prohibition lasted all of 13 years.
The history of wine in the U.S. has undergone changes. One of the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, was a most enthusiastic oenophile--so enthusiastic that John Adams once complained about having had dinner with Jefferson, and having to listen to yet another boring paean to wine. Jefferson imported French wines, and tried to establish vineyards in Virginia to help nudge along wine-making in the infant United States. That enthusiasm must have been short-lived, as Americans developed wine amnesia and, for almost 2 centuries, completely forsook an educated wine palette.
Our wine tastings in France took place in three very different venues. One was in the basement of a former monastery, a second was in a family owned winery in the Beaujolais region, and the third in what had once been the special project of the Pope--the fabled Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
The setting of the first tasting--in Beaune--was at Marche aux Vins. The location is immediately adjacent to the fabled Hotel Dieu with its fantastic tiled roof.
We descended into the cellar where wine barrels lined the sides. However, our guide told us the barrels were "just for show." While the wines we tasted were "interesting," nothing said--send a case back to the U.S. There is an annual auction of wines sold here every year to benefit charity. Certainly a unique way to raise money for charity.
Since our river cruise took us down the Rhone, we were in prime wine country. Many wines in the area bear the "Cote du Rhone" appellation, as wineries dot the hills all along the river. Our second tasting was of Beaujolais. This wine, frequently associated with new wine, is the specialty of many vineyards. Beaujolais nouveau is wine that is fermented for just a few weeks, and sold on the third Thursday of November. Because it is a young wine, it is light, and not at all nuanced. Perhaps that is one reason many oenophiles eschew it.
Our tasting was at a family owned business, where wine-making had been the business for generations. The current owner had recently switched to all organic farming, and had been at it long enough to receive the requisite certification of an organic grower. He was clearly proud of that accomplishment.
Our final tasting was just outside Avignon. When the papacy was moved from Rome to Avignon, the presence of the popes in the area helped boost what was already a flourishing wine-growing area. Pope John XXII seems to have made wines from Chateauneuf (which means "new castle") the virtual house wine, and granted the appellation of "vin du Pape" which morphed into Chateauneuf du Pape.
The wine growing conditions seem almost totally inhospitable. The soil in the area is--STONES. It was most surprising to see the vines, all trimmed for a season's worth of growth, rooted in this stony soil. Further, while we were in Avignon, we experienced a touch of the infamous mistral wind. How on earth vines can produce grapes is a mystery. Even more surprising (at least to me) was the fact that vines are allowed to produce strictly limited clusters. For top wines, only 6 bunches of grapes. Some vines are allowed to have 8 or 10 bunches, but under no circumstances more than that.
There are various vineyards all growing grapes in this area, all of which can be labeled "Chateauneuf du Pape." The wines, whether white or red, are all blends. For red, the base grape is grenache. Other varieties of red grapes are used in the blend, depending on the harvest, the taste of the various grapes in a given year. There are 13 varieties that may be used in the blend for reds. For white, there are only 6 varieties that may be used.
After 3 different wine-tastings, I felt a little better informed. But I would not for a minute hold myself out as an expert.
What I did come away with is a greater appreciation for wine, wine making and wine tasting. Such an appreciation is not a common thing in the U.S. By that, I do not mean to imply that there are not people who understand what wine varieties there are, or even what is involved with tasting. I do mean to suggest that the general attitude to alcohol, in general, seems to tilt too much to abuse of alcohol. College students, make that high school students who seem to think that getting roaring drunk is a rite of passage.
But, ranting is not the purpose of this brief reprise of sipping some wine in France. Maybe in a future post.