Wine, what a wonderful friend. It opens our hearts and our minds. With a glass of wine in our hand we are witty and the world generally just seems a mellower place. Well, I must admit that until I moved here that generally was my experience of wine. It was something I popped into my local supermarket to pick up, or on a night out I was handed a large or depending on the mood, a very large glass of it across the bar. It came in red, white, rosé and occasionally when the mood or occasion took us there, it was of the bubbly variety.
You could say that generally my knowledge of wine was lacking. It’s something I enjoy on
a regular basis. I knew what I liked. If it was white, a Sauvignon Blanc, normally from New Zealand or Australia or a Pinot Grigio. And if it was red, it was normally a Merlot, occasionally a Chianti from Italy or Pinotage from South Africa. Wine was just there. It was definitely a necessity, but something that I just drank without ever really thinking about it.
When I first arrived here at first nothing changed much. Well, some things did. The first thing you notice is that wine here is cheap. In fact very cheap. You can get a bottle of wine for under €2. Secondly, you only get French wine here so, my meagre knowledge was dashed back to pre-school days in the wine department. So, this is what I learnt initially; cheap white wine tastes crap, cheap rosé tastes far better and cheap red tastes better the day after you open it.
But, slowly things changed. I graduated from pre-school and made my first tentative steps into first grade. I shed some of my friends from my pre-school days and slowly started making some new friends, as I tried new wines. Slowly it dawned on me that the supermarket shelves were like a map of France. Each of those wine actually came from somewhere. Claret actually came from a place called Claret. Champagne so named, because it originated from the region of Champagne. And closer to home the wines of the Languedoc were named after regions and villages that we drove through on a daily basis. Corbières, Faugères, Minervois, St Chinian but to name a few.
I read a fascinating history on the Veuve Clicquot (the widow Clicquot). To me it had just been a orangey, yellow label on a champagne bottle that tasted rather nice. But this woman, revolutionised the production of champagne. I learned that the legend of the monk, Dom Pérignon was more of a myth, in fact an advertising ploy employed a few centuries later to strengthen the allure of Dom Pérignon champagne.
I learnt that French wine was divided into three categories. Vin de table, Vin de Pays and AOC. The AOC system is based on the French notion of ‘terrior’, that every region in France has unique qualities and that this affects the grapes that can be grown in that region and ultimately the flavour of the wine. So in a nutshell if you fall within an AOC wine region, and not all regions qualify for AOC status, you have to produce wine using specific blends using types of grapes that are stipulated for your region. So unlike the New World wines that are made using just one grape variety most French wines use a specific blend of different type of grapes.
An AOC wine doesn’t guarantee that this is the best wine a vineyard produces, in fact a lot of the more modern, boutique wineries are opting to produce wine under the category of Vin de Pays so that they can be more adventurous in how they blend the wine.
And then like a school kid graduating from school I realised that wine in France isn’t just about what you’ve learned in books. It’s about life itself. And living in the Languedoc is living with wine. We are surrounded by vineyards, everywhere you look you see vines. It is the soul and lifeblood of this region. We made friends with people who owned and worked on wine farms. People like Simon and Monica Coulshaw from Domaine Des Trinites and Paul and Isla Gorden from Domaine La Sarabande who had decided to move to France to produce wine.
So, instead of just sitting on a sofa reading about it while I took a sip or two from my glass of wine I decided to actually get my hands dirty. Paul and Isla needed some help bottling their wine from last year before they starting harvesting and pressing this year. So, Simon and I, his niece, nephew and a couple of friends who were staying with us arrived bright and early to give them a hand. We arrived to the site of a large lorry parked on the road outside their domaine. It transpired that this lorry was a travelling bottling plant. Large pallets of bottles were transferred onto a conveyor belt on the lorry where they were washed, filled with wine, corked and labeled to be spat out the other side where Isla and I had to hand-fill the boxes which were then pushed down a shute at which point they boxes were automatically sealed. We managed to bottle about 8000 bottles of wine in 7hrs. And the best part was we got paid in wine.
The next experience was actually picking grapes for a day or two. I’d heard that it was back-breaking work and I soon found out why. Because the vines of France are fairly low you are constantly bending over. But, a more beautiful office you couldn’t ask for, surrounded by the hills of Faugères and there is constantly a bit of banter going on to help the time pass. That afternoon I stayed on to help with the processing, that is the actual pressing of the grapes. Apart from some mechanisation, in a small domaine such as Sarabande, things haven’t changed in centuries. They also took some time to explain the fermentation process which was fascinating. We were processing rosé that day, but they already had some of their reds on the go from previous days and these had to be checked to make sure that the fermentation process was going to plan. Temperatures were taken (too low and it wasn’t fermenting properly, too high and it was all going tits up) and general mixing was going on. That night I arrive home feeling sticky and bone weary with a new-found respect for my wine maker friends who would be doing this every day for a month or so.
My journey is still not at an end, but some of the things that I’ve learnt along the way are: Living in a wine region is not glamorous, the tractors wake you up from 2.30 in the morning as a lot of the harvesting takes place at night. Grapes are really sticky and they stain your hands for weeks after you’ve been picking. Don’t buy wine from supermarkets when you’re in France, go to a vineyard, try before you buy and the best part is the profit goes to the wine maker and not just to some shareholder. And, the best part is, learning about wine is a journey that never ends because there is always a bottle of wine out there that you haven’t yet tried.