One July evening a few years ago my lover and I were sitting on the terrace of our hotel restaurant admiring a view, far below, of the Seine valley and the Western edges of the Vexin, the rich agricultural region so much fought over in the Middle Ages. We were in Monet country and Monet’s famous house at Giverny with the bridge over the water lily pool, was just up the road. My lover had chosen the red wine from Chateau Olivier in the Graves region, with care, some extravagance and to suit his own elegant preference, but mine too. I raised a glass to my lips and sipped. “French wine “ I said, “ is too....” and I watched his eyes as he waited for me to make a criticism...”delicious,” I said smiling naughtily. “One cannot get enough of it.” He relaxed visibly. French people, among the most critical in the world, cannot take criticism.
In this case it was not an issue. Is French wine the best in the world? I think so. I once told my lover that the French have everything—the climate, soil and geographical location to make their wines the very best, and to give them everything anyone could want in life. It is true about the wines. Lately, the weather has not favoured this wonderful wine making region of the world. Chilly summers have left the grapes of the famous production regions (especially Burgundy, and Bordeaux) low in sugar and tannins. For this reason I have bought young wines from the warmer South West as opposed to those from terroirs further north more noted for the excellence of their production. But, regardless of the weather, the French wine makers do have the expertise of blending their grape varieties into interesting ‘assemblage”. I hate it when the wine producers in France or elsewhere bottle wines of only one cepage (grape). The great skill of French wine making lies in the technique where the juices of several different grapes are combined to make the base of a wine such as a fine Bordeaux from, say, St Emilion. Many Bordeaux wines are based on a fermentation of the juices of three different grapes—Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. It is the proportions of these different grape juices that gives the characteristic touch to the wines of the many privileged chateaux of Bordeaux, positioned as they are on different sides of hills whose soil drainage, soil quality and exposure to sunlight determines the quality and market value of their vintage. Given the skills of ‘assemblage’ in the different wine making regions, one can really only disdain wines based on a single grape. But the habit, coming from the producers of New World wines has been catching on in France, where otherwise the techniques of blending the juices of different grape varieties give the vintage of a producer Chateau its characteristic ‘gout’.
When choosing a wine I usually want to find out the ‘cepage’ by reading the label at the back of the bottle. If I cannot find out the grapes that have gone into the wine I very often will not buy the wine unless I already know it. One of the decisive factors for me of a champagne, for instance, is the proportion of Pinot Noir over Chardonnay. The latter gives the crispy dry quality much admired in white Burgundies and champagnes, but for my taste this dryness also extends to its effect on my skin, which is also so much drier after drinking any chardonnay based wine. But I prefer the Pinot Noir, also in the red wines of Burgundy where it gives the characteristic richness and base notes to the great reds. Otherwise, my love of the Loire valley wines and champagnes is related to my preference for the other pinot grape varieties, in this case pinot gris or blanc.
We can’t have everything and sometimes we can’t have anything. Once in a rather crazy filmed interview in what was still then a Rhodesia under sanctions, with Sir Roy Welensky, the former Prime Minister of the defunct Federation of the two Rhodesias and Nyasaland, Sir Roy, the cameraman and I agreed (as we sipped Rhodesian champagne to much hilarity) that in Purgatory one would surely drink Rhodesian wine and eat American cheese with English bread.
No such problem in France where bread, wine and cheese are of such excellence.
Would the general mass of French people were equal in appreciation of their heritage.
I lift my glass to Chateau Olivier, to the glorious reflections of the Monet country and to my lover then and now.