Impressions of France

This post has been almost twelve months in the making, as the first region I visited in Europe was Champagne way back in the third week of January, and my final one in Europe was Burgundy. Over the year I have made periodic visits to France which was not intentional but merely a product of its very central location in Western Europe, and the fact that most of the regions happen to be quite close to the borders of other countries. It is important to keep this in mind as I collect my thoughts and look back on my experiences on the most famous wine producing country in the world. It is also important to keep in mind that my visits to different regions in France have come at different stages in my experience and thus each new region I visited in France was actually a big jump forward in my development having focused on another country entirely (Germany, Italy, Spain etc.) By the time I got to Burgundy I had seen the best that the rest of Europe had to offer and had a significantly better understanding about wine production, viticulture and the concept of terroir. So without further ado, here are my impressions of France.
Day 1 in French wine country

Probably one of the biggest myths I would like to quash is the assertion that the French are arrogant. Undoubtedly they are extremely proud of the reputation they took centuries to establish and the classification systems they put in place to ensure the best quality. Any semblance of arrogance they have is for good reason, not only for their exceptional wines but also the entire culture of wine and food. With a few exceptions, every region I visited in France actually has a lot of humility and are generally pretty simple farmers wanting to make the best agricultural product they can. This isn’t to suggest they aren’t prone to hyperbole and grandeur, and sometimes seem reluctant to receive feedback that isn’t always glowingly positive. They can also be a little bit on the aloof side, not always forthcoming in what and how much information they give, attempting to retain a sense of mystery and unattainability. For example one problem I had was in securing appointments, as potentially producers decided not to respond to my request for an appointment, but this may have also been due to concerns about not speaking English well enough. This was certainly more noticeable in some regions than others.

Wine tastings get big in Alsace

Much like Italy it is not possible to think of wine in France the same way as every region is unique, in completely different parts of the country. Whilst I had the sensation of driving through the same villages over and again, as so many towns and cities have really similar structures and architecture, the regions are all totally different. Primarily this is a product of the very diverse geography and climate that is experienced across France, and with it the soils, weather patterns and areas for viticulture. Each region has spent a long time in identifying isolating and improving specific grape varieties perfectly suited for their environment which best reflect the harmony between the vine and the location. Some regions are only now being newly explored with a range of varieties often introduced from other regions, such as the Languedoc-Roussillon regions in south-western France. Each region has had a different history with viticulture, whether they have long had reputations for quality well before the plague of phylloxera (Burgundy, Bordeaux), or their reputation for quality has been more recent (Alsace, Champagne). Naturally the more southern parts of France have had a much longer history with wine thanks to the incursion of the Romans, and often have been so closely linked to their history that they are named accordingly (Chateauneuf-du-Pape).

The best rose in the world

It is also not difficult to see that every single region (and even within a region) has a very different philosophy towards wine, but always to be its own personality and the best it could be. Ultimately wine is a part of their lives but it really depends on the region, unlike in Italy where wine is a part of their personality and daily life. In some regions they are very honest about the fact that they work in wine purely for the passion and reward of being an artisan, with the continuation of a family business and tradition of paramount importance. In other regions they are a little less honest about their intentions, being more motivated by business and less concerned with the impact of their practices. An interesting parallel can be found in terms of the specific approach to viticulture that a producer has, particularly depending on the region. The majority of the producers I visited outside of Bordeaux and Champagne were bio-dynamic, organic or had a combination of both philosophies. Generally this approach was purely to have healthier soils and vines which would in turn produce better quality fruit. In many regions they don’t bother as they feel the quality of the wine is good enough with no problems to sell them, and therefore no need to have any additional hooks to garner attention.

One defining characteristic of Chateauneuf-du-Pape

The conversion to more sustainable and natural approaches like most of Europe is often being fuelled by a new generation of winemakers very keen to be auteurs and take the wine through the entire process, and using these practices is better for the wines they will make themselves. This new generation were some of the first to actually gain experience outside of France in the new world like Australia, New Zealand and California, which in the past was significantly more difficult not to mention the fact that the wines in the past outside of Europe weren’t very good. This spirit of exploration has also lead to them knowing a lot about other wines which may be surprising to some, but probably has a lot to do with the countless visitors they would receive from around the world hoping to gain some insights from such illustrious regions. Interestingly the new generations and old alike are commonly embracing more traditional techniques whilst utilising modern technology to improve their understanding of the entire process. One thing they do very traditionally is communication, as websites sometimes had very limited information, were only in French, and didn’t provide a contact email address, preferring the use of telephones.

Outside Chateau d’Yquem in Bordeaux

As mentioned each region is different and thus it is very difficult to generalise, but French have a slightly different approach to hospitality. Very similar to hosts I had in Germany and Austria they follow a fairly standard model when you visit the domaine/chateau/maison. They are more accustomed to people coming to them rather than meeting half way and acknowledging when someone has travelled from the other side of the world to be there. Professional visits to wineries in France are generally just that, and on only three occasions was I invited to lunch or dinner, as the business of the visit occurs at the winery and ends when you leave. This is in no way a complaint, merely an observation in comparison to southern European wine-producing countries. The French seem less concerned with inviting you to experience how wine plays a part in their lives, preferring to show how their wines are better and more unique than others. There is also a level of assumed knowledge about not only their wines but also their terroir and appelation systems, and far too often I had to probe for more information when they were keen to press on with the tasting. As a point of reference, the average visit in France for me took 1.25 hours, whereas the average in countries like Italy, Spain and Portugal was in excess of two hours.

Cellars in Vouvray are amazing

The final and in my opinion most important observation is that in spite of the concept of terroir being the apparent be-all and end-all, they were less inclined to take me to vineyards. Once again in comparison to hosts I had in southern Europe, only about 25% of hosts were willing or able to take me out into the vineyards for me to see and feel the terroir and the different practices, compared to 75% further south. In considering this phenomenon I have come up with a few different theories to explain it. The first has already been mentioned, that there is a level of assumed knowledge about the viticulture and oenology of the producer, and you are there mostly to taste the new vintage. The second is that very often the cellars are located in villages and it is a little more difficult to visit the sometimes spread-out parcels. Another explanation is that very often my hosts were neither winemakers nor viticulturalists – mostly marketing/PR/hospitality staff – who are unaccustomed and/or ill-equipped to perform such a task. Further explanation can be found in the sense that in many regions parcels of vineyards are rarely exclusive to one producer, and thus it is not their own terroir necessarily. Finally most of their visitors are possibly not interested in vineyards, either because they don’t understand them and are more interested in old cellars and barrels. For whatever reason, it was a little disappointing to simply be told about the viticulture and be expected to accept it, rather than having the chance to see it first hand. As I always maintain, great wine is made in the vineyards, and simply captured rather than created in the cellars.

Where chardonnay comes from

If my observations seem a little harsh, it is merely because I have very high expectations for France as they are seen to be the ultimate wine producers in the world. Around the world they are put on a pedestal, but the reality is that they are very often simple people who love to work on the land and are generally uninterested in global trends or wine media. Having established themselves as the pinnacle of wine also means that they should also be put under a microscope and examined closely. I have seen evidence on my trip that the rest of the world is rapidly catching up to countries like France and this means that there is more great wine that is different to French wine, and with increasingly fragmented markets with different tastes, diversity will become so much more important.

My final day visiting wineries in France
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