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Why France Still Matters

Do French winemakers still rule? Two opinionated experts make their case.

the other side: Why France No Longer Matters

I import French wine, so if I were to tell you that France's are the most glorious wines on the face of the earth and that we still have a lot to learn from them, you might think, "Of course he says they're the best, he sells them."

Oh ye men of little faith, the truth is that I sell French wines expressly and precisely because I happen to believe they are indeed the world's finest. And my specialization poses no chicken-or-the-egg conundrum. In the beginning, I sold wines from all over, but my nose kept leading me back to France, where I discovered a wine culture so vast and profound that I decided to devote full time to it. (That's sort of the way I ended up married, too, now that I think of it.)

My wife wishes I had specialized in California wines. It would have been more practical because we live in Berkeley, one hour from Napa's treasures. Think of the travel time and airfare I could have saved, the homesickness I could have avoided. What came over me? Why did it have to be French wine?

Well, it's a matter of taste, isn't it? When it comes to music, I like to hear classical music on period instruments. I like to think I am hearing Mozart's music as close as possible to the way Mozart heard it. For more modern music, I have a weakness for what I call roots music. I would rather hear Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters sing the blues than hear anyone else's rendition. Can a white man sing the blues? Yes, but the roots of the blues are Black. Roots music. Roots music has soul.

French wine is roots wine. Did not white Burgundy launch a thousand Chardonnays (and more) worldwide? And did not the wines of Bordeaux launch thousands of Cabernets and Merlots? And today, renditions of Rhône wines are in vogue as New World vintners plant more and more Syrah, Viognier, Mourvèdre and other Rhône Valley varieties. What would the wine world look like today without having France as its model? France has been the reference point not only for its grape varieties but also for its viticulture and vinification. Even its oak barrels nurture young wines worldwide now. Has there ever been any question? If you wanted the greatest bottles, you looked to France.

Actually, it is not only those grands crus that keep me going back across the Atlantic. The genius of the French wine culture is reflected even in its little wines, its so-called country wines, which can possess an ensemble of qualities I rarely find elsewhere, such as originality, harmony, breed and finesse. And what diversity. Here is a country whose wine styles range from Muscadet to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, from Beaujolais Nouveau to Château d'Yquem and from every imaginable point in between. French wine is a treasure trove centuries in the making, and there are still things to learn if the New World is ever going to match the majesty of the French wine culture. Grape varieties, vinification, oak barrels, they only scratch the surface. We've got to follow the roots deeper.

To understand the French wine aesthetic, you must begin with their phrase goût de terroir. We don't even have an appropriate translation for it in English, which indicates how little it is understood. It does not mean taste of the earth or of the soil. It does not mean dirt or dirty. Very simply, goût de terroir refers to the character or style or personality a certain vineyard site gives to its wines.

All wines presumably have a goût de terroir, because the taste of every wine is influenced by where the grapes are grown. (It is true, however, that a wine's goût de terroir can be obliterated or obscured by overoaking, overfiltration, overproduction, imported yeasts and so on.) The important thing is whether a certain wine's goût de terroir is noble or vulgar, because a goût de terroir can be good or bad. If you grow Pinot Noir in a salt marsh and you copy every detail of the vinification of a Romanée-Conti, would you have a wine that tastes like Ro-manée-Conti? No, the flavor and character would be enormously different. You might end up with one wine that's worth hundreds of dollars and another you'd prefer to avoid.

Romanée-Conti versus a salt marsh? What an extreme example. But reality is even more interesting, because even subtle differences in terroir change a wine's taste. On the slope right next to Romanée-Conti is the La Tâche vineyard. Same grape, same vinification, yet for each vintage there are consistent differences between the two wines that the human palate is capable of discerning. Attempt to describe the variations and suddenly one's intellect and imagination are involved.

The Taste of Terroir

Taken from Richard Olney's 1995 book Romanée-Conti, here are descriptions of the style or character of the wines from the two neighboring Pinot Noir vineyards, La Tâche and Romanée-Conti.

La Tâche: "[It] is elegance and rigor... svelte, lean, sinewy, aloof...beneath the frequent hardness of its tannins, passion is aflame, restrained by an implacable, courtly elegance."

Romanée-Conti: "The wine of princes, it is velvet, seduction and mystery. Fuller, more spherical; it has the feel of volume, it is more voluptuous...velvet and satin...the scents of violets...truffles, game, undergrowth...It is as if all the stops had been pulled on a great cathedral organ, not in the sense that the wine is overpowering, for it is all delicacy and nuance; it is the infinite complexity which makes one catch one's breath."

Compare two terroirs like that, expensive or not, and you will enjoy a meaningful comparative tasting, one that enhances your appreciation of fine wine and increases your pleasure, one that is much more intriguing than a which-do-you-like-best blind tasting.

But consider this: if Merlot were planted in the Romanée- Conti vineyard, no one would be admiring the nobility of the terroir. The wrong grape in the wrong soil and climate. When the French say terroir, they mean more than soil. A goût de terroir is the result of complex interactions between many factors, such as grape variety, geology of the soil, climate and microclimate, topography, native yeasts and microbes, nearby vegetation and vinification.

The genius of the French wine culture is founded on the ideal marriage of all these factors (and probably more), marriages perfected in each locale over centuries of trial, error and experience. When you uncork a bottle produced from such a union, the wine may only be two or three years old, but the tradition and collaborative expertise that produced it on a particular site may date back several centuries. Right away there is a depth of interest that the latest eno-technological trick cannot replace. Talk about length on the palate. A French wine tastes of centuries.

New World wines with a noble goût de terroir already exist. We are not starting from zero. I have a wonderful memory of serving two Chardonnays to a Burgundian visitor a few years ago, a 1974 Meursault Les Poruzots from François Jobard and a 1974 Stony Hill from Fred McCrea, two great wines, equally fabulous but quite different in terms of the terroir expressed, which is as it should be. I remember vividly that the Stony Hill was not smothered in new oak, which allowed its uniqueness to shine forth.

True vins de terroir remain unusual in the New World, because decisions about what to plant where are too often driven by commerce instead of quality.

Merlot is hip; let's plant Merlot.

Viognier is in; let's plant Viognier.

Chenin Blanc is uncool; rip it out.

In New World climates almost every grape variety ripens, so winemakers feel free to plant any variety almost anyplace. Instead of the terroir guiding the decision, supply and demand often will. (Does the climate make it too easy? Is it a blessing and a curse?)

When Philippe le Hardi, the Duke of Burgundy, passed a law (punishable by imprisonment) in the 14th century forbidding the Gamay grape in the Côte d'Or, he was advocating rather forcefully that a terroir does not really exist without the right grape variety. Nor will a grape variety give its best expression planted in the wrong terroir. Experience, not commerce, taught the ancients, first the monks, then the aristocracy, that the Pinot Noir grape, which barely ripens in Burgundy's cool climate, produces wines of more beauty and interest, wines that can express more than power, more than ripeness and new oak. They can express what only the site in which the grapes are nourished can give: a unique goût de terroir.

And each French viticultural area developed its own traditions in terms of grape varieties, pruning, barrel size and the like, adapting in order to get the noblest expression from each site, thereby creating an incredible diversity of French wines.

Today a Châteauneuf-du-Pape cannot legally contain Pinot Noir. Well, why not? It would ripen under the broiling Châteauneuf sunshine. You could harvest a black-colored, high-alcohol blockbuster in mid-August each and every vintage there. But that is not what the French were after.

Oh, the French. Don't call me a Francophile. France is a maddening country. You can't even find a decent baguette these days without a treasure map. Their strikes and demonstrations have caused havoc in my life. Their modern architecture stinks. So does their work ethic. Their postal system is even worse than ours! But the aesthetic that created their wine culture, that I consider profound.

The New World has profited from every aspect of French wine except the most important: this brilliant, inspired concept of terroir.

Perhaps the idea will catch on if we find a catchy American phrase for goût de terroir.

How about Site Power?

Place Pizzazz?

G.C., perhaps, for Geographically Correct?

Locationality? Or what about Uniqueness? Apartness? Thereness? Maybe take an idea from Gertrude Stein and call it There There. ("Wow, this Chardonnay shows a lot of There There.")

Whatever term we come up with, it must describe the most beautiful aesthetic concept so far in the world of wine, a product more cultural than agricultural. >=

KERMIT LYNCH is a wine importer based in Berkeley, California, and the author of Adventures on the Wine Route: A Wine Buyer's Tour of France (North Point Press).

Published October 1998
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