Vive la France, mes amis.
We may hoist a beer on the 4th, but on Bastille Day, a glass of vin seems more appropriate. And why not? The first wines to come out of France’s Rhône Valley pre-date Roman Gaul. Granted, even the best of wine was terrible – even by the low standards of the day. It all soured quickly once exposed to air. Wine was fortified with tree sap as a preservative and flavored with anything to hide the increasing taste of vinegar. Still, received wisdom went, it was safer than water.
Over the centuries, the French took production very seriously and made the world’s most coveted wine before the oxidization problem was sorted. Now drinking the stuff is so ingrained in the culture that they’ve stopped being in awe of it. Sort of like American tweens and magic of Tick Tok.
Stateside wines got a late start, and it wasn’t a good one. Prior to the Civil War, American’s largest wine producing region was, wait for it – Missouri. The grape was Norbert, something you’d only make jelly out of now. Prohibition wiped the slate clean so America wine-making, in a modern sense, is less than 100 years old. Things only got serious about the time The Beatles released “Revolver.”
Maybe it’s intimidation, or since the wine boom in California, simple competition. It may be a simple matter of changing taste: Old World wines don’t tend hit the senses in a full-frontal assault like the New World ones do. Part of the problem is, I suspect, simple translation: Everything sounds so damn existential in French. They are always going about the terroir of their wine – it’s sense of place. It just means dirt plus weather. To demystify the concept just drive down Hwy 61 through Clarksdale – which is a three hour round trip of weapons grade dirt + weather + sense of place.
The terroir makes labeling tricky. Americans like to know, exactly, what we are getting and we like it spoken in ’Mericun: Merlot, Pinot Noir, Malbec. French wine labeling sticks to regions and their traditional styles, which have been governed by tradition and environment and, since 1932, the Appellation Contrôlée (AC). Under that umbrella is fair bit of variation, but that’s where it gets fun.
There, is of course, the price but with a little ingenuity and a willingness to be occasionally wrong, you can get around this. Avoid Bordeaux’s – white and red – in the beginning. It’s not that they aren’t good, or worth the money. They are very good, but they are also at a premium. France has several wine regions that aren’t famous enough to hype the price.
You could do a lot worse that begin this adventure with the Rhône valley’s Côtes du Rhônes. This is what the French drink when they don’t want to talk about wine, thus freeing them up to go on about sex, food and American foreign policy. I gather they disapprove of the latter.
Parallèle 45 is made in Tain L’Hermitage – which again sounds grander than it really is – it’s just a small town near a big hill. Because this is France, said hill has a very old story about a Frankish knight returning from the Crusades a gravely wounded war hero. As a reward for his service, the Queen of France allowed him to live there to mend his wounds. He never left. The villagers knew he was up there alone and called him, sensibly, The Hermit. Hence the name of the hill. When Craig Brewer does a movie about an off the grid lunatic, it’s not nearly so romantic.
At any rate, Parallèle 45 is fruit forward and with some spice to make it interesting. There is a touch of alcohol heat from the Grenache, but the Syrah gives it a bit of lightness. Famille Perrin, a Côtes du Rhône Villages, which is a slightly higher classification for the same price – about $15. There is a less heat and some spice that doesn’t make itself quite so obvious. It’s a full flavor without being heavy.
Since it’s summer, and it always is around Bastille Day in this hemisphere, take a look at French whites. A white Bordeaux is great: Made with sauvignon blanc, it has a sharp minerality not found in the rounder Californian version and lacks the fleshy fruit zing of the New Zealand style. Finding one at the right price is tricky, but it can be done. You’ll pay less for a Muscadet from the Loire Valley – the right one clear, crisp and light.
Stateside we toss down a hotdog with that Independence Day beer – but since we’re all trying apologize to the Europeans – slurp down some oysters with that Muscadet. You’ll have a great summer meal and we can all go back to sneering at the French.