Every summer, we leave the US for France, arriving just as farmers and grape growers all over the country begin their annual race against the rains (or hail, depending on the year). Nights this time of year take on a surreal character as we lie awake, jet-lagged, listening to the distant whirring of tractor engines punctuated by the occasional shout “hé-oh!” carried into our window on a cool fall breeze. Looking out our window, the scene takes on the look of an alien landing, with workers and crops bathed in the blue-white glow of floodlights.
More on that in a moment. But first… ditch the champagne flutes.
This week, Julien Miquel gives us his expert suggestions for tasting sparkling wines… including why you might want to ditch the flute… the one glass you should never use… whether you should swirl it before tasting… and more…
The Forces That Give France Its Great Wine (Continued)
By day, we like to survey the scene in our country car, that most gallic of creations, the Citroën 2-CV (known as the “deux chevaux,” or “deu’che” as some call it, which translates to “two horsepower”).
It’s a wonderful car for adventures – the kind that stalls out if you sneeze, forcing you to push it to the nearest hill for a rolling start (tip: bring a bottle of wine and a baguette jambon beurre for lunch between stalls).
The vignerons of France work with an equally mercurial force. They toil at the intersection of three gigantic climatic forces: the Atlantic Ocean, the African continent, and Eurasia. The upside to this convergence of hot, cool, and wet air is a true diversity of terroir given the size of the country (France is slightly smaller than Texas).
The downside is that should any of these forces diverge ever so slightly from its usual course... a Sword of Damocles plunges right into the heart of one of the world’s most cherished wine regions.
As retired French winemaker Julien Miquel explained to us recently:
“The process of selecting grape varieties in France has taken centuries. We have perfectly matched grape maturation time with climate to provide for the longest possible ripening season for that grape, so that it becomes ‘just ripe’ come harvest time. (In most cases, the longer the ripening season for a given grape, the finer the wine.)
A Pinot Noir that grows and ripens from April to October in Burgundy (one of the coldest regions in France), will have much finer expression, more acidity, and subtler flavors than one that ripens quickly and gets ‘cooked’ by intense sun and heat under a warm climate. (The advantage of higher altitudes like you have in Argentina is that the thin air makes temperatures overall cooler – especially at night – despite the intense sun.)
This is both the blessing and the curse of French wine regions. If things go well, wines will be outstanding. If any part of this fragile balance goes off (too much heat or too cold a temperature, rain or worse) so too does that year’s vintage. Sometimes you get lucky and a special, if uncharacteristic, wine emerges. Other times, ‘c’est le désastre’!
In France, winemaking conditions start to deteriorate very quickly in October. The lingering summer (“l’été indien”) suddenly ends with temperatures dropping off quickly as rains sweep in. Late season rains mean one thing to us winemakers: rot. At that point, even if your grapes remain slightly immature – ‘tant pis’, you pick!
Until next time,
The Wine Explorer