Sunday, 31 January 2010

Une Fermeture

People come to France to get an education in all sorts of things: philosophy, love, how to live well. I just came here for a job. But once settled, I thought I might as well take advantage of the opportunity to learn about wine.

This was not as easy as I might have expected. Regardless of location, a serious self-education in wine can be an expensive and bilious business. Both my wallet and my liver ruled out things like side-by-side comparisons of two bottles of Burgundy. And my desire to match wine with what I was eating for dinner (at least broadly) made it a challenge to stretch a more distinguished bottle over multiple nights. It soon also became clear that I learned best in conversation; in the absence of another, more developed palate at the table, I found it hard to analyse what I was drinking.

These issues aside, France offers several lifetimes of wine to sample. Translating drinking into knowledge is the real test. Ever the researcher, I went in search of hard data. Anglophone wine labels customarily list the grape type(s) used, describe the vineyard’s location and terrain and give at least some sense of how the wine might taste, when it should be drunk and what it might best accompany. Wine stores (and even some supermarkets) have become proactive too, telling consumers which bottles have won prizes, are the favourites of wine journalists or are just somewhat unusual.

None of this exists in France, and the wine guides in both languages don’t bestow their judgments on sub 10-euro bottles. For a while I was choosing blindly, or limiting myself to wines from the few regions (Alsace, Rhone) with which I had at least minimal familiarity. This all changed when I discovered Aux Caves d’Aligre, a wine shop at my local market.

The stock alone would have soon made me a regular; the shop had a fantastic range of spicy, earthy and affordable wines from France’s south and southwest (spanning the Rhone, Languedoc and the Sud Ouest). But the real draw was Madame Isabelle Gosselin, charmingly—if unambiguously—directive regarding what wines would be best with my meals, and virtually always right. By some miracle, she was also almost fully bi-lingual, though she indulged my piteous French.

I rarely understood more than half of her high-speed explanations of growing environment, composition and taste . Yet over time, I managed to develop both a (limited) wine vocabulary and a far better understanding of what pleased me and why. The time came when I could have walked into the shop and pulled down a bottle likely to suit whatever was on the stove. I rarely did so, though, both because I looked forward to the interchange and because it seemed almost disrespectful not to request—and abide by—her guidance.

Not content with being my personal guide to the world of French wine, Madame Gosselin has decided that she is going to pursue other ventures. Her shop closed today. I consoled myself with a mixed case from the regions which she and I both love best, and, during the final d├ęstockage, a half-bottle of Calvados. The wine awaits weekends, a dining companion and red meat. But the Calvados I opened tonight in her honour. Unsurprisingly, it was delicious.

Un grand merci, Madame, and bonne chance.


Javajem said...

What a wonderful story and a wonderful lady. I hope you find a new Madame to take you further in your wine studies!

Caleb said...

I found your food blog going through a few links. Glad I ran into it. Didn’t know that the food blog/recipe community was so big online. I love your posts!

I was wondering if you would like to exchange links. I’ll drop yours on my site and you drop mine on yours. Email at or stop by my site and drop a comment. Let me know if you would like to do a link exchange.


Anonymous said...

Have you been to Les Crus du Soleil? It's right near there and they focus on wines from the Languedoc-Roussillon, which is one of my favorite regions as the wines tend to be of very good value.

I've taken a few wine courses, but a lot of what I know is experiential, and self-taught. When I was just getting started, I bought a wine map of France (5 euros at BHV) and marked the region of the wine I was drinking, each time. Gradually some patterns started to appear... but learning about wine never feels like a chore!

Shira said...

Jody and Caleb, thanks for the comments. Caleb, look forward to reading your blog. Camille,thanks for reminding me at Les Crus du Soleil. I must confess that I've never shopped there--2 possibly silly things put me off. First, the bottle selection is small--artful rather than plentiful? Second, they have an English website--just seemed a bit strange. But as they sell the type of wine I like, I should try to be open-minded.
Re the learning, I have a book I quite like called the Wine Bible (American author), not just French but very good at providing some context on regions and appellations. Though the next time I tackle BHV, I'll look out for the map!