Cruising in beautiful France
NOT for the first time, I am peering into a glass deeply. It is in the interests of research.
A svelte French woman in a full-length apron is pointing out the slight amber ring around the red wine she has dropped into my glass. It is, she says, a sign of youthfulness.
I am in a wine cellar in Chateauneuf du Papes, a medieval village which spills down a hillside in Provence. Like the others in my party of new world wine drinkers - Americans, Australians and a few Brits - I just want to try the stuff. But we will have to wait until Beatrice Charpentier is ready.
Swirl the glass, she suggests, to introduce oxygen and release the spices. Now bury your nose in it and inhale deeply. What do you smell? Cherry, says one, cassis another. Someone detects an earthy mustiness. I feel more confused than pretentious.
I was lured to France on the promise of a cruise down a river through sun-drenched countryside. Almost inevitably, it passes through wine country. Bon chance - two of my favourite pastimes.
Our Avalon Waterways cruise on the Saone and Rhone rivers starts in Burgundy and meanders through the Beaujolais, Crozes Hermitage and Cote du Rhone wine regions. Vineyard excursions are optional extras (and can cost a bit) but they are a chance to get to know fellow passengers and explore the countryside and centuries-old villages that scroll by on the river.
I see it as a chance to broaden a palate honed on big, fruity antipodean numbers and on a supermarket budget.
My problem with French wine is not so much adapting to the taste but trying to interpret a label which tells where the wine was made but rarely mentions the grape variety, and to distinguish the appellation from the name of the wine and the winemaker.
It's also a chance to experience the terroir - the combination of soil and climate - which the French say is reflected in every drop, from the red clay hills of Burgundy to the plateaux of the southern Cote du Rhone, where vineyards are carpeted with cream-coloured alluvial stones to protect vines from the harsh winter and the Mistral wind coming straight off the Alps.
And yet another reason to drink is to learn more of each area's history - wine-growing has seen off 1500 years of power struggles between church and state and invaders, of plague and pestilence and hedonism. When in France ...
The first thing I learn is that my assumption that French noses point resolutely skywards at the thought of new world wines is somewhat passe.
"I am not of the generation which considers French wine superior to all others," says our guide Christian Soulliaer. "Great wines are made all over the world, in Chile, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and California ... and soon they will be making fine wine in England," he adds diplomatically.
Maybe so, but it hasn't lessened the French passion for their wine, which makes wine tastings an altogether more serious affair than a Sunday drive around west Auckland or the Yarra valley.
Our first encounter comes even before we board our boat, when the coach bringing us south from Paris stops at Beaune, an ancient town nestled at the base of the Cote d'Or, the southeast-facing slopes of northern Burgundy. Beaune makes much of its position in the centre of Bourgogne (Burgundy) winegrowing but with its narrow cobbled streets, historic buildings and pastel-painted restaurants and cafes the town is an attraction in itself.
Vines were first planted in this area by Cistercian monks in the late 11th century, says our host Lesley Cleaver, an English expat seduced by the terroir 20 years ago. Chardonnay originated here but the stony clay soils are also well suited to red grape varieties, especially pinot noir, she says.
The Marche Aux Vins, or wine market, is in the town square, across the road from the Hotel Dieu, a hospital built for the poor after the 100 Years War in the 1500s. In the years since, the hospital built up a sizeable estate donated by vineyards, and wine sales helped to cover costs. These days the Hotel Dieu is a hospice, funded by an annual auction of wines grown by the Hospices de Beaune. The candle-lit auction in the market building every November is regarded as a gauge for each year's Burgundy vintage and is the biggest charity auction in the world.
The building itself was built as a chapel for Franciscan monks; it makes a blessed setting for a wine tasting. We are led, ducking heads, down a dark stone staircase to a musty cellar where the oldest bottles date from 1911. In the candle-lit gloom we sample two quite different chardonnays: a dry yet mellow Pouilly-Fuisse from Burgundy's deep south, followed by a more acidic Meursault.
Then, in the airy surroundings of the chapel upstairs, we work our way through a succession of the Cote de Beaune's famous labels - a '97 Pommard premier cru, a '99 Savigny, a 2000 Volnay and a 2006 Corton grand cru and 2006 Mercurey premier cru, among others. We would not have picked them as pinot noir if Cleaver hadn't told us.
She says Burgundy growers remain reluctant to identify grape varieties on the bottle in order to maintain a mystique. "It's a kind of wine snobbery - they argue that if they put the grape variety on the label that would suggest a more ordinary quality wine."
But that's changing, she says, as consumption is falling in France and vintners are having to be more consumer-friendly to entice a younger generation who are not into snobbery.
A couple of days later at Lyon, a party of us escape to the rolling hills of Beaujolais country. Although Beaujolais Nouveau's release every November is internationally celebrated, its quality is largely dismissed by the French, who regard its popularity as a triumph of marketing. "We have a saying: Burgundy is the lord and Beaujolais the poet," says Soulliaer.
But many Beaujolais growers work hard to be taken seriously, and our destination, the cellars of Domaine Paire, is one. Jean Jacques Paire is head of a family which has lived here for 400 years - 17 generations, he says. The vineyard has survived many upheavals - but none bigger than his decision to go organic, using mustard plant, daisies and other flowers instead of herbicides and insecticides. The locals think him mad. "I produce less wine but the wine is more concentrated, more tannic, and it keeps for a long time," he says.
In his cellar, he treats tastings as seriously as he nurtures each vintage, taking us through the look, the nose, the taste.
"Never make a noise when you open the bottle," says Paire. "Open it very slowly because if you make noise you depress the wine."
We sample a young, crisp chardonnay, a young red which will benefit from aging and then a darker, stronger gamay which has spent 12 months in a barrel. I seem to have made odd notes like "hints of apple and citrus" (the chardonnay) and "more complex, with vanilla and blackcurrants" (the older gamay).
But the standout for me is the countryside - framed in blossom for our early-spring visit and the quaint villages uniformly built of golden stone. We visit one, splendidly named Oingt (pronounced Wang) with its own castle and many wine cellars.
A day or two later we float through the Crozes Hermitage area, where the names of famous winemakers are proudly displayed on a hillside overlooking the river. How crass these French are. We don't have time to stop for a tasting but the previous night, at a Lyon restaurant, my party of antipodeans have taken pot luck on a bottle of Crozes Hermitage which sets the seal on our conversion to French reds. We all judge it to be pinot noir; turns out syrah is the main grape.
Clearly we need more education and in Cotes du Rhone territory we find it - at Chateauneuf du Pape, a village near Avignon with a wine bar on every corner. Come September, the town will be overrun with wine lovers celebrating harvest time.
It is here where the vineyards resemble a lunar landscape in spring, the vines protected by alluvial stones sourced from the river and the distant French Alps.
Winegrowing began here in the 14th century when the Roman Catholic church moved the seat of the papacy from Rome to Avignon and Chateauneuf du Pape was chosen as the summer home for a succession of popes. The ruins of the papal residence overlook the village.
While the Popes long ago returned to Rome, the area's winegrowing reputation flourished and Chateauneuf du Pape is a sought after appellation around the world. Grenache is the predominant grape but it can be blended with up to a dozen other varieties and still be called Chateauneuf. Our equivalent is GSM (grenache, syrah, mourvedre) but I've realised that comparing by grape is folly.
At the town's oldest winemakers, Maison Bouachon, Beatrice Charpentier puts us through a wine tasting master class, discussing colour, swirling with gusto to inject oxygen and release the spices. Finally a taste - but only to cleanse the pallet. Then a more considered swill.
"Don't swallow - swirl it around the mouth, chew it, open your mouth and let some more oxygen in," she says.
"Wine is a living thing, an evolving thing."
I need no further convincing: I have been seduced by the terroir.