For three months now, ensconced in Burgundy, I have drunk nothing but French wine. As vinous lockdowns go, it could be worse. But it has made me think about where we are tethered and the consequences, gastronomic, political and imaginative, of those ties. Unlike the British, whose love of wine has always been international, beginning with Bordeaux’s stint as an English possession, the French drink French; they don’t even care for the output of their former colonies. Moroccan and Algerian wines, except for the cheapest rotgut, are invisible here, as are many Lebanese wines – and Lebanon is today one of the great winemaking nations, thanks in part to lessons learned from France.
Of course, no Asian or north African colony could compete with France on quality – nor was there much pressure on quantity, until the phylloxera louse destroyed French vineyards in the late 19th century. Then, as wine production fell by half, Algeria became an unlikely saviour. A river of plonk – untaxed, as it came from “part of France” – flowed north, often ending up in bottles with Bordeaux or Burgundy on their labels, a transformation worthy of Jesus at Cana. Once France recovered enough to resent the competition, punitive taxes were introduced on “over-productive” vineyards… to the great detriment of the north African acres that had been planted with precisely that aim in mind. Colonies do not exist for the benefit of the colonised.
Still, I am currently enjoying discovering wines that, thanks to France’s patriotic thirst, rarely make it across the Channel. These wines aren’t necessarily quite the same quality, but they aren’t the same price, either.
So I travel east, to Menetou-Salon in the Loire, where the Sauvignon Blancs smell of flint and citrus, but I drink Domaine de Beaurepaire instead of the Domaine Jean Teiller I buy in England. In Beaujolais, between here and the Rhône, I have found Château des Ravatys. And while for years I have loved Domaine de Trévallon, a glorious combination of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon made in the stern, beautiful landscape of the Alpilles national park, I have now fallen for the rich, strong blends of their neighbour, Château Romanin. I still haven’t opened a Tavel to compare with Domaine de Mordorée’s glorious rosé but believe me, it’s not for want of research.
Nearer home, in the exceptionally pretty northern village of Irancy, I can once again taste Richoux’s Pinot Noirs, including Ode à Odette, made in 2012, an astonishingly rich homage to the matriarch on what would have been her centenary year. She was rooted here as I will never be: but Burgundy, to me, tastes of her grandchildren’s wines.
One evening, in the village I temporarily inhabit, we bought a giant takeaway couscous from the café. An inadvertent post-colonial dinner took place: an Anglo-Australian and a Canadian, with their Franco-Anglo-Canadian children, dining on a North African dish and a Château Bauduc rosé, fruity yet herbaceous as strawberries sprinkled with basil, made in Bordeaux by Gavin Quinney, a transplanted Englishman. When locked down, most of us want to move; freed to wander, we long to settle. Wine offers delicate comfort for that uncomfortable paradox… even while embodying it.
Next week: Felicity Cloake on food
This article appears in the 17 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The History Wars