France is rich in rivers, which is fortunate: grapes, like people, need water to survive, and survival would be a considerably less interesting project in a world without grapes. One of my favourite French words is arroser, to water: it is, appropriately, a word fertile in meanings, not to mention the rose blooming at its centre. So you can arrose (water) your grapes, arrose (baste) your chicken, or arrose (drink to) your anniversary. If you are the river Rhône, you can arrose (run through) cities from Geneva and Lyon to Avignon and Arles, facilitating most of those other definitions while you’re at it.
The Loire is France’s longest river, arroser-ing grapes from Melon de Bourgogne, the Muscadet grape, near Nantes on the Atlantic coast, via Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc around Tours to the Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir country south of Orléans; I’m fond of it and respectfully grateful for its generosity. (If you’re in London, nip in to Green Man & French Horn, where the extensive wine list dedicated to the Loire is certainly cause to raise a toast – or, as the French say: ça s’arrose!!)
But my favourite river is the Rhône. Maybe it’s the history: the Greeks were cheerfully making wine in southern France but it took the Romans to follow the river north, conquering and planting as they went. Maybe it’s the fact that the Rhône heads through elegant Syrah country and into the sunlit lands around France’s Mediterranean coast, with their wonderful juicy, expansive Grenache/Syrah/ Mourvèdre blends.
This is a trajectory that appeals to me: I adore the Syrahs of Hermitage and Cornas but I too have a tendency to move from sophisticated restraint towards primitive exuberance as the evening wanes, and Gigondas and Chateauneuf-du-Pâpe are warmer wines than their northern brethren in every sense. And if you want value – and if you’re going to cast off your northern restraint, then it’s that or bankruptcy – Rhone specialists Yapp Brothers have several wines, including a Domaine Maby La Fermade 2011 from the cruelly overlooked Lirac area, that are under £13 and entirely delicious.
Why do I love the Rhône so? Maybe, being the British-born daughter of Australian Jews whose families had been abruptly expatriated by Russians, Poles and Germans, I’m drawn to another outsider: the Rhône’s source is in Switzerland and the ferocity that can be the flipside of its generosity is not, somehow, very French. Henry James, in 1882, described “the big brown flood, of uncertain temper, which has never taken time to forget that it is a child of the mountain and the glacier . . . at Avignon, I observed it in the exercise of these privileges, chief among which was that of frightening the good people of the old papal city half out of their wits.” The Rhône is a grumpy foreigner with an over-developed sense of entitlement and occasional bursts of benevolence, mostly directed at vineyards. I can’t think what it is we have in common.
Still, my bias is less narcissism than simple hedonism, delight at three of my great loves – France, sunshine and big red wines, aromatic with pepper or parched herbs – in one place. And while my wits have frequently been laid at Lady Rhône’s wet feet as an offering, she has never scared me half out of them. Even when raging, she’s never hostile – she may drown your grapes but it won’t be personal and there would be no grapes here to drown without her.
The Rhône Valley is scattered with amphitheatres but the Roman seeds that flourished were cultural and viticultural, and if you love France – and despite its irritations, how can one not? – you must be grateful to what waters her and us. The south is fertile with beauty and when you can’t admire it in person you can open a Rhône wine and do so at a distance. Surely if anything, anywhere does, ça s’arrose.
Next issue: John Burnside on nature