Wines of France Today

In the heart of the greatest wine country in the world, the fruitful vineyards of Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne lay in their winter sleep — this was February, 1956. They were, as the sudden deadly frost was to prove, more vulnerable than the growers, even les vieux, had ever known. Within a few hours old vines which had been thirty to fifty years maturing and young vines full of promise were strut down, paralyzed with cold. The icebound silence that followed was broken only by the growers crying “catastrophe"; sometimes a man was seen in the middle of his ruined work actually in tears. There had not been such a disaster since the 1880s, when the vines were destroyed by the burrowing plant louse, phylloxera.

Many splendid old vines of SaintÉmilion and other districts were frozen to death. The sturdy younger plants survived; but while these produce wines in quantity, wines of quality come from the old vines. (In terms of quality and quantity together, a vineyard is most productive when the vines are between ten and twenty-five years old.) In 1956, the harvest inevitably was small, and the quality of the vintage is variable. But in no year is the wine so uniformly good or bad as the amateur of vintage charts might suppose. Looking up 1954, for instance, he will find the Bordeaux low rated and low priced. Here is an example of how you may make a good buy in a reputedly bad year, for, although the summer of 1954 was poor, on September 6 the sun came out and kept shining through the harvest. This last month of sunshine is the most important of all for the grapes; and some of the 1954s, which many shippers shunned because rumor had condemned them in advance, are in fact early-maturing wines of line balance, low in tannin and therefore without the bitterness which makes for the slower development of a more lasting wine. Many of these are pleasanter to drink today than the greater vintages of 1952, 1953, and 1955 — and considerably cheaper. One example is the soft Château Lascombes 1954. And if you take the advice of a reliable wine merchant and choose carefully, you will eventually enjoy drinking some of the clarets of 1956.

In the vineyard calendar there are three crucial stages: when the young shoots sprout, when the vines come into flower, and harvest time and the period just preceding. The enemies are spring frost, summer wind and rain, hail, and frost again, early in October. In 1957, the surviving vines were weakened by the previous year’s frost and by the way the growers had been forced to trim and tie the unproductive shoots, to restore the vigor of the plants. There was frost in May. Then came June, the flowering time, when the size of the vintage is determined and each grower sweats out his overall annual income. The month was wet and cold, and there was no resistance in the sickly vines. The four varieties of grape, petit verdot, merlot, cabernet franc, and cabernet sauvignon, which combine with the different local soils to give the Médoc wines their characteristic flavors flowered sparsely and unevenly, in the wrong order. The result was a tiny crop. By harvesttime tragic losses throughout the vineyards of France and Europe became apparent — the more disastrous since there had been an unexpected, wonderful Indian summer, making excellent the little wine produced. In Bordeaux, the Medoc produced only 50 per cent of its normal yield, and Saint-Émilion 40 per cent. In southern Burgundy, Bcaujolais and Pouilly-Fuissé were down to one third of the normal harvest; the Côte de Beaune, Pommard, and such fine white Burgundies as Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet, and Meursault yielded 60 per cent, while Champagne dropped as low as 30 per cent.

The greatest tragedy, however, fell upon the little town of Chablis, where about eight hundred people live for their wine. Here, when the sap had risen in the vines, a late May frost destroyed all hope for the harvest; the growers salvaged less than 10 per cent of the crop, and this was bad. There could never be so much Chablis made as there are bottles labeled Chablis on restaurant tables, and we shall not see much true estate-bottled Chablis for some time to come — although, fortunately for the growers and for us, in this small region of Burgundy 1955 and 1956 were both good years.

As supplies fail, the demand for wine is growing steadily, because all over the civilized world more people are drinking wine every year — and so prices will continue to rise. Yet it is not too late to find, either in the United States or in Europe, good wines at a reasonable price, both for drinking now and for laying down.

Inexpensive Bordeaux, the regional wines, shipper’s bottlings such as Medoc, Saint-Julien, Margaux, Saint-Émilion, or inexpensive château-bottled wines of the cru bourgeois are good buys. There are many unheard-of names, but if properly selected, they may be good wines.

Many of the excellent purchases in red Bordeaux are the 1955 classified growths of the second, third, fourth, and fifth classes. Growths in the 1952 and 1953 vintages which are still available, such as the following, are superior: Château buscombes, Château Pichon-Longueville, Chateau Palmer, Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, Château CalonSégur, Château PrieuréLichine, and Château Lynch-Bages. These chateau bottlings are especially good buys because the prices originally paid for 1952s and 1953s were low.

The Roses in the United States are still cheap, such as Tavel 1955 and the more expensive 1957. Sancerre, Quincy, and the Vouvray are the best wines of the Loire valley, and they should not be older than four years. The best of the white Burgundies are the Pouilly-Fuissés and Puligny-Montrachets of the 1955 vintage. The best of the Graves are the château-bottled Couhins, Domaine de Chevalier, and Carbonnieux of the 1955 vintage.

For the typical fruity, flowery Beaujolais, one should look to the 1957s. They will be making their appearance in the bottle beginning this summer and will be available for the next year or two. The best names are Moulin-àVent, Fleurie, and Brouilly. These are the top villages of the Beaujolais.

No short list can be made of the great wines of France, and red Burgundies certainly cannot be overlooked. But it is preferable to look for the phrase “estate-bottled" on the label, or the name of a grower followed by the word propriétaire— the maker. Clearly, with prices always going up, this is not a time to learn by error how to buy wine. But by following a few simple rules, it should be possible from the start to avoid the more obvious traps. Some of the bottles of wine on sale are indeed frauds — adulterated concoctions untruthfully labeled. In the wine trade, as in others, there arc bound to be some crooks. But with the laws of appellations d’origine, the French government and the growers themselves have made it very difficult for such deceptions to be practiced on any but the most unsuspecting customer. According to the laws, the quantity and quality of wine in each vineyard are controlled by a local board, and so is the use of place names; every bottle from these controlled areas must bear on its label the words Appellation Controlee. One set of rules defines regional wines, and there is an Appellation Contrôlée of Burgundy. A district wine is better than a regional one; that is, a Côte de Nuits is better than one marked simply “Bourgogne" — therefore the district rules are more strictly defined. Commune wines such as Gevrey-Chambertin rate higher still; and the Appellation Contôolée of a specific vineyard, like Chambertin, is defined by the most exact regulations of all.

In Bordeaux the wines arc grown in vineyards belonging to one owner or partnership, and the grands crus are bottled at the châteaux and labeled accordingly, mis en bouteilles au château. Therefore, you can be sure that the wine has not been blended with a lesser growth after it left the chateau. “Bordeaux" or other wines bearing only a regional name, such as “Saint-Julien" or “Pomerol,”are bought in barrel, blended and bottled by a shipper. Although this is certainly inferior wine, there are some reliable merchants whose wines may occasionally be quite satisfactory.

In Burgundy there are practically no châteaux, and the vineyards are divided into small holdings. Formerly, each grower followed the general practice of selling his barrels of wine to the shippers or big merchants who blended them to make each vintage a consistent wine of the vineyard. But now growers have begun estate-bottling at least part of their vintage, and the name of the proprietor or grower on the label, or the words mise au domaine or mise en bouteilles à la propriété is the best guarantee of this fine wine for which the demand so vastly exceeds the supply — the whole region of the Burgundy vineyards covers an area of scarcely 12,000 acres. Nothing, unfortunately, but experience of the different growths can protect one from the practice, not illegal but regrettable, of oversugaring, or chaptalizing, Burgundy, since this is done to satisfy an increasing demand for heavy, rich, full-bodied wines.

An honest wine merchant will save you from fraudulent wine and help you to pick a good bottle at the price you want to pay; if he knows his business, he will from time to time buy up a stock at a reasonable figure, which he will pass on to his customers. He will tell you, too, that it is safer to depend on reputable estate and château bottling than on the half-truths of a vintage chart, which will give you the great years but not the date on which the wine will be at its best. A great Bordeaux, ripened in constant sunshine, will be rich in sugar and hence in alcohol; and the wine of a memorable vintage may have an overabundance of the bitter tannin which will hold it together over the years until, slowly, it reaches perfection. The vintage chart will rate a 1945 very high but will not tell you when to drink it, and to have tasted a bottle of this great wine in 1949 would not have been the pleasure it should be in 1960.

It is possible to find good red wines in medium years, but this seldom applies to white wines, for which a minimum degree of sunshine is essential. Otherwise, excessive acidity will throw them out of balance. So this much may be said for vintage charts: they are better guides to white wines than to red. The chart, like the dictionary of a foreign language, is a good servant but a bad master. However, it can have its uses, and the following chart is the most accurate and dependable in view of its limited scope. All wines are rated on a point basis, 20 being the maximum which equals divine perfection. The great 1955 red Bordeaux were bottled last winter. The red Burgundies of 1955 are already enjoyable. The 1956 and 1957 red wines are for the future. Except for the Beaujolais, they have not yet been bottled. All over France people are drinking more and more Beaujolais, and Americans will do so this summer, in spite of the pitiful harvest of 1957. Except in the great growths, the tendency today is to drink young wines, and the younger Beaujolais is consumed, the better. Much of the cheaper Beaujolais is, unfortunately, blended with the lesser Rhone wines, the ordinaires of the Midi, and a mixture of Algerian wines. The true young Beaujolais mostly find their way to Paris and to Lyon — into this gourmet city, they say, three rivers flow: the Rhone, the Saône, and the Beaujolais.

In a French café, when you order Beaujolais sur le zinc (that is, up at the zinc counter) you get what is called a Beaujolais bourru; this should be a fresh, fruity wine from the barrel. Juliénas is a pleasant carafe wine of this type. The average Beaujolais is bottled early, but this region has its great wines, too: Moulin-à-Vent, full as Beaujolais goes and much of it sent for export; Brouilly; Morgon, the longest lasting; Fleurie, a fruity wine at its best when it is young and slightly chilled, a favorite in the United States. The French themselves may prefer Chiroubles even to Moulin-à-Vent, but this wine, the bad traveler, is seldom seen abroad. In 1957 very little Beaujolais was made, but the grands crus are wonderfully good. This sometimes happens in years when the vines produce quality rather than quantity: the goodness is condensed into those few grapes in each bunch which still could be harvested.

The way to get to know French wine, and French people, is to potter about the country with a car, stopping sometimes at a bistro or at a small hotel where the patron may do his own cooking and come in halfway through dinner to ask how you are enjoying your meal. Don’t stay at one hotel and go out to dine at another; in the country places, there will be hurt feelings if you do. Incidentally, if you start off by supposing that the French are all connoisseurs because they drink wine as a matter of course and without the esoteric rites of wine snobs in AngloSaxon countries, you will be disappointed. Some of the worst wine you’ll ever taste may possibly be in Paris — and not the ordinaire, either. In many of the average restaurants, the wine lists are downright bad. As a rule, you will be better off with a château-bottled Bordeaux or a carafe of Beaujolais than with any of the mediocre bottles in between.

In the country, then, unless you are visiting a famous place like the Hotel de la Côte d’Or of Alexandre Dumaine at Saulieu, by all means ask for the vins du pays, which in this case are great Burgundies. You will be able to make your own gastronomic chart of France, or at least of one section of the country. For instance, I can think of no more agreeable holiday for a fairly greedy man than one spent in leisurely travel with a motorcar through the Southwest: beginning with Chartres, whose cathedral is the Gothic marvel of France, going as far south as Albi and Toulouse — in both of which are extraordinary examples of Romanesque architecture — then turning back through Agen to Bordeaux and the legendary vineyards of Sauternes, Graves, Médoc, and SaintÉmilion.

1952 17 16 16 16 16 18 11 11 18
1953 19 17 19 17 19 13 17 17 17
1954 12 9 10 11 10 16 10 14 10
1955 18-19 17 17 18 17 18 18 15 19
1956 14 10 10 14.17 9 14 12 13 12
1957 18 15 17 18 18 18 18 17 11

This trip will take you through the placid park-like landscape of the Loire valley, strung with châteaux built by kings and their competing nobles when the court of the Valois passed much of its time in Touraine. You might stop at Amboise to see the castle on the cliff and the marvelous view and to taste, at the Hôtel de Choiseul, some of the delicious dishes à la tourangelle, the rillettes from neighboring Tours, or the sturdy peasant foods, boudin (blood Sausage) and terrine de lapin. All go equally well with the light delightful wine of Vouvray, cellared in the caves of chalky cliffs. As you go on through the valley, there will be other wines to taste: Sancerre and, most charming of all, Pouilly-Fume, a dry, distinctive white with a taste of truffles from the soil that breeds it. From Chinon, in the other direction, where Rabelais was born, come the red and pink wines he loved: Chinon and Bourgueil. Saamur produces a sparkling white; the pink and white wines of Anjou are fragrant and sweet. In the Dordogne, the French are still eating the rich truffled foie gras of Perigord and drinking the heady but rather mediocre white Bergeracs; you may taste the local Monbazillac, which is a very sweet dessert wine.

In Cahors, with its famous fortified bridge, the feeling of the South is stronger still; here the “black wines are made - - “wine-dark" indeed, and long-lived — which have often been used to add color and body to other, weaker growths. On to Albi, near the vineyards of Blanquette de Limoux, where the little sparkling wines are sometimes oversparked.

The older buildings of Toulouse are rose-pink; and here is found the Basilique of Saint Sernin, the oldest of all the Romanesque churches. To the north are the vineyards of Gaillac, making a wretched wine which seems to have been better in the Middle Ages than the sweetish whites which come from there today. (Tastes have changed too.) Driving west again, through Agen, at Langon (Sauternes) and Barsac (sweet white wines) you are at last in the wonderful wine country of the Gironde.

A wine pilgrimage through Bordeaux is the proper climax to such a gastronomic tour, and it is easily organized, since visitors are welcomed at the famous châteaux which, before, have only been names on labels to most tourists. At Château Lascombes, in the village of Margaux some fifteen miles up into the Medoc, guests need no introductions. Thousands of them knock at the door every year and are taken round to taste the wine and to see the vineyards where it is grown and the chats where it is made.

The quality of a wine depends on the soil, the weather, and the man who makes it. In the Gironde, the fine soil is limestone, sand, some clay, and mainly gravel, which gives its name to the good Graves wine. The weather means not only wet or fine, but the amount of sunshine, direct or reflected, which strikes the grapes at any angle. This is why, in Burgundy, the vineyards are called climats; and why one small holder in a vineyard may have his grapes more fully ripened by the sun than one of his neighbors, whose barrels also go into the communal vintage. As for the man who makes the wine, he must have an extra sense to tell him when to pick and when to press — and he usually seems to have this.

From Château Lascombes and the neighboring Château Prieuré-Lichine, visitors regularly go to famous neighboring vineyards: Château Margaux, with its beautiful classical faqade; Château Mouton-Rothschild, with its dark, candle-lighted cellars; and, in the town of SaintJulien, the lovely seventeenth-century Château Beychevelle overlooking the River Gironde.

Here in the heart of the Médoc the great wines come alive, a way of life begins, and the chateaux with their vines take on personalities that stay a lifetime with traveler and resident alike. Only in the wine country, with a few tastings and a few visits to famous chais, is the amateur transformed to expert.

An internalionally recognized authority on fine wines, ALEXIS LICHINE owns, with a group of other wine-loving Americans, such famous vineyard properties in the Bordeaux region as Château Prieuré-Lichine and Chateau Lascombes, as well as several vineyards in Burgundy. He is the author of WINES OF FRANCE, and his ENCYCLÆDIA OF THE WINES AND SPIRITS OF THE WORLD will Soon be published.