Monday, May 19, 2008

History In A Glass

So it’s out last day in France after 10 days of covering most of the wine regions at a breakneck pace. That meant many wines and, it seemed like, even more food. We drove up from Cognac towards the Loire River. We are four weary, slightly smelly American males whose trip has outlasted their sock supply. We pull in, late, to the town of Saumur-Champigny. Charles Neal, our leader, translator and coordinator, calls Philippe Vatan on his cell phone asking where we should meet for lunch. We park next to a Gothic Cathedral and walk to the restaurant where Philippe treats us to lovely lunch.

Then we pile back into the green van and go up to look at the vineyards out of which Philippe produces his wonderful Chateau du Hureau (Hureau is the word in the local dialect for wild boar) Saumur-Champigny Cabernet Franc.

Now understand that the four of us have been traveling together for 10 days. We have looked at a lot of vineyards. We started at the end of March and it’s now early April. At this time of year, vineyards everywhere look about the same—gray, twisted stalks, tortuously stretched across various forms of trellises. They haven’t begun to bud yet, except deep in the south of France. The sky is gray. We drive down the hills, under that steely sky towards the broad river. We turn up to the beautiful Chateau that is home to both Philippe and the winery. It’s here that magic happens.

First, of course, we go into the limestone caves that burrow beneath the hills above us, where a modern, yet classic winery is tucked away. We taste current vintages from large, stainless steel tanks. Most of those wines were pretty darned good, and very interesting to us Americans, who don’t really understand Cabernet Franc as a grape. The Philippe starts talking, leading us back into the depths of his caves.

Much of this, he tells us, was blocked off during the war. We hid people here, he says, Allied Paratroopers, people escaping the Gestapo. I’m not sure how my parents and grandparents did it, except that the local SS commandant was a civilized man. He leads us deeper under the hill, behind all the tanks and the current winemaking equipment. There are bins and bins of bottles that look as old as time. He reaches into one of the darkest corners and pulls up a bottle, smiling as he shows it off.

“This is 1945. We can open it if you like!” Even four weary wine thugs know a treat when they see it. We nod enthusiastically.

We go back up into the chateau. Philippe produces glassware, and we taste some of the reds from the last vintage as we look across the broad expanse of the Loire River. Philippe tells us how he was cursing at Charles through the entire last vintage, since it was his idea that the vineyards be moved to organic methods. Still, he smiles as he says it, and tells us he loves the wines that were produced that way. We politely taste, spit, rinse and say nice things about the wines while we admire the view. Finally, Philippe decides 1945 has settled enough.

It is a 1945 Domaine du Hureau Saumur-Champigny Blanc Sec. In the middle of the century, most of the grapes in this region were white. The concentration was that favorite of the disco era, Chenin Blanc. This Sec started its life out slightly sweet. Philippe carefully removes the cork from the bottle and passes it around. Written on the cork are the numbers wand words “1945—Victoire.”

The wine is golden in our glasses. The nose is still amazingly fresh, alive with floral notes, hints of licorice and an abundance of fruit. We taste in silence for a moment or two. The range in ages in the room goes from Philippe—a few years my senior, through myself, in my fifties, Charles in forties, and Jon in his thirties. All of us are a bit overwhelmed by what we are drinking. Both Philippe and I reminisce a moment about our fathers, whose lives were changed by that war, and look in awe at this golden wine. It keeps changing and evolving in the glass. There is no question of spitting this out and moving on. We spent the better part of an hour with that wine, letting it change before our eyes and palates and noses. Finally it was finished.

As we were leaving Charles asked Philippe for a favor. Could Mark have the cork? It’s the only actual souvenir I have from France, and I can’t think of anything I would treasure more.