L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

05 June 2006 Blog Home : June 2006 : Permalink

A Chacun, Son Goût

SeeDubya over at the Junkyard blog links approvingly to this NRO article about Chardonnay where a case is made for the middle-class equivalent of Retsina - that is Chardonnay grapes that have been given so much oak in the wine-making process that you expect an acorn to sprout from the bottle. Oh and then the writer admits that they insist on cooling to wine to a couple of degees above absolute zero to hide the forest taste make it taste better. But I think that is enough scorn so I'll just note that Chavs are more-or-less the English equivalent of rednecks, albeit urban, less inbred and fonder of trashy jewellery and get on to the bit she does have a valid point:

Recently, I have tried to break out of my wine rut. My husband and I vacationed on the French island of St. Bartelemy, enjoying delectable food and warm sunshine. There was only one problem with our otherwise perfect holiday in paradise. There was not a single bottle of California-style chardonnay to be had at any price.

Oh, we tried. The chardonnay grape is the basis for many famous French labels such as Chablis, Pouilly-Fuisse, and Montrachet. We tried many an expensive bottle to try to feed our nasty habit, to no avail. Each one of them to our palates seemed watery, or acidic, or too tart. One afternoon, we even set off on a desperate mission to a huge warehouse literally stacked floor to ceiling with wine. The nice French lady who helped me seemed dumbfounded when I asked if they had any California wine among the thousands of bottles surrounding us. “But….thees is a French island!” she asked, bewildered.

Yes, I patiently, explained, but in the U.S. wine sellers usually offer wine from all over the world to their customers, not just U.S. wines. No, she was sorry, but only French wines were sold on a French island, and seemed honestly confused as to why I would want anything else. Later, when I explained to the proprietor of one of the island’s finest restaurants about my inexplicable craving for California (or Australian—they do it well too) chardonnay, he offered his sincere condolences. We decided to stick to pina coladas and beer for the rest of the trip.

The protectionism and chauvinism of the French wine industry is staggering. They just about admit that the Italians can do something with grapes and, if threatened by a panzer regiment, will agree that the Germans make adequate wines in the Alsatian mode but that is about it. However things are getting better. Here on the Riviera however I have seen a steady increase in the "Vins Etrangers" section of the supermarket with Californian, Australian and South American wines on offer, at in most cases, decent prices. Admittedly the Californian wine section seems to be dominated by "Turning Leaf" which is some sort of industrially  produced plonk, but at least it's there and offering the chsrdonnay'n'oak combo the NRO writer pines (oaks?) for. Also what I assume is the Chilean (or was it Argentinian?) equivalent of "Turning Leaf" that I found recently - "Gato Negro" - produced an excellent Cabernet/Merlot that was both eminently drinkable and priced right at the €4/bottle sweet spot where I find most of my wine. Allegedly (I cannot speak from experience being, as noted, a cheapskate when it comes to buying wines) many of the dedicated wine sellers have decent selections of better vintages of New World wines too so if you are desperate for a non-French wine you have plenty of options.

Now, having said that, I can't see why you would bother unless you have a craving for particular vinyards/vintages and don't care about the price. The truth is that these days the French produce good wines at very good prices. Although €1/bottle "methode traditionelle" (aka fizzy wine not from Champagne) is exceptional and generally best left for the real alkos to enjoy, the €3-€5/bottle range of French wines is generally speaking filled with pleasant southern French surprises (Languedoc, Minervois, Côtes du Rhône, Côtes de Provence...) and of course they include the Rosé wines that are perfect for the summer but which you simply cannot seem to get elsewhere.

Moving from wine to food, Roxanne links to someone whose commenters explain why the NY Times is so very coy about the local name for gnocchi in Nice - answer they call them merde di can(a) a.k.a. dog turds. Talking of which, the NY Times writers and sub-editors need to work on things geographical a bit, Nice is not in Provence except in the adminsitrative sense that it is part of the French PACA (Provence, Alpes, Côte d'Azur) region so the headline above a very good food piece about "cuisine Nissarde" probably shouldn't be "Nice: Going Straight to the Source for Provençal Cuisine" and the lead in gripe about the lack of "regional" cooking in Nice probably should avoid that word too:

IF there's a problem with France, it is that the food is often entirely too "French." Offerings like crepes, coq au vin and cassoulet are so common that there is a danger of forgetting that they all have actual regions of origin and are not national dishes.

This danger is omnipresent in Nice, where 80 percent of the restaurants cater to 90 percent of the tourists by offering mostly "French" food, ignoring the well-defined, well-maintained, universally revered and quite wonderful cuisine of Provence. In Nice this cuisine is even more local, and it would be a shame to visit this old and quintessential Mediterranean city without indulging in cuisine Nissarde, to use the preferred indigenous word.

 Nice wasn't even part of France before the mid 19th century, its local dialect is distinctively different to Provençal (no final Ns pronounced NG for example) and the cuisine is significantly different from that found in the ports of the Var - think bouillabaisse - let alone the non-maritime heartlands of Provence. Still aside from "pendantic" quibbles over terminology I thought the NYT article to be most excellent and I have noted the names to be visited sometime later in the year when the tourists have quit.

Talking of which I had the misfortune to visit the Cap d'Antibes yesterday. The tourists are here in force and driving on the seaward side of the A8 motorway is distinctly unfun. In fact driving anywhere where tourists tend to drive is now unfun and dnagerous because the visitors tend to suffer from confusion at badly signposted junctions, to fail to recognise the peculiar cambers on some of the roads and so on. Permalink

I despise l'Escroc and Vile Pin