A Very Special, Soul-Lifting Week In France

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Olivier Cousin in his cellar in Martigné-Briand, Angers

Something that’s kept me going through this extremely disheartening and terrifying political situation we’ve found ourselves in, over the past few months, has been the knowledge that I had an upcoming trip to France. France, of course, has its own challenges and is now also in the midst of a corruption-inflected election cycle—but exploring the wine regions is a direct affirmation of the power of culture to persist, even in these times.

While the world seems to be crumbling under its own weight, small-production winemakers are managing to find better and better ways to work with terroir and deliver the most beautiful, purest juice. It’s inspiring to see people do something very well, with all the care they can muster, simply because it brings joy to them and others.

I started the trip in Champagne, and while my time there was short, it was also very productive—thanks to my friend the Champagne expert Peter Liem, who arranged some very special visits with growers. My appreciation of terroir-driven Champagne has grown enormously over the last six months, and I’m eager to learn more and more. Next, I took at 7:30am train out of Champagne to meet the Jenny & François crew in the Loire Valley, where a series of large wine fairs—La Dive Bouteille, famously held in the dramatic underground caves of Saumur; the biodynamic-focused Renaissance that Nicolas Joly organizes; Thierry Puzelat’s Les Penitentes; and Les Anonymes, which we didn’t make it to—took place over the course of three days. We visited a few producers around Angers—the legendary Olivier Cousin; and young Etienne Courtois—plus Renaud Guettier in the Coteaux du Loir further up north.

Some people in the industry have been attending these wine fairs for many years, and they complain about how big and difficult to navigate they’ve become, but for me as a first-timer, the whole experience was completely magical. It was especially satisfying to see that the 2016 Loire Valley wines, after an extremely difficult growing season resulting in drastically low yields, are wonderful—very nice concentration, flavor and acidity—despite being scarce.

After the tastings, I spent a few days in Paris, dropping too much money in restaurants seeing friends who live there, and stumbling around the beautiful pharmacies, shops, and cafés on the Rue de Martyrs.

I feel very privileged to be able to do all this, given that certain populations of the world are arbitrarily having their mobility restricted. In recent months, I’ve found myself wishing that I wrote about something besides wine and food and cocktails, so that I could feel like my words could form part of the resistance. But on this recent trip in France, I remembered that joy and pleasure are also vital parts of human existence; and I reflected on how the fight for terroir—to keep land healthy and chemical-free, and to discover the possibilities of soil and viticulture—is also a political act. A small one, yes—but small, in a world where lust and greed have gotten completely out of control, is exceptionally beautiful.

At the moment, I’m fighting off jet-lag with the help of some very good French melatonin, and sorting through material and thinking about stories to pitch and blog posts to write based on this trip. More to come soon.

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