I am in the midst of just over three weeks riding my bike around France, first preparing for, and then leading, bike tours of two regions in the country: Eastern Brittany (along the northern coast), and Northern Burgundy. The first week I was on my own, reacquainting with the two regions that I last visited a solid decade ago. From the first meal on the road, I decided to limit my wine intake to only those that were served en carafe. Why? Well, simply, I saw this trip as an opportunity to lose a bit of weight, save a bit of money, and not appear as a guy who could potentially pass out face-first in his salad.
There was also another decided reason: for the most part, wines en carafe in France are pretty darned good. Most restauranteurs in the country take great pride in their work and choosing “house” wines is no exception. Most of the time, there is scant information about the wines available when ordered, and even when the question is posed of the server, he or she knows very little of the wine. And that is, at least in part, the point. Us wine types usually get too caught up in vintages, varieties, and vignerons, forgetting that wine, above all, is supposed to be consumed with a meal and enjoyed, not over-thought and over-analyzed.
Thus, here are a few of the wines that I tasted over the fortnight, including further information about the wine when available and when I remembered to ask:
“Chardonnay Style” from Le Pays d’Oc: 12€ (50cl). Walking along the beach in Dinard, France, I was determined to keep to my self-imposed mandate of at least one salad a day. Since I had already slaughtered a fantastic crêpe at lunch, salad it was for dinner.
Until it wasn’t.
I was strolling along the beachside boardwalk, sun apparently setting behind overcast skies, various beasts from the sea sharing their aromas as they baked, broiled, and steamed. With the closest head of growing lettuce at least 20 kilometers away, I looked to my right and heard millions of little mussels calling me: “it’s our season, profitez-en!”
So I shifted course and sat down at a restaurant that I had visited a few years prior, with its memorable owner, still as beautiful and charming as I remembered, but with a few more years punched on her well-worn card.
I ordered the Chorizo moules frites but substituted out the desert crêpe for a tomato salad, figuring I was at least breaking even on my semi-vegitarian pledge (allow me to figure). Why Chorizo? Well, I certainly love the mildly spicy sausage and often gravitate toward it when the choice presents, but here, there was the added benefit of never seeing it as a mussel preparation.
The wine choices were apparently designed for simplicity, as there was no bottle run-down, nor any indication as to what variety, vintage, region, or producer. There were but three choices: red, white, or rosé, and a choice of size: 25, 50, or 100 cl. That was the extent of the wine “list.”
Being an unabashed lover of the pink, I was ready to order. As the lovely woman asked “et en boisson?” I had a change of heart, and simply said “blanc.” She said “une quart (25cl), alors?”
I didn’t blame her for not remembering me: “non, un demi (50cl), merci.”
Ever so slightly golden with white flower, yellow apple, and a hint of lime (green, of course). The palate is instantly tart, fruity, and chock-full of minerals. Lovely. Mixed with the briny breeze blowing in, I doubt there is a better pairing. Check that. The slightly spicy mussels soon arrived, perhaps the best I’ve had in a while, were made better by the wine. And the unnamed wine, which leapt to the pinnacle of carafe wines I have had, was made better by the not-so-tiny mollusks, who had called to me just moments before their demise.
I inquires about the wine and the charming owner replied that it was from the Pays d’Oc, “in the Chardonnay style.” Whatever that means. I asked to see a bottle and she said while it is available that way, she buys it in boxes since, “on n’as pas beaucoup de place ici.” While certainly affected by context, this is perhaps the best carafe wine that I remember drinking. Outstanding. 90-92 Points.
Rosé de Provence. 6€50 (25cl). I have ridden a ton in Belgium, Switzerland, and just about every region in France. I have ridden on highways, become lost in the worst part of countless towns, and through a gypsy village outside Tours. I have been run into by another cyclist in Lausanne, almost killed by a drunk driver among the vines in Vosne Romanée, nearly arrested in Bruges, and had my bike “stolen” in Zermatt, only to find it again hours later.
But little has compared to today. The ride was a mere nine miles, but I traversed goat paths (and I imagine the goats hated them as much as I did), along a metal grated bridge that seemed determined to send me and my, admittedly rather sketchy bike (whose seat post needed to be raised every 5-10 kilometers and whose rear wheel refused to hold air no matter how many times I changed it), hurling into either the rush of traffic to the right or worse (?) into the sea to the left. This was quickly followed by a narrow concrete gauntlet, barely a meter wide, where my knuckles were mere inches away from being scraped and bloodied for nearly a kilometer. Then there was the dirt path along a bustling highway where even the goats would have refused to trod. My Odyssey ended in the town of St.-Malo, which many consider the most beautiful in Brittany (but I cast my vote for Dinan, hands-down), where I was headed to the train station, destined for a four-hour train trip with three changes all to cover a mere 125 kilometers. Luckily, I had time for lunch.
After inquiring at three restaurants along the port that were completely full (or simply did not want to deal with a sweaty, lycra-clad cyclist), I found a restaurant willing to seat me. When the host corrected my French, it put a cap on my miserable day. And it was just barely noon. So when the waiter asked if I would like wine (assuming I would say “no” due to my cycling attire), I tried not to respond with either too much enthusiasm or over-the-top vulgarity.
I asked whether the somewhat stunned waiter preferred the white or the rosé, he responded: “on a day like we are having (bright, sunny, and warm for Brittany), you have to go rosé.” I chose not to argue. And on a day like I was having, “argument-free” and “rosé-full” are always the better options.
Fruity nose of small red berries, melon, and a bit of salinity (although given the proximity of the sea…). Light and delightful on its own, but perhaps lacking a bit of fruit, this is still a quintessential Provençal rosé. Great acidity, a hint of depth, above average finish. When the food came, though, this wine, like many French wines, took on a greater importance, a more regal persona, dancing elegantly with the food, the two quickly becoming joined at the hip. That is what is often find missing in American wines at every level, but particularly in wines destined for everyday consumption. Very Good. 87-89 Points.