Sunday, February 15, 2015

France by way of Italy

Avignon - 1985
When I was coming up in the wine business, there was this invisible wall between France and Italy, put there mainly by wine snobs who thought France was the epitome of all that wine was meant to be. In those days I would often hear things like “Oh, you are an Italian wine-lover. I never thought all those grapes and wine were worth much of a fuss.” and “Who needs to look any further than France, with the wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, the Rhone, the Loire and Alsace?” I would be made to feel like my love was a second-class affair, that I could never rise to understand and appreciate wine with my limited Italian prism like those with expertise in French wine.

And then I went to France. It was the summer of 1985 and we drove from Venice. Our first stop was Avignon and they were having a summer festival. I loved the trees in Avignon, the music, the lights and the people. Their French sounded more like Italian than I had thought it would. And the wines seemed more alike than opposed.

As we moved up through the Rhone and into Burgundy and then Champagne, I wondered what all the fuss was these wine snobs were making. France, to my eyes, didn't seem a whole lot different than the Italy I had just come from. Yes, the language was different. And the food wasn’t the same. And even the wines were not exact. But the farmers, the winemakers, the light that shone from behind their eyes was identical to what I had experienced in Italy. They were emissaries of Bacchus, wasn’t that good enough? To this observer, it was. And so it launched me on my little love tryst with French wines.

I keep a little spread sheet on my travels. It is important to get dates right, especially when referring to something in writing. Ten trips in so far to France, and surely more to come. And every time to I go France I ask myself why these fellows from the 1980’s made such a distinction between Italy and France.

Last month, in Venice, another aspect of the Franco-Italian connection presented itself to me. On the fourth floor of an old palazzo, overlooking the Grand Canal, my host opened up, alongside his wine, a bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild. A winemaker with lovely vineyards in Friuli, at first I thought it odd that he would do that. Here we are in Italy, why would we drink Bordeaux? Ah, reverse snobbism this time, my conscience whispered in my ear. After all, I do love Bordeaux. What’s wrong with drinking it a mere 800 miles away? We do it all the time in America.

My host has family connections with France. To many whom I have met, especially in Northern Italy and Tuscany, that isn’t so unusual. People living in Texas have relatives in California and New York. Big deal. But we have been conditioned to think these borders are real, that there is no porosity. This, in fact, is an illusion. Just like the illusion that French wines are better than Italian. They’re just different, like my relatives in California.

What really has been going on for many years between France and Italy has been more like an underground collaboration. After all, France and Italy account for 50% of the world’s wine production. And through many hundreds of years they have intermingled and become family. That they would be allied should seem more logical than being opposed to one another. Yes, there is competition for export markets. And yes, one will more easily find fine French wine in Italy than fine Italian wine in France. But those are minor issues. The heart of the matter is that the Italians have learned a lot about wine from the French, just like the French did from the Italians, going back to Roman times. There really is no “them” or “us” except in some obsolete corners of connoisseurship. Now, most of those fellows are gone, or will soon be.

Avignon - 1985
Meanwhile, take a look at the mingling on wine lists across America. Bubbles from France and Italy flow freely from them. Zachary Sussman writes in Punch "How Champagne Snuck onto New York’s Italian Wine Lists". Katherine Cole, writing in the Oregonian, cites a wine list from the Portland restaurant, Smallwares, which makes no distinction between countries (or red and white, for that matter). The lines of distinction, those all-important markers for the dead-tree connoisseurs of the 20th century, no longer matter.

And just like drinking Bordeaux in Venice, why would they matter? In shaking off our suits and ties and climbing into our well-worn jeans and Jack Purcells, why shouldn’t a wider appreciation of wine, wine without borders, follow?

Personally, I am relieved. I no longer have to skulk in a corner with my Gattinara, in fear that I am some kind of leper. I can freely pour Franciacorta in public, next to a grower Champagne, with no fear of ridicule. Hip sommeliers in New York post pictures of incredible Barolo on their Instagram feed next to prized Rhone and Burgundy wines. Are we not drawn onward to a new era?

That bottle of Lafite Rothschild my friend opened? When he poured me a glass I took a sniff. It smelled corked. Several folks around the table agreed. What did my friend do? There was no scorn for a French wine being corked. He went into the other room and brought back a bottle of another First Growth, a Mouton Rothschild. It complemented his Italian wine wonderfully. And we all proceeded with the night, admiring the evening and the lighted boats shimmering along the Grand Canal in the most serene of ways.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


Tony Laveglia said...

Roberto Felluga? Brandolini?

Anonymous said...


Wine Curmudgeon said...

You need to ask why wine snobs act like they do? Because they are wine snobs. That's their entire reason for being.

Jennifer Martin said...

Enjoyable article as it's always French against Italian wines. I say drink what you like and personally I love exploring the world of Italian wines. Eventually folks will discover some of the hidden gems in Italy and start to understand them more over time.

Franco - Italian Wine Lover said...

I've been enjoying your blog for awhile now and I find them very positive and informative - Bravo!

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