Notes from the Cellar: Everywhere

Sound Consumer March 2009 | by Jeff Cox, Wine and Beer Merchandiser

Circling the first roundabout leaving the airport in Montpellier, you encounter the common directional sign indicating Toutes Directions. “All directions,” literally, or “everywhere,” applying just a soupçon of license.

Everywhere. I like that. Like Alice’s looking glass, it feels like a portal to a sensory and spiritual buffet, an invitation to feast on soul food à volonté.

Emerging from far too many hours in aluminum tube purgatory, having paid the tolls of sleep deprivation, bodily wear-and-tear, and the laying of shoes, laptop, privacy and dignity at the altar of Homeland Security, it feels like a welcome sign to the promised land. It’s a road that leads to, well, everywhere. Right after a pastis (a Provençal adult beverage) and a nap, that is.

Beyond the obvious, Old World oddities, such as functional public transportation, cars smaller than condos, eye contact with strangers, hello, please, thank-you and a glaring lack of supersized anything, the Languedoc really is a different world, if not planet — especially for the intrepid wine fiend.

The first, most astonishing difference is the tremendous expanse of vineyard. Not just a plot of vines here or there, not an occasional hundred or even thousand acres — no, we’re talking kilometers — a landscape where vast armies of sturdy old head-pruned vines reflect the contours of dirt that has nourished vines since Roman times. But mere numbers are only the most obvious hints of the amazing depth to which wines’ roots extend from this crossroad of the ancien monde.

Driving around, it occurs to me that vines are as inextricably woven into the fabric of both landscape and culture as the wild pines, oaks and garrigues that cover the hills and the ancient stone villages that date back to the time before France when this country was known as Occitania. From the low coastal massif of La Clape, where vines push to the edge of the Mediterranean, to rugged hills of St. Chinian, these dry-farmed vineyards are as much a part of the terroir as the native flora and the limestone and sandstone dirt into which they sink their roots.

As if to underscore the marriage of vine and terre, the wines are laced with the inimitable flavor of each unique locale, from briny Picpoul to Pézenas, with its notes of coastal pine, limestone and wild herbs. It doesn’t get any more “local” than that!

Contrast that with Washington, where the Columbia Valley is typified by rectangles of brilliant green splashed against the brown canvas of the desert, living monuments to manifest destiny and our drive to tame the wild, wild West.

It’s a curious thing, and perhaps a vivid example of a fundamental difference between old and new worlds.

To be continued …

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