By Marissa A. Ross. Photo by: George Chinsee.
I had never been to France. I know, who cares? Plenty of people never go to France, and they’re just fine. But I’m a wine writer, and French wines are my everything. Any given glass can send me spiraling into the kind of wide-eyed crush usually reserved for seventh-graders. Every bottle I open might spark an obsession that has me back at the wine shop the next day, grabbing every neck left on the shelf.
But why? Was it the romantic notion of terroir or something technical like carbonic maceration, or, as some truly terrible people say, a certain je ne sais quoi? Yeah, I drink French wines from the corner of my couch in Los Angeles daily, but I knew that I’d never really understand them—or my love of them—until I actually visited France.
This trip was just a far-fetched fantasy of mine until two of my favorite natural wine importers, Amy Atwood (of Amy Atwood Selections) and Jenny Lefcourt (of Jenny & François Selections), invited me to join their jaunt through the Languedoc-Roussillon region in the South of France. I was going to spend the week tagging along with them as they visited a handful of winemakers—and also undoubtedly drink too much and mispronounce everything.
The week played out like a Françoise Hardy album on loop: melodic, seductive, seemingly infinite. It felt as though I was skipping for six straight days. Sure, my life in the States writing in sweatpants was great, but not as great as falling in love over and over with each new bottle. I watched dusk fall upon the Mediterranean Sea while licking glasses of butterscotched Grenache Gris in Peyriac-de-Mer and practically swam in Mauzac Vert that tasted like spiked Lemon-Lime Gatorade (in a good way) in Gaillac. I sank my teeth into Malbec from the early aughts in Cahors and gritty cuvées across the region teeming with clay. Each wine was somehow one of those that causes my head to involuntarily swing back with a sigh after just a single sip. It was that damn je ne sais quoi.
I wanted to come back from France knowing exactly what that was, but I learned that French wines were unexplainable for a reason. (Is that why the famous phrase is in French?) None of the winemakers we visited had a recipe, only a philosophy and a pair of crossed fingers. Domaine des 2 Ânes winery has three roaming donkeys doing its fieldwork; cruising around snacking on Syrah vines instead of pruning, the animals fertilizing at the same time. Rémi of Les Chemins de Bassac thinks it’s “uninteresting” to water his vines and relies solely on whatever storms come his way. Simon Busser doesn’t schedule his harvest—he just tastes the grapes until he decides that today is the day to pick them. Everything is dependent on nature.
This isn’t to say there aren’t processes, and there sure as hell is vision, but these winemakers have embraced the chaos. Yes, it can be messy, unknown, and disappointing. There are the years you don’t get enough rain, the vintages when your pét-nat doesn’t bubble, that experiment with oxidation that it turns out no one really likes.
That chaos also leads to everything real and beautiful and memorable. That’s what I learned I loved about French wines. It’s not one specific thing but rather the space created for so many possibilities. It’s what brought me to my knees, scribbling about Domaine Plageoles’ Gamay on the wet cellar floor. It’s why I stayed out too late drinking Domaine Rimbert’s Cinsault and got lost in misty ivy-covered alleyways along the river in Saint-Chinian.
While an equation lends itself to dependability, to being able to find the same Pinot Noir in every corner wine store, it often deprives us of the excitement and the experimentation that inspires daydreams, obsessions, and, frankly, good times. And I’d rather stop trying to determine exactly why I love something and instead just love it. It took a weeklong trip to France, on a mission to learn about French wine, to realize that I’d never really get it.
This story originally appeared on Bon Appetit.
More from Bon Appetit: