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An Inside Look at France’s Wine Culture

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For whatever the reason I had difficulty sleeping a couple nights last week.  After tossing and turning for over an hour, I started writing in hopes that it’d empty my head so I could calm down and get a good night’s rest.  I started making a list of all the things I’m going to miss when I leave, but as I turned a third page to continue my list, I realized it’d probably be better if I stopped.  I was listing literally everything: seeing people riding bikes with baguettes sticking out of their backpacks, the view of the Alps at the soccer field,  really clean buses, the smells of the different cakes I come home to after school, listening to French people talk on the train to see how much I can understand…I love it all, and I HAVE to come back.

The only reason leaving France will be good for me is that I’ll start eating healthy again.  I slather all the cake and bread and cookies my host mom gives me for breakfast with peanut butter, but the additional protein and saltiness doesn’t reduce the sugar content, it only masks it a bit.

I decided to cook a big pot of ratatouille to try to balance out all these sweets with some vegetables, plus it’s a traditional dish from the region of France I’m living in.  I think I added a liiiittle too much olive oil, but it didn’t throw of the flavor at all.  For lunch and dinner most days last week, I happily ate purely vegetables.




I know the final result doesn’t look particularly enticing, but the combination of flavors was absolutely delicious!  Definitely a recipe I’ll be making again while I’m here.

I was really confused for most of the week because I kept finding myself trying to speak to my French mom in English.  I kept throwing in random English words during my conversations with her, and I have no idea why.  Thankfully I spent the weekend around a lot of French people, and I was practicing for presentations in French, so it passed.  Although I’m still not fluent, I can tell my French speaking ability has significantly improved.  I can carry on a conversation with much greater ease than before.  I still make mistakes, but I’m able to express my thoughts without as much hesitation as when I first arrived.

Monday was one of the most incredible days I’ve had here.  In March I began interning for a wine journalist named Isabelle Forêt (read more at http://poolofwine.wordpress.com/2014/04/01/what-this-blog-is-all-about/), and I was finally able to go to a dégustation (wine tasting) with her.  Lucky for me, I have no class on Mondays, and most caves and restaurants are closed that day, so many events like this happen on Mondays.  This particular dégustation was the Salon Millésime 2013, in Coteaux Varois in Provence, at the Hostellerie de l’Abbaye de la Celle (a 12th century abbey with a vineyard that is now also a hotel.  Isabelle said its chef, Alan Ducasse, has restaurants in the U.S.  When she told me the name, I freaked out: Spoon! There’s one in Pittsburgh!!!  Eating there is officially at the top of my to-do list for this summer.  Then I’m going on a diet of strictly vegetables.).  The Millésime is an annual opportunity to taste red, white, and rosé wines from Provence that were bottled in the previous year, so for this one, 2013.  The drive to the dégustation was a little over an hour, so Isabelle and I had a lot of time to talk.  She only speaks French, so it’s great practice for me!




At the Hostellerie de l’Abbaye de la Celle.  The little building I’m in front of is now a boutique but used to be a really nice chapel (according to Isabelle).

After eating a little bread (Isabelle said it’s best to eat something before tasting), we went to a stand that had 40 of the rosé wines from all the caves present at the dégustation.  I didn’t stray far from Isabelle because I wanted to be able to ask her how she described different wines, and hear how she talked about the wines with other people.  There was one man who insisted she try a particular bottle of rosé because it was his absolute favorite, but neither Isabelle or I liked it.  I told her I thought it smelled like men’s cologne.  This amused her so much that she proceeded to tell multiple friends of her’s how I’d described a rosé wine that she thought was dégoûtant (disgusting, distasteful).

We took a break for lunch and sat in the sun with two of Isabelle’s friends.  The heat felt good, but the whole time I was praying that I wasn’t turning into a lobster.  I’d put sunscreen on before leaving, but it’d been a few hours since then so I wasn’t sure how effective it’d be.  Luckily standing in line to get food was more shaded, so I didn’t end up too bad, just slightly pink.  I was amazed by the way Isabelle and her friends discussed the wines they had tried not only at this dégustation but also at others they’ve attended over the years.  They kept referencing specific bottles from particular caves from a certain region at a dégustation earlier this year and from previous years, remembering the flavors they liked and didn’t like.  Their memories are insane!

IMG_2540Waiting in line for food wasn’t so bad because you could watch the chefs prepare it.

IMG_2541Risotto with mushrooms and green vegetables on the right, seafood on the left.

IMG_2538The lapin is on the cutting board on the right near the center of the table.

A Michelin star chef named Benoit Witz cooked the food: there was a risotto dish and a seafood dish, as well as a table of snacks that included breads, cheeses, vegetables, and lapin (rabbit).  Everything was so, incredibly delicious!  Including the lapin, which I hadn’t eaten before.  It’s hard to think of another meat to compare it to…in terms of texture, it’s kind of like a large sausage.  After lunch stopped being served, waiters and waitresses began walking around with dessert platters.  I’m pretty sure I ate at least two of each little patisserie on those platters.  They were all sooooooo good oh my goodness I just couldn’t stop (thank goodness I still had ratatouille at home so I had LOTS of vegetables for dinner that night).


The yellow macarons were officially the best macarons I’ve ever had.  They had the thinnest layer of crispiness on the outside, and a tangy, citrusy taste.  I even liked the tiramisu (I’m not usually a fan) that you can just barely see in the top right corner of this picture.

After eating we moved on to the individual stands for each cave to taste their red (but not a lot, because the temperature was a little hot for red wine.  In fact, I really regretted wearing my glasses because they kept sliding down the bridge of my nose.  Not cool.) and white wines (and actually, we also re-tasted some of the rosés).  I was really excited because after tasting such a huge variety of wines (and then spitting the wine, which I didn’t always do very smoothly…sometimes I’d have a little wine dribble on my chin, other times I’d spit too hard and I’d get a small splash of it in my face…need to work on my technique.  But anyway, there were giant wine bottles with a funnel placed in the top where everyone could spit the wine they’d sipped after swishing it around in there mouth to get a good taste), I began to detect flavors I hadn’t tasted and aromas I hadn’t smelled before.  For example, one rosé from Château la Prégentière smelled like peaches.  A man at this cave’s stand gave Isabelle an entire bottle of a different rosé to try!  I also tasted olives and pineapples, and I got a really strong florally scent from a white wine from Château la Calisse.


Each cave had their own table under an umbrella.

Isabelle said every year at this dégustation, her favorite wines came from the Château la Calisse.  This cave is run by a woman named Patricia Ortelli.  I tasted her wines early on at the tasting and then again at the end.  Though I’d liked them the first time, the second time I had a much greater appreciation for the balance and roundness of her wines.  In the other wines I’d tasted that day, some were too sweet, some were too acidic, some didn’t have a strong enough aroma, and some just didn’t really stand out to me.  Obviously I haven’t developed a very sensitive taste for wine yet, but still, I could tell that the Château la Calisse wines were different.  The smell of the white wine was amazing.  I kept my nose in the glass for a long time before even taking a sip.  Though its scent was florally, its taste was light and slightly sugary.  But not too much; it was just the right amount of sweetness to make it go down easy.  The French have a word, goulayant, that this wine embodied better than any other I’ve tasted.  Isabelle taught me that goulayant means a wine is easy to swallow, fresh, new, and young.


The white wine on the right is my new favorite wine.  Also my first favorite, because I’d hadn’t tried enough wine before to be able to pick a favorite.

Most caves and restaurants are closed on Mondays, so most dégustations in France take place on Mondays.  I don’t have class that day, so I’m really, really hoping I can go to another soon!  It’s exciting to feel my sense of taste and my sense of smell improving.


One response to “An Inside Look at France’s Wine Culture”

  1. Dad Avatar

    Lucy – can’t wait to taste that favorite wine of yours!

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