My French Survival Diary: 400 Wines In 12 Days

Posted in 15 Apr 2019

Some call it “the idiot wind.” To others it goes by mange-fange: “mud-eater” in French. Since the beginning of time they’ve said its eerie howl drives men and horses mad. The gust known as the mistral screeched across the Mediterranean when Pytheas of Massalia discovered the moon’s pull on the tide and chilled the bones of Hannibal’s soldiers as they lumbered from Carthage to Rome. But in 2019, Franck Moreau is counting on this ancient wind to deliver him and his band of sommeliers another stunning vintage of Provence rosé. If today is anything to go by, things are looking good.

It’s a glaringly sunny day at Château La Tour L’Évêque and export manager, Pierre de Bernardi, is giving us a tour of the grounds. As the mistral swirls menacingly around us, kicking up dust and threatening to pluck the grapevines straight from the dirt, Bernardi explains how it’s this very wind that keeps the air clean and the soil dry: but all I can think about is crawling back into bed. Keeping up with Moreau – and Merivale sommeliers Jean-Charles Mahé, Paul Huet and Fabio Spizzico ­– is quickly becoming my primary concern, and it’s only day three of twelve.

Casting my mind back over our journey so far – tasting 70 wines at one Tuscan cellar in search of the perfect Aperol mixer, or navigating the Prince of Monaco’s private stash of priceless champagne at Hotel de Paris – I try to calculate where I could have fit an extra hour or two of shut-eye.

Time is scarce for these blokes. I haven’t yet figured out where they store the energy to navigate hundreds of kilometers daily, scale windswept terraces looking for cancerous grapevines and dodge cobwebs in moldy cellars to get a preview taste of this year’s vintage. If the 16-hour working days are any clue, they certainly don’t run on sleep.

Whatever it is though, it’s deeper than passion. Passions are for weekend warriors who whittle away their days at jobs they hate just to ruin Saturday brewing foul beer in the backyard. Passion has nothing to do with it, I decide before falling asleep at the dinner table that night. Wine is their raison d’être; without it they may just evaporate.

We swap Provence for Bordeaux the next day. With a few hours to kill at Marseille Airport, the team talks shop in between business calls with their colleagues back in Sydney. How can they get better bang for their buck; what allocations will they be able to secure in Bordeaux; which sommeliers can they count on to improve guest experience. Wine this, wine that. They only stop talking about wine long enough to catch up on the football results. That could just be a European thing though.

When we arrive in Bordeaux, the team introduces me to a side of winemaking I didn’t expect to see. A far cry from the humble artisans of Tuscany or Provence, the wineries here are big and flashy and run like machines. In labyrinthine Bond-villain lairs, winemakers and farmers are swapped out for technical directors and vineyard managers. We visit Cheval Blanc and Chateau Latour where bottles sell for thousands of dollars to buyers who won’t taste their contents for years, if ever in some cases. Million-dollar Gurskies hang from the walls and the Rothschilds live around the corner.

I’m in over my head.

At Chateau Leoville Las Cases in Saint Julien we join Jean-Hubert Delon for lunch. The winery has been in his family for over 100 years and he’s widely regarded as one of the region’s more intriguing characters. The somms are intimated to meet him for reasons that become immediately obvious when he joins us for a tasting. His deep, guttural voice vibrates the entire room from behind a plume of viscous cigar smoke. He speaks slowly and purposefully, but there’s a dark humour and cheeky wit that has us charmed almost instantly. A proper twentieth-century fox.

We’re late to our next appointment on account of the 1853 Armagnac Monsieur Delon cracking open after lunch. Nobody seems to mind too much.

Leaving the super-rich excesses of Bordeaux behind us, we head towards Chablis and Sancerre where we trudge through mud with rockstar farmers, attend tastings in dingy home garages and swap out brass spittoons for concrete floors. Any sense of exhaustion dissipates when Vincent Grall piles us into his old Pajero and hoons around his vineyards, his body turned towards the three of us in the back instead of the road ahead. He’s explaining the importance of clay, limestone and silex when we come to a sudden halt, bogged down in the slick Sancerre mud. Thank God – I’m a minute away from a heart attack and Jean-Charles looks like he’s about to be sick.

On our final day of official work, the somms appear to have what I can only describe as a religious experience. We’re taking communion at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti when the cellar goes silent. This tiny plot of Grand Cru vines in Burgundy produces what is almost unanimously considered the world’s best, if not most expensive wine.

“Sense for me this perfume! Breathe this bouquet! Taste it! Drink it! But never try to describe it! Impossible to give an account of such a delicacy with words! To drink Romanée-Conti is equivalent to experiencing an orgasm at once in the mouth and in the nose,” Roald Dahl once wrote. Judging by the faces in the room I think he was right.

The following night we’re celebrating a fortnight of frantic work before flying home. We’ve driven over 4000 kilometers and tasted more than 400 wines across 38 appointments in only 12 days. I was looking forward to a pint of beer and pub meal, but instead we’re at Clown Bar in the 11th arrondissement eating lamb brain and talking about the wine list. As the team goes on tangents dissecting each bottle and digressing into the commercial viability of writing a similar list back home, I wonder if the mistral really did send me mad. I’m starting to understand what they’re saying, if that’s a clue.

Words and images by Dimitri Tricolas