Rabelais On…

Written by Richard Harvey

Just recently, I was listening to an interview with author Victor Hazan. This man was a pioneer wine writer when not every one of us and our dogs were “into” wine. Erudite, and philosophic with vast experience Hazan did a most eloquent job of making a plea for wines that taste of place and their origins far better than many rabid “terroir-ists”.

He also spoke humbly of a time when people spoke of and shared wines for convivial purposes and did not simply judge and rate it.

I like to go to the (sometimes shop-worn) “old towns” of places in North America that I visit. I like the individuality that is the opposite of every ad nauseum repeated stretch of asphalt that we’ve all driven from Macleod Trail to MIami: endless nowhere-villes of Burger King, KFC, 7-Eleven and the other roadside trash. If these old neighbourhoods are less than “pretty”, I still derive more pleasure from what they say of history and place- I do not judge them. I try to see how they link us to the past and our place on the earth. 

I also like wine to tell me a story that speaks in the voice of the land, the grape, the history, the people who are all part of its constitution. I don’t want it to fulfil that weak excuse for a tempting sales pitch of “ ripe red and black berries, a touch of vanilla and soft tannins.  Goes well with meat, pasta and cheese...”.  (If Satan offered such watered down temptations, everyone’s immortal soul would never be in danger).

There’s a great line (one of many) from Christopher Fry’s play The Lady’s Not For Burning; “Give me a longitude without a platitude!”. No, I do not wish for a wine to assault or bowl me over (ok, sometimes) with a roaring hairy beast personality, but please, something more than “ ripe berries”... Something to remember the wine by, and that might be a subtlety in the wine that escapes the person tasting it just up until when (a vinous “esprit de l’escalier”?) you realize what that wine was REALLY talking about! 

Some wines just taste of their homeland, speaking in accents exotic and perhaps attractive. Maybe it’s just all that’s needed?

I love the wines of the Loire Valley village of Chinon. Even before I first visited the area, my youthful head was filled with its history, kings and queens, castles and battles. Being of English heritage, I perhaps felt that too many French hosts wanted to show me their “English Cemetery” dating from the 100 Years War.

Despite that aspect, and encouraged by the ghost of medieval local boy, Francois Rabelais, I found myself captivated by the red wines of this region. Here, the description “neither fish nor fowl” became positive, not pejorative as the red wine of Chinon went with all manner of food rather well!  Some river fish, pungent local pork “rillettes” and the much beloved of Rabelais: the infamous "chitterling" sausages.

Rabelais’ writings might be considered a French Gulliver’s Travels, but all I know is that his appetite for celebrating learning was as big as his (and his giant character Gargantua) appetite for food and wine. 

In drinking Chinon, I feel the reality and the magic of trudging along behind Rabelais’ characters, on a road dusty and yet with refreshing shade, pausing to collect some slightly under-ripe but sweet enough, equally dusty raspberries with the pleasant smell of the draught horse and its tack hauling a wagon full of salty hams that would be brought out at journey’s end...oh, and of course, the siren song of some cool Chinon sloshing about in a barrel!

Yes!  This is what a wine of place can do!  It is simply grapevines grown in a promising situation, tended with skill and care, the grapes of those vines being treated with equal respect and savoir-faire to produce a wine that tells us stories, and like a good storyteller, takes us places we’ve never been.

The human intervention is there to transmit the voice of grape, soil and place, to tell the story properly and add a storytellers mark that should never detract from the tale itself.

16 years ago, the band Bright Eyes made a record called Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep your Ear to the Ground. 

I still like what that title says to me about the world of nature and wine, and for me soil, stories and wine are an inseparable trinity.