BUYING WINE

No matter where you live in France, there always seems to be a winery within easy driving distance. This is especially true in the wine areas of Bourgogne, Beaujolais, and Bordeaux, but also in the southern regions of Languedoc, Côtes du Rhône, and the Var, to mention only the ones I know. If you have ever rented a summer house in these areas, it is likely that your village had a “coop” (pronounced co-op and short for “coopérative de vin”).
   This is the place where local growers take their grapes, to be mixed and pressed together with others and turned into an inexpensive red, white, or rosé wine. Most of these wines are non-varietal and are sold in bottles or in five-or ten-liter containers. The old-fashioned plastic containers have been replaced by today’s practical vacuum packs with a built-in little faucet that allows you to fill a bottle or pitcher directly from the refrigerator where your wine is kept cool.
   For young summer wines the coop is a good address, especially since this social drink is consumed in great quantities in summer. It’s cheaper than mineral water, after all, and so much more satisfying on a shaded terrace or under a plane tree. A simple lunch of melon and prosciutto or cold charcuterie, salad, cheese and fruit begs to be accompanied by “un petit rosé” before you lie down for “une petite sieste.” Don’t feel guilty; everyone else does the same. Life in the village stops for lunch. Shop windows are shuttered and won’t open again until 4:00 PM. (The same is true in the city, except for the department stores.) The mid-day summer hours of roughly 1:00 PM to 4:00 PM are considered too hot and unsuitable for work. And nobody, except perhaps mad dogs and Englishmen, would expect otherwise.
   Commercial and other activity resumes after 4:00 PM and shops will then stay open until 7:00 PM or 8:00 PM, when it is time to sit down for an “apéro”—the obligatory drinks and nibbles before dinner. There may be olives, cherry tomatoes, radishes, tapenade on toast, a dry sausage on a wooden cutting board with the traditional Opinel knife, or a caillette (a kind of pork paté), perhaps some cloves of garlic to be rubbed on bread with a bit of olive oil, and usually a local white or rosé wine. Pastis and perhaps a sweet walnut wine may also be offered, but no hard liquor as a rule.
   This prelude to dinner is a good moment to compare notes on wines. Which coop this year? Any new finds? You may have your own addresses, refined over the years, but you always want to hear about new discoveries or recent improvements. Goûte moi ça (taste this), says the host as he pours a foretaste of the red for the evening, qu’en penses-tu?—and you’re on your way... The coops have their place in the world of wine the way supermarkets have their use as food stores. But to find the lay-away wines for your cave, the better stuff for better meals, you must go to the chateaux. And here is one of the great rewards of living in France. Driving through the lovely countryside to known and unknown chateaux is not just about buying wine. Some of the tasting rooms of these wineries are in indistinct sales offices, but others are found in beautiful settings that delight more than your palate. It’s a joy to linger in the gardens of Val Joanis in Pertuis (Côtes du Luberon), and the beautiful view en perspective of the terraced lawns of Chateau de la Gaude (Côteaux d’Aix) is worth the trip.
   And you always learn something. In driving through wine country you often see long low buildings with tiled roofs. When these roofs do not have the usual red tile color but have large blackened or purplish areas, you know that this is a distillery where marc (similar to eau de vie or grappa) is made, and the alcohol fumes have caused a fungus to grow in the roof. A few years ago we discovered a little winery in Sarrians near Chateauneuf du Pape that has remained our all-time favorite. The third-generation winemaker was trying to run the business pretty much on his own then, dealing as best he could with a seriously ill wife and a teenage son still in school. He was open only on Saturdays and by appointment, and did no shipping (no time) and no advertising (no money). His well-established reputation was based on his wonderful full-bodied red, every bit as good as Chateauneuf du Pape but costing a fraction of the price.
   Today, his wife is better, his son works by his side (and recently won second prize in a national sommelier contest), he is open six afternoons a week, and has added rosé to his repertoire. The rosé turned out to be very good and we added some to our order. He was pleased at our reaction and poured again, with a tiny note of caution: Ça se boit facilement (this one goes down easily). That’s when I noticed the degree of alcohol on the label: a whopping 15 percent! I tried to envision the critics’ notes; those who call wines witty, or mischievous or seductive—often more poetry than useful fact. And then I found it: this rosé was rollicking!