I’ve been very fortunate to live in or near two of the world’s great wine-producing areas: the Bordeaux region of France, and the Hunter Valley region of Australia. It fascinates me that these two places are polar opposites when it comes to wine — and just about everything else.
Wine is a very big deal in France. When I lived in Caen 25 years ago, I was astonished at the selection — ranging from rough-around-the-edges to sublime — available in the supermarket. (My amazement was partly a result of growing up in Ontario, Canada, where alcohol is still sold only at government-operated liquor stores. Finding an endless array of wines just a few feet away from the cat food and toilet paper took some getting used to.)
There’s a strong preference for regional wines in France, which means there were always three or four aisles of Bordeaux in my local Auchan, along with half an aisle dedicated to Burgundies and Champagnes, and a dozen bottles of Chianti stuffed carelessly in a corner somewhere (possibly to satisfy some obscure EU regulation.)
To live in Bordeaux is to be surrounded — quite literally — by viniculture; the Pessac-Léognan region begins on the outskirts of the city proper. I used to love driving past the vines and watching them change week by week. It was a satisfying way to mark the passage of time, especially after we’d reached the one-year point and the growing cycle began all over again. As I write this (with some nostalgia, and a glass of red for inspiration), the vendange (harvest) is almost complete in Bordeaux. It’s an exciting time for wine makers and wine lovers alike.
When it comes to le vin, Bordeaux is Old World, steeped in traditions that go back thousands of years. Things are different in Australia, which is decidedly New World. Compared to the French, the Australians are wine-making newbies: although vines were first introduced Down Under in 1788 (via the First Fleet) a raging Phylloxera infestation in the late 1800s shut down the fledgling industry for close to a century.
It’s no secret that the Australian tipple of choice has traditionally been beer, and that business is still healthy despite a recent decline. But wine production — and consumption — has been climbing steadily over the past couple of decades. I think this is partly because present-day Australian vintners were forced to build the industry from the ground up (so to speak). The lack of a strong wine culture must have been liberating for these pioneers; they were free to shape the concept of wine to fit their country’s unique personality, without being bound to traditional techniques that elsewhere are passed down from generation to generation. Australian wine doesn’t just taste different from French wine, it evokes an entirely different feeling. To me, anyway, it always tastes like sunshine.
The Hunter Valley wine region is about a two-hour drive from Sydney, and Chef Boyardee and I headed out for a tour in the dying days of 2004. My clearest impression of the wineries we visited was how clean they were. The equipment gleamed, the glasses sparkled, and the eager young guides looked freshly-scrubbed. We were given tons of information, but it was delivered in such an engaging manner, it didn’t feel overwhelming. I appreciated the attention to detail that was evident at every step, from the dedicated tasting rooms to the paper and pencils provided for notes. It was all very civilized.
In comparison, the French tour at Clos La Madeleine in the village of Saint-Émilion was a chaotic, unregulated, free-for-all. (I have no photos of the actual dégustation, because it took place in a dark, clammy, medieval wine cellar. Okay, maybe it wasn’t medieval — La Madeleine opened for business in 1841 — but it sure felt like it.) There were no tasting notes, no tidy place settings; le monsieur gestured at a nearby tray of glasses and waved a bottle of wine in the air in a “come and get it” gesture when it was time to partake.
These disparate attitudes toward turn-taking didn’t come as a surprise. The French are notorious for their disdain of standing in line. (If you’ve ever been to Disneyland Paris, you probably have the bruises to prove it.) The famous interculturalist Edward T. Hall writes in his book The Silent Language that queuing “reflects the basic egalitarianism of [American] culture. In cultures where a class system or its remnants exist, such ordinality may not exist.” In my experience, Australians, for whom the concept of “fair go” is as natural as breathing, are very big on equality. They’re pretty good at queuing, too.
When it comes to the cultivation and appreciation of wine — among other things — my two adopted countries are as different as chalk and cheese. Being from Canada, where Hall’s “ordinality” is very much in existence, I preferred the organized approach of the Hunter Valley over the mad stampede in la cave. But now that I’ve had some time to reflect, perhaps the Australian experience was a little … sterile. And as the memory of the bone-chilling dampness fades, the mental image of us sipping grand cru wine in a centuries-old Bordelais cellar is starting to acquire a patina of romance that’s irresistibly appealing. A votre santé!