Bacchus in France


Philippa Williams searches for the god of wine in Aquitaine.






One day in Aquitaine, we were late for lunch. Most restaurants in France close at 2 pm, but eventually we found one which was willing to host us as long as we chose the fish. We were allowed any wine we wanted from the enormous list, but without looking we decided on the house red. Suddenly a ceremony was underway. The waiter manoeuvred the bottle expertly, flourishing, displaying, nodding like a conductor over his orchestra. The chef kept us company as we polished it off. It seemed they didn't have to close at 2 after all. Then we discovered that the vin de maison we had asked for was not the house wine, as vin de table or a simple pichet would have been, but the house's wine of wines. I thought grimly of the 3 euro supermarket plonk. But no matter, for we had just discovered an absolute beauty.
I had always treated wine with celebration; but without any sophistication. I knew nothing whatever about its origins- I had a sepia image in my mind of plants and barrels- and yet I was vaguely aware of feeling rather honoured each time I drew a cork. Bacchus attending each bottle, perhaps. Yes, even supermarket plonk. But the wine god stood far back, all the same. I knew I took it too much for granted. My ignorance left a bitter taste.
I read various Greek and Latin works, with their rural and/or instructive themes and willingness of their authors to work with wine, and these made me wonder. How had Bacchus lived on? When I read Harry Eyres' superb Horace and Me, about the lifelong influence the lyric poet had on the author, not least on his wine expertise- and the destinations to which it led him- this made up my mind. We left for wineland to try and see the secret for ourselves. I wanted to see where wine lived and why it got into poetry, and we went to France.
The vineyards of the south-west; surrounding, weaving through Périgueux, Saint-Émilion, Sainte-Foy-la-Grande, Bergerac, Monbazillac, Eymet, Duras, kept pace with us in the car, overlooking the road from a bank above or glimpsed greenly behind a cornfield.  Rows and rows of vines, with an occasional deer whisking between them, flanked the chateaux, the brains of the mysterious gift that is viniculture. There were chateaux that resembled farmhouse barns, with snatches of Chopin or the Stones, and a fleeting laugh as we went past the wide-open windows on a tiny train. There were chateaux like miniature churches. And there were chateaux which crowned a hill, overlooking the most staggering of views. I visited one of these alone.
It was a hot, hot day. I kneeled up on a low wall. A haze hung over the panorama. The blue of the sky felt all-consuming, burning into everything before me, deepening the colours and magnifying the vista of lavender, sunflowers, valleys and vines. The chateau stood behind me, ghostly in silhouette. It guarded its secrets closely, but when I sidled in I was given a list of wines to work through. I leant on a cool counter, vaguely aware of low, concentrated voices. As glass after glass appeared before me I was positively urged to savour, free of charge. "This is an excellent wine, strong yet amenable. Gulp it and the 2010 consecutively. You'll find that it blends nicely." I did and it did. Some sort of Bacchic epiphany? I bought a bottle of each.
As I slipped out, the vines ran up to the chateau door. I reeled along the hairline path between them and gently clinked down my bottles on the soil. The foliage was even more abundant up close, each vine in excellent health and jostling with its fellow. Each hung onto clusters of miniature pale green fruit.
I leant down to the half-ripe grapes. I had reached the beating heart of Aquitaine. And Bacchus hid somewhere, but nearby.