From Chicken Soup for the Wine Lover’s Soul: A Toast to the Perfect Occasion
We made our way carefully down the steep stairs of the small French chateau into the caves below the stone barn. The coolness was welcome after the hour spent strolling through gardens and gnarled grapevines under the merciless July sun with six others on our tour. Bright light bulbs hung down from the ceiling every ten feet, revealing decades of mold and dirt encrusting the walls. Huge oak casks lined large, barrel-vaulted rooms as far as we could see.
“Antoine, we are here!” called Jean Claude, our guide. He pursed his lips and squinted into the darkness. “Antoine, we’re here for the tasting!”
“Ah, bien. Here I am!” A middle-aged man with a brushy mustache grumbled his way toward us out of the gloom.
“Bonjour, Jean Claude!” He smiled at us and gestured toward a wooden doorway to our right, “This way, please.”
We followed him across the room, footsteps echoing as we filed into the square room with a heavy wooden table in the center. Eight bottles of wine stood by the large platter with cheese and thin slices of baguette. Black and white photographs of the chateau and the vineyard covered the walls. Antoine closed the door gently behind us, explaining that he didn’t want to disturb the wine with all our noise. “Wine is alive,” he told us. “It is sensitive to its environment.”
Jean Claude filled eight glasses with red wine, which we sipped carefully as Antoine described the style of the wine, the quality of the vintage, and the rich history of the chateau. During World War II, the German general responsible for this region had taken exceptional care of all of the chateaux because he loved wine and knew the area well from childhood visits to relatives.
The tallest of the four men in our tour group cleared his throat. “We are members of a German singing group that performs at festivals all over the world,” he said. An older, reed-thin man with him swished wine in his mouth and swallowed. “The sound here is so wonderful, it makes me want to sing to the wine.” The others nodded.
We sipped wine and ate bread and cheese as Jean Claude opened more bottles from a wooden case under the trestle table. The delicious cheese was made by Antoine’s brother, who left the family wine business at eighteen when he fell in love with a girl whose family owned a dairy. “Me, I like wine. I like growing the grapes. I like making the wine,” Antoine explained. “Now my son is helping me. He’ll be in charge one day, one day when I’m too old to get down the ladder!” He laughed.
One of our German friends started to hum, quickly joined by another. A third started to sing quietly, and then all four joined in together, their voices full, rich, and strong. Echoing in the small room, their song was exultant. They swung right into another when the first finished, singing different parts, calls, and responses. I didn’t understand a word, but the emotion transcended any language barrier.
Antoine sliced more cheese, and we drank to the history of this little chateau as Jean Claude poured himself a glass and tore bread off a fresh baguette. Between songs, the singers, a little red in the face, drank reverently.
“And now, now, I must sing to the wine!” insisted one singer. He flung open the door and started a new song. The others joined him, their voices echoing far into the dim reaches of the caves. Antoine passed around chunks of a chocolate bar he pulled out of another wooden case.
Three songs later, Jean Claude looked at his watch, startled, and hit himself on the forehead. “Ah, we will be late for lunch. So sorry, Antoine, we must go. Right now!” He bowed to Antoine. “Merci, merci beaucoup!”
We obediently filed back up the stairs into the hot sun. As our eyes adjusted to the daylight, our group was quiet. My thoughts drifted. What history this small patch of French earth has witnessed, and what treasures lie just below us in quiet caves waiting for another song to be sung.