A Week in Buzet Wine Country (Apr. 3)
I am not a wine snob. In fact, I’m a wine idiot. But that didn’t appear to be stopping me, I thought, as vineyards and castles in shades of early-spring brown whizzed past my train en route to the Gascony vineyard where I’d be volunteering for the week.
I’d found the biodynamic vineyard Domaine Pichon through WWOOF France, a branch of a global nonprofit that connects farming enthusiasts with unpaid opportunities on organic farms in exchange for room and board. I was on a break between trimesters in my pastry diploma at Le Cordon Bleu Paris, and I wanted to use my time off to explore more French foodways.
Jacques, a mid-sixties vigneron, was waiting for me with his arms clasped behind his back when I stepped off the train into the warm sunshine, more than an hour late thanks to the unpredictabilities of regional French trains. He brushed off my apology with a wine-stained smile and we headed to his car, a boxy white van that looked toy-sized to my American vehicular proclivities, but which perfectly fit the narrow French roads that climbed up out of the village and toward the rolling hills where he has tended vines for 40 years.
Jacques lives in the Buzet wine-growing region, a small appellation that produces mostly red wines from Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon. I was arriving in late March, the middle of la taille – pruning season. At Jacques’s suggestion, I’d brought a pair of gloves I purchased at a Lowes-esque Bricomara in the suburbs of Paris. It wasn’t the sexiest season to be working on wine – we were months from the late-summer harvest that would bring more workers and fill the hills with the heady scent of crushed grapes – but I didn’t care. Fresh air and exposure to new foods and the people who made them were what I was after.
After parking at the end of a long drive flanked by tall trees, Jacques showed me to my bedroom so I could drop my things. An ancient armoire filled most of the east wall, except for a window with a view of the Lot-et-Garonne valley, the plain between the region’s two rivers. There was an antique bed, and covering its full surface was a ridiculously large pillow. Following my gaze, Jacques told me it was a comforter filled with goose feathers.
We left the house, latching a creaking door behind us, and spent that first afternoon pruning vines on a small hillside nearby. In the limited French agricultural vocabulary I could muster, I asked Jacques a million questions: how he knew when to prune, where he made cuts on the plant and why, and why there were different vines at different points on the hillside.
“The soil changes from the bottom of the hill to the top, do you see? Don’t worry, I’m going to teach you everything, petit à petit.”
The next morning, I descended the stairs at 8:00 sharp into the kitchen, where Jacques had placed a tin carafe of coffee on the table opposite a hearth. After I’d spread daffodil-covered butter on a slice of baguette, Jacques appeared and we went to the chai together, toast in hand.
Chai, he told me, is the regional word for cave, which in this case was the 1800s barn attached directly to his house. It had earthen floors and was quiet inside, and dark. A musty smell of vinegar was everywhere.
After a quick lesson in its use from Jacques, I spent a while using an old labeling machine to stick labels onto the many bottles of Pichon Buzet wine arranged in stainless-steel racks.
But before 9am, our work was interrupted for the first wine tasting of the morning. Jacques’s friend André had arrived (in an identical white, square van) with a few experimental reds for him to try.
It was with André, a small woman with a graying brown ponytail, that I learned a verb that would prove critical for my stay. She pulled out a strange contraption, like two bowls stuck together at their bottoms. One bowl acted as a stand, and the other sat atop it like a large catchment basin.
Pour cracher, she said. To spit.
And taste our way through five red wines we did, my taste buds not registering much more than shock. Was the wine soaking directly into my cheeks?! I didn’t feel like I was spitting. I felt like I was drinking before I’d really had breakfast.
But that warm-up was crucial, because as André’s van disappeared down the drive, Jacques and I were loading cardboard boxes of wine into his, and heading down the hills into town. We were on our way to a higher-stakes tasting.
Jacques was a member of the council of Appellation Buzet. In fact, the council – which decides which wines can be sold under the protected regional label – was exclusively made up of the vignerons who produced it. The council met regularly to blind-taste various Buzets, essentially checking, by majority vote, whether the wines were still in or not.
Today’s tasting was just an entrainement, a practice-taste to keep them sharp between official dégustations, but it was still serious business. There would be scoring sheets.
We parked in an empty parking lot outside what looked like a suburban dentist’s office. Inside, tables were arranged in a C-shape, and more than a dozen places were set with a small empty wine glass and a plastic pitcher (pour cracher). Arranged along the tables were oblong baskets filled with sliced baguette, presumably to help soak up what wasn’t spit.
We were the first there, except for the council president, a tall man with bright blue eyes. But soon more vignerons filed in. Some were sun-weathered men in their sixties, dressed in jeans and sweaters, greeting one another warmly. Some were somewhat younger. A quiet couple my age stuck out; they shot curious glances at me.
After everyone had taken their seats a member of the council kicked things off, plucking the first of many wine bottles from a table against the wall. A bright-yellow fabric sock pulled down over the bottle hid the label.
Silence fell and the council member made a circuit of the tables, pouring a few ounces into each glass. Immediately, winegrowers around me lifted their glasses to their nose, smelling deeply, brows furrowed, then promptly began scribbling on their scoring sheets.
I looked down at my sheet.
Various visual, olfactory, and taste aspects were to be scored from 0 to 5. I tried to look at ease, and picked up a black pen.
Intensité. OK, I know what that means visually, I guess, I thought. I looked down at the wine in my glass. It was definitely red. (Astute, Caroline.) But how did it compare to other reds? I had no idea.
I stole a glance at Jacques’s sheet to my left, and circled 4.
What the fuck is limpid wine? No idea. I circled 4 again.
Long before I had decided on translations for all the words I was supposed to be evaluating, the presiding council member stood and asked for votes.
“Qui a zéro? 1? 2? 3? 4? 5?”
Hands shot up in unison, and I was impressed to see precision – the winegrowers largely agreed with one another, clustering around 1 and 2; or 2 and 3; or 4 and 5, as the various attributes went on, down across the smells and flavors of the wine. Evidently they were picking up on the same things, even if those subtleties were beyond my ability to detect.
After a few more wines though, I felt like maybe I was starting to get somewhere.
One we’d just tasted that I hadn’t liked had been acidic (“tannique,” Jacques corrected me), super darkly colored, not sweet. When it was followed by another, I could detect that the second was milder, sweeter – I liked it better.
When one of the vignerons commented on it after the votes were tallied, he called it “delicat, feminin.”
I mentally high-fived myself.
The 7th wine we tasted caused some drama. As hands went into the air to cast their numerical scores, there was some muttering from all tables. And when the council member closed the vote by asking the ultimate question: “Non-conformé?,” (Is there anyone who says this isn’t a Buzet?) several hands shot up. The sock, bright red this time, was removed, and the label on the bottle revealed the truth: This was a Marmandaise, a red from a neighboring appellation. Not a Buzet!
The vignerons chuckled. Apparently some among them had slipped in decoy wines – all part of keeping the group on their toes.
I was impressed. To me, the imposter had been just another tasty red contributing to my increasing tipsiness. But to the sensitive palates of the wine-growers in this room, it stood out like a sore thumb.
By the time we left a little before 1pm, my buzz had been mercifully blunted by the platters of pepper-studded cheese and ham that had been passed around. On the drive back to Jacques’s house, I counted and realized that between the two morning dégustations, I’d tasted 20 red wines.
In the afternoon, rain moved in, so we retreated again to the chai and used a machine to stuff corks into wine bottles, a pull of a squeaky metal lever applying torque. Each squeak ground in my ears, but the repetitive motion was soothing.
The next morning we rose before 6 and drove down the hills before dawn, heading to the weekly farmers market where Jacques sells his wine.
As he told me about the local prune industry that made the nearby city of Agen famous, we drove through darkened fields of blooming prune trees, the white blossoms nearest the road catching the headlights. As a red glow emerged at the horizon, we drove across a stone bridge over the Lot river and into a village filled with Medieval timbered structures. This was Villeneuve-sur-Lot.
We set up Jacques’s stand, arranging bottles of Buzet that were Selection Corsée (full-bodied), Selection Fruité (fruity), and various fancier vintages (some named after the WWOOFers that had helped make them). I felt shy amongst the other producers bustling around us, for whom this was a real work day, not a travel excursion.
But as the market began, they all came up to me one by one, and introduced themselves. One was my age, stockily built and with a mop of curly, light-brown hair. He and his twin sister, and their other set of twin siblings, ran a farm together that raised chickens and other livestock. They hosted WWOOFers, too.
Another, David, tall and balding, had been a graphic designer before quitting his job to grow vegetables. The cheesemonger adjacent to Jacques’s wine stand was Régis, a mechanical engineering professor turned cheesemaker with sixty goats, and a few geese and chickens for eggs.
It was a slow morning, the sky threatening more rain and the temperatures chilly. When customers were few, the producers strolled around, talking to one another.
Jacques’s wine stand rather ingeniously sported a small bar, and he uncorked a 2018 Grand Cru, making us the most frequent recipient of guests – and their snacks. The curly-haired twin guy brought a plate of paper-thin ham. David brought a cone of soft frîtes he bought from the frîtes lady, and a radish-like navet from his own stand that he peeled with a pocket knife in front of us. A woman selling pastries gave me a free bag of raisin-studded dents de loups cookies (wolf’s teeth) and sugar-dusted, fried merveilles. Régis shared a wheel of aged goat cheese, dense in the middle and nearly liquid at the edges.
As light mist fell outside the market, I dipped in and out of the conversations, sometimes able to keep up, sometimes not.
When I couldn’t, I watched them. As they sipped wine, they’d pause mid-conversation and remark to Jacques in words I actually could understand: the way the wood flavor from the barrels came through, the ratios of grape varieties, the maturity – using the same adjectives he’d said to me earlier in the car. Then they’d resume chatting about weather and friends, moving in and out of wine analysis fluidly.
None of these people were winegrowers, but their expertise, it seemed clear to me, was all of Lot-et-Garonne food and drink.
There was a brief hubbub in the market when a coiffed man in a wool coat with slicked hair strode in, accompanied by people in blazers. Jacques whispered in my ear that it was the mayor of Villeneuve-Sur-Lot, here to promote the prune industry because the local elections were coming up.
Jacques pulled me from behind the stand and planted me directly in front of the mayor and his posse, explaining loudly and with obvious pride that I was an American WWOOFer, here to learn about biodynamic wine-growing.
The mayor’s eyes lit on me and he shook my hand, as did his staff. “Vous êtes venu pour les pruneaux d’Agen, c’est ca?” he boomed, eyes twinkling. I responded in what seemed to be an appropriately joking manner, and we exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes as he energentically conducted more prune-bragging than I’ve ever heard or likely will ever hear again in my life.
The mayor moved on in a whirl as a photographer trailed him, and that was that. My brush with local stars.
On the last morning of my stay, I woke under the goose-down comforter with my head pounding. There was really no amount of water I could drink before bed to negate the effects of the red wine drunk before, during, and after every meal in this part of France.
Laying in bed waiting for my headache to subside, I thought about a trip to the Forest of Landes we’d taken the previous afternoon.
We’d gotten out of the van a few kilometers off the road. I shut the door, and looked around. We were surrounded by what Jacques told me was the largest forest in Western Europe. Overhead, pine and oak branches criss-crossed 100 feet into the sky.
We walked off the path into a parcel of forest that was Jacques’s. We were here for firewood to grill sausages over for dinner. After we loaded a few logs into the back of his van, he told me to follow him back into the forest.
We walked up to an oak tree that stuck out because it looked like it’d been the victim of the neatest beaver on the planet. Half its white-ish bark was peeled off from the roots to chest-level, leaving the bottom portion dark, like a vertical black-and-white cookie.
I leaned in closely to look at the difference.
“C’est un chêne liège,” he told me. A cork oak.
Jacques grows several on his forest parcel, supplying himself with his own corks.
First, he told me, you peel off the whiter layer of tree bark – it’s too weak to make good corks.
“Then,” he said, brushing a hand along the harder bark underneath, “you wait for twelve years.”
The second layer of cork that grows back slowly underneath the first is denser. After more than a decade, it’s finally wide enough when peeled away to be cut into cork shapes.
As we walked back to the truck, I was thinking about the decades involved in closing his bottles of wine. I don’t know how I thought corks worked, but it certainly wasn’t that.
Then Jacques stopped. “Do you hear that?”
I did. From far away, I heard a cuckoo bird, like the one on my grandfather’s clock in Florida. I’d never actually heard one before, but it was immediately recognizable.
“That’s the first one this year.” He smiled. “They say when you hear a cuckoo bird for the first time during the year, if you have money in your pocket, you’ll be rich.”
He opened the van door and we got back in.
That last morning, for the final time, we worked for a while, only to be interrupted.
After an hour pruning last year’s growth off Merlot vines, Jacques told me to get ready for an excursion. We were going to a distillery. My head throbbed and I looked at my watch. 10am.
I guess I’d mentioned at some point when telling Jacques about the food and drink of my home that I like bourbon and whiskey. This is partially true. I don’t like any liquor straight up, as much as I’m aware that someone with a culinary degree is supposed to have an appreciation for things like that. But as the basis of cocktails and as flavorings in pastries? Sure. So Jacques had planned this visit as a way to cap off my stay before my late-afternoon train – an extremely kind gesture.
Back through more villages and yellow fields of flowering canola, we drove until we turned down a dirt lane marked with a sign saying “Distillerie Cillieres, Vente Directe.”
As we got out of the car, a small dog threw itself delightedly upon our ankles. I thought about whispering to Jacques that I didn’t want to do any tasting. Luckily, I pushed down the impulse.
Inside a converted automotive garage, a young guy a little older than me greeted us with fist-bumps. Friendly and serious, this was the younger Cillieres. He showed us the copper-and-steel still that filled a back wall, explaining how the stages of evaporation help capture aromas.
He then steered us toward a tasting table, where to my dismay, a dozen clear liquors in square glass bottles and a tall stack of shot glasses were arranged.
“We’ll taste some,” he said.
I bid myself to channel my bourbon-drinking grandmother.
The first we tried was an eau de vie à la fraise – a liquor distilled from strawberries. He explained the fermentation and maceration processes required to distill strawberries, and the many varieties of strawberries he’d tried working with before he finally found one he liked. I couldn’t follow everything he said, but I got the gist: this guy was an artist of local fruits.
I surprised myself by liking the spirit it as I took a sip. It tasted like roasted strawberries – jammy and caramelized.
The second we tried was made from kiwis also grown locally, and this time Jacques interrupted to compliment that not just anyone can distill a kiwi flavor into a liquor. It’s volatile, it’s complicated, and difficult to make the flavor appear. I was starting to feel a little loopy.
We tried a pruneaux d’Agen (dried prune liquor) and a prune d’Ente (fresh prune liquor) and one from a Williams Pear I liked so much I drank it down in one. I felt like my body was floating, but my headache was gone, and else something curious was happening: I was following the highly technical French being spoken to me much better.
Then the distiller brought out what he told us was something special, an amber-colored liquor in a large spherical glass. He poured us shots of it, and I sipped.
“What do you taste?” he asked.
Jacques and I replied in unison, “Caramel.” It was alluringly spicy, sweet, and – possibly because I was already drunk – intensely drinkable.
“Close,” he replied, shaking his head.
And this time, I understood every word he said as he explained it was an eau de vie arrangée, distilled from tonka beans and vanilla beans sourced directly from the Island of Réunion, increasingly hard to access directly, but worth it for the flavor they impart.
“So that’s why it tastes like Christmas!” I said, probably slurring slightly. He laughed.
We left a while later, after Jacques had dropped off some barrels of dried purple grape skins and seeds to be distilled into an eau de vie de marc.
Despite a few of Jacques’s own homemade eau de vies over lunch, I somehow made it to the train station a few hours later. We hugged goodbye next to the tracks, and Jacques promised to let me know when he was in Paris later in the spring, so we could meet up for a glass of red wine.
As the train back toward Bordeaux gathered speed, I thought about the last few days. About how much my French had improved when I was totally awash in it, and how good it felt to understand – even if just for a liquor-addled moment – the distiller’s complex ministrations about fruit fermentation, after so many months of language struggle.
I thought about knowledge. About how it’s what I thought I came to pastry school in Paris wanting. Knowledge, after all, can be had with a little effort and some time – through a degree, through practice, through internet rabbit holes. It’s what the self-crowned Twitter experts have, or at least think they have, when they expound upon geopolitics, pandemics, and very often, food.
But fluency is something very different than knowledge. Fluency is hands going up around a room, calling out a fermented grape juice that isn’t like the others. Fluency is the Lot-and-Garonne producers chit-chatting, then pausing to correctly identify the tasting notes in Jacques’s wine, before moving back to chit-chat, idly and fluidly as water.
That’s the kind of understanding I want to work toward in my study of food. And I know it doesn’t exist just in France, or just for wine. It’s everywhere around the world where there are people who grow and love food, as there always have been. People who know the flavors of their home like the back of their tongues.