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Essay: This French Wine Has Surprising American Roots

Jean-Louis Zimmermann/Flickr

Milwaukee is usually thought of as a beer kind of city. But increasingly, Wisconsin is being known for its wines.

Lake Effect essayist Andy Feldman is a Wisconsin native who’s still learning about wine, thanks to a recent trip across the Atlantic:

They say Wisconsin is the Bordeaux region of craft beer.

And one nice aspect about tasting and learning about beer is that it’s pretty down to earth. No one stands in the beer aisle looking over the Spotted Cow or Riverwest Stein and says, "This is intimidating."

Learning about wine, on the other hand, can be intimidating. French wine, in particular. This past August, though, I was luckily to spend a week in Southern France for my 40th birthday. It was a memorable trip exploring hill towns, visiting Roman ruins and enjoying Provincial cuisine.

And while I still returned from the trip a wine novice, I did gain an appreciation, and had less intimidation, for that famous French art form of winemaking.

So if you’re a novice as well, here are some fun facts to help you be less intimidated too.

The first is about French wine labels. The French, unlike American winemakers, don't label their wines by the type of grapes they use. In other words, you won't find French wine labels that say, "Chardonnay," "Pinot Noir," "Cabernet" and so on.

Instead, they label their wines by the town or area in which they're made, such as Cote du Rhone or Bordeaux or over 300 other "appellations," as they call them. 

And winemakers in each town or area are required to use only certain types of grapes, regulations that winemakers themselves created for quality control.

To put this in a Wisconsin context, it would be like vineyards in, say, Wauwatosa being required to use only Grenache and Syrah grapes, while vineyards in Shorewood could use only Sauvignon Blanc grapes. 

The French  system of wine labeling makes it more challenging for a novice to know what they're buying. On the other hand, though, it's an invitation to explore different wines and see what you like. Even wines from different vineyards in the same village may taste differently because of what the French call “terroir," the unique natural characteristics of each vineyard, such as the soil and altitude and so on.

Having learned a bit about French wine labels, I set off for one of the most revered French wine villages called Chateauneuf-du-Pape. It means "new castle of the pope." This was a place for serious wine drinkers and buyers, not folks like me who think Miller Lite tastes great and is less filling. 

But as I learned at a wine museum in town, the area had a blight in the late 1800s that killed most of its vines. It looked like wine growing in the area was history. But with some clever innovation, they found a solution. By grafting the roots of American grape vines to their local vines, the plants became blight resistant. 

So, fun fact #2: The delicious, top shelf French wine Chateauneuf-du-Pape has American roots - literally. 

And there's a second connection between this famous French wine town and the United States that I appreciated even more. I realized it on a walking tour, when I came upon a small plaque with an American flag on it, near the town’s center. It read: "Chateauneuf-du-Pape was liberated on August 20, 1944 by the soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division during World War II."

American roots in that town, it turns out, go a lot deeper than the soil.

Now that I'm back from vacation, don't worry, I'm not drinking French wine while I watch the Packers game. But the trip did remind me, as traveling always does, how interesting it is to learn about different traditions and how surprisingly interconnected we all are.

To that I say, "Cheers."

Lake Effect Essayist and Milwaukee native Andy Feldman now lives and works in Washington D.C.