James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

A Little Corner of Earth and a Big Box of Wine Can Make Anyone Smile

A Little Corner of Earth and a Big Box of Wine Can Make Anyone Smile

Boxes of Wine in Southern France

Five o’clock is Van Gogh hour in southern France, when the light pales in the vineyards such that you are suddenly convinced you could be a master painter. The swallows are doing their ritual evening dive-bombing, careening to the surface of the pool with a singular, ferocious precision. Someone pops a bag of Casino brand crisps—France’s catastrophically salty, wafer-thin potato chips—and we fill our glass tumblers from one of the “bag-in-box” wines that have been unceremoniously shoved in the fridge. We drink on the terrace, a single ice cube mellowing the subtle, honeysuckle-scented viognier, the slight tart pinch of the rosé.

We’re deep in Rhône country, Provence’s quiet, un-showy sister. One of France’s largest wine-growing AOCs, the Côtes du Rhône region benefits from the highly alkaline soils around the bed of the Rhône River, which runs from Switzerland down to its silty, humid end in the Mediterranean, and which allows winemakers to produce the rustic, easy-drinking grenache and syrah blends commonly known as Côtes du Rhône Villages. In the hushed burnt-stone hill towns, the vendors at the local brocantes break for lunch by laying out a white, embroidered tablecloth and topping it with two glasses, a bottle of unmarked red in the center.

We’ve arrived in the stop-gap before high season, and on our first day we walk the lane to our neighbors’ in the petit hameau, who produce a modest 2000 hectoliters of Côtes du Rhône annually. We’ve been told to buy our wine in bulk, in the bag-in-box (or “bib”) cases that have become popular in France in the last decade as wine by the glass became an acceptable way to drink in restaurants, and owners found it a more economical way to sell and store. While the best vintages are never boxed (wine won’t age in plastic), table wines are happily dispensed in the cardboard bibs. It’s the kind of wine you pony up with at a picnic, or bbq; this is France, they won’t judge. Rosé fares the best; reds are hit or miss, although for the less refined palate they’ll do just fine.

While boxed wine is gaining a small toehold in the American market, it remains mostly relegated to the bottom shelf of the supermarket wine aisle. So we’re nervous, and yet still convinced we’ve misheard when they quote us 14 euros for the five-liter box.

“I’m sure three boxes will be enough,” we say, and return two days later, heads down, to buy three more.

The viognier is a perfect match for the great oozing hunks of Tomme de Savoie; the rosé tastes somehow even better over ice. Even the red is satisfying, dirty yet without bite, a perfect match for ratatouille. We drink and drink and drink. The baby eats cherries for the first time: we pick them from trees and feed them to her like birds, removing the pits with our teeth and tongues before handing her the flesh. Later she pukes cherry all over the rented car seat, the carnage shockingly red.

One of us used to work as a florist, so she gathers great armfuls of broom and wild poppies and arranges them in bottles around the house. The May afternoons are hot but broken by the as-yet-unhurried early breezes of the mistral. The Latin phrase etched in stone on the turret of the villa (loosely translated by the vigneron next door from his shaky Latin to French, and from our shaky French to English) reads, “This little corner of the earth, more than any other, makes me smile,” and, as we return to the fridge for another glass, we do.

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