The kitchen of the old stone farmhouse glows with activity as Nicolas and I drive in after sunset. Inside, we spot Françoise fluttering this way and that, visible to us through the window as she washes something in the sink, disappearing in the direction of the stove, then reappearing moments later.
The very first time we drove up this drive together was after dark, and I remember the dim light from the kitchen as the first welcome I received, even before entering and reading the sweet note from Françoise:
Warm some water and prepare a tea for Emily. We can’t wait to meet her!
On this night, like so many evenings I have become used to spending at Froidvent, the lady herself greets us as we climb the stairs from the salle de jeux–the ground floor “game room” that serves as familial entryway. The smell of squash and chestnuts envelopes us as we rush to Françoise’s side, receiving a quick kiss while she tends her soup.
Ca va, mes chéris?
With grandiose gestures I present my bottle of Chinon for Françoise’s approval. In like manner, her eyebrows rise and fall, as if this will be the tasting of the day!
“Hurry and put it in the decanter,” she instructs. “And the glasses will need to be rinsed.”
I scurry into the dining room in search of the glasses and find the table dressed for the occasion. A pressed linen tablecloth lies beneath festive gold rimmed plates, and crystal water glasses accompany exceptionally round Burgundian tasting glasses. Lifting two such receptacles from the center of the table, I head back toward the kitchen, shaking my head.
“You’ve trop préparé, Françoise!” I say, giving her shoulders a quick squeeze. She continues her preparations at the stove and humbly mentions that it isn’t every day one gets to taste such special wine. Imagine that! An American girl brings a bottle of wine to a Frenchwoman, who prepares an entire meal in its — or rather, her — honor. In my heart I know it’s not about the wine. The unspoken understanding is that I will be leaving for America in just a few days, and this may be the last grand meal we have together for some time.
The lady of the house has prepared chevreuil, or roe-buck, and chestnut purée to accompany my wine. But first we’ll have soup and of course after there will be cheese, and on the kitchen table the plates of partially prepared dessert lie hidden beneath overturned bowls. A four course meal. “Normal,” she might say with characteristic modesty. Extraordinary is more like it.
When we sit down, the ceremony begins. Nicolas conscientiously pours each of us a glass. We sniff. We swirl. We talk about first impressions. “Un bon nez” is the general consensus. (This one has a promising nose: spicy and complex.) The purple color is astonishingly different from Burgundian pinot noir, especially noticeable when being poured.
To taste, the first thing we all agree upon is that it isn’t as powerful as we anticipated. (In hindsight, perhaps it should have been drunk a little sooner: Charles Joguet recommends 5-6 years max in bottle for the 2005 cuvée, having hypothesized that 2009 might have been its peak year.) But the fruit flavors are still explosive. Nicolas is convinced of raspberries, while Françoise and Bruno taste black currant. I am hooked on the hint of cherry. One thing is certain: its slight tartness and seasonally appropriate spice marry perfectly with our chevreuil and chestnut dinner.
“It has a fine finish,” Nicolas says, smacking his lips.
“But not like the Birthday Nuits-Saint-Georges,” I counter. Once uttered, the words ring reminiscently in my ears. Will I from this day forth compare wine to that remarkable bottle? Will I ever find a wine so magical?
Nicolas agrees. His hand darts into the air, miming a bell-curve with an extremely wide peak. “This was the Nuits-Saint-Georges Les Vaucrains,” he specifies, before demonstrating another curve with a shorter, but more dramatic peak. “And this is the Chinon.”
A good, no, great wine, to be sure.
Dinner finished, cheese dispensed, there is still a little wine left in our glasses at dessert. Françoise presents a beautiful assortment of fruit and sorbet to cleanse the palate, topped by a bit of chantilly and glittering red currants. The last sips of wine do not compete with but complement the fruits’ gentle sweetness.
François Rabelais claimed he did not drink “more than a sponge.” Although I certainly cannot compete with that (nor would I want to) I like to think that at moments like these, a good bottle of wine can indeed make one more like a sponge: soaking up the flavors, not only of the wine, but of the atmosphere in general. The flavors of family and friends, of love and good cheer. The aroma of the holidays. The bouquet of what is and that wonderful perfume of what is to come.