Monday, October 17, 2011

Heaven in a Wineglass: Sancerre

I woke up at first light and wondered where we were. When my foggy morning brain eventually cleared and I saw the dingy orange curtains on the windows, I realized we were in Sancerre, hilltop home of my favorite Appelation d’Origine Controlée (AOC) in the whole wide world. Two hours south of Paris, we were in white wine heaven.

Paris had quickly become our temporary home-away-from-home and we’d gotten used to waking to the sounds of our fellow apartment-dwellers. When the morning light came through the courtyard window, we knew exactly where we were. But now that we’re on the road, I expect there will be many mornings like this when I’ll awaken and have to concentrate really hard to remember where we lay our heads the night before. And then will come the next step: convincing myself that we’re actually here in Europe with another ten-and-a-half months ahead of us.

In the weeks before we left Washington, my normal optimism suddenly turned to doubt. Sometime in August, I convinced myself that something would go horribly wrong and I sat up in the middle of many a night in a cold sweat. Did the bureaucrats add more paperwork to the visa requirements and would I have a message on my voicemail to that effect? Could we actually afford to stop climbing the materialistic American ladder for a while to take a Gap Year off? Did I estimate the budget incorrectly and somehow put a decimal in the wrong place? Would the European Union finally collapse under the weight of the mounting Greek debt burden? Were we actually brave enough to just drop out of the rat race and physically leave the country?

Needless to say, I successfully escaped the clutches of skepticism and now that we’ve been in France for almost five weeks, the reality of our Gap Year is finally settling in. Unlike my tenuous affirmation to the British gent in the Paris hotel elevator who quipped as he squeezed into the closet-sized space beside our luggage” “What -- are you staying for a year?”, I can now assert with confidence, “Yes, we’re in Europe until next August.” Even Joe, who took a bit longer than I getting psychologically used to having no permanent address, car or job, is getting used to the freedom. We’ve both decided to keep our anxieties about finding jobs when we return in check by refusing to think about our next steps until next spring – April at the earliest. But my current challenge may be even greater. Getting the inexorable Father Time to heed my daily mantra: “STOP! S’il vous plaît! Or at least SLOW DOWN a little!” And to every moment that passes I plead, “Stay! Please don’t go...” The French expression, je vais en profiter, continues to follow my every thought. Yes, I’m going to appreciate and savor each and every moment of the limited time we have here. While a consummate anticipator of the itinerary ahead (especially of the days when Chris and Caroline will join us in December), I’m doing my best to live in the moment of every single day. And today, while we’re exploring the delightful town and rolling vineyards of Sancerre, I want the day to slow down to a gentle speed that allows us to enjoy every moment/sip.

Of all the wines in the entire world, Sancerre vin blanc (made from the Sauvignon Blanc grape) is my absolute favorite. This beautiful terroir also produces rosé and red wines from Pinot Noir grapes -- that Chris, our family’s red-wine-drinker would love -- but while we’re here, in my personal AOC heaven, I’ll stick to white. The local Tours Rotary Club who sponsored me when I was a student presented me with my first glass of Sancerre. There was some je ne said quoi about this crisp, minerally, slightly citrusy white wine that grabbed my attention and wouldn't let it go. I carefully wrote down the name in the little notebook I carried with me everywhere, in capital letters, of this incredible wine that struck my fancy as a twenty-two-year-old: SANCERRE. From that day forward, whenever Joe and I went out for a special dinner – a birthday, an anniversary, Valentine’s Day -- and Sancerre was on the wine list, it became part of our celebration. Caroline wrote in a recent email, “Have fun but hope Mom isn’t swimming in a vat of Sancerre.” (Be honest, Caroline, you love Sancerre as much as I do and would be doing the backstroke beside me if you could.) While not quite a swim, we did go to a generous wine-tasting at the Henri Bourgeois Estate in Chavignol (home of the Crottin de Chavignol, a sweet little goat cheese). After sampling eight varieties of white – each with a generous pour much greater than a simple tasting – we purchased four bottles, knowing there would be ample opportunity to finish them all in the ensuing weeks. I should mention that the tasting was free, unlike most such offers in Napa and Sonoma which can set you back as much as $30 for two people.

A bit bleary eyed, we headed back to our simple (sparse?) room at the basic (primitive?) Hôtel du Remparts. To allow ample funds for the purchase of plenty of wine, we decided on the low-rent, concrete auberge, halfway up the steep ascent into town. It was great for the budget but not for our mood, so we spent as little time there as possible. Our third floor walk-up room was just this side of depressing and the gloomy, gray sky outside didn’t help matters, but our palates still tasted of Sancerre so we were content as we lay down for a post dégustation rest.

Joe fell asleep immediately and I took the time to lean back on my rock-solid pillow (was it filled with sawdust perhaps?) and analyze our sorry little room. The French pride themselves on their logic and symmetry of thought but I have always been amazed by the inability of budget hoteliers to center a picture over a bed. Even a Red Roof Inn in the States can mount a Sears landscape over the middle of the headboard. The walls of our tiny room are covered in pale thin-wale blue corduroy (yes, corduroy!) and the 12” x 18” pastel drawing of Sancerre in a cheap plastic frame that hangs over the bed is at least six inches to the left of where it should be (were one to achieve some semblance of balance). And given the space, the wall screams for a horizontal print but there the vertical frame hangs. There also seems an aversion to designing a room with colors that match. The floor is covered with a maroon carpet worn down to almost nothing over the years and punctuated with an occasional divot from a cigarette burn from long ago. Moving on to the bathroom that epitomizes anything but rational symmetry: the four-inch square pink floral tiles on the walls clash absurdly with the small garish orange and brown pentagon tiles on the floor. And the pièce de résistance of the room is a large but flimsy armoire tucked into an alcove next to the bathroom, its doors facing the opposite wall. If you move all the way into the recess, you can pry the left door open but not quite enough to hang something on the clothes bar. French logic at its best.

Summary of our two nights and one full day in Sancerre: heaven in a wineglass and hell for a hotel.

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