Sunday, May 29, 2011

Why books and wine are natural bedfellows

THE VISION of golden light shining warmly through the upright pages of a Biblically-proportioned book, on a poster outside the Salle Polyvalente in Balma (near Toulouse) around Easter, seemed to suggest religious revival was the order of the weekend. A glass of red wine next to the book, softly diffusing the same golden light, appeared to affirm the promise of transubstantiation.

In fact, the oddly evangelical poster was promoting a book-and-wine fair – the 12th annual Rencontres du Livre et du Vin – a sort of ‘Hay-on-Wine’ transplanted from the Welsh-English border to the Midi-Pyrenees. This year’s event brought together 50 local and nationally-renowned authors, around 15 publishers, plus 10 winemakers from as many terroirs under a giant, orange, papier-mâché Baobab tree that dominated the interior of Balma’s multi-purpose hall.

It was children’s day when I visited. The exhibition in the entrance featured paintings of Balma done by local children and executed in Van Gogh’s style. Inside the hall, a class of 6-year-olds, cross-legged around the great Baobab’s trunk, were listening to a story. A few strays from the class were watching winemakers setting bottles, glasses and crachoirs (spittoons) on upended barrels. The authors were sitting quietly, or in quiet conversation with visitors, around the walls, behind trestle tables covered with their oeuvres.

Decorum reigned. This was no knees-up wine festival. Neither was it a hyped-up book fair. As advertised, it was a Rencontre – a convivial opportunity (unique in France) to meet winemakers and authors under the same roof.

Curiously, the event unites two activities that aren’t often associated: drinking wine and reading books. In Alberto Manguel’s comprehensive ‘A History of Reading’, wine isn’t mentioned once, though food comparisons abound (“devoured a good book, lately?”).

Proust’s cork-lined bedroom is discussed, but there’s no suggestion he constructed it from wine bottle closures. And not a piece of domestic furniture has ever been invented to reconcile the two activities, like a reading seat cum wine-bucket with wineglass retainer, since there’s never been demand for such an apparatus. So, why books and wine?

“They may not seem, at first, to be natural bedfellows,” admits veteran broadcaster and long-time editor of the Robert dictionaries, Alain Rey, one of this year’s event’s honorary Presidents, reflecting on wine’s capacity to stain both bed sheets and paper.

“But the event unites two products of French terroir that require passion and dedication to produce and to be appreciated. A wine has layers of aromatic complexity to be discovered by the sensitive palate; similarly, a book reveals its layers of plot and linguistic complexity to the devoted reader. Both activities are enhanced through connoisseurship. Both are civilising.

“The common goal of authors and winemakers at the Rencontres is to express their terroirs – their sense of place and time. Their works speak of local conditions and so have universal appeal. The authors aren’t producing Internet-inspired oeuvres with no sense of place, or globalised wines devoid of the taste of origin... they’re interested in quality, not quantity.”

Senegalese-born writer Fatou Diome, this year’s other honorary President and author of books about women’s experiences of clandestine immigration, expands on two ideas – imagination and place – central to the theme of this year’s event: ‘Imaginaires et territoires francophones’.

“The idea of ‘territoires francophones’ is immediately appetizing. It conjures up fertile domains of the imagination and an irresistible pleasure for words... plus the best crus from a thousand vineyards, all at the same banquet,” says Diome.

A more prosaic account of the Rencontres was offered by Marie-Hélène Chinisanas, Balma city counsellor and one of the event’s organisers: “The goal is to encourage reading. The wine element makes the event more festive.”

Organic/natural winemaker Anne-Marie Selle of Château Bouissel, Campsas, in the Fronton appellation, was there because she’s a bibliophile. Her delicious, violet and blackcurrant-scented 2009 La Négrette is made entirely from the eponymous local grape; her vineyard’s gravelly-silt terroir (between Toulouse and Montauban) contributes to the wine’s suppleness, she says. It’s quite unlike Grenache/Syrah-based wines from the Roussillon, my adopted department.

If wine festivals are your thing, now is a great time to indulge that passion, starting with La Fête de la Vigne et du Vin on June 4th (held annually on the Saturday following the Thursday of Ascension) with events across France (

Bordeaux hosts its annual Bordeaux Fête le Vin festival from June 28th to July 1st ( While Saint Rémy de Provence is where to soak up Provencal sunshine, local produce and rosé wine from July 29th to 31st at La Fête du Vin et de l’Artisanat d’Art (

The streets of Châteauneuf-du-Pape go medieval from August 5th to 7th as the town celebrates its annual Fête de la Veraison with a festival of baroque music and the recreation/re-enactment of traditional winemaking-village life ( In Colmar, from August 5th to 15th, the Foire aux Vins d’Alsace combines wine fair and music festival with well-known French and international acts (

Summer’s end is a busy time for winemakers, so wine festivals are not common in September and early October. But as soon as the harvest is in the fermentation tanks, Les Fêtes des Vendanges take place across winemaking regions. These are usually the best-attended events in the wine year.

There are competitions, too, like wine-basket-carrying and barrel-tossing bouts, which can give harvest festivals an ‘It’s a Knockout’ meets the ‘Highland Games’ spirit.

Then, almost before the coals (or vine stocks and shoots) of harvest barbeques have gone cold, winemakers are ready to celebrate the release of their first wines from the new vintage, with Vin Primeur events taking place in November. The most famously over-hyped is the launch of Beaujolais Nouveau.

However, most wine festivals, like Balma’s Rencontres, are about authentic, local French life, they’re about getting a taste of terroir – something hardly encountered if you’re too often in supermarkets, or on the Internet. And they’re free. There’s no special etiquette, or wine language, to master. Just show up with a thirst for culture.

First published in The Connexion (June, 2011)