Gascony was not my childhood home. I grew up in Brittany with not a vineyard in sight. Cider and water and sweet lemonade were what we drank on the family farm during the long summer holidays. Wine was reserved for the milkman.
My grandmother kept a huge bottle of Grappe Fleurie, a strange blend of Algerian red and rosé, which came from a Breton factory https://www.ouest-france.fr/bretagne/morlaix-29600/le-bistrot-de-lhistoire-revient-sur-les-vins-guevel-3796924 . It sat on the kitchen table, and a Duralex glassful was administered to the milkman each day when he came to collect the milk, still warm in its churn. The milkman never turned it down, taking his dose at each farm on the increasingly mazy route. His huge wagon filled our yard, its engine still running as he skipped in for his glassful, diesel fumes drifting into the kitchen.
Grappe Fleurie came in a bottle with no cork, just a flip top plastic cap. Wine with a cork was kept hidden at the bottom of the kitchen dresser, reserved for special visitors – relatives, Parisians or prospective husbands for me and my sisters. Once, the special bottle had been left out on the table when the milkman arrived unexpectedly. My grandmother was so irritated at him having to be given a glass of wine above his status.
So for the first 20 years of my upbringing in France, wine was nothing special. It was always red, and usually acrid, and associated with awkward social occasions.
As a young woman I went to America to learn English, or whatever variant of English is spoken in rural Minnesota. But still no wonderful wine, just canned beer from the liquor store. There were huge plastic containers of milk on the table at meal times, leaving creamy moustaches on everyone’s upper lip.
Finally I made it to England, to work in Hull and be woken by fog horns creeping up the Humber. There I met a clever, sophisticated French woman who was keen to find a husband and become an English lady. So we would drink in pubs in the Wolds on the look out for gentlemen in tweed.
On one occasion I offered to buy her a glass of wine. Her nose shriveled. “Never wine in a pub,” she said. “Stick to whisky. It’s the only thing worth drinking in England.”
My road to redemption came in Sweden. There the tax on alcohol is so high that the most expensive wine is almost the same price as plonk, so in Sweden they don’t bother with plonk. With whatever I ate in Sweden, from reindeer tongues to piquant herring, a most exquisite wine had been selected. Undiscovered taste buds exploded with pleasure, and I was a changed woman.
By now I had tied the knot with my own English gentleman in tweed, and I returned to the UK to discover that wonderful wine was there to be drunk, sometimes even in pubs. So began a quarter of a century of wine exploration.
Because I was French, albeit having acquired a Yorkshire accent, it was assumed that I knew all about wine. I had been a late beginner, and yet that has been a big advantage to me. I have not explored only the well trodden paths, but I have made discoveries, and when I stumble upon a special wine it becomes a Swedish moment for me again.
So when my gentleman in tweed suggested a retirement to France, I turned down the prospect of retirement but seized the chance to explore that most extraordinary of wine regions, Gascony. But I did check out what had happened to the Grappe Fleurie factory – now demolished and almost forgotten, lying beneath an estate of modern Breton bungalows. Time to move on, I thought.