French Wine, French Poetry - Pairings

Sep 15, 2009

As autumn approaches, the air will soon be laden with the quiet gravity of falling leaves and smoky evenings. The days will be crisp, the streets cooler, the lawns and parks shrouded in an amber-yellow collage of leaves. You can already feel the night getting longer, grayer, the brightness of dusk sharply fading.

For myself, autumn and winter are the times when I sit down to absorb more books. I want to slip away into myself, lock the doors, retire from the world and reach for a glass of wine and a book of poetry.

Some of my favourite wines are French and that goes for poetry, as well. The French are known for literature that exhibits a raw, decadent indulgence that is both delicious and disturbing. Uninhibited, passionate, their works are much more erotic and sensual than what I feel is the Olympian sterility and dryness of English writing. Even in translation (some day I hope to read the originals), the works of Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud give the reader a pleasure not unlike that of good French wine.

Here are some of my personal favourite wines paired with what I consider the most apropos of poets and their poetry.

Charles Baudelaire by Gustave Courbet

Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) is a great poet when it comes to French letters. His writing was heavily influenced by the Romantics such as Victor Hugo (famous for the novels Les Miserables and Notre Dame de Paris – aka The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and also his poetry) and the realist approach of Honore de Balzac (his story Fanfarlo has taken its realist ideas from the latter author).

Baudelaire lived in fascinating times. When he was nine years old, France experienced the July Revolution (1830) which saw the overthrow of the French Bourbon monarch, King Charles X, in favour of Louis Phillipe, his cousin (who would, himself, be overthrown some 18 years later). Raised by his mother and step-father, the youthful Baudelaire was highly rebellious. Though he was expelled from one school for his lack of discipline, he eventually straightened out enough to finish his bachelor’s degree.

While in Paris, he lived a dissolute life and ran through his father’s inheritance. His step-father, a French Captain, attempted to set the young man straight but Baudelaire wouldn’t have any of it. He founded the Hashish Club with his friends, visited the great Nadar, fell in love with Jeanne Duval, a mulatto actress at the theatre and contracted numerous debts throughout his life.

Writing and journalism made up his career. He wrote art criticism (he was friends with Gustave Courbet, the great realist painter and knew the works of Eugene Delacroix), some short prose poems, translated the works of Edgar Allan Poe into French and composed his famous Les Fleur du Mal (The Flowers of Evil), a work that continues to enthrall, dismay and intrigue readers today (he was taken to court for obscenity when the work was published in 1857).

Of wine, he wrote in his poem, ‘Poison’, it

can endure the lowest dive
with sudden luxury
and out of a red mist create
enchanted porticoes,
like sunset firing a sodden sky.
(translation by Richard Howard)

He wrote several poems about wine: ‘The Soul of the Wine’, ‘Ragpickers’ Wine’, ‘The Murderer’s Wine’, ‘The Solitary Wine’ and ‘Lovers’ Wine’. Many depicted the bleak existence of the lower classes in the company of what may have been wine from the south of France. (In the mid-19th century the railway made it possible for the wines of Languedoc and Roussillon to make it to Paris).

Despite Baudelaire’s compassion for the poorer Parisian souls, I am hesitant to recommend a wine from the south. But neither would I suggest a Bordeaux or a Champagne. Instead, I feel Burgundy to embody the erotic but brooding melancholic soul of Baudelaire’s writing. You could sample an elegantly sensual Volnay from the Côte de Beaune or if you want to splurge, a deep, exotic Clos du Vougeot from the Côte de Nuits. If not, a regular red Burgundy will do. There are five specific levels of Burgundy: regional ACs (i.e. Bourgogne), specific ACs taking in a whole group of villages (i.e. Côte de Nuits-Villages), AC wines that take a village name such as Pommard, Premier Crus which are relegated to several good vineyards sites and Grand Crus which are the best individual vineyard sites. Names to look out for: Joseph Drouhin, Louis Jadot, Maison Leroy.

When young, red Burgundy’s flavours range from strawberry and raspberry to deeper damson and dark cherries. When the wines have aged, especially in the Premier and Grand Crus, expect more Oriental spices, whiffs of forest mushrooms, sometimes an air of light tobacco, chocolate and truffles – a charismatic complement to some of Baudelaire’s more intoxicating poems such as ‘A Head of Hair’ and ‘Twilight: Evening’. But it also exerts a floral quality that should compliment Baudelaire’s fleurs. As Jay McInerney writes of Burgundy in his humorous but educational book, Bacchus and Me, “[If] it’s red, French, costs too much, and tastes like the water that’s left in the vase after the flower have died and rotted, it’s probably Burgundy.”

Rotting flowers, truffles and mushrooms. Baudelaire would most likely approve. Any of these wines can be drunk in the company of such lyrics that ask:

Are you the sovereign harvest of the fall?
Are you the savor of Happy Isles?
- Ultimate urn that bides its time for tears,
Caressing pillow, or narcotic rose?
(translation by Richard Howard)

Born in 1844, Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) was only 13 years old when Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal hit the Paris bookstands. Before his father relocated his family to Paris, his early childhood was spent in Metz, near Alsace. Of his hometown, Verlaine once wrote: “I lived there only a few years… but it was there that my mind and senses opened to life.” The boy was prone to melancholy but like his idol, Baudelaire, he exuded a dark, sensuous, Dionysian edge.

His family tried to point him toward a career in the civil service but his passion for writing brought him closer and closer to the literary landscape of Paris. As Martin Sorrell writes in his Introduction to his translation of Verlaine’s poetry, the poet “…spent his life facing in two directions at once.” He could write the most sensitive, tear-driven lyrics and yet be equally ‘gifted’ with the ability to compose bawdy, pornographic rhymes. He was also a brute, a terrible drunk who beat both his wife and mother yet strangely – or paradoxically - longed for a quiet family life.

When he hooked up with the young poet Arthur Rimbaud, the older poet left his wife, Matthilde and the two men became lovers and traveled throughout Europe. During a heated argument in 1873, the tempestuous Verlaine shot the young Arthur in the hand and served time in prison.

Considering Verlaine was born so close to the German border, and there is a Germanic spirit to some of his more pensive lyrics, I highly recommend an Alsatian Gewurztraminer. It is a suitable and perfect match. Pour yourself a golden glass from a chilled bottle. Open a copy of Verlaine’s poetry. Breathe in the lychees, the roses and grapefruit, then read ‘Il pleure dans mon coeur’

Il pleure dans mon Coeur
Comme il pleut sur la ville
(It is raining in my heart
Like it rains on the town)

The wine is viscous, rich, and the poem is languorous, solemn. It seems to coat the palate of one’s mind and heart with a deep, satisfying intensity.

Take a sip and flip the pages to ‘Autumn Song’: “The long sobs of the violins of autumn lay waste my heart…” One can imagine the golden sunset streets of October in Paris by reading Verlaine’s work. With an Alsatian wine in hand, one can almost taste the dreamy, misted world of the poet’s imagination.

Notable producers include: Pierre Sparr, Hugel et Fils, Domaine Weinbach, Domaine Zind Humbrecht, Trimbach, and Domaines Schlumberger.

Paul Verlaine (left) and Arthur Rimbaud (centre) in a painting by Henri Fantin-Latour

If Charles Baudelaire and Paul Verlaine are less than worthy role models for a young man, let alone an aspiring poet, Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) is the enfant terrible. Born in northeastern France in the Ardennes département, Rimbaud was raised in the middle class. His father was a Captain of the Infantry and spent much of his career in Algiers. He abandoned the young boy to his mother when he was six. Known for her severity (one of the reasons Rimbaud’s father may have flewn the coop), she would deprive her son meals if he failed to recite prescribed Latin verses.

Before writing his great poems and prose poems, not to mention his famous letters, the young student wrote “I will be a capitalist”, a prophecy that would, in many ways, come true.

He wrote poetry relatively early in his life. By the age of seventeen he had composed his most famous poem, ‘Le Bateau Ivre’ (The Drunken Boat) and met the poet, Paul Verlaine. The two became lovers and traveled from Paris to London via Brussels. It was in London that Verlaine shot his lover in the hand during a heated, drunken dispute. The older man served 18 months in prison for his ‘crime passionel’. By 1874, after completing his Une Saison en enfer, (A Season in Hell) Rimbaud turned his back on poetry and writing, leaving it for a world of adventure. Perfecting his English in London, he travelled to Germany, Switzerland and Italy studying German, Spanish, Arabic, Italian, Dutch and modern Greek. By the early 1880s he began to work in Ethiopia, eventually trying his hand at gun-running and slave-trading in Turkey and Arabia. In 1891, he contracted a tumor on his right knee. After an amputation, his recovery fraught with difficulty, Rimbaud returned Marseilles to seek out further treatment. His condition worsened and as a result, he died there at the age of 37.

What many men may have lived in many lifetimes, Rimbaud lived all in one. He is a dark monument, a legend, but still an artist. Whereas Baudelaire is the commanding figure in 19th century poetry (his work more than his life thrust him to the forefront of French literature), both Rimbaud’s persona and poetry have intoxicated generations of artists. This list is huge and includes Americans poets such as T.S. Eliot, Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs; novelists Vladimir Nabokov, Henry Miller and Anais Nin. Musicians such as Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Jim Morrison and Patti Smith cite him as their songwriting muse. There is also a film, Total Eclipse with Leonardo Di Caprio portraying the young poet with Daniel Thewlis as Verlaine.

So what wine or wines would you drink in the company of Rimbaud’s poetry? Considering the poet was a traveler, and his poetry embodies his wild, ecstatic and dissolute vision of the world, with the sea and rivers as a feature in his influential ‘Le Bateau Ivre’, I’d recommend a sparkling wine, a Crémant de Loire. A Crémant is any sparkling wine made using the traditional Champagne method outside of Champagne (to be called Champagne it must be from the region). After Champagne, the Loire is the most famous of sparkling wine producers, especially around the town of Saumur where the three top Loire sparkling-wine producers (Bouvet-Ladubay, Gratien et Mayer and Langlois-Château – each in their own way related to a Champagne house) are located. While drinking the bubbly Chenin Blanc, read from ‘The Drunken Boat’

the storm made bliss of my sea-borne awakening
Lighter than a cork, I danced on the waves which men call eternal rollers
(translation by Oliver Bernard).

For his Une Saison en enfer, I would reach for a delicious, albeit decidedly decadent bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The history of the Popes have been known to include ‘some moments’ of hedonism (more than we know or can imagine I suspect). During the 14th century, there was a period between 1305 and 1378 when the popes reigned in Avignon. The period is called the ‘Avignon Papacy’ or ‘Babylonian Captivity’ when the French court had a certain influence on the papal court.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape or “New House of the Pope” is the vineyard area near Avignon and the most southern of major Rhone appellations. The vineyards are covered in ‘pudding’ stones, some small, some the size of pumpkins, remnants of ancient glaciers from the Alps.

The wines are made up of predominantly Grenache but the blend allows for 13 grape varieties in total, including Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsault.

Rimbaud was a definite ‘capitalist’ in his adult life but there is also the lusty spirit of the provocative adolescent in his writings. Known for his Symbolist imagery, the prose poems with its Catholic influence might be just right for a glorious bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Noteworthy and famous producers: Château Beaucastel, M. Chapoutier, Château Rayas, and Domaine de Beaurenard.

What better way to face the impending winter than with these poets and these wines.

Baudelaire, Charles, Les Fleurs du Mal (trans. Richard Howards). David R. Godine, Boston, 1983.
Clark, Oz, 2009 Pocket Wine Guide. Harcourt Publishing, Orlando, 2008.
MacNeil, Karen, The Wine Bible. Workman Publishing Company Inc. New York, 2001
Richardson, Joanna. Verlaine. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1971.
Rickword, Edgell. Rimbaud: The Boy and the Poet. Haskell House Publishers, New York, 1971
Rimbaud, Arthur. Collected Poems (trans. Oliver Bernard). Penguin, London, 1997.
Robb, Graham. Rimbaud. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2001
Verlaine, Paul. Selected Poems (trans. Martin Sorrel). Oxford, 2009.


Rocket French August 5, 2011 at 12:48 PM  

That's a great selection of French authors.


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My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

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