Rebecca (Becca) Sears
Patti McGill Peterson Center for International and Intercultural Studies
During my fall semester of 2011, I studied abroad in Rouen, France. I was fortunate to live, and form close bonds, with two different host families (one in the countryside and one right in the city of Rouen). As a French major, the full immersion into French speaking families was extremely beneficial. To my advantage, though it at first felt like a disadvantage, my primary host family in the city didn't speak a word of English, so my French speaking and comprehension abilities greatly improved.
France is renowned for its diverse wines. Each region of the country has different types of grapes and styles of production, contributing to the variety of tastes unique to these regions. Some well known areas include Bordeaux, famous primarily for their red wines, and Champagne, known for, well, champagne. My initial plan was to visit the Languedoc-Roussillon region in the southwest of the country, a major producer of table wine, but because of traveling and time concerns, I instead went to the Alsace region in eastern France. I did some research prior to my trek east, and planned to visit a small, local family owned winery. I was interested in finding out how, in a country full of internationally exported wines, a local winery stays afloat amongst the competition.
I made the trip to Alsace during my fall vacation at the end of October. At that point, not much wine production was going on, but sales were (as always) in full swing. My mother joined me on this trip, which was good, because I do not know how to drive a manual car, which is the norm in France. On our way east, we drove through and spent a night in Reims, on of the commercial centers of the Champagne region. Several champagne companies have their caves there, including Moet & Chandon, Veuve Cliquot, and Pommery. My mom and I took a tour of the Pommery cellars, which was a truly fascinating experience. We were given a full tour of the caves and saw thousands of aging champagne bottles. We learned about the production and bottling processes, as well as the history of Madame Pommery. To conclude our tour, we were given a couple of glasses of free samples of different varieties of champagne. I learned the differences between a blanc de noirs, a blanc de blancs and the different types of sweetness.
We arrived later that day in the small town of Colmar in Alsace. The hills were covered with rolling vineyards of different shades of gold that seemed to go on forever. It was truly breathtaking. Due to its proximity to the border of Germany, there is a strong German influence in the buildings and local cuisine. As there are countless small wineries, it was difficult to which one to visit.
On the way back from a day trip to a castle, my mom and I took a wrong turn. While turning around in a tiny village, we stumbled upon a winery that seemed to fit my requirements of being small, local, family owned and off the beaten path. We walked up the driveway, and a bell was tripped. A short, stout woman came running from her garden to greet us. She didn't speak a word of English. I told her about my project and she was very excited to help. I was able to ask her some questions I had prepared in advance. The woman was the owner of the vineyard which had 6-7 employees. They picked the grapes mostly by hand, but used some machines to speed up the process. I asked if she sold her wine to a local restaurant, as many small wineries do, and she said that she used to, but that the restaurant had closed down. Her clientele is primarily made of up friends and neighbors to whom she had been selling for years, and passers-by like my mom and me. She then eagerly asked if she could show us her cellar. She led us to a small, musty basement containing four giant barrels full of white wines, the Alsace specialty. It was an interesting contrast to the vast underground tunnels at the Pommery caves. We snapped a few photos, and then went into her small office, which served as a tasting room. Alsatian wines are typically sweet, dessert wines. My mom and me were nervous, as we are both partial to reds, or more tart whites. However, this woman's wines were just right, so we bought four bottles to bring home.
I was sad to leave Alsace. It was charming and beautiful, and relatively unknown to American tourists. Although my enrichment project didn't take place in the region in which I had initially planned, I definitely got the experience I had hoped to get out of the trip. I am so appreciative of the CIIS office and generous grant donors for giving me the opportunity to explore a region that I would not have otherwise been able to explore.