Grapes Galore at Champerret

view of salon
One of about 15 aisles at the salon at the Espace Champerret.

Independent Producers Show Their Stuff
and Talk to Customers

Paris:- Wednesday, 26. November 1997:- The Porte de Champerret is like, close, but no cigar. It is just up from the Palais de Congrés at the Porte Maillot - 'Porte Mayo' to sandwich fans - in the west 17th arrondissement, but you normally won't go there.

If you are at the Porte Maillot, you can walk to Champerret before the PC bus will come to take you there - otherwise, it is a long way around by métro. I did stuff for a traffic safety magazine there, so I've tried it every way possible.

Once at Champerret, for whatever reason, you might have to go to Levallois, on the other side of the Périphérique, for whatever reason. If you do, you can cut a bit to the right, starting at the tiny Jardin de l'Amérique Latine, skip over  the wine cartons to the Jardin A. Balagny and take the path which goes by the Espace Champerret.

Let's say, instead of wanting to go to Levallois, you want to go the 19th Salon National des Vins des Caves Particulières, then you stop at the Espace Champerret and forget Levallois entirely.

Behind the stands, there is lots of spare supply for the browsers.

That is exactly what I'm doing today. I have never been to this salon. I never went 'in the good old days' because... the name put me off. I mean, do you happen to have a 'Cave Particulière?'

Some people with châteaux or other grand palaces may have one, but you, me, all the little people, we have a dark hole in the cellar full of broken kid's toys and busted appliances, or if things are really tough, a fifth of a broom closet; heated to 19 or 20 degrees. The rule here is; you can't keep it so you'd better drink it, and the sooner the better.

Well, I was wrong. I've been missing a really good thing for 18 years.

There is a tent on what should be the Jardin A. Balagny and there is sort of a fence at the crosswalk, and people going to the salon are getting tangled up with people coming from it because these are all either carrying six-packs of wine or pulling 'granny-shoppers' - the two-wheeled carts shoppers use to haul heavy stuff in.

Other people are also trying to park here and load their trunks with these six-packs, and it is all so complicated I'm going to skip the description of it. Let's say, it is a mini bit of chaos, in the crosswalk.

People coming from the salon look a bit crazed and have to be dodged while going past the tent, to the Espace Champerret. This turns out to be a confusion of brick stairways and locked doors and escalators. After several false tries, as I seem to be on the right path, a lady is just started up some stairs and she tumbles with a loud clink, and all heads swivel to see this - to see if her package leaks.

The 'down' escalators are the key to the entry. Many people are coming up and all are carrying bulky packages. The security mojo directs me to the actual entrance and here a trim hostess gives me the essential brochures and my free wine-testing glass.

Yes! Not only has an old 'supplier' sent me a free ticket to get in, I get a free glass as a bonus - an officially-sanctioned wine tasting glass. I put it in my bag.

The smell is... just inside the door there is this smell; powerful, overwhelming, alcoholic, no, like a sort of wine-damp, rich, fruity, moist, humid. Thick. Like there is a low cloud and it is going to rain wine at any minute.

The interior space is low and very, very wide. There confit de canard are thousands of people; and there are nearly a thousand stands manned by individual wine producers. It looks like a extra-large supermarket without shelves; just these stands, arranged in aisles, with cross-aisles, and inside the rectangles of stands, are huge mountains of wine cartons.

Confit de Canard is some of what goes together with the Château Peybrun.

This to too much. I follow the co-ordinates on my free entry ticket to the Château Peybrun stand, which turns out to be right in front of the entry. Catherine de Loze tells me that stands are assigned by pulling numbers out of a hat, and this is the number she got this year.

Since all the stands are similar, I can tell you about this one and it will apply to all. The most important aspect is that each stand is manned by the producer, or spouse. There are no wine-trade dealers at this salon. You deal with the people who make the wine with their own hands, on their own land.

This is what I have with this Château Peybrun: Madame de Loze took over the family holding in 1985, enlarged it, and replanted it. The property has been in her family since 1560 and she carries on a long, very long, tradition. Grapevines were originally planted in this region at the time of Julius Caesar.

The specialty of the Château Peybrun is high quality 'vin liquoreaux,' the type of wine you would drink before dinner with foie gras or nuts such as almonds, or after dinner with melons or cheeses such as Roquefort. It is rich.

This is an A.O.C. wine from the limited district of Cadillac and the name can be associated with the Chevalier de Lamothe-Cadillac, who was sent to Louisiana as governor. This was when Louisiana reached up to Michigan, and there is a Cadillac there too - not to mention the automobile.

Cadillac lies on the right bank of the Garonne, opposite to where the larger river is joined by the Ciron. Its water is cold and on reaching the warmer Garonne, a morning fog is produced which coats the grapes with moisture, which later Madame de Loze in the day dries, firming the grape. All of Cadillac lies within a diametre of five kilometres and has its own unique microclimate.

This is Catherine de Loze's stand; exactly like all the others at the salon.

Partly because of the steep slopes, the grapes are hand-picked. The other reason for this is because each grape is selected only when it is in a state of being 'royally rotten.' The harvest follows in successive waves as the grapes reach this state - and in this year's case, it was seven times; starting in September and the last time, on 31. October.

The wine sits in barrels for two years before being bottled. It is sold mainly by correspondence, but also can be found at a few selected wine shops and some restaurants.

Madame de Loze's stand itself is the ordinary salon industrial-grade affair, and is decorated by one pot of yellow flowers. In front of the stand there is a ten-litre bucket on the industrial-grade floor.

The idea is, you front up with your free glass; you are offered a taste and you swill it around the glass a bit, stick your nose in it, take a sip and roll it around the inside of your mouth until you 'get it,' and then you spit it out into the handy bucket. Some people skip the last part.

As there are over nine hundred stands at the salon and most stands are manned by a couple of people, and at each stand there are from one to four people; talking, tasting, spitting, and buying! - there is a lot of activity, and lot of smells and a very heady atmosphere.

Since the stands are drawn by lot, there is no order by wine district or region. You either have to follow the guide, which will force you to criss-cross the salon to visit all the stands of one region, or you must have a vine-map in your head and be able to read a lot of signs quickly. The print on the signs is large.

Scattered around the edges of this activity are a few stands selling rough mini-baguette sandwiches and tinned or bottled foie gras, so if one is not 'spitting' too much it is possible to be fortified.

Like many aspects surrounding wine, there is an excess to this salon. It is simply too much, or the space it is in is too small. On the weekend it will be pure hell, because a free drink is a free drink and a free drink is rare in Paris.

Darkness is outside when I leave. People with hand-carts piled up with six-pack cases are at the bottom of the escalator, wondering how to get past the steel bars, in place to prevent the passage of the hand-carts, heavy with bottles.

I wonder about this. Are they supposed to drink it all on the spot? Maybe they were supposed to have left their car in the underground garage - but what if they live within walking distance, either in Levallois or around the Porte de Champerret?

I follow a steady stream, carrying their six-packs, through the little parks. The Porte de Champerret looks better at night, with its bars and cafés and all their neons.

the free glass Château Peybrun, 33410 Gabarnac
Catherine de Loze
41. rue Sainte-Cécile, 33000 Bordeaux
Tel.: 33-5 56 96 10 84.

The Salon National des Vins des Caves Particulières has a web site. Next year's salon will be in building seven at Paris-Expo at the Porte de Versailles, from 2. December until 7. December.

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