Vines, Wines, Food and Folklore
Superstitions aren’t always based on fear—they can inspire joy and seal friendships, as a trek through France’s Périgord proves.
Vineyards once covered southwestern France’s Périgord region, the Dordogne, until the late 19th century phylloxera epidemic wiped them out. Such vast wine production never fully returned to the area, save the western stretches of Bergerac and Pécharmant and parts of Domme. The Périgord today is more known for foods that pair beautifully with wine: black truffles, foie gras, duck confit, strawberries, chestnuts and walnuts.
Yet from my home base of Sarlat-la-Canéda in the heart of the Périgord, I have witnessed a passion for winemaking born out of local traditions, communal feasts—and charming folklore.
One day I was hiking in the craggy green countryside south of Sarlat when I came upon a small vineyard. There, planted like his vines, stood an 80-year-old man, dressed in the signature French blue coveralls of men who labor with their hands. He just stood between the rows, eyes closed, taking in the air.
He threw open his eyes at the sound of my walking stick against the pavement and cheerily barked, “Bonjorn!” He spoke a patois, a wonderful mélange of French and Occitan. I seized the chance to ask him about his vineyard. What grape variety or varieties was he growing?
He beamed. “An old and venerable one, le raisin inconnu. The unknown grape. It’s one that has been grown here locally, forever it seems, but no one has given it a name or a designation. I make it just for my own pleasure! That’s what life is about, enjoying the everyday.”
I started to ask what his wine tasted like, but he interrupted me. “Ecoutez, there’s an old legend around here that says if you speak too much about the wine, especially in front of the vines, you could ruin it.”
As there are Périgord vintages made from rich folkloric stock that will rarely make its way to a collector’s table, so too are there cherished local practices, such as le chabrol.
Le chabrol is an old custom of finishing off one’s soup dregs with a swish of red wine in the bowl. Less than a hundred years ago, le chabrol was permitted only to men. A woman who attempted the sweeping slurp risked sprouting a beard. Yes, it was a very manly practice: Boys were initiated into manhood with their first chabrol. Today, both genders practice it with pride.
My first chabrol was two years ago at the winter feast in Castels, near St-Cyprien.
Unlabeled wine bottles sat on the long communal tables alongside local, seasonal foods. Over a hundred people sat down, enthusiastic, as the first course arrived: a thick pumpkin soup rich in local herbs, butter and garlic. It was so good that I was about to commit a small rudeness by using bread to wipe up the remains when my neighbor, André, grabbed my hand.
“Heresy!” he yelped. He took an unlabeled bottle of red wine and splashed a healthy dollop into my bowl and then into his. Following his example, I slowly swirled it to capture all the remaining soup essence and then slowly drank.
There can be no more intimate an experience of terroir than to mingle the molecules of wine grown on the same land as the vegetables in the soup. I’ve never experienced a wine and food pairing so vividly.
There is truth in folklore, as the old man whispering to his vines has known for years. Never let them tell you differently.