Discovering France’s Wines the Old-Fashioned Way

July 29, 2009 at 2:40 pm Leave a comment

“Why would anyone want to travel across France on a 1966-model Solex? Nothing could be more old-fashioned…”

So Lincoln Siliakus begins the preface to his new book, published bilingually this month in France as Visages de Terroir.

The meaning of the word terroir, Siliakus explains, “goes beyond the physical issues of soil, aspect, climate and plant variety.” (The English title of the book, Portraits of Terroir, wisely gives a nod to the truth that some words are just not translatable.)

It’s not often that acerbic wit, a sweet, crooked (and winning) smile, and an exceptionally warm heart live together comfortably within one person, but these are the phrases that best describe Lincoln Siliakus. Born in England, raised in South Australia, after traveling and living in many other parts of the world, for the past 10 years Siliakus has lived in France with his French wife, where he has joyfully taken on the endeavor of learning all he can about wine and sharing what he has learned with others. (He writes a regular column for L’Amateur de Bordeaux, a bi-monthly magazine of the Bottin Gourmand group.) He brings both passion and imagination to the task: and most important of all, a deep respect for the people and the earth who together create it, and for the culture that assigns it such an exalted place in daily life.

Visages de Terroir is a wonderful first step (or as Siliakus calls it, un avant-gout) toward a much longer, fuller account he will be writing about his six-week journey this spring via motorized bicycle, from a starting point in Chablis to his home in the Provencale village of Sablet, where he spends half his time (the other half is spent in Paris).

“I set out naively hoping that the vintners would explain terroir to me,” Siliakus writes. “I should have known that nothing is simple in France…Six weeks in the heart of the ‘civilisation of wine,’ as the French love to call it, left me with one certainty. This civilisation is complex, rich and life-sustaining.”

Visages de Terroir captures Siliakus’s deep appreciation for the 76 vintners he visited along his route and shares his observations of the people, grapes, terroir, and the combination of all these that work together to create the miracle of wine. A characteristic summary of one of the caves he visited as he drew near his home in Sablet illustrates his appreciation of the complex of elements that create the right conditions for great winemaking. “This hot sunburnt terroir,” he writes, “produces somewhat forced, but fruity, alcoholic wines that are a bit rustic when young but which soften beautifully after a couple of years in the bottle.” He is equally sensitive and gifted at describing the life wisdom and the poetic insights that the vintners he visited shared with him. (Engaging photographs of each of his subjects, and a characteristic paysage of each of the traditional regions he passed through provide a welcome visual complement to the elegant prose.)

Siliakus, a graceful, witty writer, is a charming guide to the heart of France, and to perhaps her most important and characteristic agricultural endeavor in this wonderfully idiosyncratic voyage of celebration and discovery.

You can read about Siliakus’s journey on his blog: and the book, Visages de Terroir is available now on A much fuller account of his journey will be published in November as Le bonheur est dans le nez (a wink and a nod toward the film Le bonheur est dans le pré (Happiness is in the Field), happiness being found among oenophiles, of course, “dans le nez.”

A bientot!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland.  She teaches literature courses in Paris and Hawaii for the Education Abroad program at Queens College, CUNY, and twice a year she offers Writing from the Heart workshops in a beautiful little village in the Champagne region of France.

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