We are driving down an extremely curvy road. The wine from lunch is still circulating in my body and my stomach isn't really enjoying all the sharp turns. The bright white rocky soil outside hurts my eyes and the van's air-conditioning isn't working, of course. If someone introduces any kind of physical exertion into the situation, I just might pass out.
I'm in Ardèche, France, right on the border where the northern Rhône meets the southern part of the valley. Northern Rhône is Syrah country and well-known for its appellations such as Cornas, Hermitage, and Saint-Joseph. The southern Rhône, meanwhile, is the land of Grenache and home of the iconic wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
When we finally get there, I meet Raphael Pommier, a seventh-generation farmer and winemaker of Notre Dame de Cousignac. He is pulling on overalls way too enthusiastically, considering it's about 105 degrees out. Putting on overalls is literally the last thing I want to do.
"It's much cooler where we are going", says Pommier and winks. We are at the entrance of La Grotte de Saint Marcel d'Ardèche, an approximately 35-mile-long cave system that was discovered in 1836. Pommier packs a couple bottles of wine and a case of tasting glasses into his yellow backpack, because what else would you need when caving?
"It is called spéléoenologie," he continues. "We decided to explore our terroir from a very different angle. We have beautiful caves in the Ardèche because of the limestone bedrock. One day I decided to age my wine in one of those beautiful caves."
Hauling wine barrels and hundreds of bottles into a deep natural cave must have been a pain in the ass. "The elevator broke down after the first few rounds. It got difficult after that," Pommier says.
"We want to explore the terroir from underneath. Usually, when you go to a winery you visit the vineyards, which is very interesting, but it's also interesting to go to the birth place of taste."
"Keep your helmet on at all times," says our caving guide Gabriel. As we begin our descent it doesn't seem too bad. A nice touristy thing I could easily do with my five-year-old. We reach the bottom of what seemed like endless flights of stairs. A huge, beautifully lit cave opens up in front of us.
"We're going in there", says Gabriel, and points at a long dark tunnel. "You brought other shoes, right?" he asks. I completely didn't. Nobody told me to. "Some places are quite slippery, so if you feel more comfortable with it, you can try to sit and slide down." I'm beginning to question if this is something you should combine with wine tasting.
"The cave is a good place to taste wine," Pommier continues. "Many farmers explored the caves as a fun activity to do on the weekend. They drank wine all the time. So, the farmers would bring a couple of cases at a time of wine with them, and they'd leave them in the cave. Just so that they wouldn't have to carry the wine back and forth. After a while, they noticed that the wine had not only changed but had even gotten better."
We get off-road from the paved tourist path and continue deeper into the cave. After just a few corners it's already pitch black. The lights on our helmets reveal only small bits of this massive cave. Here and there you can see big smashed rocks on the ground that have fallen from the ceiling, and at that point, I realized that the helmet was purely decorative.
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The surface of the walls and ceiling is completely filled in some spots with various kinds of crustacean shells. If you think about terroir, that whole limestone cave is basically just pure potential taste for the vines, hundreds of thousands of years in the making.
"In France, this idea of terroir is about something else than the fruit," Pommier says. "The varietal, like Grenache, will taste a specific way because of the type of grape. But Grenache won't taste the same here as it does in the south of Languedoc because the environment is different. As an organic producer, if I pay attention to terroir, I can add a second taste to the varietal character."
Pommier cultivates vines organically and feels that it's an important part of the whole concept of terroir. "When you make wine organically, you think about the entire environment of your grapes, and that's where you can get terroir."
We continue approximately half a mile from the cave entrance. We slide down some pitches, squeeze through small holes, and walk through massive galleries. One particular narrow path with a gnarly drop next to it made me feel dizzy. There was nothing preventing me from falling in and breaking every single bone in my body. Thankfully, I did not.
We arrive at this patio-like ledge and Pommier says, "let's taste some wine." Finally! He pours the wine and asks everybody to turn off their helmet lights. The total absence of light is super creepy. I'm not claustrophobic but this made me claustrophobic. If you could taste wine in space, I imagine this is what it would feel like. A sensory deprivation tank filled with wine.
First, we taste Pommier's red wine that was aged in his winery. Smooth, spicy, and not a spittoon in sight, so down it goes. The next wine is called Vinolithic, and it's virtually identical to the previous wine, except this was aged in the cave. We start sniffing. Pommier turns on his light and the only thing I see in this whole dark vacuum is his smirk. "What do you think?" he asks.
The fruit seems much brighter and the wine feels fresher in general. But why? It can't be just a question of temperature.
"The grapes love the sun; wine doesn't. Wine doesn't like extremes, or changing conditions. In the cave, nothing changes. The temperature is always 55°F. The humidity is always 87%. And it's dark. So it's basically perfect for wine."
But then there's something else. "It turns out that there's a lot of carbon dioxide inside the cave. That's why you felt a bit dizzy earlier. The carbon dioxide dissolves slowly into the wine through the cork or barrel, adding natural carbonic acid and a fresher and fruitier taste."
And yeah, it was pretty zen to go all Jules Verne and drink wine underground. But I fundamentally couldn't cope with the ambiance, which meant it was time to crawl out from the cave. I left the cave baffled. As crazy as it may seem, Pommier might be onto something. What started as an experiment has now become a thing. There are 10 winemakers currently aging their wines in the cave.
"Being organic means being in nature, but in the center of the creation. If an artist doesn't have inspiration he won't produce anything interesting. Being in Ardèche, this wonderful environment, I get the inspiration to make great wines. That's it."