Rouge Almost Noir

If you go down to the woods south of London, you may be in for a big surprise. Not the teddy bears’ picnic—that seems to be what a good many urban folk seem to expect in the countryside these days, as though farms were all film sets and the animals, a collection of animated stuffed toys. (Was it a wish for revenge on his father that inspired Christopher Robin Milne to sell the rights for Winnie-the-Pooh to Disney? Hush, hush, whisper who dares, Christopher Robin is getting even …)

The surprise is something quite unforeseen a generation ago. In the 1980s, English farmers, fed up with the agricultural policies of the European Union, spotted that consumers were no less fed up with the way that pork sold in supermarkets tended to taste more and more like blotting paper. Their response was to domesticate and rear wild boar, with exceedingly palatable results. Inevitably, though, some of the boar found their way out into the wild, where they ensconced themselves most successfully with their litters of little stripy piglets in woodland less than an hour from Gatwick Airport.

Though more than a hundred of the animals were let loose last Christmas when the fencing around a farm near my family home was cut by animal-liberation fanatics, I have yet to meet a boar in the wild. But I have read the description of pig-sticking in India by the British cavalry officer Francis Yeats-Brown in The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, and the speed and ferocity of the aroused boar sound terrifying. Boar are almost the weight of a Harley-Davidson and even quicker off the lights. The Yeats-Brown prescription is to stand your ground, with the spear out in front of you, so that the boar impales himself thoroughly; otherwise, you will get crushed and then rootled by the same sharp tusks that do such a thorough job of carving up farmers’ fields. Naturally, the Yeats-Brown sporting ethic requires that you “honour while you strike him down, the foe that comes with fearless eyes.” No wonder Yeats-Brown was one of the earliest western devotees of yoga. And no wonder it’s illegal to introduce the European wild boar to Minnesota.

The French, though, have always had wild boar, and nowhere more so than in the Loire Valley, southwest of Paris. Many of the grand sixteenth- and seventeenth-century chateaux along the river were built as hunting boxes for the nobility of the Ancien Régime. I don’t know if they still hunt the boar with hounds through the forests there. They certainly hunt deer in a musical and stately manner, a style that makes English fox hunting seem like a mad cross-country dash. As one might expect in wooded country, hound music is highly prized, and the solemn playing of the hunting horn is taken very seriously, especially to honor dead quarry.

The Loire Valley also produces a greater variety of wines than any other part of France. Most of them are white; the area is quite far north. But let me commend a red, the 2004 vintage from the lieu-dit Les Poyeux in the appellation Saumur-Champigny. This wine is made from the Cabernet Franc grape (an ancestor of the better-known Cabernet Sauvignon) and is available locally for around $15 in a bottle embossed with the old French Royal Arms. It is powerful stuff; drink it slowly. It improves with acquaintance and would improve even more with keeping. The color is on the red side of bituminous; the initial nose is almost nonexistent except, perhaps, for a whiff of alcohol. There is less fruitiness in the initial flavor than I found in the highly concentrated vintage from the baking hot summer of 2003. What is interesting, though, is the way that the concentrated tannins in the center of the taste open out level by level, unfolding successive, refreshing bitternesses and leaving a lingering, tingling aftertaste.

This is wine that demands your attention; it comes with fearless eyes. Honor it with the sort of fully flavored food you might eat with a Côtes du Rhône: venison roasted with a bitter cocoa glaze, well-hung wild boar, or a juicy sirloin with lots of horseradish. Your patience should be rewarded.