INTRODUCTION to Walking in Wine CountryPosted: October 13, 2011
One evening, dining with friends in London, I was invited by my host (who shares my view that such guessing games, if not taken too seriously, can be both instructive and fun) to identify the red wine that we were drinking. I pretended to give the matter careful thought: holding the glass up to the light, swirling and inhaling and ‘chewing’ as advised by the experts, making thoughtful noises, and so on and so (as I hoped) intelligently and impressively forth. In fact, I had known the answer quite quickly; not through skill or cleverness, but largely because I had bought a few bottles of the same wine some months before at the domaine in Languedoc where it had been made.
I had arrived at the domaine in the course of a walk in spring in one of the most attractive parts of the Minervois. The owner and his wife – he the winemaker, she the business manager – had been surprised and pleased that a visitor should have arrived on foot at their somewhat remote property and had received me very kindly. We had tasted in the cellars and talked a lot, and after a while I had gone on my way a good deal more knowledgeable about the wines of the Minervois than I had been before, and with my rucksack heavier by a bottle of cold rosé that I was looking forward to drinking with a picnic. Next day I returned by car and bought some of the domaine’s red to take home.
Now, with the wine from that same domaine in my glass at my friends’ dinner table in London, recollections of France crowded in on me: the sun on my face in the early morning, the scents of wild thyme and sage and acacia, the cistus and honeysuckle in thegarrigue, the cuckoo calling. I recalled the sun-crisped bread (the baguette had been travelling on top of my pack) and the pâté and the cheese for lunch in the foothills of the Montagne Noire.
The wine was nowhere near being ‘great’, but it was a good, honest one of individual character; drinking it again, I thought of the winemaker and his wife, both of whom had been individuals of marked and agreeable personality. I saw their centuries-old château and the yellow broom on the borders of the vineyard and remembered how beautifully cold had been the water which had come from a spring on their property and with which I had replenished my flask.
That wine had meant something else to me, too: the walk that day in the Minervois, through by no means the first of its kind, had been the first that I had undertaken with the purpose of what was to become Walking in Wine Country specifically in mind. Alone up there in the garrigue I had unstintingly celebrated the fact with the cold rosé, looking out across the vines and thinking that, for a writer by trade, the road to a purposeful use of something I liked so much had been a curiously long one.
The walking had come before the wine. A romantic idea of walking almost certainly began with my mother’s stories of her solitary adventures as a small girl in the Welsh hills, and with imagery such as that of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Vagabond:
Give the jolly heaven above, and the byway nigh me. Bed in the bush
with stars to see, bread I dip in the river – There’s the life for a man like me….
For a country child who liked to be out in all weathers it was powerful stuff.
In my schooldays the infant romantic fancy was nurtured by superior tales of high adventure: James Fenimore Cooper, whose characters went fleet of foot through the forests or trekked across the great prairies of America; Walter Scott and John Buchan, both of whom brought the drove roads and heather-covered moors of the Scottish borders and highlands into a south-of-England bedroom. Later there came Bunyan, Borrow, Wordsworth, Keats and Coleridge, Rousseau, Balzac and Ruskin: romantics and walkers all.
What contribution, if any, this unscholarly mishmash of influences made to the predilections of adult life it is hard to say, but walking became something like a passion. Year after year, season in and season out, I walked the South Downs of my native Sussex. I walked on the Great Ridgeway and in the Scottish borders and highlands and Welsh Marshes. I walked in the foothills of the Drakensberg in South Africa and through the Kalinkandaki valley in Nepal. Then on spring came the coincidence of circumstances that led straight to the wine country of France.
I was going walking again on the Sussex Downs. The post came as I was leaving the house and I put several letters in my pocket to open on the train. One of them was an invitation to spend a weekend at a château belonging to one of the big champagne houses not far from Épernay. That day, too, and not for the first time by any means, I had a paperback edition of Hilaire Belloc’s classic The Path to Rome in my pack and was reading it as I lunched in a little sheltered hollow overlooking the Weald. Early in his walk, passing through Belfort at the foot of the Vosges, Belloc comes across a ramshackle house offering ‘open’ wine for sale:
“‘Choosing the middle price, at four pence a quart”, I said, “Pray give me a hap’orth in a mug.” This the woman at once did, and when I came to drink it, it was delicious … lifting the heart, satisfying, and full of all those things wine merchants talk of, bouquet, and body, and flavour … So I bought a quart of it, corked it up very tight, put it in my sack, and held it in store against the wineless places.”’
France, wine and walking! There on the Sussex chalk with a breeze off the Channel and the sun and the sound of larks and the scent of the turf, how I fancied myself suddenly on the long byways of France with all that I needed in a pack on my back, sleeping out as the occasion warranted, buying my wine when opportunity offered, as Belloc had done. Instead of being met by car at the airport in Paris (the big champagne firms tend to do things in style), why not take the train from Paris to Épernay, and by a circuitous route walk to a weekend of good food, good wine and good company that would be even more enjoyable for the exercise? I had already acquired a considerable taste for the wines of Champagne; now I improved it hugely be a down-to-earth acquaintance with the chalk hills, woods, valleys and villages of the Marne. It was the first step in what was to be a whole new experience of walking and wine and France, the beginning of a relationship from which Walking in Wine Country was to be born.
Other walks in other winemaking regions of France soon followed; not at this time with any notions of a systematic association of subjects in mind, but because more and more I derived great personal satisfaction – physical, emotional, intellectual – from them. Most of the vineyards of France are in some of the most obviously beautiful parts of the whole incomparably beautiful land: Alsace, Savoy and the Jura, the Loire, Burgundy, the Rhône valley, Provence, Languedoc, Gascony and Aquitaine. Wine country means the foothills of the mountains: the Vosges, the Alps, the Massif Central, the Pyrenees. It means great rivers and their scores of tributaries. It is thousands of square miles of accessible, topographically varied terrain, with roads if one needs them, but also with an infinity of traffic-free byways and paths if one does not. It means a wealth of still-beguiling, very ancient towns and villages and some of the most impressive cities in Europe. Moved by a love of walking and wine and all the other civilized things of life, a person could live as long as Methuselah and still not exhaust the pleasures of France.
‘The more I have learned about wine in the course of a quarter of a century of enjoyment, the more I have realized that it weaves in with human history from its very beginnings as few, if any, other products do,” says Hugh Johnson in his masterly and enthralling The Story of Wine. If there is romance in walking, there is even more in wine. It is older than European civilisation itself. It is history. It is art. It is literature from the Bible to Belloc. In France it is abbeys and monasteries and churches and castles. It is great châteaux and fine mansions and sturdy farmhouses and not a few even humbler dwellings that look as if they have changed little since the time of Charlemagne.
Romance? Wine – good wine – may involve mechanical harvesters and computers and stainless steel and factory-like cuveries; but good wine – individual wine worth tasting with interest and talking about – in France is more likely still to mean pickers in colourful variety hard at work by hand and eagerly sitting down to hearty harvest luncheons and dinners. In countless domains from the Vosges to Mont Ventoux, from Bordeaux to Bandol, it still means very old timber presses (and even grapes being trodden barefoot) as well as state-of-the-art hydraulic contrivances. There is stainless steel in plenty, of course, but there is still oak enough in the form of vats and casks, often in medieval cellars, to satisfy the most starry-eyed romantic.
No less, and perhaps above all, wine is people: people and their good husbandry; people and their labour and skill and love and traditions and respect and ambition and imagination and pride. More and more I seriously doubt if dull or fundamentally disagreeable people are capable of making interesting, thoroughly enjoyable wine. So from one appellation to another; from Ammerschwihr to Aguilar, from the Médoc to Mont-Ste Victoire; I walked my way to new experiences and pleasures of wine. The more I walked in wine country, the more I saw that although I had supposed myself to be fairly knowledgeable on the subject, almost all wines, even very famous ones, had until recently been little more to me than beverages in bottles, distinguishable – the best-known – by reputation, but very largely only by their intrinsic qualities, and by price. Rarely was I able to put a landscape, let alone any other detail of origin, to a label, no matter how illustrious the name on it. In this, like most people, I had been ignoring an enormous potential of pleasure.
Now things were different. Now Fleurie, for example, once merely one of the better wines of the Beaujolais as far as I was concerned, was a village I had looked down over from a long, lazy hillside picnic. Gigondas was no longer just a name among what were said to be good value wines from the Rhône (whatever that really signified), but another village, this time at the feet of the pre-Alps, where on a hot September day I drank gratefully from a communal fountain before visiting a winemaker who sent me on my way with a bottle of his ‘85 to drink with lunch high among the Dentelles de Montmirail. Good wine is good wine, but it is even better when the name on the bottle becomes also hawthorn in bloom on the hills of Sancerre, or the blessing of shade at high summer in the vineyards of Bandol, or the wild beauty of the high Corbières.
Famous names are few and far between in the wine racks of my one-time coal cellar, but to such as there are I am now able to put pictures far more informative and evocative than the labels; and no matter how the wines themselves may age, they constitute a treasury of souvenirs that will become more valuable as times goes by.
Morgon by Moonlight
At the Château de Pizay, in the Beaujolais, I had a rendezvous with Lucien, a representative from the regional tourist organization, whose intention it had been to take me to dinner at a restaurant in nearby Bellville where the food, he had said, was good and authentically regional and the atmosphere ‘tres sympathique’. Now, over an aperitif before leaving the Château, he wondered if I might care to try something altogether different. A good friend of his was the daughter of a vigneron in Morgon. She and her sister were coming up from Lyon for the weekend and he had promised to meet them off the train at Belleville at five o’clock and take them to their parents’ place just a few kilometres along the road. The harvest was in full swing on the family property and we could have supper with the vendangeurs. It might be fun.
The family property was typical of the Beaujolais: a farmhouse of terracotta-coloured stone and indeterminate age and a farmyard no tidier or more elegant than working farmyards normally are, with assorted outbuildings and a litter of farm equipment, including two tractors with metal trailers hooked up. Madame Durance was a good-looking, cheerful woman in her fifties who apologised for not shaking hands, since they were covered in flour. Monsieur Durance was not yet back from calling on the wine-maker in Villié-Morgon to whom he sold his grapes. Her husband was a grower only. Her notably attractive daughters, Gabrielle and Véronique, (it crossed my mind that Lucien’s proposed change of plan might not have been wholly altruistic) who had made it clear on the way from the station that they had not come for a lazy weekend, but to help their mother feed the grape-pickers, put on aprons and started laying a long trestle table at one side of the very large kitchen. Lucien and I helped. When Monsieur Durance at last appeared he looked as though he had just had a good scrub. He had slightly greying hair and was wearing a bottle-green corduroy shirt with blue denim trousers. (‘Très gai!’ remarked Gabrielle). Though welcoming enough, he was sparing with words. It had been a very good harvest so far, he said: quantity good, quality excellent. ‘Pas mal du tout.’
Grape-harvest suppers are generally jolly, joyful occasions: the work is hard, the hours necessarily long, the pleasure of stopping work particularly great and the camaraderie usually self-sustaining. Grape-growers have a tradition of feeding their workers well, if only out of self-interest, and wine flows freely at table, even if it is not always literally du pays. It is an opportunity for everyone to let their hair down and have a happy time. At first, Gabrielle and Véronique were kept busy putting food on the table for the dozen or so hungry and thirsty young men and women pickers, all of whom were French and from Clermont-Ferrand.
When everyone had finished the charcuterie and was busy with the main course – a hearty beef ragoût – the sisters joined their father, Lucien and me at one end of the table and started on their own supper. Glasses were filled with a wine which Monsieur Durance described as ‘un bon petit Gamay de la commune’ and then filled again. I encouraged my host to talk about wine and he was scathing not only about Beaujolais Nouveau, but also about what he called fashions in crus*: one year Fleurie was all the rage, the next year Brouilly, the year after that, something else. The négociants did it just so as to manipulate prices. He was glad he was only a grower, not a wine-maker. His father and grandfather had been growers too. A cobbler ought to stick to his last.
‘Not a wine-maker!’ exclaimed Véronique. ‘What a story!’ (‘Quelle histoire!’).
With mock solemnity Monsieur Durance informed her that his ‘quelques bouteilles’ were just his little hobby: he was no Georges Dubœuf! *
At the end of dinner, Monsieur Durance announced that since the picking was going so well he would like to propose a little celebration: we would go and drink a bottle of ‘the ’83’. Now, the significance of Véronique’s ironic remark about her father’s not being a wine maker became apparent. In an open barn at one side of the farmyard was a neat, high stack of old, dry vine roots. Behind the stack, a door in the stone wall and some steps led down into a cellar lit by a single bare electric bulb. A wooden vat, an old-fashioned vertical, slatted press, several far-from-new casks and a row of large stainless-steel jugs constituted the image of a traditional wine-making cave. Through a low arch another short flight of stone steps gave access to a storage cellar.
While Monsieur Durance left us briefly for the lower level, his daughters lit the six half-burned candles in a pyramid-shaped wrought-iron holder —‘Il est très ritualiste,’explained Véronique— before switching off the electric bulb.
Her father returned with a basket containing several unlabelled bottles from which he proceeded to draw the corks. First, we tasted a two-year-old wine, which was tannic and without any Beaujolais charm. ‘You see: not drinkable!’ exclaimed Monsieur Durance. ‘But if I lived by selling wine instead of just growing grapes I would have sold it and someone would be paying to drink it.’ Next, we sampled ‘the ‘83’, which I thought very drinkable indeed. ‘Promising! ’, said Monsiur Durance. At five years old it was the one of oldest Beaujolais I had ever tasted, a revelation in flavours and appearance. Held up to the candle-flames, it was still a lovely garnet colour. Though it was as cool as the lower cellar, its ‘nose’ was seductive and the taste so complex as to challenge the imagination and descriptive powers of the taster. ‘No chaptalization*, no filtering: only racking,’ said Monsieur Durance.
It was not very sensible at that hour, but there was no spitting: we drank the bottle; then another. It was even less prudent to start on a fifteen-year-old marc, which Monsieur Durance said came from a friend of his. When the subject of going to bed was raised at last it was unanimously agreed that no responsible person could possibly take the wheel of a car, so I would have to stay more or less where I was.
My host went off to his own bed. The rest of us took our glasses and went outside to decide whether the moon was full.
The piece which follows is part of a larger one that appeared in France Magazine, October 2005, and was a consequence of the few days that I spent following in the steps of Robert Louis Stevenson, whose immortal Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes was first published in 1879. The walk was one of the most pleasurable experiences of my life.
On the Stevenson Trail
I awoke that morning not at cockcrow but donkey bray. “All the way up the long hill from Langogne it rained and hailed alternately”, complained Stevenson of the start of his next stage to the hamlet of Le Cheylard-l’Évêque in Le Gévaudan. Luckier by far, I hugged the shade where I could find it, twice at clear-running streams overhung with eglantine laved face and feet in the sublimely cool current, drank Evian and hoped there would be plenty of very cold rosé to come before the sun went down. Had I kept to the route as given in the latest edition of Topoguide number 700 of the Fédération Française de la Randonnée Pédestre, it would have been no more than a ten mile stage to Cheylard; but my copy was an old one, and I failed to reconcile its directions with waymark signs. Finally, in Saint-Flour-de-Mercoire I was inexcusably careless with my map reading and so condemned myself to what seemed at the time an interminable uphill slog in the heat of the afternoon.
To pretend that walking for pleasure is always and by definition an unqualified delight is rubbish: there are times when to stop putting one foot in front of the other is the essence of bliss. So it was with the last few miles of that day’s march. Why anyone would want to visit Cheylard, wrote Stevenson, “is more than my much-inventing spirit can suppose. For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move …”.
For me on that summer evening the good and entirely sufficient reason for being there was the bottle of rosé, which for a very short while, beaded with condensation, stood on the bare wooden table outside the very comfortable Refuge du Moure. Prudently, I had quenched my urgent thirst on arrival with half a litre of Badoit. Now, the happiness with which I drank was partly the child of error and frustration left behind —the wrong turnings; the maddening diversions; the unnecessary exertions —and partly that particular elation which is not least of the rewards of a long and active day in the open air. There was as well the very considerable satisfaction of being in the very place that had inspired one of the most quoted passages in English literature. Stevenson’s “great affair” may have been to move. Mine, at that moment, with the sun down below the hill but still illuminating the woods on the far bank of the Cheylard stream, with the fraîcheur of the evening just beginning, was to make no effort but what would secure me another bottle of the wine.
It was a precious moment of intense wellbeing. My German acquaintances of the previous night’s dinner in Langogne had arrived an hour or two earlier. Some were drinking tea, some mineral water, others beer. The leader of their donkey party; the sort of admirably fit, competent, authoritative man, I wryly reflected, who had made so formidable an enemy in Normandy sixty summers ago, not only joined me in appreciation of the rosé but with the aid of his own maps explained in detail my navigational errors. A sun-tanned middle-aged lady from Bavaria and another from Düsseldorf helped us empty a second bottle. (The day had been very warm indeed). A third carried us through the first course of an outstandingly good and once again convivial dinner, by the end of which I had not only received three invitations to Germany and a suggestion that I might henceforth become one of the donkey walkers, but the French had invited me to join them in un petit digestif and raised their glasses to “Stevenson’s fellow countryman”.
I hadn’t the heart to remind them that the author of the great classic had been a Scot.