Tall story in Beaujolais

By Tradition, the 3rd Thursday in November sees the release of  Beaujolais nouveau. The following is adapted from ‘Morgon by Moonlight’, posted here on 13th October

It was the last day of the vendages. 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. Madame D was a good-looking, cheerful woman in her fifties who apologised for not shaking hands, since they were covered in flour. Monsieur D, she said, was not yet back from calling on the wine-maker to whom he sold his grapes. Her husband, Madame said, was a grower only.

Madame’s notably attractive daughters, Gabrielle and Véronique,  had not come for a lazy weekend, but to help their mother feed the grape-pickers. Now, they put on aprons and started laying a long trestle table at one side of the  large kitchen.  Lucien,  a friend of the sisters, and I helped. When Monsieur D 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 and wine flows freely.

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. When everyone had finished the charcuterie and was busy with a hearty beef ragoût , the sisters joined their father and me at one end of the table and started on their own supper. Glasses were filled with what  Monsieur D 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 about what he called fashions in Beaujolais: one year Fleurie was all the rage, the next year Brouilly, the year after that, something else. 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 D  said that his ‘quelques bouteilles’ were just his little hobby: he was no Georges Dubœuf!   At the end of dinner he announced that since the picking was going so well he would like to propose a little celebration: the four of us would go and drink a bottle of  ‘the  83’.

Now, the significance of Véronique’s ironic remark about her father 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 a 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 grape 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 D 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. Next, we sampled ‘the 83’, which was very drinkable indeed.

‘Promising! ’, said Monsiur D

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.

It was not very sensible at that hour, but we drank that bottle, then another.  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 remaining four of us took our glasses and went outside to decide whether the moon was full.


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