A Brief Taste of Summer

WALKING FROM KINTZHEIM TO RIQUEWIHR left me with the conviction that nowhere that I know more closely resembles the popular idea and the romantic ideal of wine country than the wine country of Alsace. Except for one short diversion through forest, and for the villages themselves, hardly a hundred continuous yards of the path were not bordered by the growing vines.  From time to time, wishing to go higher up or lower down the slope, I would simply walk between the rows, glad of the shade.

It was easy walking: rarely so steep as seriously to test limbs or lungs; rarely demanding careful attention to either map or compass: to my right was always the guiding line of the Vosges; to my left, the wide plain and valley of the Rhine. Village succeeded village, always within sight of one another, never more than a mile or two apart. Unadventurous it may have been, but never dull. Not unless sunshine and birdsong and a woodpecker and a brace of hares and the wild flowers and the scent of summer are dull. Not unless it was tedious to see village squares and streets innocent of litter and almost all other ugliness, bright with geraniums (everywhere geraniums), tempting with invitations to dégustations in timbered and cobbled courtyards. Not unless it was dull to look up at the ruins of castle and watch-tower on the forest-covered heights and think of the centuries of war and turbulent peace that they had seen.

Recommended to Charles Koehly & Fils, a winemaker in the village of Rodern, I took a path across a verdant little valley that led down from what must have been all of 28 degrees Celsius into a brief but delicious fraîcheur, then up again into the noonday glare. Fearing the approach of lunch and with it closing time, I hurried along, almost trotting down the last short slope before the village, then toiling briskly up the other side to arrive breathless and perspiring in the attractive Koeberlé-Kreyer courtyard as the church clock struck twelve. Nobody was about, but an electronic alarm had sounded as I entered the courtyard, and now a bespectacled, grey-haired head appeared at an upstairs window.

‘Monsieur?’

 ‘Bonjour madame. Je voudrais acheter du vin, si ça ne vous dérangera pas trop.’

‘Pas du tout, Monsieur. Pas du tout. Je serai avec vous dans un petit instant.’

 In a cool and spacious ground floor room my hostess took bottles of Riesling and Pinot Blanc from a refrigerator and poured generously. Both wines, but the Riesling in particular, seemed to me exquisite. Here was the lovely, clean, cool freshness of a summer morning. Buying a bottle of each, I wrapped the Pinot Blanc up well inside my rucksack and went out again into a village abandoned to the heat and a tabby cat asleep on an upturned cask. A few hundred yards took me up a forest track into the trees. Another mile or so led down into the wooded valley of the Bergenbach stream; yet another up and out on to the edge of the wide, sweeping, vine-covered Kirchberg slope overlooking Ribeauvillé.

On a little knoll, I found a lone walnut tree for shade, closely hedged in by vines on three sides but commanding a view of the plain. Luxuriously extended in the long grass, boots off, shirt unbuttoned, rejoicing in a gentle, heaven-sent breeze, I poured myself a glass, and then another of what seemed to me at that moment one of the most delectable Pinot Blancs in one of the most desirable picnic  places in the world.

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Adapted from Walking in Wine Country


A WINE TO REMEMBER

Before leaving Troyes I bought all the makings of a picnic at a little grocer near my hotel, except for wine. To my surprise there was a very small but quite serious-looking wine shop only a few doors away but I reached it and was looking at the bottles in the window at the very moment that the proprietor was locking up for lunch:  he had closed the door and his keys were still in his hand. Could he help me, he asked.  Well, I said, I was just thinking about something quite ordinary to go with a picnic, so I hardly liked…..Without another word he opened up, gave me at least half and hour in his cellar, talking about wine and my walk, insisted on my tucking a cold bottle of rosé into my rucksack and drove me out of the city centre to start me on my way south. I had my picnic on a grassy bank beside the Seine near Verrières on the eastern side of the still-young river (which rises in northern Burgundy), and in the early evening  came to the little riverside village of Fouchères.

It had been a very warm day in late spring and by the time I found the very ancient farm of Le Prieuré with its five chambres d’hôte I would have given my kingdom for water and wine, preferably unmixed. When Madame Berthelin asked me what wine I would like and cautioned me that she had “nothing special” to offer I asked if there was anything local. Well, she said: her husband made a few bottles of red for their own consumption from his own grapes. He was very proud of it but he wasn’t a wine maker and she wouldn’t like to recommend it to “un vrai connaisseur”. I assured her that I was simply a very thirsty walker  and would like nothing better than to try Monsieur Berthelin’s home brew.

Some eight years have passed since the events that I am writing about, but Le Prieuré as I knew it was then still manifestly a working farm with other activities incidental to the main age-old rustic purpose of general husbandry. Monsieur Berthelin’s cellar, a stone’s throw from the village’s Romanesque chapel, was beneath the earthen floor of a large open barn giving onto the main yard and as far from resembling a conventional modern wine cellar as the back of my garage is from the St.James’s premises of Berry Bros and Rudd. At first sight the large barrels of green plastic that were its main furniture might have held anything from herbicide to engine oil, but from one of them my host filled a white enamelled pitcher which he carried up to a rough wooden table where he half filled two glass goblets with what he said was “un petit pinot noir”, garnet-coloured and especially vinous on the nose. I swirled and sniffed it for a second or two as I judged to be no more than respectful but spat not a drop. As I said, it had been a very warm day and although the water had met my need for rehydration it had done little to quench my thirst.

In his immortal The Path to Rome Hilaire Belloc writes of an occasion near Belfort when for the first time in his life (he said) he came across wine sold from tin cans, such as the French carry up water in, without covers, tapering to the top. There were three cans, variously priced. Choosing the middle price, at fourpence a quart, I said  “Pray give me a hap’orth in a mug”…. It was delicious…cool, strong, 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.

That evening in Fouchères it seemed to me that Monsieur Berthelin’s petit pinot noir was a wine in which Belloc would have delighted: a wine of character. Considering my likely itinerary, holding anything ‘in store’ would have been like carrying coals to Newcastle; instead, I confirmed my first and second impressions there in the open barn and reconfirmed them at Madame Berthelin’s admirable table d’hôte. The night was very quiet and if a cock crowed in the morning I failed to hear it.

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THE ENCHANTMENT OF TROYES

“Oh!” exclaimed a young woman who was gazing up at the same stained glass window as the one I was looking at in the 12th-century church of Sainte-Madeleine in Troyes. “Oh! I think that’s the loveliest thing I’ve ever seen”. She was probably right, but might have said the same if the first thing she had looked at in Sainte-Madeleine had been the rood screen: both were ravishingly beautiful.

Capital of mediaeval Champagne, on the upper reaches of the Seine, Troyes (pronounced Trois, or Trwah) once rivalled Reims in political stature (John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, proposed it for the capital of France) and in economic importance surpassed it. Wool, not wine was the reason. In the Middle Ages the Roman roads that connected the city with Milan and Boulogne, as well as with navigable tributaries of the Seine and the mighty Rhône, collectively became a transcontinental trade highway; most especially for a trade in cloth from the Low Countries made from English wool. Hence the famous Champagne fairs that made Troyes into one of the chief commercial centres of Europe. Hence largely the prosperity of the Dukes of Burgundy, the Counts of Champagne and the many great merchants and entrepreneurs who built the city’s churches and mansions and imported the best of craftsmen from all Europe to decorate and furnish them.

I wondered how long the young woman had already been in Troyes; how long she would be staying. The cathedral of Saint-Peter and Saint-Paul; the basilica of Saint-Urbain; the churches of Saint-Rémy, Saint-Jean-au-Marché, Saint-Pantaléon and Saint-Nicolas; the Hôtel-Dieu with its astonishing Apothecary and 18th-century wrought iron palisade; the Hôtel de Marisy; the Hôtel du Lion Noir (before modern times, a “hôtel” signified a private mansion); the Hôtel de Vauluisant; the Museum of Modern Art with Bonnard, Braque, Cézanne, Matisse and Modigliani, Degas, Derain and Rodin; but mercifully nothing ‘conceptual’: no ‘installations’; no piles of bricks or unmade beds. Would she have given them all at least a glance; and if so, how many other discoveries would have enchanted her? After my own lightning tour I was extravagantly thinking that with the possible exception of Paris nowhere in all France could conceivably have a better claim to the city’s official title of ‘ville d’art et d’histoire’.

A generation or two of architects and town planners ought to be made to see what has been done here in Troyes before going to the stake for the barbarities they have wreaked upon some of England’s “villes d’histoire”. Wonders of reconstruction and restoration motivated not least by a shrewd calculation on the part of the authorities as to what most visitors come for have been achieved. So compact is the old centre, so free of the obtrusive and hideously modern for modernity’s sake  that 21st-century travellers may enjoy the illusion that they are strolling through the Middle Ages without risking a bucket of slops over their heads.

It is characteristic of this so very singular city, and consummately appropriate, that it should possess one of the finest of the very few fine museums of hand tools in the world. At the Maison de l’Outil, superbly presented in the 16th century Hôtel de Mauroy, are more than ten thousand instruments of almost every significant handicraft practised by western man in the past three hundred years. “They are shown to us as they were when their movement stopped”, said the collection’s founder, Paul Feller, almost fifty years ago. In their own right artefacts of strangely compelling beauty — hand forged iron and steel; grained and long-seasoned wood polished only by the grasp of those that used them— they exert so powerful a fascination that I wonder still if there could be something metaphysical about the deeply moving awareness of the dignity of labour and craftsmanship conveyed.

More or less round the corner was a heady experience of another kind. In the Place Jean-Jaurès was Aux Crieurs de Vin, a bistro-like bar and cellar where the owners specialize in champagne, served by the bottle or by the glass. Troyes is the capital of the department of the Aube, which belongs to the region of Champagne-Ardenne. On the map, the line of its ancient ramparts— systematically destroyed in the early 19th century before it was understood that the picturesque would come to be valued more highly than “progress”— famously has a resemblance to a champagne cork. South of Troyes, the vineyards of the Côte-de-Bar,unknown by comparison with the Côte des Blancs and its neighbours, 100 miles away, not only indispensably supply the great champagne firms of Reims and Épernay whose brands are household names with large quantities of grapes, but themselves make champagne as good as many produced by those same, better-known houses to the north. A cellarful of Drappier would go far to making me  a happy man.

Aux Crieurs de Vin has a simple menu, too. Unassuming, unpretentious, it does nothing to support the tourist office’s absurd characterisation of Troyes as “une ville gastronomique” ,(Michelin gives Troyes a single rosette, and that 3 km outside the city) but there is something attractively Troyesian  (to risk a word) about it; something consonant with the half-timbered, narrow street mediaevality of the inner city as a whole. I saw nothing by way of fancy dress there, yet now, in retrospect, I rather fancy that the place may have been staffed by varlets in doublet and hose.

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Just a few miles more

The only good reason I found myself in this straggling and unprepossessing village south of the Marne in Champagne-Ardenne was that by the time I got there the evening before it was late, I was tired, and to my surprise a sign outside an exceedingly modest-looking establishment said HOTEL. Modest it looked and modest it was but they had a room. After cold ham, salad and chips and a Kronenbourg for supper I went early to bed

I was still tired in the morning and decided to idle  a while where I was. Soon, I regretted the decision. There was nothing offensive about the place, but to say that it was lacking in character would have been generous. So far as I knew it was a normal weekday, but at mid-morning one might have thought the population to have fled or to be in the grip of a plague. Then I met the Berriers.

Disconsolately exploring, I had come to the church; 12th– or 13th-century, I thought, and strangely large for so small a community, but locked. Back at the hotel I was asking if they knew who kept the key when at that very moment a white-haired lady came in from the street. “Gentleman wants the key to the church”, said the woman of the hotel.  Looking me over, the newcomer asked who I was. I told her. Cautiously, not to say suspiciously, she weighed the information, then identified herself as “Madame Berrier” and said that the key was in her house, “Juste en face”.

In a front parlour across the street an elderly Monsieur Berrier was slumped in the corner of a sofa.  “Always mislaying his hearing aid”, his wife said impatiently when at first she received no reply from him in response to her explanation of my presence.  Eventually, with the missing device found and installed, Monsieur Berrier struggled to his feet, assisted by a stout walking stick. “Five operations”, Madame said apologetically. “First one hip, then the other, then……”

But it was Monsieur Berrier who hobbled with me to the 12th-century church, still beautiful in decay, where stucco was flaking from the massive stone columns, the pulpit lay broken, the altar was missing and birds, entering through broken windows, had extensively fouled the chancel. In a cupboard vestments were filmed with dust. “No priests”, said Monsieur Berrier. “People haven’t any time for religion these days”. A curious desolation came over me as we locked the ancient door again, and left.

By contrast, Monsieur Berrier  —a long-retired farmer who remembered the mighty Percheron horses that preceded tractors— had become more animated. He showed me the arched entrance to the underground passage that used to lead into the grounds of the nearby château, and  —his step seeming to grow more lively as we went— took me on a tour of the village, telling proudly how well served it was for pure water from several springs. Back in her front room, Madame Berrier had fetched out a hoard of the parish magazine with articles about the seigneurs of the village and the Hundred Years War, and the peste  (England’s Black Death), and the treatment of lepers. Now, she served me cold beer and told me where I could walk in the great woods above the valley and telephoned the owners of the ruined château to ask if I might pay a visit that evening. If I was having trouble with the weight of my rucksack she would chauffeur me to my next port of call: I would have all the more time for walking when I got there, she said.

Thus I discovered Sézanne, where there used to be more than 40 water mills and the busy chef-patron of the admirable Hotel Croix d’Or took time off from his kitchen to help me with computer troubles. During two days I explored the mediaeval back streets and walked  in the neighbouring 7,000-acre forest of Traconne and among the vines that overlook the appealing little town, and had laundry done and bought a pair of shorts and a new Opinel knife  (which no traveller should be without) to replace the one I had carelessly left behind after my last picnic. There too I perused my maps and saw that no long-distance footpath nor any irresistible walking country appeared to be on my way south, so early next day took a bus for the thirty miles that lay between me and one of the most captivating cities in France.

‘Troyes, préfecture of the Aube, with an old centre of considerable charm and character’, says my copy of the Blue Guide to France. ‘Much work has been done in recent years to restore its many mediaeval half-timbered houses, while of unusual interest is the newly established Museum of Implements’. For ‘considerable’ read enormous, immense, prodigious, tremendous. It would not be easy to exaggerate the achievements of the craftsmen who have made Troyes a city that must be seen to be believed. During two days I walked the inner city in a near trance.

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ENDS