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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