A Question of Circumstances

There was a moment near the beginning of the Robert Louis Stevenson trail when I filled my wine glass again from the pitcher on the table, sat back with my eyes closed and a very gentle breeze caressing my face and knew a passing happiness as great as I had ever known or would be likely to know short of heaven on earth.

Before the wine there had been the walking. Perfect walking. Glorious walking. An eight o’clock start from Le Puy in the cool of the early summer morning with my big pack sent on ahead to Le Bouchet-St.Nicolas, and the sky blue. Gently up and out of the suburbs onto quiet tracks and traffic-free lanes. Effortlessly across a plateau with great expanses of green lentils and alfalfa and far views of blue hills and the temperature of the plastic bottles of Volvic in the side-pouches of the daypack rising. Down again and up again, and with the clocks of Saint-Martin-de-Faugères getting on for half past noon another mile or two of putting one tired foot in front of the other and there, steeply below, with hopes of shade and a cool quaffable white wine ever more enticing, was the hamlet of Goudet with its ruined castle above the valley of the infant Loire.

Diffidently, Madame of the ferme auberge said that what I had ordered en pichet was just “un petit Côteaux de l’Ardèche” and I remembered again Hilaire Belloc and the wine near Belfort*: It was delicious…cool, strong, lifting the heart, satisfying, and full of all those things wine-merchants talk of, bouquet and body and flavour. The pale gold petit Côteaux de l’Ardèche was most certainly delicious, cool and lifting to the heart. Not robust (hearty and full of “body”, as I imagine Belloc’s red wine at Belfort to have been) but clean, fresh, floral; youthfully, if unassertively strong, its flavour and bouquet as authentic, complex and insusceptible to precise analysis as the beauty of the summer’s day itself. A wine of character. What grapes had gone to its making? Grenache Blanc, beyond a doubt. Marsanne, perhaps. Chardonnay?  That its fragrance was thanks to Viognier I would have been willing to stake my life.

There had been many such moments in France during the years when I was working on Walking in Wine Country. There had already been a few since leaving Calais on the present journey. More were to come. There is no wine that is itself alone, for all wine, like all human character (of which wine is the reflection and the symbol) is conditioned by circumstances, said Belloc, enunciating one of the most profound and ineluctable truths about wine which is also one of the mysteries that set it far apart from any other fleshly indulgences. There is a difficulty, however. All wine? All sound, unadulterated, drinkable wine such as is now made in oceanic quantity by impeccable industrial processes? To answer ‘no’ is to invite the sort of debate that can set ‘expert’ against ‘expert’, father against son, Cavalier implacably against Roundhead: if not all sound, honestly made wine, what wine?

To attempt to qualify, specify, establish criteria for a notionally alternative sort of wine would be to contrive an exercise no less futile than attempting to calculate how many angels might dance together on the point of a pin. I only know that times without number in France I have found myself drinking wine — modest, inexpensive, not found on supermarket shelves — which all my instincts and reactions identify as wine of true ‘character’ the pleasure of which, in the circumstances of my walks, has been as intense as passing pleasure ever comes.

Passing? I sell such moments woefully short. The day in Alsace that I wrote about the other week was all of twenty years ago, yet while the rain lashes my window this Jubilee weekend in 2012, and I am tempted by hot chocolate, the recollection of that picnic with the pinot blanc from Rodern is like the sun breaking through. Lunch on the banks of the Sèvre Nantaise in Loire-Atlantique was even further in the past, yet I would give a high price now for a wine as enchanting as the Muscadet we drank there that day and which I had bought at the cellars of a little family grower in Tiffauges. The worth of wines which in bottle would die young thus in memory grows incalculably.  Passing pleasures? I sometimes wonder if half the art of living is to be found in the making of such souvenirs as the memory I have of Goudet and that petit Côteaux de l’Ardèche.

When the half litre pichet was empty, and I had lingered over coffee, there was nothing for it but to brave the noonday sun and take the road for Le Bouchet-St-Nicolas, another 5 miles further on and 800 feet up on the highest volcanic plateau in Europe. Once I had climbed out of the valley of what Stevenson called “an amiable stripling of a river” I had a cooling breeze for company and the 3 hours to Le Bouchet were little more than a pastoral stroll. Still, I was glad that nothing in the village but a shower and table d’hôte commanded attention. Dining and wining very moderately (nothing was any temptation to do otherwise) I went early to bed.

Stevenson, too, had spent a night in Le Bouchet, but setting out again on the October morning had found the weather “bleak and bitter cold”. By contrast, for mile after mile I exalted in the sight of the far heights of Lozère blue-veiled in summer, and in blue sky and gentle airs and everywhere the sweet scent of new-mown hay. In Landos I was glad of a cold beer in the market square. In Pradelles no less glad of another. It was hardly 4 miles from there to Langogne, but when a farmer going to buy a part for a tractor offered me a lift I accepted without the least demur.

The author of Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes does not tell us where in Langogne, on the River Allier, he spent the night. Through the admirable R.L.S Trail Association I had arranged in advance for a chambre d’hôte, but on the ground the introduction to it was instantly dispiriting. For one thing, judging by the flaking façade and unpainted shutters, the house appeared to be bordering on derelict.  For another, the name roughly painted over the door — “Modest Inn”— seemed to me so outrageous a pun (Stevenson’s donkey, you will remember, was called Modestine) that it inspired grave misgivings about the personality of the proprietor. As so often in France, outward appearances were nothing to go by. The house was indeed extremely old. The proprietor might be labelled a “character” but one whose welcome was what the French call chaleureux and whose hospitality proved to be all that any traveller might reasonably wish for, and more. Dinner included roast lamb in so generous a quantity that although the meat and fresh vegetables were delicious more than a score of hungry walkers failed to finish them. Nor was there any stinting of a red Costières de Nîmes.

In a way familiar to those who walk for walking’s sake on the designated trails of western Europe, it all made for the sort of occasion of which fond memories and noble illusions of international understanding are made. With the exception of myself, everyone at the long table was either French or German and belonged to one of two cohesive national parties.  Diplomatically, I was seated between the two. My French was serviceable, my German lamentable.  None of the French spoke German, but at least half the Germans spoke good English and some of them spoke passable French.  Characteristically, the Germans (who were accompanied on the trail by three donkeys) were uninhibitedly sociable. Equally true to form, the French, though amiable enough, were markedly reserved. Thus disposed, exhilarated by exercise and sun and air, refreshed by a shower and emboldened by the Costières de Nîmes, some two dozen people, evenly divided between the sexes, conversed, joked, amicably argued, teased, flirted, laughed immoderately on every slight pretext (the ups and downs of donkey management a rich source of material) and told themselves and anyone who cared to listen that walking the Stevenson chemin was one of the best things they had ever done in their lives.

*  20th May. A Wine to Remember


Now see ‘On the Stevenson Trail’, posted 13th October 2011


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