Morgon by Moonlight

Today is the official release day for beaujolais nouveau. MORGON is one of the most robust of all the wines of Beaujolais and usually needs several years before being at its best.

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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 Belleville where the food, he had said, was good and authentically regional and the atmosphere ‘très 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 one of the 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.

………………

See Victoria Moore’s Telegraph blog for up-to-date thoughts on beaujolais.

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