Winter in Champagne. The intention was this: starting from Vertus, I would follow the Côte des Blancs from one end to the other by way of le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Avize, and Cramant, cross to the southern slopes of the Montagne de Reims by the bridge over the Marne down at Mareuil-sur-Ay, and so on up to Champillon, north of Épernay. It was an itinerary amounting to perhaps 17 or 18 miles; not a formidable distance, but the sky was threatening and the wind unfriendly. I therefore made a precautionary contract with myself and attached a penalty clause: I would complete the course on my own two feet or else would be obliged renounce wine for a month. You may be sure that socks and boots were checked with special care.
Every season in the vineyards has its pros and cons. In winter and early spring Champagne seems to me more beautiful than at any other time of the year. Later, the essential shape of the land will be half lost in a monochrome of green luxuriance; now, it is revealed in stylish austerity. The vines, generally trained low and almost parallel to the earth, have been rigorously pruned. In their disciplined rows, plot by plot, running now in one direction, now in another, they present a great undulating patchwork of browns and sepias and dark greys.
The church clock struck noon as I left Cramant on the way towards Chouilly and a heavy lorry sprayed me liberally with water that was streaming down beside the raised verge. The view out over the vines was far and wide and I thought how good it would be to sit up there on the hillside with a picnic on a fine day. As it was, I envied four men who were taking off muddy wellies before installing themselves for lunch in a camionette. Shelter from the rain was my concern as well. First, I needed to delve into my pack for waterproof over-trousers. More, I wanted the little flask of Courvoisier VSOP which was wrapped inside them.
But where to find refuge? To my right and ahead were only the vines, sloping down to the plain. To my left was the côte that forms the eastern edge of the Butte de Saran; very steep, but with woods at the top. In the edge of the trees I found a hollow made long ago by the uprooting of a tree in a gale, perhaps, but just as likely by a vigneron excavating for earth to replace eroded topsoil. Here, sheltered from the hostile little breeze, above a thick carpet of fallen leaves, I contrived a roof by means of the ground sheet that is never absent from my winter walking gear, for greater warmth pulled on the windproof trousers, zipped my Gore-tex overjacket up to the neck and unscrewed the flask.
My satisfaction with that modest cognac in the winter woods above the Côte des Blancs was as great as I have had from any brandy in the world, though in my time I have tasted some of the finest that ever came out of Acquitaine. First, I had a good dram slowly and neat. Next, I drank cognac and ice-cold water, half and half. Then, with the recent example of the men in the camionette in mind, and considering that there were still 10 miles to go to dinner in Champillon, I thought that un petit casse-crôute might be sensible. The Courvoisier-à-l’eau went very well with that too.