Image via WikipediaPicking grapes is still fun after all these years, even though the plots are smaller and the company less. As of last time I am now regarded as a senior citizen thus qualifying for a place on the wheelarch of the tractor, hanging on for dear life as we lurch and trundle down the tracks from the house to the plot of vines far off beyond the lake. It was safer to plod behind, or be bundled into the van with the colleys and the buckets, but age has its' privileges and the wheelarch it is.
The routine never varies...the housework done, the ladies arrive at the house, the vehicles and equipment are already waiting and off we go....three rows and a glass of wine. The year before last, Ziya kicked up at the poor quality of the refreshments, causing a row which spread to the exact nature of the relationship between Guy - long term widower - and the lady who comes to 'do' for him, her alleged hopes for the future, the price and quality of the sheep which Ziya and friends buy from her....and for some time I wondered if the picking team would break up, so violent was the dispute, but all was settled in time for the next vendange. Ziya now supervises the provision of wine, which involves him in several tasting sessions at Guy's before the whole ritual starts up for the year.
Guy sold off most of his holdings years ago, as age crept up on him, so what is left is his last plot of vines giving ample wine for himself, friends and family but the first time I picked there he was rather watchful. I had been brought along by Ziya, who usually has a few foreign waifs and strays at his disposal and it appeared that I was the replacement for the previous year's abject disaster...a gentleman who was very good at raising the elbow, but not so sharp on picking the grapes, so I was an unknown quantity. However, I was experienced, thanks to the years with Papy, and after a bit Guy relaxed and we started to chat at the next break.
I had noticed that not all the vines were the same...the bunches had different shapes, the size of the grapes differed too, and there were some leaf differences...so I asked him what he was growing.
'Oh, there's a bit of everything these days...a bit of Merlot, some 154, those rows down there are Castel and up at the end is Oberlin. We'll pick that separately.'
Well, I'd been in the area some time and the only one of those that I had heard of was Merlot....round here the main white is Chenin, with Chardonnay and Sauvignon getting more frequent thanks to fashion, and the Cabernet Franc and Grolleau Gris providing the other reds...though with global warming the Cabernet Sauvignon is now worth planting as well.
There was no time to ask any more questions, as Guy was off with the next trailer load of grapes, but when we finished for the day and were bouncing back in the van, I asked Ziya, self appointed expert on anything and Lord High Everything Else, what he knew about these types of vine.
'Why are they forbidden?'
'They make you go potty.'
Apparently it was forbidden to plant them and forbidden to sell the wine...it was only for personal consumption, as not only was there the question of alcoholic strength - these could weigh in at 18 degrees as opposed to 12 degrees for a Cabernet Franc - but they were also reputed to have a hallucinatory effect. Well, I might have missed out on the Swinging Sixties in London, but I was well placed to make up for it on the liquid LSD of rural France.
Guy was starting up the press when we arrived at the house to clean up and it was apparent that things were not going well as there was a lot of muttering then cries of
'Merde, merde, putain de merde'
as he lifted the cover off the pit into which the grape juice should flow. It was not flowing, even though the press was operating correctly. Grabbing a stick, he inserted it into the exit pipe from the press and withdrew it with a large dead rat balanced on the end. The juice began to flow and he announced that those who wanted it to make pineau should take it at once as it was so warm that fermentation would start very soon. I departed with my share in a large plastic jerrycan which had, years ago, served to contain engine oil. Guy threw nothing away. Rural folk were always well ahead of environmentalists when it came to recycling.
I made my pineau, the other great aperitif of the area, by mixing the grape juice with eau de vie and put it away for a few months. I prefer epine, but 'the ladies' are reputed to prefer the softer pineau, so it is as well to have plenty in the cellar.
Later in the year, still curious about these vines, I dropped in on Guy, who now had time for explanations.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the French vineyards were all but wiped out by phyolloxera...a grub which attacked the roots, only vines on a few offshore islands surviving untouched. The problem was not just that the vines died, any vines planted to replace them died as well. What to do? The american vine, which was not the vitis vinifera but, if my memory serves me better than usual, vitis labrusca, was immune to attack by the grub, but the wine was said to have an unpleasant taste - 'foxy' is the word used.
Two solutions were tried, the first, grafting French varieties onto American rootstock, is the one which has won out, but the other method, hybridisation, was what had resulted in the vines Guy was using. He gave me several names....Bacot, Noah, Othello....Roi des Negres, though whether that was the same as a Tete du Negre that Didier later served up, which was the best wine I ever found to go with that notoriously difficult food to match, the globe artichoke, I don't know.
'So why are they forbiden? Is it true they can drive you potty as Ziya says?'
'Anything would drive Ziya potty. No, they're just strong, that's all...you have to watch it.'
'Then why can't you sell them?'
'Because they're easy to propagate...they just touch the ground and root...no need to buy those expensive grafted vines. No one makes a profit.'
Madeleine once told me that the answer to every question as to why something is done as it is in France is money...and once again, she was proved right. There's nothing wrong with these wines, no reason why they can't be bought and sold...except that it would wreck the trade in certified rootstocks.
Guy had been pouring a twelve year old Oberlin for me to try, and it was super.....but at 18 degrees I was glad that I had arrived on foot.