All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

So we'll go no more a-roving....

The Great VineImage by Steve Parker via Flickr
I little thought, last year, that it would be the last time I would ride the tractor out to the vines...clinging on to the wheelarch for dear life and reassuring myself that the jolts were good for the liver...if not for the living.
But Guy has sold his last parcel of vines and the old gang has broken up. (here)

I have picked grapes with one friend or another nearly every year since coming to France (here) and I will miss the fun, the gossip, the drinks breaks and the satisfaction of going off with the freshly pressed juice to make pineau the same night - before attacking my hands with bleach and my joints with Radox.

But time passes, we and our friends are getting older and it is now a question of whether we outlast our cellar or our cellar outlasts not only am I not picking grapes, I am not even 'doing' the wine fairs...the autumn promotions mounted by the supermarkets where you can buy wine to lay down...mainly well as everyday drinking stuff.

It used to be quite an operation.
First, thanks to the compartmentalism of France, you had to have friends on the other side of the departmental border with whom to exchange the publicity brochures in order to check prices and offers...there could be a difference of as much as 5 euros in the price of the same bottle...followed by a swift reconnoitre to check that the wine offered was not already on the shelves at a lower price.

The first time I went to a supermarket wine fair I found the wine I wanted and tried to attract the attention of the 'sommelier' in the black apron supposedly running the show, which took some doing as he was busy opening bottles for what appeared to be a group of his cronies.
I showed him the wine I was interested in.

Ah yes.
Could I taste it?
No, I could not.
But if it is O.K. I want to buy four cases.
You still can't taste it. It's expensive.
But I can taste the cheap stuff that's been oxidising in the open bottles?
What about those bottles you've just been opening? Aren't they expensive?
Yes, but these are well known clients.......yes, to judge by the purple noses and broken veins, I just bet they were.....

Well, in those days my French wasn't up to being more combative so I backed my hunch, based on the reviews, and ordered my four cases.

The chap in the black apron solemnly took my details and said he would be in touch.
He wasn't.

I got in touch with him and he revealed that for the whole of the chain of supermarkets of which his was but one franchise the total allotment of that particular wine was three cases.

So why had they advertised it?

It brings in customers.

What about my order?

Well, I couldn't have what they hadn't got even if they had sold it me.

French logic.
It would never pass an exam.

Consumer protection has improved since that time....they now have to state how much they have for sale in the publicity leaflet...but you still have to watch them on  prices.
I liked one particular Bordeaux, which had been stocked on the shelves before the wine fair and was then transferred to the fair for the duration.
It must cost an awful lot in man hours to move four dozen bottles from one shelf to another as the price had gone up by over 70 centimes by the time it arrived at its' destination.

It doesn't do either to go to a number of wine fairs in quick succession and then forget at which one you bought the bottle you like when you finally get round to tasting it.
This has led to a tour of supermarkets carefully bearing the empty bottle, to try to find its' colleagues.
If you are thick skinned, or dedicated, you can ignore the looks you are getting from other clients, but you need some facility in French to explain to security why you are to be found in the wine aisles with an empty bottle in your possession.
Most of them finally twig that if their supermarket doesn't stock it you couldn't have pulled it from the shelf and drunk the contents, but there are some so dense that only the intervention of management has saved me from being frogmarched through the checkouts to the applause of the multitudes to await the attentions of the gendarmerie.

The dear departed days of the wine lake used to turn up bargains for everyday drinking.....those bottles with five stars and a plastic cap could harbour some very nice stuff indeed, usually produce of Italy, but you never knew what sort of consignment had been delivered.
One sure sign was that the shelf was nearly empty, but that was a bit late to find out, so, if the shelf was relatively full the best idea was to buy a bottle, sample it in the car park and, should it prove to be the real Italian Job, rush back in and buy everything with corresponding serial numbers on the label.
If it wasn't, then you had something with which to strip paint.

I think the European Union are paying winemakers to turn their surplus into vinegar these days...I know winemakers who could turn anything they touched to vinegar...and proved it regularly in the stuff they sold to the it's nice to know they have achieved EU recognition at last.

Growing up in the U.K. before climate change, grapes were something that grew on the vine in Hampton Court, and wine was made from flowers, fruit and vegetables.
Before the French get all sniffy about calling these wine they should try some....I fondly remember wine made from oranges, from gorse flowers, from mangelworzels and from elderflower, though I could never master elderberry always turned out to have a metallic taste.

My first acquaintance with it was when of primary school age, when visiting my mother's mother.
She had elderly neighbours who were famed for their tomatoes - green house grown in those far off days - and their elderberry wine - supposedly of such strength that it would remove your socks at ten paces.
Every morning, nattily clad in striped pyjamas and slippers the husband would stroll from their kitchen door to the green house with an uncovered chamber pot in his hand, which was said to account for the vitality of the tomatoes and, according to my grandmother, the chamberpot played a role in making his elderberry wine too, though I never believed this as they did not have the air of a two chamberpot family.

At that time, insurance companies did not lurk in town centre offices, but sent out agents on bicycles to drum up business and to maintain it, once duly drummed, by weekly visits to their customers.
The man from the Pru called next door on his weekly rounds and I was in the front garden while my grandmother gossiped to a passing friend over the gate.

'I give him ten minutes before he comes he'll have had a glass of her wine!'

True enough, after some ten minutes the agent emerged and headed for his bicycle. I think if he had not attempted to put on his bicycle clips he might have been all right, but as it was he fell heavily into the privet hedge, heaved himself out again and rode away like a clown on a unicycle, his trilby hat neatly adorned with twigs.

The two ladies eyed each other meaningfully. Clearly the Pru would not be getting their insurance business.

From teenage years, I was allowed a glass of wine with Sunday lunch, although my father's preferred sweetish Penedes from Spain was perhaps not the best choice to accompany the roast, and as a student, having decided that I couldn't drink beer and stand up at the same time, I followed the hallowed route of Mateus Rose that we all brought to each others' parties.

Departmental wine and cheese parties were catered by Sainsbury, featuring hock and moselle, so it wasn't until I decided to learn to cook as an alternative to a diet consisting of boiled eggs or a Fray Bentos steak and kidney pie when the dibs were in tune that I started to take more of an interest in wine,  inspired by Elizabeth David and Patience Grey who seemed to think it abnormal not to be swilling something while at the trough.

A super manager at a Peter Dominic branch helped me along...a real enthusiast who loved what he sold and showed me what to look for in terms of quality regardless of the price of the bottle.

He also put me wise to the then widespread adulteration of French wine.....Rhones bolstered up with a shot of Algerian...the Red Infuriator as he used to call it....Bordeaux given a boost by something hefty from the Languedoc...and although all this is supposed to have been put a stop to, Andre who worked in the wine business for years, tells me that it still goes on, just the sources change.

Later, having made contact with the world of the function waiter, I was to discover what wine could really be like.
These chaps worked as freelances, through some sort of agency, at banquets of the classier sort, including the Mansion House and Buckingham Palace, serving wine.
There was some sort of percentage allowance for breakages on these occasions, and this percentage, carefully unbroken, would leave the premises with the function waiter, to be sold.
These bottles were not cheap.....but I have never since been able to afford wine of that quality.
Most bottles were labelled, first and second growth Bordeaux, premier Cru Burgundies, but the best, the stuff that had been imported in cask and bottled in situ bore no labels, just a mark of white paint on the bottle to indicate on which side the lees were to be found.

I certainly found nothing this good when I moved to France, nor could I have expected to do so, but in view of the technology in use locally they did not do so badly.

No specialised wine yeast was used...the wild yeasts on the grape were what did the job and they would vary from year to year...while a temperature controlled vat was something unheard of.
When wine yeasts did come in I had the privilege of witnessing their first appearance at a local chap's vineyard.
His wife had produced a baby's bath, and he was testing the water with his elbow to judge the right degree of warmth to encourage the yeast to develop.

Mark you, with all the financial backing and hi tech equipment at their disposal, the stuff the top rated winemakers make these days certainly can't beat what they used to produce when the idea was to make something to drink rather than something to trade.
At least the local guys have kept both the baby and the bathwater.

So no more trips on the tractor, no more battling round the wine fairs.........whatever am I going to do with myself?

Enhanced by Zemanta


  1. Interesting, Fly...

    I can't drink wine, so know little about it. There is a film here called Bottle Shock, supposedly based on events that led to French wine being surpassed by California's.

    My dad made his own wine from grape juice and packets of Brewer's yeast, but his efforts were purely for home use and short-lived.

    You'll no doubt find something else equally intriguing to do with your time.

    Best to you.

  2. Get into whisky. I frequently do.

  3. Hello Fly. Been away a while - writing mainly; moving house too (aghhh...). Might blog again soon.

    Sad when we stop our familiar patterns, but then maybe the time opens up new possibilities. Yes, I'll drink to that.

    Still no sign of Jimmy B?

  4. Drink!

    My dad used to get Bulgarian red for us to have with Sunday roasts. It was sweeter than the French red so our younger palates appreciated it more. Having drunk something similar since, I would now find it too sweet.

    I don't have anywhere to stock wine so just buy as I drink. Cheers!

  5. e, I remember going on a village walk years ago when one old boy commented that he'd heard that other countries were now making wine....clearly he'd never heard of the blind tastings where the French were whitewashed by the Californian stuff!
    They don't like competition very much...a couple of years ago the South African wine destined for their stand at VinExpo...the big trade show in Bordeaux...was blocked in Customs and never made it.
    Yes, I have other things in mind to do with my time, you're right!

    Steve, I was born in the age when grannies thought it best to give the whole family a good night's sleep by dosing the baby with a teaspoon of whisky.
    Mr. Fly's Belgian grannies used kummel.
    With a flying start like that....

    Mark, as we're moving too, you have my heartfelt sympathy, but I'm glad you're writing...missed you in the blog world, though.
    Yes, new possibilities on our horizons and we're looking forward to them!

    Sarah, it was quite a shock moving to France in wine terms.
    Accustomed to the U.K. with wines from all over the world available...even then...I found that France stuck to its own gear...with the odd bottle of Algerian rose for the mechouis...

    Getting better though...last year I found a proper German reisling in the supermarket aptly named the 'Mutant'.

  6. It's sad seeing old customs fade away... On the other hand, it's great to see wines other than Rioja on the shelves in Spain...

  7. Pueblo girl, I don't think there are many of those little plots of vines left these days...the bigger boys buy them up and send the machines in the prune and to pick.

    I wouldn't have minded seeing Rioja on a shelf in France....

  8. Fly, it you get a chance to read Michael Steinburgen's book 'Au revoir to all that' the bit about AOC wine will make your hair stand on end. What a huge con so much of it is. I can't stand wine myself, or any alcohol for that matter. Made me a bit of a 'conversation point' in France!

  9. P(V)LiF, I've ordered and received it, but, to my shame, haven't done more than flick through it so far!
    I'll have to push it up the list of stuff waiting..

  10. Interesting post. You say you are moving, I hope you have a good wine cellar in the new house and your wine is happy with the move! Having been 'brought up' on S.African wines I have still not managed to really aquire a taste for the French reds though I keep trying:-) The whites are just fine. Diane

  11. just walk out of your front door! It never ceases to amaze me just how much there is to do out there - I just wander from job to job probably never finishing anything!!
    I'm sorry to hear it's the end of your grape picking days - I remember in your blog last year that you were aching but contented by the end of itx

  12. Food, Fun and Life in the Charente...we have a friend in the U.K. who brings over South African wine when he comes, as Mr. Fly fell for it when he was in S.A. years ago....and once we found a windfall in France.
    A supermarket had stocked a sort of 'wines of the world' display...none of which had sold as the French don't believe that any other wine can be any any other tomatoes, grapes, you name it...
    We grabbed the South African and the manager made us an offer we could not refuse to take the lot away...Chinese, Portugese, Bulgarian, and even from Brazil!
    The poor car was groaning, but it was well worth it...we made quite a few discoveries...not that we could ever buy any of them in France again!

    Roz, you have laid bare my strategy for avoiding what is waiting to be done...go somewhere else!