Saturday, October 23, 2010

History of wine at Choranche

When I arrived in Choranche and settled down at Gamone, many of the local folk were surprised to find an Australian in their midst. They seemed to imagine that, not so long ago, I had surely been sunbaking on a beach in the tropics, with kangaroos hopping up to me from time to time, and the lilt of didgeridoos in the background, and then I suddenly cried out: "Jeez, I just gotta get to Choranche, as soon as possible!" So, I jumped aboard a jet, and there I was. Naturally, the local folk were curious to know what exactly had motivated that sudden decision. I suppose they saw it as some kind of revelation, like Archimedes yelling out Eureka in his bathtub, or Newton inventing the laws of gravity after getting hit on the head by an apple. The locals wanted me to describe my bathtub, my apple tree. They were a bit disappointed when I explained that I'd been working in computers for most of my life, and that it was normal to accept an interesting job in a celebrated high-tech city such as Grenoble. Soon after that, the company that had hired me changed its marketing strategy, and they no longer needed a senior technical writer. But I decided to stay on here, because I had grown fond of the wilderness. Then it was time for me to retire…

Meanwhile, I've acquired a certain reputation here in an unexpected domain. It's a domain in which I was utterly ignorant when I left Paris. In fact, I still wonder whether I really have any genuine credentials in this field, because it's not exactly my cup of tea. You see, I've acquired a reputation here as a specialist in the history of the ancient monastic vineyards of Choranche.

Retrospectively, I can see how this has happened, as the outcome of a well-defined series of small events. Often, they were chance events. When I bought the property at Gamone, for example, I had no idea that it had once been a vineyard. I only started to realize this when I found that the vaulted stone cellar was full of the debris of rotted wine vats and casks.

At the same time, I was intrigued by an intriguing juxtaposition of names that can be observed both in a map and in the local road signs. The neighborhood below Gamone is known as Choranche-les-Bains, where the term "bains" (baths) indicates that this place used to be a spa.

But, if you turn around at that spot, there's another sign, suggesting that this tiny neighborhood has a second name.

The Chartreux were members of an ancient monastic order inspired by the life of the medieval hermit Bruno [1030-1101], who has become one of my legendary heroes. [See my humble website concerning this personage.] These monks journeyed regularly to Choranche from their ancient monastery of Val Sainte-Marie at Bouvante, located 15 kilometers to the south of Choranche.

Soon after my arrival, local people informed me that this neighborhood of Choranche-les-Bains (midway between Gamone and the village of Choranche) had been transformed into a fashionable spa just about a century ago, when the health properties of the local mineral springs were advertised. Here's an old postcard of the main spa building:

Opposite the spa, a fine hotel, the Continental, was erected to provide accommodation and meals to the throngs of visitors who came here to relax in the cirque de Choranche (cirque, meaning circus: a geological term designating a bowl-shaped landscape surrounded by cliffs).

The popularity of Choranche-les-Bains ended just before World War II, but the spa building remains, today, in a perfect state, and is used as a holiday place for children.

The hotel building, too, is still there, but in a rather sad state.

The other day, I happened to be chatting about that epoch with my neighbor Georges Belle, shown here with Madeleine Repellin at our recent annual dinner for senior citizens of Choranche:

Georges recalls that, as a child, he used to see crowds of tourists getting out of buses to have lunch at the Continental in Choranche-les-Bains, which was a most fashionable watering-hole (as we might say today), in spite of the fact that there was no entertainment for visitors, not even a gambling casino. Today, Georges resides in the house that was built by the monks after their purchase of this domain back in 1543. (I've found the actual notarial record of this purchase in the archives at Valence.)

And what were the links between the popular spa of Choranche-les-Bains and the Chartreux monks, to the point that today's signposts carry the two names for this single neighborhood? It has been suggested that Chartreux monks at Choranche might have been interested in these mineral waters. Why not? After all, the Carthusians (as they are called) have been associated over the years—rightly or wrongly—with all kinds of scientific and technological endeavors, from metallurgy to pharmacology. So, why shouldn't they have moved into the neighborhood of Choranche-les-Bains, at an unspecified date in the ancient past, to investigate the interest of running a "spiritual spa", based upon monastic solitude? Nice idea… particularly the spiritual angle. But this explanation of the presence of the monks is false.

Let's get back to the red stuff, wine, upon which much of southern France has been turning for ages, with or without the crazy notion that this excellent beverage might be associated with the blood of an ancient and obscure miracle-man, in faraway Palestine, named Jesus of Nazareth. I soon found out that wine, not mineral springs, was the real reason why various monks had moved into the commune of Choranche, as long ago as the Middle Ages. Today, people still evoke the existence of a Mediterranean microclimate at Choranche, because the commune is surrounded by cliffs, which capture the warmth of the sun and act like a giant energy accumulator.

At that stage, I started to explore the in-depth history of wine-making at Choranche, using many kinds of resources, often of an unexpected nature. For example, a neighbor showed me this ancient oaken vat which she had found in a cellar alongside her house.

Above all, I learned that an old man named Gustave Rey [1910-2001] was actually born in my house at Gamone. I invited him along here, and we had a lengthy conversation (during which I took notes) about olden days at Choranche. Later, when I organized all this precious information, I had before me the fascinating history of the cunning ways in which the local folk had reacted to the calamity of the phylloxera invasion (a plant louse imported inadvertently from the USA), which destroyed the totality of French vineyards during the second half of the 19th century, reducing countless winegrowers to poverty.

I've evoked this subject in my blog because I've just completed an article on the history of the Choranche vineyards [in French, downloadable here] at the request of Les Cahiers du Peuil: a reputed historical journal published by the communes up on the Vercors.

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