Showing posts with label wine. Show all posts
Showing posts with label wine. Show all posts

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Out on the slopes opposite Gamone

For the last few days, I had been intrigued by a golden-hued patch of vegetation located on the slopes opposite Gamone, not far from the vestiges of a winegrower's stone cabin (circled in green).

[Click to see enlarged versions of these photos]

I got dressed up for some outdoor scrambling over the slopes (overalls and solid boots), grabbed my stout chestnut stick and set off up the road with Fitzroy (who soon wandered off on his own into the woods). I discovered rapidly that the golden color was due to dead ferns, parched by the heat.

Here's a view of my house, looking down into Gamone Valley from the spot where the golden ferns are located.

I wandered up to the ruins of the winegrower's cabin.

In its original state, the southern façade of the cabin extended to the spot in the next photo, on the right-hand edge, where you see a cluster of white flowers.

In the background of the above photo, beneath the invading vegetation, you get a glimpse of the rear wall of the cabin, erected against the embankment. Here's a closeup view of that wall, from inside the cabin:

 An edifice of this kind, composed of blocks of limestone, dates surely from the time of the monks.

The French nation seized ecclesiastic properties after the Revolution. Vineyards in the vicinity of Gamone were sold by auction during the period from 1791 to 1793.

As you can see from the starting prices (957 pounds for the property that used to belong to the church at Presles, then 2992 pounds for the pair of properties belonging to a chapel in the church of Pont-en-Royans), the authorities were not giving away these highly-reputed vineyards for next to nothing. They would have been acquired by relatively well-off local citizens. New owners of the Choranche vineyards would have no doubt lived in prosperity for over half a century, up until the scourge of phylloxera destroyed the vineyards entirely. After that, the cabins would have been knocked down, slowly but surely, by wind and snow. Maybe this marked fragment of a broken roof tile might enable me to date the construction of this particular cabin:

A few meters below the ruins of the cabin, I came upon another group of stone blocks that look as if they surrounded a well or maybe the winegrower's outdoor cooking zone.

A finely-cut slab of thick flat stone is lying in the earth. For the moment, I don't understand its role in the structure. Would it have been an element of some kind of a work device used by the winegrower?

I gazed across at the valley of the Bourne, below my house, and tried to imagine a time when this area was covered in grapevines, with scores of workers moving around on the slopes.

On the way back down to the house, I broke off a small branch of pine needles, to bring home.

These pines are just a few hundred meters up from my house, but they are growing at a slightly higher altitude than at Gamone, where I have no such trees. These pine needles were a souvenir of my brief excursion into a remote mountain territory... which I admire daily from my bedroom window.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Grapevines and walnut trees

In my article of 20 November 2010 entitled Wine of a kind [display], I evoked the Herbemont variety of US grapevines, which was one of the six varieties imported into France towards the end of the 19th century, for grafting in the hope of halting the catastrophic Phylloxera invasion. Here at Choranche, cunning landowners got around to using this Vitis americana plant, not for grafting, but to make a would-be "wine", as if it were a genuine variety of Vitis vinifera, which it was not. Today, the production of beverages from these six American "grape weeds" (Herbemont, Noah, Clinton, Jacquez, Isabelle and Othello), thought to be unfit for human consumption, is prohibited by law, and has almost ceased to exist. On the other hand, French authorities concerned with varieties of grapevines informed me last year that they know next to nothing about the exotic Herbemont plant, and they would like to inspect the specimens growing (apparently) at Gamone. I promised them that I would make an effort to prevent my donkeys from devouring the precious vines. So, I fenced of the area where Hippolyte Gerin, half a century ago, planted his famous Herbemont. Here's a first resurgence of the delicate reddish Herbemont leaves:

There are a dozen or so visible plants, and I've started to clean up the ground around some of them:

Meanwhile, the walnut trees of Gamone have donned themselves in colorful leaves, as if to welcome the warmness.

Sometimes, I think of my humble walnuts, not as trees, but as clockwork machines. They obey the seasons precisely, minutely, as if they were programmed… which, of course, they are, like everything else in the Cosmos.

Their hues are tender and fleeting, like the warm phantom of Spring that has deigned to move over Gamone. They are old, too, my Gamone walnut trees… like me. I love and respect them.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Wine of a kind

In my post of October 2010 entitled History of wine at Choranche [display], I explained that I was working on an updated version of my article in French concerning the former vineyards of Choranche. An anecdote that I related in this article concerns my discovery, a few years ago, of a row of grapevines on the slopes just up behind my house. I collected leaves from one of the vines, and set about trying to determine the name of the grape variety.

My Macaire neighbors told me that my reemergent vines were surely a row of Herbemont planted over half-a-century ago by Hippolyte Gerin, seen here—with a nephew (wearing a cap) and a farm hand—in front of the house.

Now, Herbemont is a hybrid of the American species Vitis bourquiniana or maybe Vitis aestivalis (as opposed to authentic European wine-making grapes of the Vitis vinifera species), and it is one of the phylloxera-resistant plants imported into France from the USA towards the end of the 19th century as a means of recreating the devastated vineyards. The other varieties of American "grape weeds" (as I call them disparagingly) were Noah, Othello, Isabelle, Jacquez and Clinton. Well, a week or so ago, I received an email from a major French agricultural organization in charge of grape varieties, saying that they needed information about the Herbemont variety for their database. I had no idea that this variety had become rare in France. I was embarrassed to have to admit that all I could offer them, for the moment, were my samples of dried Herbemont leaves and my notes concerning this variety. As I explained, the Herbemont vines at Gamone are located in my donkey paddock, and I have every reason to suppose that the animals, in spring, appreciate fresh grapevines emerging from the soil. In any case, I promised the fellow who contacted me that I would erect a fence around the row of Herbemont vines, to protect them from the donkeys. So, he plans to get back in contact with me next summer, in the hope that there'll be some actual specimens of grapes.

As I explain in my article on the vineyards of Choranche, the six above-mentioned varieties of American "grape weeds" (Vitis americana as I call them) were meant to be used in France as phylloxera-resistant rootstocks for the grafting of the vulnerable European grape varieties. In Choranche, alas, some farmers didn't bother grafting anything whatsoever onto the Vitis americana plants. They simply picked the American grapes and made wine with them! Somebody once said, about the beverage called Canada Dry: "It looks like whiskey, and it tastes like whiskey… but it just ain't whiskey." One could make a similar criticism about wine made from the six US varieties of Vitis. But the peasants whose lives had been ruined by the phylloxera pandemic were content to discover that this easily-made liquor inebriated them to such an extent that they tended to forget their misery.

I should point out that, today, all the six above-mentioned varieties of the notorious American "grape weeds" are strictly banned by European wine authorities, and apparently banned also, now, even in Texas, where a few quaint old-style vineyards were experimenting with them a few years ago. It's not merely a matter of their giving rise to poor-quality wine. The particular kinds of alcohol produced by pressing and fermenting Vitis americana grapes are toxic.

Following my email correspondence with the fellow who was interested in Herbemont, I dropped in on a retired farmer and amateur wine-producer on the edge of the nearby village of St-Jean-en-Royans, to see if he was aware that living specimens of the old American "grape weeds" had apparently become collectors' items. We got involved in an interesting discussion on this theme. Basically, he claimed that the European wine authorities have surely made a mistake in denigrating the wine produced from Vitis americana. If it really poisoned drinkers, and damaged their brains, then how come that most of the local farmers seem to have survived? It goes without saying that I wouldn't dare attempt to answer such a question…

One thing led to another, and my farmer friend said: "It so happens that I've got a small stock of rich-red Clinton that I produced a month or so ago. Would you like to taste it?" I could hardly chicken out, as if I were a scared chemist working for the European Union. In view of its young age, the fruity product could have been confused with Beaujolais Nouveau. I limited myself to a single glass, and I seem to have survived with most of my brain and senses intact.

There's a funny twist to this whole story about the wine of Choranche and the neighboring region. The authentic old wine that existed up until the phylloxera invasion had an excellent reputation, particularly since it was used as the standard house wine in all the French pilgrim taverns (equivalent to our modern hotels) operated by the Chartreux monks. Today, it is impossible to say whether this Choranche wine was really as good as it was made out to be, because so many factors have changed completely in the wine industry since that epoch. Maybe people said it was excellent wine merely because they'd never had many opportunities of comparing it with other French wines. The toxic beverages produced more recently from the Vitis americana rootstocks have also acquired a good reputation among local farmers, and I'm starting to understand why. Essentially, it's because the local toxic "wine" doesn't taste like any other genuine wine you've ever encountered (for the simple reason that it isn't really wine), and it no doubt puts the drinker into a rather special state. So, why wouldn't the local farmers have spread the rumor that the wines of Choranche are extraordinary? But the local people also state naively that the Noah variety "sends you mad". And so it probably does, in a clinical sense. So, as I say in my title, the Choranche product is best thought of as "wine of a kind".

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.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Digging my way out

This is the northern end of the stone cellar at Gamone (the place where wine used to be produced):

Because of the massive tufa arch at the top, I imagined for a long time that this had been a northern doorway into the cellar (which had a similar alcove at the south, along with a big opening at the east into my house), and that it had been blocked up by earth in circumstances and at a time that remained unknown. I now know that this impression was false. The earth that obstructs this "doorway" has been there since the beginnings of time. Seen up close, it looks like this:

It's a dense structure of small stones and dry clay, with no signs of vegetation. Unlike the surface ground around my house, within this conglomerate, there can be no presence whatsoever of shards of roof tiles or fragments of tufa (otherwise my "theory" about this soil would be wrong). Indeed, it's quite moving (and tiring, too), at the level of the ground floor of my house, to be hacking into earth that has probably been there untouched since the end of the Miocene (5 million years ago), by which time the French Prealps had arisen, irregularly, and folded into the kind of wavy surface structures that we observe today. [If anybody wishes to challenge my geological explanations, I would be happy to hear their arguments.] That means that the stone walls of the cellar have in fact been built up against the original earth embankment, using it as a natural formwork.

The pick and shovel in the first photo indicate that I've recently started to dig my way up out of the cellar. In a nutshell, I wish to replace part of that archaic earth by a staircase, so that I can climb down into my house from the place where I park my car and store my firewood. I prefer to handle this task manually, at a snail's pace, rather than calling upon somebody with a mechanical shovel, because the ancient stone structures must not be harmed or weakened.

ADDENDUM: On rereading the above post, I realize that I've introduced a puzzle, and then failed to examine it. Why would the builders of this cellar have placed a "doorway" up against an embankment of solid earth? I see two possible answers.

(1) Maybe it was intended to be, not a doorway, but a simple alcove.

(2) Maybe it was indeed a future doorway, and the builders intended to do exactly what I'm starting to do today: remove the earth. But they simply never got around to finishing this task.

The first answer strikes me as strange, because I fail to see the possible purpose of such a massive alcove, backed up by bare earth (which extended further up beyond the level where we now see the daylight).

The second answer seems to be more plausible. But, in that case, why didn't they finish the job? Well, maybe they were prevented by harsh circumstances, of one kind or another, from finishing the doorway. In the history of the Choranche vineyards, there are two significant dates. 1593 marked the end of the Wars of Religion, during which Protestant invaders had totally destroyed the vineyards. 1789 was, of course, the date of the French Revolution, which put a permanent end to the time-honored role of the Church in the local wine industry. So, the wine cellar at Gamone was probably started at some time between these two dates. In the middle of this period, in 1709, the vineyards were destroyed by an exceptionally harsh winter. So, between the Protestant attacks, the harsh weather and the final death-blow of 1789, we can choose between calamitous events that could well have prevented the completion of the doorway. I would imagine, above all, that the winemakers became accustomed to a cellar with a single doorway (the one I use today), and the idea of completing the northern doorway, by removing all that earth, probably became less and less urgent.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Local bottles

The three bottles in this photo have the same capacity, 50 centiliters, which is two-thirds that of an ordinary wine bottle. As you can see, I often use a fashionable tall and thin version of this bottle for my walnut wine, but the transparent glass has the disadvantage of revealing stains. This modern bottle, popular in France for prestigious samples of white and rosé wines, has an empty weight of about 450 grams.

The central bottle in the photo is a famous pot de Lyon [Lyon flagon]: the recipient used for ages in restaurants in the illustrious gastronomical city as a table flask for wine drawn from casks.

On the left, you see an ancient specimen of a pot de Lyon that I unearthed at Gamone last Friday, by chance, following heavy rain that had washed away the soil that had concealed the bottle for a couple of centuries. The thick green glass of this antique bottle weighs just over a kilo: that's to say, well over twice the weight of its modern descendant.