A Year in Provance by Peter Mayle


Excerpt from A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle.

It was early afternoon when I turned off the main road leading out of Vacqueyras and followed the narrow, stony track through the vines. I had been told that it would lead me to the maker of the wine I had liked at lunchtime, a white Côtes-du-Rhône. A case or two would fill the void in the cave that had been made by the last raiding party we had entertained. A quick stop, no more than ten minutes, and then I would get back home.

The track led to a sprawl of buildings, arranged in a squire U around a courtyard of beaten earth, shaded by a giant plane tree and guarded by a drowsy Alsatian who welcomed me with a half-hearted bark, doing his duty as a substitute for a doorbell. A man in overalls, holding an oily collection of spark plugs, came over from his tractor. He gave me his forearm to shake.

I wanted some white wine? Of course. Hi himself was busy nursing his tractor, but his uncle would take care of me. `Edouard! Tu peux servir ce monsieur?´

The curtain of wooden beads hanging across the front door parted, and Uncle Edward came blinking into the sunshine. He was wearing a sleeveless vest, cotton bleu de travail trousers and carpet slippers. His girth was impressive, comparable with the trunk of the plane tree, but even that was overshadowed by his nose. I had never seen a nose quite like it -- wide, fleshy and seasoned to a colour somewhere between rosé and claret, with fine purple lines spreading out across his cheeks. Here was a man who clearly enjoyed every mouthful of his work.

He beamed, the lines on his cheeks looking like purple whiskers. `Bon. Une petite dégustation.´ He led me across the courtyard and slid back the double doors of a long, windowless building, telling me to stay just inside the door while he went to switch on the light. After the glare outside, I would see nothing, but there was a reassuring smell, musty and unmistakable, the air itself tasting of fermented grapes.

Uncle Edward turned on the light and closed the doors against the heat. A long trestle table and a half a dozen chairs were placed under the single light bulb with its flat tin shade. In a dark corner, I could make out a flight of stairs and a concrete ramp leading down into the cellar. Crates of wine were stacked on wooden pallets around the walls, and an old refrigerator hummed quietly next to a cracked sink.

Uncle Edward was polishing glasses, holding each one up to the light before placing it on the table. He made a neat line of seven glasses, and began to arrange a variety of bottles behind them. Each bottle was accorded a few admiring comments: `The white monsieur knows, yes? A very agreeable young wine. The rosé, not at all like those thin rosés one finds on the Côte d´Azur. Thirteen degrees of alcohol, a proper wine. There´s a light red -- one could drink a bottle of that before a game of tennis. That one, par contre, is for the winter, and he will keep for ten years or more. And then . . .´

I tried to stop him. I told him that all I wanted were two cases of the white, but he wouldn´t hear of it. Monsieur had taken the trouble to come here personally, and it would be unthinkable not to taste a selection. Why, said Uncle Edward, he himself would join me in a progress through the vintages. He clapped a heavy hand on my shoulder and sat me down.

It was fascinating. he told me the precise part of the vineyard that each of the wines had come from, and why certain slopes produced lighter or heavier wines. Each wine we tasted was accompanied by an imaginary menu, described with much lipsmacking and raising of the eyes to gastronomic heaven. We mentally consumed écrevisses, salmon cooked with sorrel, rosemary-garlic sauce, en estouffade of beef and olives, a daube, loin of pork spiked with slivers of truffle. The wines tasted progressively better and became progressively more expensive; I was being traded up by an expert, and there was nothing to be done except to sit back and enjoy it.

`There is one more you should try,´ said Uncle Edward, `although it is not to everybody´s taste.´ He picked up a bottle and poured a careful half glass. It was a deep red, almost black. `A wine of great character,´ he said. `Wait. It needs une bonne bouche.´ He left me surrounded by glasses and bottles, feeling the first twinges of an afternoon hangover.

`Voilà.´ He put a place in front of me -- two small round goats´ cheeses, specked with herbs and shiny with oil -- and gave me a knife with a worn wooden handle. He watched as I cut off a piece of cheese and ate it. It was ferociously strong. My palate, or what was left of it, had been perfectly primed and the wine tasted like nectar.

Uncle Edward helped me load the cases into the car. Had I really ordered all this? I must have done. We had been sitting in the convivial murk for nearly two hours, and one can make all kinds of expansive decisions in two hours. I left with a throbbing head and an invitation to come back next month for the vendange.



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