Monday 26 September 2016

A vineyard in southern France, by Carol Drinkwater

It is that time of year again. Late September. The season of ‘mellow fruitfulness’. There are no mists here at this time of year in the south of France but there is a great deal of mature sunlight oozing its warm beams for long hour after long hour. I love this time of year and what has been extra special for me this year is that THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER was published last week in paperback.
To celebrate its publication, my husband and I visited one of our local Foire aux vins, a rendezvous for all lovers of good wine where a vast selection of French wines are on offer at slightly reduced prices.

THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER is set, predominantly, on a family-owned vineyard in the south of France. The book opens with the harvest, la vendange.

When I was a student, many of my colleagues would zip off to France or Italy about now and help with the grape-picking. The stories they returned with, along with their healthy sun-kissed cheeks, always made me a little wistful. I was one of those students who couldn’t really afford to travel, (which is possibly why I have been on the move ever since!) I had never visited a vineyard. I didn’t know anything of the back-breaking work, the heat in the fields, the sweet juice staining my fingers. All of these joyous experiences came to me later, and whilst writing on THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER I spent a great deal of time on several vineyards throughout all seasons to learn the entire wine-making process, but I particularly loved being out of doors in the fresh air at harvest-time. As well, I enjoyed the camaraderie that grows out of working with a small thrown-together team. It is all about picking by hand, just as we do with our olives. One of the main reasons for this is that discerning pickers will know to leave the poor fruits alone and not mix them in with top quality fruits.

The moment of when to pick is an ancient art and getting it right is vital to the quality of the wine to come. Most winemakers decide their moment dependent on the sugar and acid levels in the fruit. Weather, too, is an important factor. This becomes clear in THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER when an unpredicted hail storm arrives from nowhere and beats down on the newly-picked grapes, destroying entire baskets of the estate's most cherished variety.

The south of France with its abundance of rosé wines has been capturing the attention of wine connoisseurs the world over. Wine production here in the Midi has come of age, experts are claiming. It is true that until recently it has never been held with the regard given to Burgundy or Bordeaux productions but since Phoenician times it has been an active if not always top-notch business here.
                             The cave where the earliest known winery was located in southern Armenia

I read on Wikipedia that the oldest-known winery, -and judging by the remains excavated there it was a reasonably sophisticated affair - was found in Vayots Dzor, Armenia, and dates back to around 4100 BC. If this were the oldest winery it would date the industry at approximately 6,000 years old, which is at least 1,000 years younger than olive cultivation in the Middle East.

I wonder.

                                     Mosaic with Armenian writing depicting grapes and birds

Georgia was producing wine during the same period as the Armenians and possibly earlier. They discovered wine-making when they buried wild grape juice underground in shallow pits throughout the winter. When the juice was dug up it had fermented. The next step was to sink grape juice in clay vessels with sealed wooden lids and leave these kvevris sometimes for up to fifty years.
                                                         Ancient kvevris in Georgia
The kvevris resemble early amphorae which, from at least Phoenician times, were used to transport liquid produce such as wine or olive oil all around the Mediterranean. The Phoenicians played a vital role all along their maritime trading routes in disseminating both wine and olive knowledge.

                                           Roman amphorae used to transport olive oil or wine

The search for the origins of viticulture is as complex a journey as my own Olive Route expeditions. It is possibly why the history of wine-making fascinates me as much as the olive culture.

                                                       Egyptian wine jars 6th - 4th century BC

I can remember standing in the West Bank on a very sunny February morning planting olive saplings in groves where the old trees had been felled, and looking about me. Unrestricted views in every direction. Palestine. Ancient Palestine. Canaan, Phoenician fields. Israel. On each of these territories wine production has had an impact and that impact has been carried to ports all across the Mediterranean.

                                         An exquisite Greek wine-mixing vessel, from southern France 500 BC

Southern France, the original small port that was founded as Massilia, modern-day Marseille, would have seen the arrival of wine stock and olive trees somewhere around 600 BC. The Phoenicians first or possibly the Phocaean Greeks who came from the Asia Minor coast, from the port-city of Phocaea – today Foca in Turkey. Both peoples would have transported with them cultivation know-how as well as a floating nursery of sorts. The resident Gauls were choosy about what they accepted from these long-distance foreigners, but they did welcome wine. After, came the Romans who planted up vast swathes of the Languedoc, the Mediterranean coast, Provence with vines.

A couple of years ago I was invited to the Robert Mondavi Institute, University of California, Davis, to give a couple of lectures on my Olive Route experiences, embracing both the two travel books and the films. While there I came across a very excellent book, which I thoroughly recommend if the history of viticulture is of interest to you.

                                                    ANCIENT WINE, by Patrick E. McGovern

It is a vast and intoxicating subject, and one I would love to travel to discover further.

THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER, unlike THE OLIVE ROUTE and its sequel THE OLIVE TREE, is a novel. It is full of love, fine food and wines and intrigue. I hope that it is also imbued with my passion for southern France's agricultural past and the region's history.

I leave you with Dionysus, or Bacchus. Such a handsome god in whose company I would enjoy driving a glass of wine.


Sue Purkiss said...


Unknown said...

Such a lovely and fascinating piece. Makes me want to read The Forgotten Summer, The Olive Route and The Olive Tree all over again!

Karen Maitland said...

Really fascinating, especially about leaving the grape juice in kvevris for up to fifty years - what patience and long-sightedness. It's rather like planting an olive tree for the next generation.

Grier said...

So interesting to read of the history of wine making.