The little-known wine-growing area of Vendange lies somewhat south of the main Burgundy district, near the modern town of Beaujolais Nouveau, and it was in the small village of Bouquet-les-deux-Bouchons that I was privileged to meet Maurice Mineur, whose family have produced wine in the same vignoble for hundreds of years. Together with his son Patrick, his daughter Isabelle and their goat Rachmaninov, they tend 14 hectares of land (about 60,000 bottles) to produce the delicate white Moncracher wine for which the area is noted – not to be confused with the famous Montrachet.
Spring is particularly beautiful in this part of France, with almond blossom everywhere, especially on the almond trees, and the delicate scent of eglantine in the hedgerows. It was with a sense of anticipation that I drove up the flinty, dusty track that leads to the Mineurs’ ancient farmhouse, where I found the family already hard at work eating breakfast. This consisted of warm brioches straight from the oven, crusty French farm butter and a huge bottle of wine.
‘This wine is my children,’ said Maurice, swirling a small amount round his glass and smelling it tenderly. I noticed, fascinated, his technique of dipping his bushy moustache into the wine, sniffing it appreciatively and later wringing it out into a small bucket, for nothing is ever wasted in wine-making. ‘To me, each bottle is different. I can tell just from the introduction of my nose where each one is born. This one, for instance, she is from a chalky vineyard facing east. You can tell from the sniff.’
He took a large helping and drank it all down. Patrick took up the tale.
‘Our approach to the wine-making is traditional. Not for us the new machinery with the press buttons and the flashing red lights. Still we use the old wine press and the operation by hand and foot. It takes longer but it is worth it. We are still working on last year’s harvest, actually, but you must not hurry wine. Wine is like a woman – she is never ready when you want to go out for an evening.’
He too took a large glass of Moncracher and Isabelle continued the tale.
‘My brother is a male chauvinist pig. That suits me well, though, for as his sister I shall never have to marry him. A little wine?’
She handed me the bottle. Not seeing a spare glass, I raised the bottle to my lips and took a large draught. They clapped their hands and laughed.
‘I see you English know how to treat a good wine,’ twinkled Maurice. ‘Now it is time to show you my little estate.’
The Mineurs’ farmhouse, hundreds of years old, is a large, shady building covered with tangled ivy, creeper, nasturtiums, roses and, on the south wall, a huge poster for St Raphael. Beneath the farmhouse are large cellars which have housed bottles for hundreds of years, except during the War when they housed up to five hundred fleeing RAF officers at a time.
‘Mon Dieu, they could drink,’ reminisced Maurice. ‘During the day they would work for me in the fields and at night they would open the bottles and teach me their traditional drinking songs. Gringo the Russians Oh! is the one I liked best.’
‘And in 1945 they all went home, I suppose,’ I hazarded.
‘Not so,’ said Maurice. ‘They had drunk so much that they owed me wages and many of them had to stay till 1947 or 1948 to work off the backlog. They were good days.’
The Mineurs’ vines grow on chalky soil, which gives to the resulting wine what can only be described as a chalky taste, which is not unpleasant but comes as a surprise if you are used to a grapey taste.
‘This is what I would call a not successful bottle,’ said Maurice. ‘Look at the overseas bodies.’
Looking closely, I could see that the bottle contained large quantities of chalk, a few flints and what looked like a twig. Maurice knocked it angrily against a tree and it broke.
‘My wines are my children and from time to time I must spank them. Now here is a good bottle. A little sampling?’
I tasted it over and over again until I could begin to appreciate its truly noble, flinty, redolent character. Patrick meanwhile was explaining to me the technical nature of wine production with many figures and statistics, while I took notes as best as I could, considering I was also wrestling with a large bottle, a stick of warm French pain and some paté fresh from the pig. Referring to my notes now, I see I have written: ‘It is odd to see someone like Patrick with a handlebar moustache and a neat blue blazer. I wonder if his father was a passing squadron leader?’
The French laws of inheritance demand that each plot of land is parcelled out between the children, so that vineyards tend to grow smaller and smaller. Within a mile or two, Maurice told me, there are no less than 800 different viniculteurs, all cousins, which means that there are considerable traffic jams on market day. On the other hand, you are never short of a fourth for bridge. When Maurice dies, the land will have to be divided between Patrick, Isabelle and a certain Wing Commander Bentley of Farnham in Surrey, about whom they never talk. But what will Isabelle do with her share of the property?
‘I will continue to grow wine as we have for hundreds of years,’ she confided. ‘Maybe I will marry, I do not know. We are so remote here that I do not meet many men. In fact, you are the first man I have seen for a good long time. Will you write often when you go back to dear old England?’
I must confess I had not paid much attention to Isabelle hitherto, but whether it was the effect of the wine or the warm spring weather, I found myself suddenly attracted to her grave, chalky eyes and flint-brown moustache, which glowed softly in the French sunshine. Over lunch, which was an impromptu affair of beef casserole, roast pheasant, fresh salmon and home-grown vegetables, with another bottle each, I could not help reflecting that the life of this simple French family was nearly ideal.
‘Must you be going off so soon?’ said Maurice after we had wiped the last remnants of gravy from our plates with crusty French napkins straight from the laundry.
‘Alas, yes,’ I said. ‘I now have enough material to churn out a 1,500-word article and I must rush back to enter it for a food and wine writing contest.’
‘Ah, you English,’ said Patrick. ‘Why is it that you are always writing about food and wine and never enjoying it?’
It was a question which burned in my mind as I got unsteadily into my little hired car, drove down the dusty farm track and steered accidentally into an unsuspected ditch which had lain covered by undergrowth for hundreds of years. The family found me there later in the day, fast asleep. They hospitably invited me to stay until I was able to move on. Now, three years later, I am still here, for Isabelle and I have developed a, how shall I say, certain understanding, as indeed the French have done for hundreds of years, and I look forward now to the day when our little son Rupert will in turn inherit his three and a half hectares, though at present he is obsessed only with the idea of joining the RAF about which his grandfather tells him so many stories.
Miles and Miles 1982