Please don’t get the wrong impression. I didn’t cross some of France’s most iconic vineyards just for the pleasure of tasting a thousand excellent wines, yarning with compelling people, hanging around in stone villages and watching the golden sunsets. It was essentially an intellectual exercise.
I set out naively hoping that the vintners would explain the arcane notion of terroir to me. I should have known that nothing is that simple in France. Time and time again vintners showed me what terroir does by pouring wines that had been made in exactly the same way from different plots merely metres apart. I could taste the difference, but the explanation was always the same: “C’est le terroir, Monsieur.”
I felt I was going around in circles. After a while, I played a game with myself. How long would they take to say: “My only role is to get the terroir to express itself”? It was not a question of whether they would say it, but when. Only one vintner I met said that she was making wine that expressed her personality.
Aubert de Villaine, co-owner of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, set the theme as we wandered through his world-famous vines. He believes that we are all in too much of a hurry, and complicate our lives as a result. He is right; some things take time and cannot be rushed. Wine is one of them. Travel is another. During the trip, I kept meeting people who have to bend to nature, rather than the reverse, and who understand that time is more than just linear.
So, here is the story of how the idea came to me, and how it all started.
Sablet, Provence, early spring 2009
Arriving by car from the wide Rhône valley to the west, you take the long bend (on all four wheels, if you feel you have to) and cross the bridge over the Ouveze. Sablet is right in front of you, on its nipple, the technically correct term in France for a little fortified hill, a mamelon. Head up the breast and you arrive at Loic and Rebecca’s pizza bar. Come just after nightfall to meet their band of habitués.
I rode my Solex up there one warm night in early May.
“What’s that?” someone asked.
Loic grinned. “It’s cool.”
They stood in a circle around it. “My Mum had one,” someone said. “Everyone did back then after the War. Black though. This one must be a copy.”
“This,” I said proudly, “is my Solex. It’s original, made in France in 1966. They made a few red ones. And next month I’m going to ride it down here from Chablis.”
“From Chablis? Up near… where’s that?”
Philippe had been staring silently. He sells motorbike equipment. Turning away suddenly, he strutted across the road to his house. A minute later he returned with a helmet.
“You’ll need this,” he said. “That one you have is for pushbikes. It won’t protect your head when you fall off.”
“Who says he’s going to fall off?” Loic protested.
“He’s winetasting, right?”
The helmet was branded “Willy”, with the logo right on the front. I couldn't refuse such a generous gift, of course, but it was going to be a challenge with my English-speaking friends: “Hey, great helmet. Still a dickhead?”
Philippe asked me: “What sort of oil?”
“The mix.” He pointed to the single sparkplug. “It’s a two-stroke. You have to put oil in the petrol.”
“The fellow who sold it said four percent of minerale,” I answered.
Philippe grimaced and headed off again. This time he pressed a black plastic bottle into my hand. “Synthetic, not mineral. Must be synthetic. Four percent.”
“But the fellow is an expert. He said I needed…”
“Tsstk,” Philippe interrupted, wagging his index finger in the air like a teacher to underline the seriousness of the issue.
“Err, OK, thanks.”
It might not have happened. The idea of a trip through the vines from the cool valleys of northern Burgundy to the searing plains of the far south developed slowly. Car trips always leave me wondering how much I’ve missed and I’m far too sensible to pedal through hills. When I mentioned a Solex, though, everyone told me to forget it. Even Sablet’s mayor stared into my eyes as if to see whether I needed medical help. It is basically just a heavy bicycle with a little motor on a hinge above the front wheel. When the motor is lowered, a roller drives the wheel by friction. My friends were convinced it would not be powerful enough for the hills and was dangerously unstable.
“Not so,” said Mr Bouffard, a kind-faced retired fellow who repairs old models and sells them at the market in Carpentras. I chose my Solex there and then. A few weeks later he drove up with it in the back of his small van, took me through the basics and disappeared.
As my mechanical skills only take me as far as replacing tyres, I called him back after my destabilising chat with Philippe. “I always use mineral oil, three to four percent,” he confirmed. “It’s what we always used to use, and it was OK. And perhaps a bit of lead additive. Why not? We used leaded petrol, but now you can’t get it.”
I bought the mineral oil, but not the lead as it was too expensive. I also dropped into Decathlon to buy several pairs of cotton trekking trousers, a purchase that was going to keep catching up with me in the weeks ahead.
I practised by taking the bike for short rides through the vines. Before long I was talking and singing to it and it became Solex without the “the” and sometimes “the Beast” in recognition of the burden I had become. Rounding a bend one Sunday afternoon, wearing my dickhelmet and singing away, I came upon a rather startled group of elderly walkers. Word got around.
Hundreds of emails and telephone calls later, my schedule was ready enough. My wife Anne and I crammed Solex into our Golf and headed north on the A7. By the time we reached Lyons, high cloud was pushing its fingers into the bright sun of Provence. The temperature dropped a degree every hundred kilometres. It was showering softly when we arrived in Chablis.
I felt a flood of loneliness as Anne drove off and consoled myself in the gite d’étape at St. Cyr by rigging a little speedometer to Solex’s handlebar. I never got it to work, but it showed me the time, so in the weeks ahead I always knew how late I was for my meetings.
The next post: A remarkable meeting with Jean-Pierre Colinot in Irancy. It was to discover that family relations can be as complicated as the French appellation system.