Holiday Walking in French Vineyards

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The French, in my area at least, seem to have a very relaxed approach to people walking over their land. If you summon up the courage to make the initial approach then you will almost certainly be rewarded with unlimited access and very possibly a good degree of hospitality.

There are many levels of organisation involved in the regulation of wine production. There will be a co-operative, which gathers the produce from many different vineyards in the area and markets generic local wines. There will also be a number of independent wine-makers who produce and bottle under their own label. Many of these will belong to an organisation known as “Les Caves Particulieres”. They will adhere to a charter, which includes a clause stating that “they will welcome visitors, and take a delight in showing them the fruits of their labours” – these are perhaps the ones you should approach first! They will be used to dealing with foreign visitors, and will be pleased by your interest. Just one word of warning, never be tempted to make the initial visit between midday and two o’clock – this time is used for the family gathering and the main meal of the day.

Assuming you have made contact and been given permission I would suggest that you begin by establishing the boundaries. If things go well you might have the chance to discuss the varieties of grape (cepages) being grown. With practice you will be able to recognise each from the characteristic leaf shape – later maybe also by taste!

When it comes to wildlife then ironically it will probably be the non-vineyard bits of “your” vineyard that are the most interesting. Try to find little patches of scrub, woods, ponds and the like. Rows of vines give the perfect cover for creeping up on birds and beasties. It might sound daft – but why not take a small folding chair to sit on. I often take a book as well.
I suppose it is obvious, but you should avoid going into areas that are being worked. It’s not very nice being “sulfated”, and your host will get the fright of his life if he comes round a corner on his tractor and bumps into you (so will you) – this could sour the relationship.
You will need a bird book and a pair of binoculars. You can expect to see all sorts of “small brown jobs” amongst the vines and the occasional buzzard or kite wheeling overhead. Hares will occasionally appear at the end of a row, and it is not unusual to come across deer. There will be insects by the bucketful.

Be careful of the sun. You might think you are sitting in the shade, but a lot of UV will get to you – you will also get very thirsty. It is very tempting to nibble a few grapes, but you should resist unless you have been specifically told that you can.
If you notice any diseased leaves, or things that look a bit dodgy on your walks then it would be a good idea to note the place and let your “host” know about it as soon as possible. He will probably be very grateful, in fact you could become a useful pair of eyes instead of a mad holidaymaker.

Finally we come to the business of wine-tasting (degustation). This is something of a ritual and can be expected to take a long time. Look, sniff, swirl, sip, breathe in over the sip, – do all that with a detached air of reverence – then swallow or spit out. Yes, you are expected to spit it out after tasting – although you are also allowed to drink it. Try to make some comment each time. When you have finished it would be a good idea to buy a bottle or two, even if you were not too impressed. It’s a small price to pay for the loan of a vineyard to walk in!

If things have worked out well you should consider buying a small present towards the end of your holiday. This is quite normal, and would be considered very polite. But take care – never give a man a knife, or a woman red roses! Something typically “English” would be the best thing. In my time I have given innumerable “Tower of London” tea-towels, dozens of jars of marmalade, and even a pair of “Union Jack” boxer shorts – but that was a joke!

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