Friday 23 December 2011

The First Snow

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Let us love winter, for it is the spring of genius.  ~Pietro Aretino

On Tuesday we had our first snow.  It snowed all day and transformed the landscape from the sombre browns and greyish greens of mid-winter to a tapestry of startling, graphic beauty.  It's more comfortable to be here in Châtillon in summer but to us, as photographers and worshippers of landscape, freshly fallen snow is the apotheosis.
We live on the Chemin des Vignes and have vineyards as our neighbours.  These vineyards have been the most satisfactory neighbours we have found to date.  There is something primordial about vines.  They flourish in harsh conditions and give of their best in stony soils, sometimes in almost no soil at all.  They relish baking summers and appreciate cold winters from which they bound back into life early in Spring and the whole cycle starts again for them to be cut down almost to the ground after having given their best.  Like many of the best wines, vines can mature with age and, given the chance, can grow very old indeed.
We walked into the vineyards and spent a couple of hours enjoying the views and the changing light and here are some of our attempts to record that fleeting day of snow which disappeared as fast as it came.
A view down the Chemin des Vignes towards Glandasse, now obscured by cloud.  This view was taken from almost exactly the same spot as the Summer view which opens our previous blog.



The sun appeared for a few minutes and completely transformed the landscape.

On the way home we passed one of the many local walnut orchards.  
At home, most evenings, we enjoy the produce of the vineyards that give us so much pleasure throughout the year.  Wine production is so much more than just agricultulture.  Man has not had to go back to his roots as, in this department of life, we never left them.
We wish everyone a merry Christmas and a glass of something special and, of course, the best possible year in 2012.

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Cabanons and Vineyards of Châtillon-en-Diois

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A well-preserved medieval village on the western fringes of the French Alps, Châtillon-en-Diois has more than its fair share of the good things in life.  The village is tightly contained towards the head of the valley of The Bez where it opens out into a fertile basin intensively and sympathetically farmed.  The valley slopes on both sides of The Bez provide first-class vine growing conditions  -  deep, stony soil, south-facing and well-drained with lots of summer sunshine of Mediterranean intensity and cold bright winters.

Apart from the quality of the vineyards, which has brought Châtillon-en-Diois three AOCs, 'Clairette-de-Die', 'Châtillon-en-Diois' and 'Cremant-de-Die', the situation is gorgeous with the cliffs of Glandasse rising to 2 000m in the background and, incidentally, providing wonderful walking country and lots of summer grazing.

One of the most striking aspects of the vineyards is the Cabanons  - small and mostly stone-built, they come in a variety of sizes and pretensions.  The vineyards originally belonged to the various families from the village.  The people grew enough grapes for their own wine-making needs and perhaps a little extra for sale in local fairs and markets.  For some it was a fair walk to their plot and, during the spring, summer and autumn evenings, the family could camp out amongst their vines with a rudimentary shelter which became the centre of a very pleasant mix of work and relaxation.  

Between the end of the 19th Century and the middle of the 20th the individual plots were gradually incorporated into the fortunes of four families who turned Châtillon's wines into more than just the vin de pays.  Phylloxera was the turning point for the local wine industry.  The added work and maintenance needed to re-establish the vineyards were too onerous for the village's families;  the vineyards became more commercial and the Cabanons developed into their present form as stores for tools and equipment, a ground floor stable and overnight accommodation above.  

That was perhaps not such a bad period for the villagers as they almost all enjoyed seasonal employment in the vineyards and the social life that went with it.  A social life which is nicely illustrated on reproductions of old photographs appearing on plaques scattered around the vineyards.  Great, evocative photographs evoking more than a twinge of nostalgia and a longing for quieter times.  Easy sentiments that tend to be diluted after a look at the village's War Memorial.

Most of the local people have little involvement with the vineyards and wine production any more.  With the AOCs and a serious demand for the excellent local sparkling wines, the vineyards are entirely commercial and apparently prosperous, still the main business of the village.  Fortunately, the vineyards remain very much part of the village and continue to be a part of the social fabric.  Perhaps it's something French but there is nothing forbidding about the vineyards  -  no fences, no exclusion, nothing to suggest that they do not still belong to the people.  It's unusual to walk through the vines without meeting neighbours or summer visitors.  And in the summer, the cabanons revert to their previous cheerful rôle.  Picnics, communal and otherwise, and well-lubricated balmy evenings punctuate the season from June to October.

The cabanons come in a variety of forms from the smartest and most aristocratic, above at La Beyliere, to more rustic but practical shelters.

The vineyards are always a pleasure to visit.  The seasons are strongly marked and always striking, none more so than in autumn after the vendange.