Wine is bottled poetry


Wine. One of the reasons we Brits come to France, either on holiday or to live.

The title of this post is a quotation from Robert Louis Stevenson (I wish I could say I had thought it up). He was obviously a man after my own heart, RLS. And since he spent some time in France, notably travelling through the Cevennes with a recalcitrant donkey, he presumably got to try some.

These observations were partly prompted by the departure on retirement of Odile, who ran our village wine shop, La cave du Quercy. This came as a surprise. We went in on Thursday and were served by an engaging young couple whom we assumed were looking after the shop in Odile’s absence on holiday, or something like that – although she never took holidays.

Later that day, the téléphone arabe (bush telegraph) got going and we heard that the couple were the new owners and that Odile was planning a farewell celebration at the Place du Lavoir on Friday evening.

Odile had been running the shop for 14 years, we heard, so she must have opened it about a year before our arrival. To start with, the shop was small, almost cupboard-sized, with a counter and a few shelves with wine bottles. Gradually, Odile developed it, enlarging it at the back and at the side and expanding the range of products. Now, in addition to wine and spirits, she sells jams, preserves, olive oil, flavoured vinegars, tresses of garlic and all kinds of other things you didn’t know you needed, but which make good presents at short notice.

Odile has very cleverly expanded her clientele along with her products. At the beginning, the customers were mostly locals bearing their rinsed out plastic squash bottles to be filled up with rough red from the tap. They still form an important part of the customer base but a large proportion of sales must come from tourists and passing trade.

We arrived at the Place du Lavoir, just after the appointed hour of 18h30. Knots of people were standing about, arms folded, looking a bit awkward in the way the French do when they are waiting for something to start. Odile was flitting about kissing everyone and laying out trays of pizzas, snacks and olives. Her husband was setting up four large kegs containing, respectively, red wine, white wine, rosé and kir.

However, there was no question of a drink until everyone had got there and the speeches could begin. Nothing ever starts on time here. People kept turning up with bouquets and other presents. Le tout Caylus was there, except for the Maire, who was presumably detained elsewhere. At 19h00, Odile, flanked by the new owners, clapped her hands for silence and promptly burst into tears. Recovering herself, she briefly welcomed her successors, who said how much they appreciated the welcome, and the party could begin. Thankfully, the speeches were short, which is not always the case at French dos.

Odile has always made a point of showcasing local wines, as well as stocking wines from throughout France. Our part of the southwest is not particularly noted for its wine when compared with Bordeaux or Bourgogne, but there are some good wines to be found, nonetheless. To the south east of us is the Gaillac wine region, which produces pleasant, but not great, wines. Next door is Fronton, a very small region that exports little but produces some very drinkable, fruity reds (look out for Château Baudare rouge).

To the north west is Cahors, which produces a strong, rather tannic, red mainly from the Malbec grape. Wines have been produced around Cahors since Roman times. They are robust and austere, not for the faint-hearted, but go well with the hearty Quercy cuisine.

We are told that, even in our area, much of the land was formerly under vines. A lot of the wine produced was for the farmers’ own consumption, since the growing conditions here are not ideal and it must have been pretty rough stuff (pinard, as it’s known). The decline in consumption and the move towards more profitable forms of farming meant that nearly all the local vineyards were grubbed up years ago.

The new owners of La cave du Quercy have taken over a thriving business. Odile worked incredibly hard to build it up. The shop was open every day, often until quite late in the evening. We thought she had been looking tired in recent years and hope she will take it easy for a bit. In the meantime, the new couple, who left the hurly-burly of Paris to set up in this region, have got some hard work ahead but we wish them bonne chance.

Bonne retraite, Odile!  

Copyright © 2010 A writer’s lot in France, all rights reserved

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