I’ve lived here for two years now, so this is the third time I’ve seen the vineyards turn golden like this. The vines are fascinating all year round but in this season they are particularly beautiful.
I was just recalling some of the thoughts I’ve had which have been directly inspired by this countryside. The landscape around here looks just like this. It is so different from the wild mountainous landscape of Scotland. But once the grapes are harvested, the processes involved in turning them into cognac are very similar to the ones used to turn barley into whisky. The culture of blending, tasting and savouring cognacs is very, very like that of whiskies with each distillery producing distinct flavours depending on the ground on which the plants were grown and the work of the master blenders in the distillery. Two or three hundred years ago some of the distillery workers from Scotland came to this part of France and applied their knowledge and skills from whisky production to the local cognac.
The vineyards around here are old. There’s a noticeboard just outside this village telling the story of how in the 1700s particularly hardy vines were brought here from America to improve the local crops. The vineyard where the noticeboard sits is called “the field of experiences”, or, probably a better translation would be “the field of experiments” (I think I prefer the “experiences” over “experiments”, but that’s just me).
From these two little discoveries I realise how the distinct, unique character of this environment has been influenced by other parts of the world, other peoples, other plants. Nothing exists in isolation.
The “vignobles”, or vine workers, are busy all year around. The harvest was completed last month and one of the next tasks is tending to the individual vines, to remove any less healthy ones, any which have passed their best. I was startled by this work the first day I encountered it because it can involve using a tractor with a type of drill attachment to dig out certain plants. It sounds more like roadworks than fieldworks. Throughout the year the vine workers tend to each plant over and over again. Every single vine is pruned by hand. That’s another thing which surprised me. I don’t think farmers attend to each plant individually in a field of grain. I’m not sure that would be possible. But these vines are not like fields of grain. They are, more obviously, rows of individuals. From a distance, as in these photos, it is hard to see them as individuals, but to the vine workers every single plant requires their full attention.
That balance between the one and the many is something which is often at the front of my mind. I thought of it often in my work as a doctor, always mindful that even if this next patient was bringing me a story of a particular disease or disorder, they were always more than “another case of…..”. They were always a unique individual who required my full attention.
One final thought, before I finish today…..I’ve learned that although the landscape around here features vineyard after vineyard, that each vineyard too is different. One of the most important differences is the soil. Take a look at this map –
Each of these coloured areas produces a completely different flavour of alcohol. The large distilleries which produce their own distinctive blends of cognac will select certain amounts of grapes from certain regions, knowing that the flavours of each region are very different. Those differences have a lot to do with the different soil types, and a lot to do with the micro-climates created by the particular landscapes and locations.
I often wonder about our relationship to the physical world. How the environment, the water, the climate, the shape of the landscape, all influence us, how we, as human beings respond to and, in turn, shape the very environment in which we live.
We hear quite a lot about “identity politics” at the moment. Over the summer I read a piece of research which investigated the beliefs and attitudes of young French people to explore what influenced their identity. The conclusion was that the strongest influence on their identity was geography. They felt French because they lived in this part of the world called France. Not because they belonged to a particular race or religion, but because they lived in this land. That gives me hope.