Saturday, 19 April 2014

Booze Books: Salt and Old Vines by Richard Bray

I spent a pretty sweet Good Friday curled up reading Richard Bray's brand new, debut book, Salt and Old Vines: Tales of Winemaking in the Roussillon. The clouds gathered outside and it was grey and unpleasant, but not for me, oh no - I was in southern France.
The Roussillon to be exact, and it was sunny and sweaty and sticky with grape must, and very real indeed. You see, when Richard Bray set out to write a book 'explaining what winemaking is really all about', he knew that this didn't mean the inside of a vat (although he does spend some time inside a vat in the book); he knew that to get to the heart of the issue you have to understand the winemaking lifestyle, and that means the people and the culture and traditions in the world around them that make them tick.

Richard brings all of that to life with joyous vividness - the sights, smells, sounds and people, the Roussillon way of life, and the very literal blood, sweat and tears that go into the winemaking process. For this reason, the book will appeal not just to a wine nerd like me, but to anyone with a passion for travel, France, or a good plate of food. Indeed, the food and wine descriptions belie his utter obsession with them and are mouthwatering in the extreme.

In fact, it's worth reading just for the bit about the special roquefort - a moment in the middle of a day's harvesting, combining mayhem and filth with luxury and satisfaction - that is so tangible... it really is delicious.

This, like the rest of the food moments in the book, are pleasing not just for the delectable treats, but for the people with which he shares them - you'll get to know Philippe, the winemaker, his viticultural partner Andy and Andy's wife Kirsten, and a host of other fascinating Roussillon characters along the way, most of which are quite probably like no one you've ever met, or ever will meet unless you go to the remotest parts of southern France.

The way Richard weaves us through their winemaking year makes you realise how excruciatingly difficult it is for smaller producers, how there's little to no glamour involved, and how many ways things can go wrong, but how - unbelievably - the raw passion for winemaking remains, and seems to grow stronger each year. 

One of the moments I felt this most strongly was when Richard describes Philippe creating a wine from grapes picked right at the end of harvest - in November - which was made in a style that made it perfect for sipping in quiet contemplation of another vintage gone by, and all the vintages that were to come.
Photo: Salvatore Freni (CCL)

It would be easy to think that this romanticism of food and wine was fabricated, but I'm one of the lucky ones who can vouch for its authenticity, having worked a couple of vintages at Domaine Jones, not too far away in the Languedoc. Although I only worked for a week or so (I'm one of the 'gap year' types Richard describes with so much condescension in the book - slightly unfairly in my view!) I can wholeheartedly say it is exactly as I remember it, and made me hungry to return, despite the memories of my many bruises and scars.

It's worth remembering that while you'll learn a huge amount of winemaking, this book's tagline is 'tales of winemaking in the Roussillon', not 'how to be a winemaker'. If you want to learn about winemaking, you will. If you want to learn enough to be a winemaker or pass a WSET exam, then do that instead. This is more of a pleasant, relaxed learning experience, where amongst the nitty gritty of all the various methods and procedures described, there's accounts of injury, unpleasant colleagues and unsavoury encounters with the locals. 

And yes, there are points when you're very much reminded that this is one man's experience, and some instances where that reminder is because Richard veers off into unnecessary accounts, or says slightly pointless things like 'I don't remember what we were talking about... probably wine' and 'I don't usually order cheese or dessert, just coffee' which made me prickle with impatience and want him to get on with telling the story a bit faster. But this is what makes it more memoir than fact book, and Richard doesn't pretend it's anything else.

Pacing issues aside - of which there are quite a few, but the actual content of the prose is enough for me to forgive him - this is an easy, pleasant read that really does transport you through a year of being a winemaker. 

It's a fascinating way for wine enthusiasts to immerse themselves in winemaking culture, whilst learning more about it through the candid experiences of a man with enough knowledge to be helpful but enough modesty to be accessible. A rarity - and well worth a read.

Grab a copy from Foyles for £7.49, from Amazon for £9.49 or direct from Unbound, the publisher. They even made this sweet little video about it.

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