So I have two vines that aren't growing well. They're on each side of my terrace and have struggled since 2004. One grows and produces plenty of leaf but few grapes; the other is stunted and won't grow at all.
I was given the address of a pépiniériste (nurseryman) at Caromb and decided to go and talk to him. He specialises in vines. A neighbour who wants to expand his little plantation of 20 vines decided to go with me. When we arrived on a Saturday afternoon the pépiniériste was trundling about tinkering with a small tractor, accompanied by a vast white Pyrenean mountain dog, the type used to chase wolves away from sheep.
We got talking and as the dog beat its tail against our legs and woofed a bit, I explained the problem. What variety of vine did I have, he asked? I didn't know. Behind him were rows of small, healthy looking vines and a large poly-tunnel with the door open. Another little army of vines was growing inside.
Never mind, he said. The issue was to find vines that would grow. Presumably I wanted raisins de table? Not much point having grapes that make wine if you only grow 2 vines. But did I want grapes at all? A sterile vine wold be pretty but wouldn't produce grapes so I wouldn't be bothered about wasps in late summer. Mmmm, I thought I wanted grapes.
OK, he said. What type of soil do you have? Well, I replied, it's in pine forest, it's rocky. Limestone.
Ah. If it's calcaire he said, it's necessary to know whether it's actif or not? I had no idea.
Vines are apparently sensitive to calcaire actif and, if you have it, you need to grow vine varieties that can cope with it.
My neighbour wasn't sure if the soil in the hamlet near my home had active limestone or not. He had a note of the vines that currently grow fairly well on his land and, looking at those, the pépiniériste said it was unlikely there was calcaire actif
in the soil. He wasn't prepared to recommend vines without knowing more about the soil though and we agreed to find out. A proper soil analysis would be too expensive he advised us but we could talk to local agriculteurs who would be sure to know. At this point an old chap wondered over to us. He had just about the most French look I've ever seen in my life - huge white handlebar moustache, wispy white hair, a weathered and crinkled face, kind twinkly eyes and a great big smile.
Papa, the guy asked him, is there calcaire actif in the soil at Velleron?
Papa didn't skip a beat. He shook his head and gave us a concise discourse on the soil composition of pretty much the whole of the Vaucluse. (He added a short digression on cultivating truffles.) Anyway, it turns out that where I live, there's no calcaire actif to worry about.
That cleared up one aspect of the discussion. Things then got a little more complicated as we discussed planting, pruning and the months when different varieties produce their grapes.
My neighbour had quite a lot of questions and the last one was whether the pépiniériste could note down a few suitable varieties for his land? He still had several things to think about and decide he said, but in the meantime he'd like a list to consider. The chap laughed and said that in his house he had a book around 500 pages long on vine varieties. My neighbour had to make a few decisions about the type of vine and grape he wanted and then, when he came back with the answers, he'd get the recommendations he needed.
We chatted a bit longer and found out that this nurseryman provides vines (grafted, but that's a whole other discussion) to vignobles growing vines across hectare after hectare. He's used to supplying hundreds and thousands of plants at a time and yet here he was taking time to inform and advise us when he stood to sell a few vines for 5 euros apiece!
That's one of the things I love about Provence, and France in general - the care and pride and attention that go into so many activities whether agricultural, culinary or purely social.
We thanked the chap and set off for Velleron, stopping briefly in Caromb for a coffee. The little café was in darkness but a woman was sitting outside and welcomed us. "It's the crisis" she announced cheerily. "I didn't have any customers so I turned the lights off."
"Well you can turn them on again now we're here" we said.
As we sat in the weak February sunshine drinking rather bitter coffee, two workmen arrived and had coffees too. They jumped back in their van to leave and reversed casually into the car behind them as people quite often do here. They gave it quite a bump. The driver beamed at us and signalled "It's OK isn't it?" Yes, we nodded. It's OK.
He'd only hit the bumpers.
I got home pondering the expertise of the pépiniériste. He supplies fig trees too - naturally, since Caromb is the home of the popular Caromb fig variety. And almond trees. I bet he knows as much about growing figs and almonds as he knows about growing vines and grapes. Having a magpie brain that flits too easily from one subject to another, I find that mastery of fields of knowledge really admirable. And, to me anyway, knowledge of the natural world is far more seductive than knowledge of, say, law or economics. There is something very substantial about knowing the land, the climate and vegetation. Which is partly why we use the term grounding, I suppose, to mean steadying or stabilising.
I'll probably never gain the really thorough understanding or experience that people here have of vines or figs, truffles or oysters, olives or olive oil - but I have come to understand how much complexity and richness there is in each aspect of nature in the Mediterranean. It's pretty overwhelming sometimes but certainly fascinating. And while it's sometimes frustrating to realise how little you know about a subject under discussion it's often a joy to discuss, listen and learn. And to admire the knowledge of people here who really know their stuff.