For non-French speakers, “Culs” translates as “arses”. In other words, I live in “Arses-upon-Rocks”
Now more than ever, wine has become just as important as loo paper
A Burgundian Quarantine
By Constance Ayrton
Now that wine has become as vital as loo roll to many, what’s life like in the vineyards of a typical winemaking region? Constance Ayrton drinks her quarantined sorrows and ponders
I grew up in Culles-les-Roches, a small Burgundian village with a rather grotesque name. For non-French speakers, “Culs” translates as “arses”. In other words, I live in “Arses-upon-Rocks”. The name of the village has, unsurprisingly, sparked many base jokes, starting with our very own internationally acclaimed music festival, “Festi-culles”. Despite its unfortunate title, my village is the only place I have ever known as home. Only a handful actually make it there. My father likes to describe its exact location as either “you go to the end of the world and turn left”, or “the world’s arsehole”. Any keen traveller whose appetite is whetted by such a place name should drive straight down Burgundy, crawl along indefinitely behind a queue of tractors, weave through a warren of narrow country roads and wine tasting signs, and finally turn left. Picture a collection of rustic stone houses around a small Romanesque church, lost in the middle of vineyards that stretch as far as the eye can see. The potent waft of eau de manure accompanies this vision. That is where I live.
Living back in Burgundy during quarantine has brought me spiraling back to my childhood in a nutty French and British household lost in the vineyards, with neighbors ranging from a Member of the House of Lords to a 90-year-old witch who - as village legend has it - had killed one or two Germans during the war. I was pleased to find the vineyards and wine-growers unchanged: old friends and former partners in crime who had silently witnessed my infantile mischief all these years. I found myself reminiscing about the first time I tasted wine, and hating it as much as I hated Meredith Blake in the Parent Trap. If only I had known that I would eventually put myself through the pain of guzzling cheap Sainsbury’s wine at university, I would probably have enjoyed it a bit more. I recalled my father fearing I might never grow to like it: a fear perhaps greater than that of me coming back home one day with a massive “Fuck the system” tattoo.
Now more than ever, wine has become just as important as loo paper. During this time, I couldn’t help but wonder what life has been like for our Burgundian wine-growers since the beginning of the confinement. While for many, lockdown feels as if everything is on hold, I get up in the morning and watch the wine-growers march up and down the slopes, tending their vines, trimming and weeding like clocks wound up to run forever. How has quarantine affected our dearest vino producers? I took the opportunity to chat to two winegrowers from neighbouring vineyards, to find out how they have managed.
Domaine Laurent Bourtourault
Laurent Bourtourault owns a relatively small domaine at the entrance of the village and runs it entirely on his own. At the age of 45 he decided on a career change, quit his job and became a wine-grower. You can imagine this as a Wall Street broker’s dreams - wishing they’d invested in a Californian vineyard instead of hair implants. When I spoke to Laurent on the phone, he seemed fairly relaxed about the whole situation. “I have France to thank for that”, he explains. “The French government has officially listed wine as a product of first necessity.” President Macron, I am not always a fan of you, but well done on that one. This means that all the “caveaux”, or “wine cellars”, are still open and people are more than allowed to go out and restock on their favourite wines as much as they please, permission form in hand. (For every trip outside, French people are required to fill in a form with seven acceptable reasons to leave home, and understandably wine is one of them).
International orders have been held, but it seems the locals have kept the wine sales going. Wine merchants have even reported unusually strong sales in recent weeks. In fact, Laurent joked that a few days ago, my grandfather had phoned him and bought 54 bottles, which I suspect will just about have carried him and my grandmother through the next two weeks.
This is a particularly busy season for the wine-growers. Mother nature is waking up and vineyards are growing faster than Donald Trump’s hair. Plus, the weather could not have been better since the start of the confinement. Burgundy has been blessed with the perfect meteorological cocktail: nearly a month of constant sunshine, followed by a week of rain. Although parts of Burgundy, such as Chablis, suffered from a touch of frost a few weeks ago, Laurent’s vines further south have been safe and sound. In fact, they’re developing fifteen days faster compared to the last twenty years. “Some of the vines are even starting to flower”, says Laurent. “Usually, flowers would start to appear around the end of May!”. It’s almost as if Mother Nature had anticipated our urgent needs for the sweet brew, allowing us to drown our quarantined sorrows in the finest wine of the century.
Domaine François Raquillet
Domaine François Raquillet is currently run by an old high school friend of mine, Jeanne Raquillet. Jeanne and I shared some unforgettable times back in the day. Highlights of our friendship include watching Fifty Shades of Greyat the cinema together on Valentine’s Day 2016, then getting drunk on expensive white wine. Today she has taken over her parents’ domaine, much like my love life has been taken over by Paul Mescal fan accounts and battery-operated devices (my brand-new 3D facial roller, of course). The Raquillet domaine, unlike Laurent’s, has more than one employee. Strict hygiene and distancing measures have therefore been put in place in the vineyards and cellars: bottling and trimming come with an obligatory side of gloves and masks, which slightly ruins the picturesque aesthetic of vine-tending, but times are hard.
“We have a great team of workers. It has been quite nice for our morale to keep going despite the total confinement”, says Jeanne. While the locals have been drinking more than fish, she remarks that the domaine has suffered from a lack of orders from restaurants and hotels. I suspect these shortcomings will be rebalanced as soon as English tourists start flooding the Burgundian countryside again, steering wheel on the wrong side of the road, in search for the wine with the perfect amount of “je-ne-sais-quoi”.
Thankfully, as we start phasing out of the total lockdown, Jeanne explains that orders have progressively started to creep back in. Nothing gargantuan, but enough to put our hope in more than sacrificial offerings to Dionysus. Whether the domaines will soon be able to welcome their habitual herds of thirsty oenophiles remains unclear, but such lack of clarity hardly beats that of our friend Boris Johnson on the other side of the pond. In the last few days, I have even heard rumours of wine growers being sparingly allowed to receive clients in their domaines again for one-to-one tasting sessions. Quite the romantic setting if you ask me (just remember that spitting is frowned upon).
While many of us here in Burgundy have little to do with the wine-making business, we find ourselves carried and inspired by the never-ending rhythm of the vine workers. The world may have stopped, but the life of the vineyards knows no halt or shackle, and neither should ours. This is beautifully shown in Cédric Klapisch’s film Ce qui nous lie, or That which binds us, which delves into the heartaches and joys of running a family vineyard in Burgundy. Exploring life clocked according to the perpetual cycles of the vineyards, the film exposes the Burgundian resilience and “joie de vivre”, binding us all under the Dionysian hope that “where there is wine, there is way!” Recently, the hashtag #lavignecontinue (“the vine goes on”), launched on social media by Vin & Société, has been shared more than 2,000 times in posts and tributes that celebrate the unobstructed practice of wine making. “Si la vigne continue, la vie continue!”
Constance Ayrton has notoriously been described as the love child of French rudeness and English repression. She enjoys discussing all matters of life with her 20-year-old cat Dagobert, drinking fine wine and running away from responsibilities. She also holds the prestigious title of Cambridge University's Best Bum 2018.