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Diary: John Wall

17 November 2017


Lost and found

I HAVE recently come back from grape-picking in the Languedoc. It’s not something I’ve ever done before. A former university friend, having sold his business and cast around for something to do, bought an old vineyard in the south of France, and is now having great fun making wine.

In the middle of a terroir — I gather the phrase is — of some 175 acres of vines, it is quite magical: a long, low 18th-century manor house, with all its ancillary buildings nestling round it, it is rather like the lost domaine from Henri Alain-Fournier’s novel Le Grand Meaulnes, and once belonged to one of Napoleon’s generals, a genial baron who settled agreeably into country life in a way that my City of London friend is doing now.


Joy in the land

IT WAS, though, with a sense of apprehension that I found myself one morning walking through the vines, armed with secateurs. We were to hand-pick some Viognier grapes from a small parcel of land where the fruit had been allowed to shrivel, thereby concentrating the juice with a view to making sweet dessert wine.

No one has ever considered me as a horny-handed son of toil (least of all me), and I realised that this was actually the first time — beyond a gentle amble though the countryside — that I had come anywhere near anything properly agricultural. And I loved it.

There was immense satisfaction in searching among the vine leaves for the greeny-black bunches hiding there, filling plastic baskets, and tipping them into the trailer attached to the little Tonka-toy-like tractor. There had been a late frost in March which had been ruinous to the crop; so, instead of the expected ten to 12 bunches per vine, we were lucky to find three or four.

So small was the harvest that a little Victorian hand-press was produced, and barely 200 litres of juice was extracted — enough for some 400 bottles of wine (a drop in the ocean of the 100,000 that they produce each year). All my ministry, I have blithely wittered about Jesus the true vine, pruning, bearing much fruit, and what have you, but only now do I have any inkling of the art and industry involved: the expertise, the love, and the fragility of the whole process.

The fact that the two workers who annually prune the vines are North African Muslims who are not allowed to drink the resulting alcohol is food for thought, too.

All in all, I will look forward to the resultant wine, and will nab a bottle or two for eucharistic use. My long-suffering congregations will get bored with all my wine-related sermons. Communion will taste good, though.


Virgin of the vats

TEN minutes from the Domaine Saint-Hilaire is another vineyard, very different in its history: the improbable Abbaye de Valmagne, to which we pottered out on a day trip.

Founded in the 12th century as a Cistercian monastery, it was expanded in the 13th century with a magnificent cathedral-like abbey church. It suffered badly in the 16th-century Wars of Religion: apparently, an abbot absconded, became a Huguenot, and promptly returned with an armed band with whom he slaughtered his former brethren — a somewhat extreme reaction to a Chapter dispute, but there you go.

During the French Revolution, the monastery was confiscated by the State and bought by a local businessman, who proceeded to use the church as an enormous wine-store, which ensured its unlikely survival. It is still in use as a wine-store today.

Walking around the stripped austere building you can see the elegant side chapels and the radiating chapels of the apse, now all filled, from floor to vaulting, with enormous wine vats. Where the high altar once was, a medieval statue of the Virgin had been placed, thus restoring a sense of order — but, nestling between vast barrels, it feels incongruous, although in a strangely agreeable way.


Words with meaning

SITTING in the cloister afterwards, by the vine-draped lavabo fountain, I reflected that, as a priest, I would have expected to feel affronted by this bizarre change of use — but I wasn’t.

Maybe it was something about the lucky survival of something so beautiful, in contrast to what happened to most of our medieval monastic buildings, lost in the Reformation or Civil War. Maybe it was saying something about God’s whimsical sense of humour. But, in a faith that is centred on bread and wine, maybe there was a thoughtful congruity there, after all.

At any rate, after vineyard and abbey, vine and Viognier, when I hold up the chalice at the eucharist, I will say the words “Fruit of the vine and work of human hands” with, for me, a resonance that they have never had before.


The Revd John Wall is Rector of the Uckfield Plurality.

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