by Clare Tooley MW

Changing Places

Last night I dreamt I went to Moulon again.

Recent times have created asynchronous existence, intermittent periods of grace along a continuum of uncertainty. In wine terms, the experience has felt more like a stuck ferment than the chrysalid dormancy of a vin jaune. Travelling in dream form has been some consolation.

Let me tell you about Moulon. A village, surrounded by vineyards, on the banks of the Dordogne. It lies between Libourne and Branne, on a bend in the river right where the Mascaret wave begins to falter, sigh, and hesitate, slowing its surprising progress. Moulon is a gentle, old place. A grouping of stone houses, some stately, some less so, all solid, centered around the small church of Saint-Vincent with a bell that peals the hour. It has a statue of a soldier lifting his arm and gaze in tribute to the war-fallen, and a Boulangerie baking chocolatines that melt in the mouth far too quickly to reach the hips. Moulon celebrates the passing seasons with Soirées Dansantes under garlands of lights. It Spring-cleans with vide-greniers along the avenue shaded by plane trees. It celebrates Thursdays with a pizza truck and Sundays with oysters from Arcachon. It is both unremarkably and unforgettably French. It is my sons’ childhood home and the place my mind wanders to the most.

And yet we left, seven years ago.

Here are a few mundane things I have swapped somewhere along the stretch of 5,646 miles and in the passing of seven years: stockings for denim shorts, heels for flip flops, a bob for a mane, cigarettes for smoothies, stems for stemless and china for paper.

Other changes are more subtle, and many more things still conjure ‘home’ somewhere behind my eyes, even though the surroundings could not be more different. The longing for cool air. I had a floating, sweeping, circular stone staircase that sweated in the heat, with treads that glistened and cooled the house, damply, from the inside out.  We shut the shutters and waited for the storms to break the fug of late summer Bordelaise heat. Here I open every window at night to catch the diurnal swing of the Bay or punch a pad for air conditioning and shiver in the instant chill.

The reveling in wine flavours. Our wine cellar in Moulon was full of garnet-colored wines, translucent even at the core, a hint of damp turned-earth on the nose, mouth flavors shot through with dark green briar. Now I often pour wines as dark as indigo ink, redolent of ribena blackcurrants, that fill the mouth with boozy summer pudding fruit trickling with cream.

The need for colour. My mood-lifting yellows came from limestone walls, tangerine and starched linen of Graves Semillons and the pillowy textures of burnished Sauternes and Barsac. Now I find them in the golden hour that haloes wine country, apricot Roussanne from Paso, the riot of mustard flowers in the vineyards and the bleached blonde grasses in the shade of the spreading oaks.

The curiosity for belle-laide food. I have swapped riverbed lamproie, silty-gilled and monstrously beautiful, for Benicia Bay sturgeon. Petit Gris snails, boiled and skimmed and doused in garlic butter have been replaced by Pacific abalone, brought up from the deep by divers, prised from their lustrous shells, tenderised in the Anchor Bay campsite kitchen with mallets, then coated in breadcrumbs.

Anxious météo fear. I watched hail and lightning storms tearing up the river towards us in windy fury before slamming the terrace stones and shutters with ice pellets like bullets. They shredded vineyards and sometimes left behind the sad, nose-nagging smell of vinegar from sweet rotting fruit. Now I watch for fires, furious too, driven by wind and the fanning of a thousand brittle branches. They leave ashy residue and smoke-milky air. They turn the bright landscape to sepia and linger in the air with a tincture of sweet brush smoke, present even on the hottest days under clear blue skies.

Ocean life. Our hot summers continue to be spent on sand dunes and beaches.  We are drawn as often as possible to another freezing ocean with surf boards, while wetsuits still hang from the backs of garden chairs to dry – simply bigger in size now as the boys have grown like weeds in the sunshine. Here too, vineyard cycles are supported by the magnetic pull of tide and moon and vintages are made and broken by the weather brought to land by the sea.

Red blends. Now I enjoy Bordeaux blends with a Hollywood swagger, slicker-textured and glossier than their Châtelains cousins. Relaxed, sun-kissed Cabernets and satisfying, not compensating, Merlots. The sub-AVAs of wine country push perfect dark fruit to the forefront of the nose and mouth as if to mask the complex weave of tannins, worn so proudly by the young wines of the Médoc. And Rhône blends that follow the same recipe but show more restraint than their Papal brothers. Root wines, more earnest, brooding even, adolescent examples of a style that is centuries old.

And finally bats. There were two living in the wine cellar in Moulon. They joined our parties on the terrace at dusk and swooped over the pool as the corks popped. There are two here, sometimes more, that visit our back garden every evening, feeding on citrus flies, missing the hummingbirds by minutes. They use echoes to find location and so, it seems, do we.

Image by Ben Stern and Unsplash

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