Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Corkscrews and canvas - tales of a wine-loving camper

Since acquiring a jolie-laide 1981 VW camper van seven years ago, I’ve become a habitual camper after a decades-long hiatus. Being wine-obsessed, I have naturally made it my mission to try to combine my two passions.

A welcome sign

It has been scientifically proven that beer tastes better when drunk in the shelter of a beer tent while rain gently falls outside, perfuming the air with the scent of mud and wet grass. OK, I made that up, but you can kind of see how it might be true can’t you?
The van takes in the view
In the same vein, I think there’s enjoyment to be had combining the fruit of the vine with the great outdoors. Here, for what it’s worth, are the pearls of wisdom that I have unearthed over the years.

-          The experience of eating and drinking while camping is not great on paper, I admit. Drinking white wine that’s too warm or red that’s too cold and trying to eat from a plate in your lap while avoiding coleslaw oozing onto your shorts, as midges and mossies feast on any exposed flesh – any volunteers?
-          It’s well nigh impossible to keep things properly cold (as indeed it is to serve up properly hot food) so avoid those wines that need to be well chilled in order to be enjoyed fully. I don’t want to come over as impossibly precious, the kind of person who insists on drinking their white Burgundy at exactly 12⁰C – heaven knows, that’s easy enough to achieve in a typical British summer. But Champagne or sparkling wine that really isn’t cold enough is an undedifying experience. Red is always going to be the safest option.  And lightly chilled, fruity reds are great.
-          Glasses – plastic is pretty nasty, but it’s not wise to take your best Riedels either. I compromise with glass tumblers – no spindly stems to worry about. When camping, if anything can fall over, it will. 
-          A nip of sweet Sherry does a great job of providing instant central heating following a stint in the sea, or just a damp day in the hills.
-          And finally, if you’re wondering whether to have one final glass of grog before turning in – remember, the loos are probably a dark and guy-rope ridden walk away.  

France is where I’ve done most of my camping in recent years and it is a wine-lover’s dream. I’m not sure my family get quite as excited about it as I do, especially when I pull over yet again to take photos of some really good pudding stones in the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, or get caught up in a conversation about vintage conditions with a winemaker. But they also have their own wine-themed memories – how many boys can say they have bumped into a glass wall at Champagne Drappier before the age of 12?

 A plentiful supply of both campsites and wine regions are crying out to you to make your own French discoveries. The network of Campings municipaux means you are rarely more than a few kilometres from somewhere to pitch camp and they are generally well laid out with flat pitches (British campsite owners take note – a soggy, sloping field does not make a for a good site). We rarely book any sites in advance and just hop on a ferry and head south until the weather suits our clothes, as the song goes.

A word to the wise, a quirk of French campsite loos means that they tend to have either loo seats or loo roll, but very rarely both. On the plus side, many sites will get a visit from the local boulangerie in the morning, so you can enjoy the proper French breakfast experience to set you up for a day’s strenuous wine tasting.
Zero tolerance
Sometimes you don’t even have to leave your site to taste some of the local wine. On more than one occasion, wine producers have actually turned up at our campsite to offer a try before you buy tasting, making for a very civilised way to choose something to go with that evening’s salade niçoise. We eat a lot of salade niçoise on holiday.

Memorable campsites with a wine connection

La Grappe d’Or in Burgundy is not especially remarkable as campsites go, though it does have a decent swimming pool which observes the peculiar French habit of closing for a long lunch break. What makes this special for wine lovers is the location, surrounded as it is by the vineyards of Meursault. Where else can you do your washing up outdoors with a view of Premier Cru vines in the setting sun?

Meursault vines at La Grappe d'Or

Champagne lovers should make a bee-line for the Camping Municipal at Epernay, which puts you within striking distance of many of the big names, as well as countless smaller ones of Champagne. It shares a site with the canoe-kayak club, so the energetic can paddle along the Marne for an hour or so. A bakery van calls every morning, its presence announced by a prolonged toot on its horn – no lie-ins here.

The perfect wine and camping scenario is that offered by Champagne Nowack at Vandières in the Marne Valley. A small site set amongst the vines (a bit sloping, but with flat places) with luxurious hotel-standard loos and showers, barbecues to borrow and table tennis to play. The best bit though, is that you can pop into reception and pick up a chilled bottle of their Champagne, an ice bucket and proper glasses to drink from. Technically speaking, it’s not the best fizz I’ve ever had, but let me tell you, on a hot evening after a day’s travelling it’s like the nectar of the Gods. 

Nowack nectar of the Gods

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