When I was a child in Ireland my father used to take us on Sunday Drives. I think we went to Kippure in the Wicklow mountains several times. This was a transmitter mast for RTE, the television station where my father worked, and it was isolated at the summit of a treeless mountain. I remember that my mother was never with us, that my father’s shoes crackled over the gravel when we arrived, that he drank tea in steaming warmth inside the building at the base of the mast with someone who was pleased to see him, and that when we children – probably my brother Nicholas and I – became restless, we went outside and examined squashed toads on the narrow, lonely road. In the way of childhood memories, however, it’s possible that none of this is exactly true. What I believe, though, is that my mother wasn’t there because she was terrified of meeting a car coming from the opposite direction. This would have meant reversing into unavoidable catastrophe along the single-track, peat-bog-lined road.
That was before the era of Feel-The-Fear-And-Do-It-Anyway, so Mum just stayed home and worried. Sadly I’ve inherited the gene for debilitating fear of driving on narrow lanes, though a generation on I’m obliged to tough it out. I went into brief remission about 20 years ago after being driven over the Andes in a truck. In the run-up to that journey, it didn’t occur to me that there would be spectacularly dangerous roads, so even as a wheel was slipping towards oblivion, I didn’t worry. The fear crept back over time. Usually I manage by closing my eyes and screaming until Joel has negotiated cliff tops and ravines. Sometimes I have to get out of the car and walk ahead moaning and snivelling.
When Joel was still working at the restaurant and I did lots of solo exploring, one day I got lost in the hills behind Nice. Most of the roads are fine, but a wrong turn, and I found myself in one of my own nightmares. On this twisting, crumbling lane littered with rocks and giant pine cones, I couldn’t see a single lay-by or passing place. I had no choice but to inch ahead, alternately screaming and snivelling, and perhaps because of this I willed nothing to appear from the opposite direction.
There are wonderful things in the hills and mountains behind Nice, but to reach most of them there’s a certain amount of slithery roads, hairpin bends and speeding locals. The ski resorts, for instance. I at last fought the fear enough to get in the car, though I insisted on driving (a control thing – Joel doesn’t always stop immediately when asked, which means I have to scream louder). There are hundreds of kilometres of runs within 90 minutes of Nice – Isola 2000, Auron, Valberg, Dalmas… We started with one of the small, close (i.e., low scream factor) ones, La Colmiane, which because it was very end-of-season and on a school day, was deserted. Imagine, just Joel and me and 30km of runs! Though that isn’t much (Isola has 120km; Valberg, 90km), it was enough for us to get our ski-legs back. It was like a dream, empty and silent except for us and the lift operators. The one and only equipment rental man told us that the conditions hadn’t been that good so late in the season for years. This might explain why I didn’t fall over once, and why Joel, who skied a lot before he moved to London, got a bit cockier and fell over three times.
The lane with the rocks and pine cones was in the region of the Bellet vineyards, which begins literally 20 minutes from our front door. The memory of the lane usually frightens me off going to the vineyard open days that I read about in Nice Matin, but this past weekend I had a change of heart, and we agreed to go with our neighbour Toni and her very deaf dad. My logic was that as the dad could sit in the front with Joel driving, I wouldn’t see the road, and therefore it wouldn’t exist. It worked. I was so busy map-reading and shouting to include deaf Dad in any conversation that I didn’t notice the roads weren’t hair-raising after all.
Supposedly they’ve been making wine in Bellet since the Romans got there, but it’s only been an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC, the criteria for quality and origin) since 1941. It’s one of the smallest appellations in France, with around 125 acres of vines spread among 10 or 11 producers. At this size they can’t really compete with the rest of France, so they don’t try. Most of the vineyards are small and family run, or at least privately owned. Joel and I really liked the scruffy, ambling winemaker at Collet de Bovis, a retired professor of Italian literature who started his minuscule vineyard as a hobby in 1971. He seemed surprised anyone had found him, and invited us to a performance of Pirandello’s Le Bonnet du Fou, which he’s directing among the vines next Friday. How can we resist? Toni and her dad thought the wine was a bit too rough.
There was socca and pissaladière on offer along with the tasting wines at Domaine de la Source, cooked in a wood-fired oven by the brother in the sibling team who run this vineyard. When their parents ran it, they grew flowers. The family had set up their little garden with tables and chairs, and chickens, and it all seemed a bit more Napa Valley than collines niçoises, except for the ancient black-clad granny who was bouncing a baby on her knee under an olive tree… Traditional French accordion music would have accompanied the film scene, but as this was real life, it was bossanova instead, coming from a band in a field nearby.
There are larger, slicker operations in Bellet, including Château de Crémat (with wonderful views of the sea) and Domaine de Toasc, but they all produce a white, a red and a rosé – the rosés with Braquet grapes, a variety unique to this area. Toni and Dad were partial to a white at Domaine de Toasc, but by the time we got to the La Chapelle rosé at Chateau de Bellet, which is the one I was holding out for, they were wobbling a bit. This comes from grapes grown on a tiny hill beside a 19th-century chapel, so small that it produces just 600 bottles a year. Did it have vivacity and character? Was it complex and fragrant? Fruity and flowery with gingery notes? Umm…. So I’m told, but my palate needs a lot of refining before it’s worth moving beyond the lower supermarket shelves. The wine itself might have been a disappointment, but discovering that we could get to the hills without terror is definitely not. I hope it’s the beginning of another lengthy remission for my genetic affliction.