What a swiss

Drink - Victoria Moore takes sides in a strange wine dispute

Here in the Pays de Maures, almost every square foot of land that has been reclaimed from the sweet-chestnut forests stretching down towards the Mediterranean is given over to the cultivation of the vine. And in Collobrieres, a small town tucked into the heart of this territory, all life revolves around the chestnut and the grape. At the market in the main square, a jar of creme de marrons costs the same (F30) as a young vine plant. But while there are, it seems, a thousand ways of eating chestnuts (in ice-cream, with soft cheese, inside crepes), there is just one type of wine in this town - Treille de Collobrieres - and it comes in just three varieties: red, white and rose.

In any other country, this might not be surprising. In France, where winemaking is akin to religion, you know instantly that this monopoly must be the result of local laziness, complacency . . . or something much more sinister. Still, given that Treille de Collobrieres is extremely good, I thought nothing of it until I drove to a place called Hyeres on the coast, ordered a bottle of rose from Collobrieres, and was astonished to be given a bottle of something I had never seen before, from a vineyard - St Catherinette - of which I had, until then, never heard. It was immediately obvious that there must exist a blood-feud between the two vineyards in Collobrieres, and that the people of the town had frozen out the St Catherinettes. Why should this be?

On the way back to Collobrieres, about 3km before I reached the village, streetside billboards announced the presence of the caves of St Catherinette and that English, German and Italian were spoken there. I was relieved about this because my own French extends only to asking if Sir would be kind enough to check my tyre pressure, which would scarcely have sufficed for the delicate questions I needed to ask in order to investigate an age-old quarrel between wine producers.

St Catherinette turned out to be a very pretty vineyard, with roses planted at the end of each row of vines. But no one was there to man the shop that claimed to be open.

Eventually, two farmhands, both of whom spoke only French, came to see what I wanted. They could not be induced to speak ill of the rival vineyard, whose wine was everywhere, but insisted that theirs was "mieux". They also denied that the village cartel was set against them. The butcher sold their wine, they revealed, cheerfully ignoring the ten or so family restaurants and the two wine shops that have refused to allow the St Catherinette label to pass over their thresholds. I left them to their work. Further up the road, the Monsieur of the favoured Treille vineyard confirmed my darkest suspicions when I questioned him about the St Catherinettes.

"They are Swiss," he said gravely, as though this explained everything. "And their vineyard is very small. We have 360 hectares planted with vines, and 100 people to tend them. They have very little." (For the Frenchman, it would appear, not to have many vines is as embarrassing as being underendowed in the trouser region.) This kind Monsieur was unassuming enough to confess that there was "no difference at all" between the two wines (and indeed, having tried both on considerably more than one occasion, I can verify that this is the case).

He told me that "The Swiss" used to bring his grapes to Treille to be made into wine which he exported to Switzerland, but "that is finished now". So why, I asked, cutting to the chase, do all the locals shun St Catherinette? Monsieur rubbed his hands on his shirt. "He makes his wine, he sets his prices," he said with some disgust. "We charge F18 a bottle; his is as much as F30." Seeing my face - displaying shock that anyone might consider £3 to be an excessive amount for what is a very reasonable rose - he made his point again. "Yes, F30," he repeated, shaking his head in sorrow. I cheered him up by buying as many of his F18 bottles as I could carry, and headed home nursing a grudge against the greedy Swiss - like a real native.

This article first appeared in the 14 August 2000 issue of the New Statesman, So, who still wants to be a millionaire?