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I WAS splitting cherry logs when an unfamiliar car drew up nearer the house. A smartly-dressed woman got out, picked her way across a shallow ditch and peered closely at a rotten tree stump.

Remembering that once during his madness George I

I WAS splitting cherry logs when an unfamiliar car drew up nearer the house. A smartly-dressed woman got out, picked her way across a shallow ditch and peered closely at a rotten tree stump.

Remembering that once during his madness George III had stopped his carriage in Windsor Great Park in order to address an oak tree as the Prussian Ambassador, I resolved to react warily. I left my axe and came down the slope to ask if I could be of any help. You'd have done the same, wouldn't you?

It was most kind of me, she said in a polished Parisian accent. She happened to be passing and had noticed a really splendid growth of fungi on the tree trunk. Did I happen to know to whom they belonged?

I'd barely noticed them. There was indeed a magnificent cluster of nutbrown trumpetty mushrooms, like a half-buried brass band. I didn't know what they were. Pig-ignorance, of course, but every fungus under the sun grows round here, especially after a wet warm autumn. Except truffles, which is the one we'd really appreciate. We've never got round to sorting out the inedible ones from those we sniff at eagerly when someone else is frying them lightly in a little olive oil.

The upshot of all this was that I cut them away carefully, put them in a plastic bag and gave them to her. Certain now of her supper, she thanked me effusively and in return invited me and Madame – if there was a Madame? I nodded and said bien sûr, certainly, wondering what I was letting Josephine in for – to her next art exhibition. She had English friends in the area, we were bound to know them. She couldn't remember their names for the moment, but perhaps we could all come together?

WEEKS LATER, just before Christmas, this invitation surfaced unexpectedly, just like the mushrooms that gave rise to it. Some Anglo-Dutch friends from St Florian rang to say they'd been invited to an art exhibition one Sunday. Would we join them? They understood we knew the lady artist too.

It was a strange venue for an exhibition of paintings. After several wrong turns and stoppings to ask the way, we ran it to earth in a Cave Biologique called Domaine de Lotantique. 'Cave' in this part of the world means a winery, a wine-producing unit. Usually they're housed in massive stone-built barns, but this one was in a modern concrete-block shed, all steel beams, insulated aluminium panels and enormous stainless steel wine-vats about the size of moonshot rockets.

The pictures were almost all wine-based: richly coloured, competent and painterly offerings of old Languedoc vintner's houses, vineyards, gnarled (but fungus-free) vine stumps, all owing much to Van Gogh and Cézanne and rather outshone by the gleaming sanitized pipes and spotless mirror-bright wine vats they were hung from. A couple of blotchy but shapely nudes were the exception, and even they were coloured in tones of rouge, blanc and rosé.

But of Angèle, the lady artist, there was no sign. A fleeting thought: surely the mushrooms I'd given her weren't poisonous? Ah, the proprietors Jean-Claude Crebassa and Elisa Riggio said, she'd gone to Mass, they'd try her mobile later. Meanwhile, would we like to sample the wines on offer? They were Bio, produced without inorganic fertilisers, weedkillers or pesticides.

WINE-TASTING is the process known as dégustation, a rather unfortunate name for something that ought to be wholly pleasant. They pour a finger, maybe two, into a tall, concave glass. Then it's over to you. Here's the drill:

1. If you're serious about this, make certain that the bottle is freshly (white and rosé) or fairly recently (red) opened for you. It certainly won't be wasted. If the dégustation leads to a worthwhile order, they'll sometimes re-cork the sample bottle for you temporarily and include it in your order free of charge.

2. Hold the glass to the light. If the wine is murky, like cabbage-water, it probably tastes like it, too. If it's aflame with all the glorious clarity and colour of a sun-filtered stained glass window, move on happily to step 3.

3. Cupping the glass in your hand, tilt it from side to side, swirl the wine about gently without sloshing it. Watch the trace it leaves. Is it dribble-free, silky and unbroken? You could be on to a winner. Cruise confidently on to step 4, your nose a-twitch.

4. The warmth of your hand through the glass should help to release the bouquet: test the fragrance firstly in one long, gentle inhalation, and then in a series of delicate, barely perceptible snifflets. When you've fully drawn breath, hold it there for a second or two. You should find the upper reaches of your nostrils and sinuses being very agreeably teased, giving you an idea of how you'll feel when you've drunk a glass or two. If you're a smoker, however, this experience will probably be completely negative.

5. This is it. Take a small mouthful. Let it lie on the tongue for a moment. Then move it about in your mouth. Burgundy wine-tasters filter it to and fro between their lower teeth, an unappealing action called la grumée designed to keep the wine near the tip of the tongue. Don't feel obliged to do this, but different parts of the tongue will react differently to build up your appreciation of the spectrum of flavours. Finally swallow it. Don't spit it out in any circumstances. Don't take another mouthful until the aftertaste has disappeared, like the final glow of a beautiful sunset giving way to night. Ah.

6. Clear your palate before the next sample with water or something neutral like a piece of bread. Good dégustations will provide bread, or perhaps a bland cheese or not too highly flavoured sausage. A really determined dégustateur can turn the experience into a modest lunch.

At midday several really determined local dégustateurs turned up, one in a little 3-wheeler delivery truck with 'HALLOWINE' painted along the side, followed by a telephone number. Clever.

We left, the heavier by a dozen or so bottles. The reds were good, but the whites, especially one called Galinette, were particularly impressive. I'm afraid we didn't buy any paintings. Why look at the pictures when you can drink the wine? On second thoughts, though, those nudes . . .

SMALL, UNIMPRESSIVE prize to be won!

What am I saying? Small? Unimpressive? This column is happy to offer a signed copy of my book 'French Leaves: Letters from the Languedoc' for the first correct e-mail answer (send it to the address below) to the following:

'Lotantique' and 'Galinette' are names taken from a 1963 two-part saga called 'L'Eau des Collines' (Water from the Hills) by a French – or rather Provençal – author who married a woman who happened to have the same name as President Kennedy's wife and who starred in an early film version. The author died in 1974. What was his name?

Bonne chance! Bonne année 2003!