Winter in the Languedoc ends luminously. The bright, bare vineyards are carpeted with what looks like snow at first glance – though the cabbagey scent quickly puts you right. It's wild rocket (Diplotaxis erucoides): pungent salad for all. No tree, meanwhile, is scruffier or less prepossessing than the wild almonds which punctuate the vineyard tracks. Just now, though, their pink smudges bring joy to the leafless scene.
And I'm eating – last autumn's pears, a secret passion of my wiser years. The younger me disdained pears as inadequately exciting: where's the acid cut? Where's the colour, the squirt, the bite, the crunch, the thrill? Now, though, there are few fruits I relish more: subtle of contour, often with gloriously nuanced though understated skin-tones. I love their gritty textures; I even relish the psychological battle they impose on their eater. Wagering, in other words, when to cut into them – for maximum juiciness, which in pear terms means optimum aroma and flavour. It lies just beyond hardness, but before the neck portion of the fruit has begun to dry and shrivel, and before the wicked inner portions have begun their secret decay. The window of opportunity is a day or two at most.
France is not Conference-dominated, though dull Abate and hard Williams are all too common. This year's prize discovery is a pear called La Passe Crassanne, one of the six varieties permitted for the IGP (protected geographic indication) Pommes et Poires de Savoie. It's plump, more oval than pear-shaped, sand-yellow mottled with fawn, and if caught at the right moment is sensationally juicy, delicately perfumed in flavour, with a firm, almost leathery skin which adds to the eating pleasure. The ones I bought (and they were only on sale hereabouts for a week or so) had their stems dipped in red wax, which I thought a cute decorative touch. Not at all. It's there to stop the pear's juice evaporating via the stem, and thus aid conservation.
I don't see much point in drinking wine with fresh pears, but it has set me thinking about the kinds of wine which have a pear-like appeal: a haunting subtlety of charm of the sort liable to be overlooked by young hotheads in search of extreme sensations. I came up with three. You might consider aligoté a little too acid for the pear analogy – but serious Burgundy examples, made from the 'raisin doré' strain (as the Lafarge family does), can be calmly rewarding, as is the de Villaine version from Bouzeron – one of the few wines I know which merits being called 'a masterpiece of understatement'. Tender, comforting Soave might be considered something of a pear among whites: Pieropan's versions up the subtlety. White wines from Provence, finally, are among the most underrated wines of southern France and in my opinion better than the region's reds, often bringing vermentino (pear-like in the luscious phase) into creamy concourse with semillon, the supple and fleshy white from out west. The drinking window of these shy whites, happily, is rather longer than a day or two.