The Languedoc may not have the prestige and grandeur of Bordeaux and Champagne, but it makes up for it with aspiration, value and variety, making it one of 2012's regions to watch. Amy Wislocki profiles four Brits who have moved to the Languedoc to make wine.
A career as commercial director for pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline sounds glamorous, but has its drawbacks. ‘I was working across 113 countries and 23 time zones, and spent most of my life on a plane,’ recalls Charles Simpson. Aged 30, he and his wife Ruth, who is fifth generation of the Grant whisky family, decided enough was enough – a complete life change was in order.
“We decided to buy a vineyard, and started looking around the world – we did full global diligence, looking first at Western Australia and Central Otago. But land in Western Australia is very expensive, and there are only really lifestyle plots available. Also, 9/11 brought it home to us that we’d be too far from friends and family.
“What was vital to us was to be in an upcoming area, where we could be part of changing its reputation – it’s boring to dedicate yourself to merely maintaining a reputation. We also wanted to work in a New World way – planting what we want, using modern technology that isn’t necessarily available under AC regulations, and working back from what consumers want. We wanted to build a brand, and to produce consisently high quality every year, minimising vintage variation. If that means using drip irrigation to get certain phenolically ripe, so be it.”
The Languedoc was the obvious choice. “If you’re going to do a New World style project anywhere in the Old World, it has to be the Languedoc.” But where? The Simpsons viewed 40 properties across the length and breadth of the massive region, but found only two that matched their brief. “We didn’t want to be within an appellation, and we wanted good land planted to noble varieties, farmed well and with a winery on site – plus a house of character.” They fell in love with the 16th century Domaine Sainte Rose, and stretched themselves to the financial limits to get it, paying £1.3m for the estate, which included 50ha of vineyards and a three-storey château. They were helped by the proceeds from the sale of their three-bedroom Kensington apartment, which they sold at the height of the property boom for £800,000.
Since moving in, they have replanted around 40% of the vineyards, taking total plantings down to 37ha, six white varieties (Roussane, Marsanne, Chardonnay, Viognier, Muscat and Sauvignon Blanc) and six red (Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot). “Small domaines have to offer something unusual,” says Simpson, “as they can’t compete on price on the monovarietal wines made from the usual international varieties. As outsiders we approached it with a fresh attitude, blending Petit Verdot with Mourvèdre, for instance – Majestic bought that wine because it’s different.”
The biggest mistake was hiring a French winemaker in the early days, says Simpson. “They’re trained in a very different way to Antipodeans. The French believe they’re making the wine for themselves, as artists. The New World mindset is different; they know they’re making wine for us. Many French winemakers aren’t even drinking wine from outside France. Where’s the curiousity?”
The family has settled in well in the decade that they have lived there. “Our first daughter, now 9, was born three weeks after we moved in, and two years later we had another daughter. That really helps you to integrate. I didn’t speak French when we arrived, but now I’m fluent. We take care to employ local people, and we pay them on time – all they can say about us is that we have some weird practices!”
La Nuit Blanche Roussanne 2008
This is fermented for one year in old French oak barrels and has 10 months barrel ageing. Full but racy, it is a serious, structured, oily wine with a hint of tropical fruit and an attractive, slightly saline quality. Quite tight, and firm on the palate; a food wine. 17pts/20
Price: £9.99, Majestic.
Written by Amy Wislocki
‘The Britpack: winemaking Brits in France’ – James Kinglake
Producer: James Kinglake, Domaine Bégude, Limoux
James and Catherine left London a year later than the Simpsons, in 2003. Similarly they were exhausted by the rat race. “I worked in the City selling European shares for British investors, but found that we were spending most of our disposable income on escaping on holiday. In 2003 we spent a month touring the South of France viewing properties, and found Bégude in a beautiful spot between Carcassone and Limoux, with the Pyrenees as a backdrop.”
Like the Simpsons, they felt the New World was too far, and were attracted by the innovative wine scene in the Languedoc. “Plus, we couldn’t afford to buy in Morey St Denis! I love Burgundy, so Limoux was an obvious choice.” The Kingslakes bought the domaine, with 22ha planted at 320m altitude, for half the proceeds of selling their house in Wandsworth, south-west London.
Today they produce seven wines, using a French/Aussie/Brit winemaking team. “I did winemaking courses at Plumpton, but learned on the job,” says Kingslake. “When we arrived we advertised in the local rag for a winemaker. We interviewed 12 of 40 applicants, and invited three of those to the winery. One arrived in a suit, another said he didn’t drive a tractor; we employed the third, Laurent Girault, who took the time to walk the vineyards, and examine the soil. He had spent a year at Rippon in Central Otago and is open minded – modern French. We also have an Australian consultant winemaker.”
The vineyards had been organically farmed, and the domaine is now going through certification. The focus is on whites, which thrive in the cooler microclimate. “The highest temperature here this summer was 33˚C as opposed to perhaps 40˚C in Minervois. This and the day night drop in temperature give the wines a lovely natural acidity.”
Ripping up 7ha of the 22ha, the Kingslakes planted better clones of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, got rid of the Mauzac, and planted Viognier and Gewurztraminer, bringing total plantings to 29ha. The costs are considerable, says Kingslake. “It costs around 20,000 euros to prepare and plant one hectare. Then every new stainless steel tank costs another 12 or 13,000 euros. We make around 180,000 bottles a year, and we’re just about making a living – it’s not big bucks.”
What advice would Kingslake give those who’d like to take the plunge and buy their own vineyard? “You need a good team you can trust. Don’t be afraid to be bold. And listen to your customers. It’s hard work, but the rewards are there. The biggest plus points for us are the beauty of the place, and the relaxed pace of life. We had been trying for children for seven years before we came here; Catherine fell pregnant immeidately after the move, and we now have a 7-year-old daughter.”
Domaine Bégude Etoile Chardonnay 2007, AC Limoux
Gorgeous buttery, cream cracker aromas. Lovely weight, toasty but fresh. Meursault style but at a far lower price. 17pts/20
Price: £157.75 (case of six magnums), Goedhuis.
‘The Britpack: winemaking Brits in France’ – Stephen Cronk
Producer: Stephen Cronk, Mirabeau, Provence
Stephen Cronk left his job in telecoms and home in the suburbs of south-west London two years ago to pursue a dream of making his own wine, but ended up choosing a different route – he and his wife Jeany buy in wine instead, blending it and selling it under the Mirabeau brand. “I always wanted my own vineyard, and had the romantic notion of opening the shutters in the morning to look over my vines. But in the end it didn’t make financial sense for us. My sensible German father-in-law sat through a PowerPoint presentation I’d prepared of lovely vineyard pictures, and asked, ‘That’s all very well, but where’s the spreadsheet?’”
Cronk visited the south of France in 2009 with an open mind, and met with James Kingslake of Domaine Bégude to hear his advice. “James knew the challenges as he’d been doing it by then for six years. He didn’t want to burst my bubble, but he did a bit! He explained that it’s the huge gap in time between pruning your vines and getting paid that’s the issue. Not only are the margins small, but the cashflow is a nightmare.”
The family – the couple have three children, aged 11, 9 and 3 – moved to Provence, and the children joined a local school. “We were going to live in Aix for the international schools, but we were advised to throw them in at the deep end. They struggle for the first year, but then they thank you for it.”
Unsurprisingly in Provence, the focus is on rosé, which is made with the advice of winemaking consultant and Decanter World Wine Awards Regional Chair Angela Muir MW. (For the second vintage, they will also introduce a red and white, in smaller quantities.) “Provence rosé is one of the few growth areas in still wine,” says Cronk. “Majestic advised us to go as pale as we could, but we didn’t – I think you lose fruit flavour if the wine is too pale. We want it to be bone dry, but with bags of fruit flavour.”
There are three Vs in wine, says Cronk: viticulture, vinification and vente: “We just do the third and we’re quite busy enough. We have 370ha to choose from, and buying in wine means we have flexibility and scaleability. We have the lifestyle without the risks. I’d probably be divorced and broke by now if we’d done it the other way!”
Mirabeau 2010, Cotes de Provence Rosé: 60% Grenache, 30% Syrah, 10% Cinsault
Lovely salmon colour. Ripe, aromatic style with a Provencal floral and white currant aroma but bags of ripe fruit on palate. 16pts/20
Price: £8.99, Waitrose
‘The Britpack: winemaking Brits in France’ – Robert Eden
Producer: Robert Eden, Château Maris, La Livinière, Minervois
A veteran compared to the other three, Robert Eden moved to France 20 years ago after a long career in wine – he started out in Australia, aged 17, working with legendary winemaker Len Evans, arriving in the Languedoc via Italy and Burgundy.
He bought Château Maris as a going concern in 1997. “La Livinière gave me what I wanted in my wines: elegance, suppleness, pure, bright fruit and seductiveness. The property had been three generations in one family, and had 84ha of vines – today, plantings total 45ha, and the estate is certified biodynamic. “Maris didn’t appeal to many buyers because it was a village domaine (that is, the vineyards were scattered around the villages). But the quality and reputation were there.
“I believe we can make some of the best Syrah in the world here – it’s ideally suited climatically. It’s less burned and bacony than the northern Rhône style, and doesn’t have the baked, parched aspect that some Syrah has – the rainfall here gives a lushness.”
Eden has seen huge change in the Languedoc since he bought Maris in 1997. “It’s an exciting time now here – base quality has increased substantially with people coming in to make varietals to compete with the New World. Also many growers are breaking away from the cooperatives.” It’s a great time to establish yourself here, he says, but advises caution: “Keep it small, and buy as little land as you can in the beginning. Also, consider buying in grapes and making your own wine – there is huge potential here in purchasing grapes.”
Château Maris, Continuité de Nature 2008: 90% Carignan, 10% Grenache
Made from 80-year-old Carignan vines, this has lovely dry tannins and voluptuous, dark, small black curranty fruit, lifted by fresh acidity. An elegant mouthful. 16.5pts/20
Price: £18.99, Vintage Roots