Chateau Monty - wine writer buys vineyard

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  • Monday 18 August 2008

Approaching 40 and tiring of life as a wine writer, Monty Waldin decided the time was ripe to put previous experience to good use, buy his own vineyard and become a winemaker. The question was, where?

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Approaching 40 and tiring of life as a wine writer, Monty Waldin decided the time was ripe to put previous experience to good use, buy his own vineyard and become a winemaker. The question was, where?

Although it may sound obvious, if you’re going to buy your own vineyard, it makes sense to buy one that is going to produce the kind of wine you like to drink every day.

Because if all else fails, and no one else likes your wine you’ll end up drinking. I don’t collect wine; I drink it. My absolute favourite drinking wines tend to come from light-coloured and usually chalk-dominated soils. These wines tend to be ageless and smoothly refreshing without being heavy.

That’s why sherry from Andalusia’s chalk-dominated albariza soils, Champagne or Spain’s finest cava make such good aperitif wines. With food, Burgundy, with its limestone slopes, and St-Emilion tend to excite me more than gravelly Médocs or more clayey Châteauneuf-du-Papes.

Of course, there are exceptions to my chalky rule. You could stick me on a desert island with nothing to drink but ethereal Mosel Rieslings (slate) or ports (schist) and I wouldn’t region I have mentioned come at a huge price. Even a tiny Champagne vineyard – winery not included – requires a dollar or sterling cheque with at least five zeros.

Plus, to make Champagne, port or sherry generally involves holding maturing wines from several grape harvests as stock – a nearly impossible financial undertaking for a newcomer.

Hence for frustrated, would-be winemakers, marrying into a wine family becomes a tempting proposition. Yet most representatives of the wine-growingfamilies, or at least those I met during my writing trips to the Douro, Andalusia, Reims and Epernay, were middle-aged, bearded or both.

It was pretty clear that the most realistic way of buying into a wine region on a wine writer’s stipend was to use my ‘insider’ knowledge to my advantage. As I’d odd-jobbed in vineyards and wineries in several wine regions over the years, I felt I had a head start.

Bordeaux, where I first worked, was out. The unknown vineyard I had worked on making basic red and white Bordeaux had a beautiful house and grounds, and nice vines too, but it was in the wrong place at the wrong time. While the famous Bordeaux châteaux had never had it so good – rave reviews, unbelievably high prices – wine from ‘everyday’ Bordeaux châteaux had become something of a dirty word.

Modern drinkers wanted wines with sexier flavours and sexier labels. Cue Australia, New Zealand and Chile. When the owner of the Bordeaux château I had odd-jobbed in went bust, I tried my luck in a huge Chilean winery for the 1994 harvest. This was the future. Pointless rules and regulations the French suffered. This was something our head winemaker in Chile – Jacques Lurton – had clearly realised.

He’d come to Chile from Bordeaux, too. When I worked the 1993 harvest in Bordeaux it had been unbelievably wet – for the third year running. I felt morelike an Atlantic trawlerman fishing for a catch than a trainee winemaker. Chile’s much sunnier climate meant we could harvest grapes every day for three months, with only the odd rain shower.

It was also obvious that Chile could produce what Bordeaux couldn’t: consistently massive yields of excellent-quality grapes, making the cheap but generously soft and fruity wines modern drinkers wanted.

But I was too young and too attached to Europe to buy a vineyard in Chile mistake in one way, because Chilean vineyard prices have multiplied several times since my first visit. In fact, the wine boom of the 1990s and 2000s meant of the regions I had considered buying into – Priorat, the Alentejo, the Pfalz, northern California, Paarl, Umbria, Lake Wanaka – were rising sharply.

The only places where vineyard prices seemed to be falling produced wines that didn’t excite me, such as Beaujolais, which was suffering a post- Nouveau bust, or Cahors, a difficult terroir trying unsuccessfully to reinvent itself via winemaking trickery.

I’d always wanted a vineyard with a view of the sea – or at least water. Lake County in northern California fitted the bill; but soon after I worked near there, prices shot up when the guy I was working for – Jimmy Fetzer – invested big bucks in his biodynamic Ceago Del Lago project. Somehow, though, I had blanked the most obvious place for a vineyard with a sea view – Mediterranean France – from my mind.

I’d assumed prices would be out of my league. The first inkling I got that prices weren’t so high came from a French girl I was dating. I had dinner with her and her father near her family home in Montpellier in the Languedoc. Her father was an ambulancedriver rather than a wine grower, sadly. The next day I had an appointment to interview English wine grower Bertie Eden about his biodynamic vineyards in nearby Corbières. I asked him why, having costed projects all over the world, he had based his project in the least glamorous part of the south of France, Languedoc – being famous, or perhaps wines sold by the lorry-load.

Bertie said he was ‘not looking to make large amounts of cheap, bulk wines from any old vineyard’. Instead, he wanted ‘to produce limitedrelease or small-production wines from select vineyards, pruned to produce low yields for more complex flavours’. To him, the Languedoc is ‘the most interesting – and, per square metre, the cheapest place in the world to buy vines.

The wine can legitimately call itself “made in France”, which still has immense cachet, whatever the critics say. If you are looking to invest in vineyards, you must be looking pretty long term; and if you’re looking long term, France is a pretty safe bet. I mean, the tracks and fields I walk across were first planted as vineyards by the Romans.'

It was a good argument, but the Languedoc is a big place, and finding the perfect spot was not going to be easy. I’d need some luck and some insider knowledge. My lucky break came when Gérard Basset MW, who was running the Hotel du Vin just up the road from my family home in Winchester, said he couldn’t make it to a wine tasting in Languedoc’s twin-sister region, the Roussillon, so would I go in his place?

Most wines I tasted on this trip were the no-better-than-average wines produced by the dull cooperatives you’d expect on this kind of junket. But the vineyards seemed to offer huge potential, for two reasons. First, and unlike Languedoc, the vineyards had not been so overrun with C h a r d o n n a y , Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. The vineyards of Roussillon were still stacked with old vines and a wide range of traditional and potentially high-quality grape varieties: Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris and Vermentino whites, Grenache Noir and Syrah for reds.

Second, the landscape became much hillier away from the hotter, flatter coast than in most of what I knew of the Languedoc. Since hilly vines generally give the best wines, I realised I’d have to give up the idea of a‘vineyard with a view’.

My other lucky break came when Idecided I wanted to get some inside knowledge on herbal vineyard teas, having discovered them while researching a book on biodynamic wine. Examples include camomile tea for drought-stressed vines, and stinging-nettle infusion, which is to vines what an apple a day is to humans: an all-round pick-me-up and disease preventer.

Teas made from aromatic wild herbs like rosemary, thyme or garlic make make pesky insects think twice before attacking. A wine importer friend, Roy Richards of Richards Walford, set me up with Gérard Gauby, Roussillon’s star wine grower. ‘Gauby not only sprays herbal teas on his vines,’ said Richards, ‘buthe even drinks them for breakfast, too.’ Richards, his business partner Mark Walford and Gauby had Soula, after the Catalan term for sunny, sloping Roussillon vineyards from which they were making top-quality wine. Laguerre was also a wine grower in his own right and even rented some of hisspare vineyards to Le Soula. Some of the Gauby magic had clearly rubbed off on Laguerre, as the Domaine Laguerre wines – which I’d never heard of before – had shone at a blind press tasting I had done. You didn’t need a degree in economics to work out that if Richards Walford – sole UK agent for Pomerol superstarlet Château Le Pin – and Gérard Gauby were investing in the Roussillon, then vineyard prices were sure to rise. They have tripled.

In 2002, 1ha (hectare) of planted vineyard in Le Vivier cost £2,000–£3,000

to buy; in 2006/07 it cost upwards of £9,000.

Eric wasn’t looking to sell any of his own vineyards, but he offered to rent me one – a 2.2ha red-wine vineyard in the commune of Le Vivier in the Corbières region planted with mainly Carignan Noir plus around 20% other grapes (Syrah, Grenache Noir and whiteMaccabeu) in the 1950s; the vineyard had even undergone the three-year process required for full organic certification.

Although it did not directly overlook the sea, they did have a great view of the Pyrenees, and the strong winds meant a reduced risk of vine diseases.

The vineyard was at 500m altitude, too – high enough for the grapes to ripen fully, but without becoming overripe and too high in alcohol for my personal taste. And although the soils were not my cherished chalk, the sandy granite was nearly as bright – and several hundred million years older, too.

Eric’s offer was one I felt I could not refuse. The other Roussillon vineyards I’d looked at for sale were generally in poor condition – expensive posts and wires to replace, or damaged soils from years of herbicides and fertilisers.

Some were simply in the wrong place, such as on hot valley-floor sites, producing overly alcoholic wines. Others were close to power lines. My biodynamic beliefs meant I wanted a vineyard that would soak up lunar energy, not electrical discharge from overhead cables.

Eric convinced me that renting made sense. If my vines were hailed on, or if the crop was eaten by wild boar, I’d stand to lose far less money than if all my capital was tied up in the bank loan I’d need for an outright purchase. Eric also told me that buying a vineyard as an Englishman – a foreigner, in other words – would mean at least a year’s worth of paperwork, even if I changed nationalities.

A rental agreement, on the other hand, could be done in a couple of weeks. Eric and I met in summer 2006 to hammer out a deal, over a glass of wine and a barbecue; and when I finally put pen to paper in autumn 2006, I had no doubts I was doing the right thing. I was approaching 40, and spending the rest of my life sitting in front of a computer wine writing was not how I saw my future. When I finally managed to spread organic and biodynamic composts on the vineyard soil, I felt I was, at last, putting into practice my most passionately held beliefs.

Feeding the vineyard soil a healthy for the wine drinker. We are what we eat, so if my first wine turned out unsellable, might as well end up drinking something that I knew was healthy. bottles of my first wine, Monty’s French Red, a Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes 2007, to the UK merchant Adnams.

I made a tiny paper profit but need to expand for the business to survive, so this year I am renting another 10ha of vineyards, both red and white, from Eric.

I will make some dry white, dry rosé, more Château Monty red, an oaked Cabernet and an oaked Syrah, and a small amount of a top cuvée from the best bits of the parcels. Eric has been generous and helpful.

He has given me lots of advice because he knew I would listen and was keen to learn. I also like to think that I have brought some of my experience to the table too, having worked in Chile, Bordeaux and California, and being a biodynamic ‘expert’. To my delight, Eric is now adopting biodynamic methods for his own vines as well as my rented vines. Meanwhile the local mayor has said he likes the fact that I work with nature, not against it. I think it’s because it shows that I value his village and its terroir.

  • Monty Waldin's wine, Monty's French Red, was recently listed in decanter.com's top 10 biodynamic wines.
  • Chateau Monty, the book that accompanies the series, is published by Portico (£16.99), and is available from www.anovabooks.com.
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