Less than perfect French
The realities of living the dream in the Dordogne CARO FEELY
I WANTED the glamorous part of owning a vineyard (in Saussignac, in the southwest of France), not the hard work. (Myhusband) Sean was to do the vineyard work and I would look after the kids, do light renovation and eventually the marketing. At the time, there was little that could be called glamorous in what we had purchased, save perhaps the view.
What we had bought was a large old house that had originally been two houses, numerous ragged outbuildings including the fermentation winery or pressoir, the storage winery and a very large barn, as well as a chunk of about 12ha of surrounding land, of which 10ha were vineyards in different stages of disrepair.
One small part of the house was liveable: a large bedroom where we had installed our entire family; a kitchen where we had a makeshift set-up that included our new equipment and a very old hob; and a large bathroom that once thoroughly cleaned was passable but far from glamorous.
Looking after a very young family in a kitchen that rated just above camping was a full-time job. The gas hob had two working plates and we had no oven. We were absolutely scared stiff of spending any more money.
The winery and its renovation were on the long finger — we might have to put them off for a while. It would be a year before we turned our attention to our first harvest and it seemed far, far away. Just coping with daily life in this new environment was enough; my mind could not take in the idea of making our own wine.
Decades of accumulated garbage had to be removed from Chateau Haut Garrigue — fridges and ovens that didn’t work, beds that hadn’t been used in generations and mounds of unidentifiable detritus. Soon the dreadlocked young man at the dump was greeting me like a friend.
We lived in one large room while we worked on our first project — a bedroom for the girls. It was lightweight renovation, decorative rather than structural, and meant we would at last get a bit of parental privacy. It had a dirty neon light and walls covered with brown, flowery wallpaper that was peeling badly and stained dark yellow with nicotine. The window in the corner was black with mould. Below it were several fist-size holes that had been the main entrance for our late friends, the mice. The concrete floor was covered with filthy linoleum curling up at the edges. The door had several large vertical cracks running down the upper half and didn’t close.
We started by removing the linoleum. Once we had cleared the room, I tackled the wallpaper while Sean took on the window. I steamed and scraped until my arms ached. Drops of boiling water, molten nicotine and soggy paper fell incessantly on to my arms and hair. I geared up in waterproofs with goggles and hood regardless of the heat. The wallpaper was beyond tenacious. An internet search affirmed that what we were dealing with was anything but normal. Clearly something more serious than standard wallpaper glue had been used to attach it. Weeks later, my arms were toned but the room was still in an awful state.
I was more at home with a keyboard than a screwdriver and found myself a reluctant renovator. Completing this room alone before Sean started pruning the vineyard was looking unlikely. I envisioned trying to do the renovations on my own and dissolved into tears.
The stress of our move was taking its toll. Romance was forgotten in change overload. Wewere spending more time together than ever, but I had never felt so estranged from Sean.
That afternoon, a neighbour we had met in passing at the village fete dropped in. Jamie was an impressive character who had worked his way up to being vineyard manager at one of the largest wine estates in our region. He had spent half his life in England and half in France and the speed of his French when he talked on his mobile left me breathless and envious. We had a chat, then he looked uncomfortable.
‘‘I’ve got a favour to ask of you,’’ he said. ‘‘I need a chai [winery]. We’ve got problems with some of our vats. This year will be a catastrophe if we don’t find somewhere else to make our wine and since you’re not using yours this year I thought of you.’’
We leapt at Jamie’s proposal, which provided the opportunity to watch a harvest in our own winery and to get to know the equipment. A week later we rose early to see him bringing in the first of his grapes with Francois, his colleague. The weather was changing, autumn had arrived and with it that morning a chilly 5C.
With (daughters) Ellie wrapped in blankets in her pram and Sophia bundled up in her winter coat we watched, enthralled, as the dawn poked long gold fingers through the vines. The harvest machine was already motoring up and down the rows and soon the trailer loads were arriving every halfhour. Jamie explained the idiosyncrasies of our winery as he and Francois worked frenetically to move their machine-harvested grapes from the trailer into a vat.
He had to yell above the noise of the tractor that drove a pump in the trailer to push the grapes into a massive pipe oriented into the vat. I hung tightly on to Sophia, anxious to keep her out of the way of the large machinery.
A few hours later the harvest machine left and there was a moment of peace before I had to take Sophia to school. Jamie offered us cups of fresh, pure sauvignon blanc. It was supersweet grape juice, but with the classic aromas of lime and gooseberry and a delicious zesty finish.
We had learnt these terms in textbooks and tasting finished wine; now we were getting to apply them in the process of winemaking. This was why we were here. It raised us out of our renovation rut and made our dream feel real. This is an edited extract from Grape Expectations: A Family’s Vineyard Adventure in France by Caro Feely (Summersdale, $19.99).
The romance of a small family vineyard in France soon disappeared under a mountain of hard work