Less than per­fect French

The re­al­i­ties of liv­ing the dream in the Dor­dogne CARO FEELY

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - The Food Issue -

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

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