GRAPE EXPECTATIONS

Many peo­ple dream of mov­ing to France and run­ning a vine­yard, but two decades ago Mike and Sue Spring did just that when they de­cided to make a new life in Lot, as Sue Bradley dis­cov­ers

Living France - - CONTENTS -

An ex­pat cou­ple re­veal how they made their dream of run­ning a vine­yard in Lot a re­al­ity

Mike and Sue Spring were look­ing to do some­thing new when they sold their home in the UK and moved to the pic­turesque Lot val­ley to make their own wine. Just over 20 years on, the cou­ple are en­joy­ing an es­tab­lished rep­u­ta­tion for their tra­di­tional Ca­hors reds, along with the whites and rosés they cre­ate at their Do­maine du Garinet vine­yard.

They also pro­duce wal­nuts and prunes, both tra­di­tional crops for their re­gion, and Sue has in­tro­duced her French neigh­bours to the joy of mar­malade.

Life for the Springs is cer­tainly dif­fer­ent from their of­fice-based days in south Ox­ford­shire, when Sue was a re­cruit­ment con­sul­tant and Mike a project man­ager in soft­ware de­vel­op­ment.

Nowa­days they spend a lot more time out­doors, whether it’s main­tain­ing the vines, pick­ing fruit or wash­ing bar­rels, and work far longer hours than they did in the UK, but they say this is all part and par­cel of run­ning their own busi­ness.

“The ap­peal of mov­ing to France was the pos­si­bil­ity of be­ing able to af­ford an at­trac­tive old prop­erty in the coun­try­side, and we were in­ter­ested in ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a dif­fer­ent coun­try, language and way of life,” says Sue.

The cou­ple looked all over south-west France for their new home and were espe­cially drawn to Lot’s ru­ral quiet­ness and beau­ti­ful scenery, in­clud­ing its hills, deep val­leys and high plateaux, beau­ti­ful old stone houses and land­marks such as the unique Va­len­tré bridge in Ca­hors, a UNESCO World Her­itage Site. The area has been renowned for its ‘black’ wine for cen­turies, al­though it did go through a long dark pe­riod fol­low­ing the ‘great French wine blight’ of the 19th cen­tury caused by an aphid brought in on im­ported vines from the USA. Duck, lamb and cheeses made from goat and sheep milk are among the re­gional favourites.

START­ING THE BUSI­NESS

Even­tu­ally the Springs found their vine­yard, with its beau­ti­ful tra­di­tional Quercy-style stone farm­house with ex­cel­lent views and 1.5 hectares planted with Mal­bec grapes – it’s oblig­a­tory for tra­di­tional Ca­hors wine to con­tain a min­i­mum 70% of this va­ri­ety – and set about start­ing a busi­ness al­most from scratch.

In fact, the cou­ple ar­rived about a week be­fore the har­vest in 1994 and, de­spite hav­ing to use grapes from vines that hadn’t been well tended and in­ad­e­quate vini­fi­ca­tion equip­ment, their first wine was drink­able even if a lit­tle on the light side.

“We sold it to the né­go­ciant (whole­saler),” says Mike. “Our first real wine was 1995, which was pretty good and aged well. We had no dif­fi­culty in sell­ing it all in bot­tles di­rect to con­sumers.”

In the years since, the Springs have worked hard to de­velop their knowl­edge of vine grow­ing and wine­mak­ing by at­tend­ing cour­ses, tak­ing spe­cial­ist ad­vice, read­ing widely on the sub­ject and, ul­ti­mately, learn­ing on the job.

“We fol­low closely new de­vel­op­ments in wine­mak­ing tech­niques and ex­per­i­ment with new meth­ods, when they are ap­pro­pri­ate for our grapes and the kind of wine we make, but our goal re­mains to make good wine with a dis­tinctly French char­ac­ter,” ex­plains Mike.

“Most of what we do is now pretty main­stream, but some of it was not widely used in this area when we ar­rived. Wine­mak­ing tech­niques and knowl­edge have ad­vanced a great deal in Ca­hors since we came – in 1994 it was pretty back­ward, apart from a small num­ber of mostly larger pro­duc­ers.

“For our red Ca­hors wine, we want to achieve the max­i­mum fruit to bal­ance the nat­u­rally high tan­nin of the Mal­bec grapes; in­creas­ingly nowa­days many of the bet­ter wines are 100% Mal­bec, in­clud­ing ours.

“These grapes give our wines an in­tense, al­most black colour. All our reds are ap­pel­la­tion pro­tégée Ca­hors and we ma­ture some of it in oak and some with­out oak age­ing to cre­ate dif­fer­ences in style.

“Most of our red wines are made to be kept – vins de garde – and we sell them only af­ter they have ac­quired suf­fi­cient bot­tle

age to be­gin to show their po­ten­tial.”

The Springs also make rosé wine from their Mal­bec grapes and planted Chardon­nay and Sau­vi­gnon vines in 1998 so that they could start mak­ing white wines too.

“With these we strive for fresh­ness, a high con­cen­tra­tion of fruit and, above all, the es­sen­tial bal­ance be­tween the com­po­nents of the wine,” says Mike.

In the vine­yard, Mike and Sue fol­low var­i­ous es­tab­lished prac­tices, such as the ‘Sin­gle Guyot’ method of train­ing one fruit­ing cane along a main wire, but at the same time they go against con­ven­tional wis­dom and al­low the fo­liage on their vines to be higher than usual.

“Pub­lished ev­i­dence sug­gested that the rather low height of most Ca­hors vines did not pro­vide a high enough ra­tio of leaf area to fruit weight pro­duced,” says Mike.

“As we have mostly north-fac­ing slopes, we con­sider that more leaf area is nec­es­sary. We think our re­sults sub­stan­ti­ate this.

THE RIGHT CON­DI­TIONS

“Our vine­yards are sit­u­ated on par­tic­u­larly well-drained and shel­tered hill­side sites on a limey clay soil con­tain­ing a good pro­por­tion of stones that as­sist both drain­ing and heat re­ten­tion – both im­por­tant con­di­tions for grow­ing grapes.

“The weather is dif­fer­ent ev­ery year – late frosts are al­ways a big con­cern, al­though we’re see­ing fewer of them as the years go by – pos­si­bly as a re­sult of global warm­ing – and we are less vul­ner­a­ble to hail than many other areas.”

The Springs’ parcels of vines are well sep­a­rated by woods and scrub, which helps them to re­sist pests and dis­eases. At the same time the cou­ple take an in­te­grated ap­proach to com­bat­ing prob­lems, us­ing fungi­cides and weed­killers in a way that’s en­vi­ron­men­tally safe and sus­tain­able and very rarely us­ing in­sec­ti­cides.

As a re­sult, their vine­yards are havens for wildlife, with many or­chids grow­ing be­tween the vines and a di­verse range of in­sects, in­clud­ing the swal­low­tail and other but­ter­flies, visit­ing reg­u­larly.

Mike and Sue do not em­ploy work­ers, which means all the day-to-day tasks in­volved in run­ning their busi­ness fall to them, al­though they are able to en­gage con­trac­tors to help them with jobs such as bot­tling and some of the har­vest­ing.

At the same time, their mem­ber­ship of the Vignerons Indépen­dants fed­er­a­tion means they’re able to take ad­van­tage of valu­able prac­ti­cal as­sis­tance, such as mail­shot prepa­ra­tion, la­bel print­ing, the use of its logo and pub­lic­ity for the

Ca­hors area. The or­gan­i­sa­tion also lob­bies cen­tral gov­ern­ment on any is­sues af­fect­ing wine pro­duc­ers.

The Springs sell nearly all their wines di­rect to the public, and to a few restau­rants and wine mer­chants. Vis­i­tors are re­ceived in their chai (win­ery) and a sales area in the cel­lar for la­belled bot­tles un­der the house. They also sell through the in­ter­net and mail or­der trans­ac­tions. They ex­port very lit­tle.

As the years go by, the cou­ple are see­ing their French cus­tomer base slowly ex­pand­ing along­side sales to peo­ple be­long­ing to other na­tion­al­i­ties.

“Those French peo­ple who try our wines are as in­ter­ested as cus­tomers of other na­tion­al­i­ties,” says Mike, who pro­duces around 9,000 bot­tles a year.

“We don’t go in for com­pe­ti­tions: they are per­haps more rel­e­vant for wine sold through shops, where you need some­thing to at­tract the cus­tomers to your bot­tles rather than oth­ers on the shelf, but for di­rect re­tail – which rep­re­sents 90% of our sales – they’re not worth much since peo­ple have the wine in front of them to taste,” he adds.

MAR­KET SELL­ERS

Sue is a fa­mil­iar face at lo­cal mar­kets, such as the one at Montcuq, at which she sells wine, along with wal­nuts, prunes and as­so­ci­ated prod­ucts such as wal­nut bread, cakes, brown­ies and pre­serves.

“The wal­nut and plum trees were here when we came but we’ve gone on to de­velop a mar­ket for what they pro­duce, par­tic­u­larly those to which we add value,” ex­plains Sue.

“I de­vised a recipe for wal­nut bread my­self from gen­eral recipes and took ad­vice from a re­tired baker, and a French­man who lives op­po­site my stall pho­to­copied his wife’s ‘best wal­nut cake recipe’ for me when he saw I was sell­ing wal­nuts.”

Sue started mak­ing mar­malade in 2000 and has de­vel­oped a firm fol­low­ing for it.

“The French like its good strong flavour that comes from us­ing Seville or­anges, and the tra­di­tion that I use my granny’s recipe,” she says.

Set­ting up a busi­ness more or less from scratch, learn­ing how to grow vines and make good wine, adding new build­ings, ac­quir­ing equip­ment, im­prov­ing fa­cil­i­ties and build­ing a client base means the Springs have had their work cut out over the last two decades.

As for de­vel­op­ing their com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills, be­fore mov­ing across the Chan­nel Sue and Mike un­der­took one-to-one French lessons for just over a year, and they say they’ve made more progress since they ar­rived, al­though per­haps not as much as they had hoped.

“Sue’s French has im­proved more than mine be­cause she does more of the peo­ple con­tact side of the busi­ness,” says Mike. “I do more work on the prop­erty, such as trac­tor work and wine­mak­ing, so I have more lim­ited con­tact.”

Nev­er­the­less, the cou­ple have made lots of new friends in France since mov­ing there in 1994 and are fully ac­cepted by their neigh­bours. Sue has been a mu­nic­i­pal coun­cil­lor since 2008 and says this has helped them to be­come very much a part of their vil­lage com­mu­nity.

“The peo­ple are friendly, once they’ve got to know you – much like any­where else,” says Sue.

Fac­ing page: Har­vest­ing grapes at the Do­maine du Garinet vine­yard, owned by Bri­tish ex­pats, Sue and Mike Spring ( pic­tured above)

Be­low: Ae­rial view of Do­maine du Garinet in Lot

Clock­wise from main photo: The bot­tling and cork­ing ma­chine; Mike and a fel­low worker present their hand-har­vested grapes; Mike punches down the cap so that grape skins are mixed with the grape juice

Top left: Sue sell­ing the Do­maine du Garinet wines on Lot’s fa­mous Pont Va­len­tré Above: The en­ter­pris­ing ex­pat sells wine and other pro­duce at lo­cal mar­kets

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