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
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.
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