A life in the vines
Globetrotting couple Caryl and Jan Panman made a new life for themselves as winemakers in western Languedoc. Dominic Rippon tells their story
There’s nowhere quite like Limoux on an early spring afternoon, as vineyards disappear into forested hills, framed by the towering snow-capped Pyrénées in the near distance. You can almost catch the scent of newly waxed skis and simmering cheese in the wind. Between the famous peaks of Canigou and StBarthélemy nestles the smaller Pic des Rives-Blanques, after which Anglo-Dutch couple Caryl and Jan Panman decided to name their wine estate.
“Our first harvest, in 2001, definitely felt the easiest,” Jan remembers, “because we simply weren’t aware of all the things that could go wrong!” Neither Caryl nor Jan had any training as winemakers, but they had long dreamed of owning their own wine estate in France. It all began years earlier with family holidays in Burgundy, when they imagined a life making delicious wines from the golden chardonnay grapes. At that time, Jan worked in international finance, so the Panmans enjoyed the glamorous lifestyle of urban globetrotters, taking them from Portugal to Asia via South America and, finally, Ireland.
When they began their search for the perfect vineyard, they found land in Burgundy prohibitively expensive, so they looked further south, in LanguedocRoussillon. The vineyards of Limoux, in western Languedoc, have been lauded by Jancis Robinson MW as France’s “most interesting chardonnay vineyards outside Burgundy”, so it seemed an obvious place to look. The couple had always planned to study viticulture before buying their vines, but an opportunity quickly arose that was too good to miss: Eric Vialade, a renowned local vigneron, needed to sell his 20 hectares of vineyards but was keen to stay on as winemaker at the estate. “So we decided to learn on the job,” says Jan. “We slept with the UC Davis Handbook of Viticulture and Enology on our bedside table.”
Above: Caryl and Jan Panman Below: The Rives-Blanques estate