FOR THOSE THINKING OF BECOMING WINEMAKERS IN FRANCE:
“Before we bought Rives-Blanques 17 years ago, I spoke at length to Patricia Atkinson (author of The Ripening Sun) who had done the same several years earlier, to pick her brains. “You’d have to be mad,” she said. We talked for over an hour and then she said, “Well, yes, go for it! If you’re mad enough, that is.”
And that’s the advice we give to everyone now. But don’t underestimate the challenges. This is not a job for the faint-hearted: every year we’ve had friends who have been wiped out by hail, or frost, or torrential rain during the harvest, and we have this awful, nagging knowledge that one day that may happen to us too. Good vines are essential to good wines, but that’s only the beginning; nature listens to no one.
Once you’ve managed the miracle of making your wine, you still have to sell it. This was the biggest surprise of them all. There’s a global market saturated with wine out there and nobody is waiting for yours. You need to be dedicated to selling your product.
And the other big surprise: whatever you think the vineyard is going to cost you, double it. In fact, treble it. And let’s not even talk about l’administration française.
And so, having said all that, I could never advise anyone to do what we have done; that would be irresponsible.
And yet... the biggest surprise of all, looking back over 17 years, is that I never realised how much we would want to make our vineyard shine. I simply cannot imagine that we ever did anything else. So if I have one real regret, it’s that we didn’t start this earlier.
So, when push comes to shove, I would have to give Patricia Atkinson’s advice. It’s actually irresponsible to dissuade anyone from doing this... if they’re mad enough.” The Rives-Blanques estate is situated at an unusual climatic crossroads: a meeting point of Atlantic, Mediterranean and mountain influences, with such a unique blend of flora and fauna that it has been classified as a Natura 2000 European Nature Protection Area. Wild boar and deer trot between the rows of vines, where wild orchids often grow. The endangered horseshoe bat also thrives in these hills, which reach an altitude of more than 300 metres. But despite the natural beauty of the area, Jan explains that this was not what attracted them to this part of France.
“It was all about the wine for us,” he insists. “Our ambition was quite simply to make the best wines that we could. This was never a vanity project.” So instead of taking on a grand old château that needed renovation, they bought a more modest farmhouse with vineyards and a fully functioning winery. As the winemaking bug took hold, they built new cellars and a tasting room with magnificent views of the vineyards.
“It’s been 16 years now,” Caryl says, walking between rows of beautifully pruned vines, inspecting the nascent shoots, “and I can’t imagine how we ever lived our life differently.” She has fond memories of the early days, finding her neighbours both helpful and welcoming. One of the first winemakers the couple met was Jean-Louis Denois, himself an outsider – originally from Champagne – with a fearsome reputation. “He’s probably the appellation’s best winemaker,” Caryl declares humbly. “Jean-Louis gave us lots of good advice when we arrived.
“One of the biggest challenges,” Caryl admits, shooting a reminiscent grin towards Jan, “was for us to learn to work together as a couple. We had differences of opinion which led to lots of bickering over the grape-sorting table.” Trouble also came from further afield when they first registered the name ‘Rives-Blanques.’ Caryl recalls the evening when an ominous dark envelope with a Spanish postmark appeared on the doorstep. It contained a letter from a spirits producer called Rives, based near Seville, threatening legal action for trademark infringement. Caryl and Jan immediately drove to Barcelona, took a plane to Seville and camped outside the Rives headquarters, hoping to diffuse the situation. Although an amicable arrangement was eventually reached, Caryl still keeps an empty bottle of Rives gin on a shelf in the tasting room, to remind her of how stressful the experience was.
When the Panmans arrived in Limoux, the potential of its vineyards was clear, although it would be years before the wine press showed commensurate interest. The local speciality blanquette de Limoux, made from the white mauzac grape, is believed to be the world’s first bottle-fermented sparkling wine – pipping champagne to the post by about a century. For the first few years, the couple made only two wines: a blanquette de Limoux and a white vin de pays d’Oc. Caryl recalls how small they felt on their first visit to the giant wine fair Vinisud, with a tiny booth in a remote corner of the exhibition hall. Until then, sales had been modest, but as luck would have it, they received a visit from an influential Belgian wine critic, who gave their vin de pays a dazzling review, boosting their profile.
Jan and Caryl agree that the biggest surprise has been the amount of energy they’ve dedicated to sales and marketing – “more than half of our time,” Jan estimates. Wine production is a fiercely competitive business, so the Panmans quickly discovered that it isn’t enough simply to make the best wine; you also need to promote it successfully. Fortunately, the dynamic pair were well used to travelling and found they enjoyed selling the fruits of their own production. “There aren’t many professions that allow you to make your own product, sell it, and talk to the people who consume it,” says Caryl. “It’s a real thrill to hear from a bride that our Blanquette helped to make her wedding day special.” As Jan and Caryl’s confidence grew, so did their range of wines, which now includes three delicate sparkling wines, five oak-aged still Limoux whites and an unusual late-harvest sweet wine, made from chenin blanc and mauzac grapes – wonderfully named Lagremas d’Aur, which means “tears of gold” in the local Occitan language. One of their still Limoux whites, a delicious single varietal mauzac called Cuvée Occitania, has been selected by KLM and Air France for the group’s transcontinental in-flight wine list. “We often get calls from passengers who’ve enjoyed the wine,” Caryl says proudly. But the majority of press accolades gravitate towards the estate’s Cuvée de l’Odyssée Chardonnay, a mineral-scented buttery white that bears an alluring resemblance to much pricier bottles from Burgundy.
As the 20th anniversary of Château Rives-Blanques approaches, Caryl and Jan don’t appear tempted to retire just yet. Equally, though, there’s a feeling of contentment with things just as they are. “We’re firmly committed to small-scale independent winemaking,” Jan says, decisively. “We’re not interested in buying grapes to increase our production, as many others have done; as long as we can continue to make better wines each year with the vines we have, then we’ll be happy.” The Panmans recently employed the renowned Cousinié company, based in Narbonne, to undertake a Harvesting the mauzac grapes The Rives-Blanques cellars complete analysis of their vineyards’ soils, which confirmed what they already knew: they have “a spectacular terroir for white wines”. If they ever chose to plant red grapes, the experts concluded, pinot noir – the grape responsible for red burgundy – would be the obvious choice. On this score, the couple appear divided, with Caryl keener than Jan to experiment with the grape, although they agree that it’s important to keep trying new things. “There’s no absolute truth in winemaking,” adds Jan. The 2017 vintage represents an important Caryl and Jan at work among their vines transition for Château Rives-Blanques, as it will be the last harvest overseen by winemaker Eric Vialade. Caryl and Jan’s son Jan-Ailbe, who has worked at the estate for six years under Eric’s instruction, is taking over the reins from the veteran vigneron. After completing a master’s degree in Spanish and Chinese, Jan-Ailbe worked as a language teacher, before returning to Limoux in 2011 to train as a winemaker. He worked in the vineyards with Eric by day, studying by correspondence for the UC Davis winemaking diploma by night – a gruelling regime which bore fruit in 2015 when Jan-Ailbe earned his wings as a fully qualified winemaker.
Even before finishing his studies, JanAilbe had begun to make his mark on the Rives-Blanques vineyards, working with Eric to improve the estate’s ecological credentials, with a philosophy that stops just short of being fully organic. Although a formal, international education in viticulture brings a new perspective to winemaking at Rives-Blanques, for now at least, Jan-Ailbe describes his plans in simple terms: to continue his parents’ legacy by making the best possible wines from what are perhaps France’s most beautiful mountain vineyards.
There’s no absolute truth in winemaking
Above: The estate’s white wines Right: View of the Pyrénées at twilight
The Rives-Blanques estate is situated at an unusual climatic crossroads
Above: Caryl and Jan’s son Jan-Ailbe Below: Hand-harvested grapes