Caryls ad­vice

Living France - - LIFESTYLE -

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

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