A taste for the vine life comes with sweat and
Have you the bottle to take on the French at winemaking? Jon Bryant treads carefully through glorious grape country
For the French, yesterday’s status symbol was to own your own yacht. Today’s is a vineyard. Film director Luc Besson, cyclist Laurent Jalabert, even the national rugby coach Bernard Laporte all own wine estates. So, too, does film actor Gérard Depardieu, whose face is sketched on his wine’s label in case you do not recognise his name. But in the past decade the British have also been muscling in on the grapefields.
Although there may be the odd place going cheap for a romantic rosbif, most are the exclusive preserve of the well-heeled. “We’ve recently sold vineyards to a British banker, an advertising executive and a composer. As a rule, we say you need to have at least €750,000 [£513,000] in your pocket,” says Adam Dakin, from Montpellier-based Vignobles Investissement, which specialises in selling vineyards in the Languedoc Roussillon region.
“Most vineyards are sold with a house and since property prices have risen greatly in this area, vineyards have gone up, too. One alternative is to buy the land and then build a winery, but it probably ends up costing the same,” he says.
Even the Société d’Aménagement Foncier et d’Etablissement Rural (SAFER), the French government body selling land in agricultural zones, prices most of its vineyards at well over €1 million.
True, SAFER currently has a 29-acre vineyard south of Nîmes with a small house in need of repair for €341,000 and a 44-acre estate within the AOC Minervois (no property attached) for €250,000. But acquiring land directly through SAFER is not for the dabbling dilettante, not least because it offers a fine taste of French bureaucracy at its most fullbodied.
At the top end of the scale, the property itself counts for almost nothing. “For better wines in the best-known appellations, the sales price is composed of the price per hectare [2.5 acres] and buildings are not included,” says Francis Anson, of France Prestige Real Estate, which specialises in Bordeaux vineyards.
“Finer terroirs go for the heady heights of €3million-£4million per hectare for the best parcels of Pomerol, St Emilion and the top-tier Médoc estates,” says Mr Anson. The Château Soutard, a Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classé, sold last year for €35million and recently a substantial Margaux vineyard went under offer for €160million.
“People find it hard to believe but the difficult part is not producing the wine, it’s all down to selling. The best degree you can have if you want to be a wine producer is one in marketing,” says Mr Dakin.
And don’t kid yourself – it’s a tough business, financially and emotionally: praying that the frost in April is not too severe or that the August hail doesn’t decimate the crop… and even when the wine is in the bottles, bad corks can still ruin it. But console yourself with the thought that you’ll always have a tractor to escape on — and an encyclopaedic knowledge of French weather terms.
Drive and ambition: Russell Crowe (above) at Château la Canorgue, setting for the film ‘AGood Year’, based on Peter Mayle’s novel, which tells the story of an investment broker whose life is transformed after he inherits a French vineyard