Southern Times

An expatriate view of life in Southern France, with events guides, market days, diaries and advice sections.

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Wednesday 1 October 2003, by Patricia

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Tony on the Vine
English man producing wine in Southern France.

HOW DOES an English accountant from south west London end up on the shelf at Marks and Spencer?

Tony Roberts came to this part of the world some 20 years ago, like so of us many did, on a simple three-week holiday. He picked courgettes for a local farmer. He enjoyed the sun, the wine, the people and the lifestyle.

Naturally he came back again - and again. By 1990 he decided, again like so many of us, that a holiday cottage wouldn’t be such a bad idea. When he went in search of a little mazet, all he was after was peace and quiet. Not a thought of grapes had entered his head - at least, not from the cultivating point of view.

Today, while not exactly a wine baron, he has a respectable 3 hectares of grapes with names to conjure with: Merlot, Syrah, Grenache Noir, Cinsault and the dramatic Alicante with its scarlet autumn foliage.

Last year, when his domaine was rather less than two hectares, he produced 13 tonnes of grapes. This year, with virtually no rain for three months, the yield was smaller even though the domaine was bigger.

The Cave Co-operative takes in grapes from a number of surrounding domaines, turns them into wine and sells the resultant nectar both at home and abroad. If you happen to pick up a Merlot Vin de Pays d’Oc bottled by Les Vignerons du Vicomte d’Aumelas you could well be sampling some of Tony’s produce. And, as he says happily, "I’ve even seen ’my’ wine in Marks and Spencer!"

The life of a vigneron is not quite the doddle some people might think. From grape to glass is an arduous year-long journey, and the work hardly ever lets up.

Pruning starts in December and, according to the type of grape, goes on until March. And if you think that’s a simple matter of strolling down the rows snipping a branch here and there, think again. For a start, there are three different ways in which you can prune a vine: Gobelet, Guyot and Cordon-Royat. It’s a complicated process, and there is a seasonal factor as well depending on the variety of grape, but basically it’s about letting the most promising buds mature and removing the others.

During this time you are also weeding, and then there is fertilising, which takes place in February. Round about April, when the frosts have gone, it’s time to plough between the rows of vines. Unless, of course, your soil is sandy: then you have to weed and turn the earth painstakingly by hand. This gets rid of weeds and helps to work in the fertiliser. You can also ’nuke’ the vines, as Tony explains, with chemical week killers.

This is an exciting time of year. Now the vines, which for so long have been no more than wizened black stumps, have really got into their stride. The first haze of green appeared in March, and by April, as Tony explains, "You can actually see them grow: 1 - 2 inches a day."

May sees the start of spraying - against disease of vine and fruit - and de-budding. ("Women’s work," says Tony dismissively, explaining this remark with a telling, if rather obscene, gesture).

This goes on every two weeks until July 14th. July 14th is of course a magical date in the French calendar: it’s Bastille Day, the biggest fete of the year. No work gets done on that day, and usually for several days or even weeks afterwards. Life in the vines, too, is comparatively easy at this time. A little desultory tidying while the vigneron waits for the word to start the harvest. As with so many things French, a committee decides when the grapes should be cut.

September, of course, is les vendanges: a month of frenzied activity to get the grapes cut at just the right point of ripeness and readiness. (If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to do the vendange, see Confessions of a Vendange Virgin).

Then there is the nail-biting wait while the gurus at the Cave weigh, test, sample (and for all we know sacrifice a black cockerel and bow three times to the moon) before saying… OUI!

And so the harvest is on its way to the bottle, and the whole process begins again.

Any message or comments?


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