Brits in France: Living the dream!

Brits in France: Living the dream!

Published by Francis Elms on 31st Aug 2023

[Photo: Holiday hotspot ~ The magnificent Carcassonne castle in the Languedoc, South of France]

Earlier in the year I wrote about where in the world would be the most exciting place to go and live and make wine. There were so many possibilities if the finances stacked up, but, for me, the chance to spend at least three months working at Villa Maria in New Zealand fell through and I didn't pursue it again later in life. A pity.

But what about the people who did sell up, move out, quit their job and head for pastures new? You'd be surprised how many have done just that and are now "living the dream" as winemaker and vineyard owner. Let's look at some of those who moved to our nearest, and probably most famous, wine producing country, "La belle" France.

Known for their relaxed way of life, the French take their short working week and extended lunchtimes very seriously. Beware anyone who tries to tamper with it. In the countryside, the result is likely to be a tractor and muck-spreader "attack" on the local council offices, or in the city, the "gilets jaunes" will be out on the streets causing major disruption at the drop of a hat. Wine with your lunch is quite normal in France during the working week, so the afternoons tend to be more of a wind-down than a rush to get everything finished. There's still little interest in grabbing a shop-bought sandwich and eating it whilst working at your desk as so many do in Britain and the US. Tech companies might want to modernise workers' terms and conditions, but the French are likely to riot if such changes are mooted by their employers!

During my first ever employment in a wine company (originally Belgian owned), back when everything was still in black and white and the internet/mobile phones didn't exist, the bosses used to take the "continental" lifestyle very seriously and, on Saturdays, the shop would adhere to its normal lunchtime closing, but, for the staff working that day, a selection of crusty baguettes with tasty toppings like Brie or Camenbert cheese would be provided along with the all-important litre of French red "vin plonk" to drink with it. The wine was always finished before the shop reopened for the afternoon trading period and, thankfully, there were at least three hours to recover before finishing for the day. A good, or bad thing to do? What do you think? I doubt it would be acceptable these days, but looking back through rose-tinted glasses, I don't think anyone even noticed (or cared) at the time.

Winemaking, itself, is different. It's challenging. If it's your business, it's up to you to get all the necessary work done or the result will be no wine for sale the following year and very probably you'll go bust and lose everything you've tried to achieve in your new way of life in the country.

If you've watched the Channel 4 TV programme, "New Life in the Sun", you would have seen several examples of people setting up various drinks related businesses across Europe. It might have been a seaside bar/restaurant, a wine & cheese shop, a brewery, gin distillery, or even a winery complete with vineyards. The last option is probably the most adventurous and expensive, as you've got to rent/lease/buy the vineyards (and land), have a winery with all the equipment and have somewhere to live nearby. Harvest time is going to be a totally mad-cap period, working crazy hours without a break to bring in the grapes and get the winemaking processes underway. There's no respite from the onslaught of all the hard work and, if you're serious about making a great wine, you'll love every minute! As a jack-of-all-trades, you'll need to know about plants and viticulture, be able to drive a tractor, be a chemist, probably have a winemaking degree and be well up on both marketing and finance to keep your head above water (now, if only there was a way of turning that into wine?). Also, you're going to have to learn French. Probably the hardest part of the entire adventure as far as I'm concerned, but, if you're lucky, it'll come naturally as you immerse yourself in the local environment and try to converse with the other residents in the villages and towns around you. There will also be countless bureaucratic encounters and form filling to endure before you can start trading. The tax man comes to mind as the number one protagonist!

As a new vigneron, what is your target market? Are you going to sell to locals/tourists and restaurants in the surrounding area, or are you looking to sell further afield, or even to export? Your friends and family can't buy everything you produce to make the venture a viable one, although many think this will be sufficient, only to come to the crushing realisation that there's a lot of competition in the wine trade. It can be a cut-throat enterprise to enter. If it were that easy, everyone would do it.

With Bordeaux being such a well-known region, vineyards are very expensive, so it's surprising to find some of the new British entrepreneurs opting to set up in the area. Both Clos Vieux Rochers (located to the east of St Emilion in the Cotes de Castillon de Bordeaux), and Chateau Georges 7 in Fronsac (located to the west of Pomerol in the Dordogne) are two properties now with UK connections.

A little bit of Bordeaux history

First, a little bit of history. The British, and particularly the Irish, have a long association with Bordeaux, both as wine merchants and property owners in the region going back hundreds of years. For example, Chateau Kirwan (3rd Growth in Margaux) was owned by Mark Kirwan, who inherited the estate in 1760, when he married one of the daughters of Sir John Collingwood, an English wine merchant in Bordeaux. He put his name on the wine to make it appear "less French" than his competitors! Another Irishman of note was Thomas Lynch who, through marriage in 1750, acquired the Domaine de Bages and the chateau (5th Growth Pauillac, Lynch-Bages) remained in the family for a further seventy-five years. One of the longest associations with Britain and Bordeaux was through the Anglo-Irish Barton family. This dynasty originated in County Fermanagh with Thomas Barton who moved to France in the early 18th century. As yet another successful wine merchant, his family fortune was so great that by the 19th century his descendants were able to purchase both Chateau Langoa and a portion of the great Léoville estate (both in Saint Julien). These chateaux had the family name appended becoming Langoa-Barton (3rd Growth) and Leoville-Barton (2nd Growth), respectively. Anthony Barton took over in 1983 and became one of the most renowned British wine-trade representatives in Bordeaux in recent times. These days, the most valuable properties are owned by giant corporations, banks and insurance companies which are able to finance their ongoing development. There's a well known saying in wine: 

"How do you make a small fortune in the wine business? Start with a large one!"

There are very few people who can buy their way into such illustrious company without starting at the very bottom. I don't think that either Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos have ventured into the wine business as yet, but there are certainly several Chinese billionaires who have done just that. One has even bought a chateau for each of his children and the wines made are no longer supplied outside of China. Can you imagine that happening to a famous, classed growth? It most certainly could in the future.

Chateau Palmer - Quintessential Claret!

Probably the most "English" of clarets is Chateau Palmer. In 1814, Major General Charles Palmer was fortunate enough to meet the widow Madame de Ferrière (of Chateau de Gascq) who ended up selling the estate to him even though he'd never even seen it. Renaming the chateau, he developed it into a unique style of wine over the next three decades before having to sell to his creditors. England, at the time, favoured Bordeaux wines bolstered by the addition of Rhone Syrah, and even 1st Growth Latour used this practice of inter-regional blending to produce a "Claret-Hermitage" consumed by the likes of British royalty. Palmer was much more delicate in style and relied on expressing its unique terroir and finesse, later being classified as a 3rd Growth, Grand Cru Classé Margaux, in 1855.

Returning to modern times, Clos Vieux Rochers was an established winery in need of some loving, care and attention and Brits, Robert Brimfield and Stephen McMahon, stars of Channel 4's "A New Life in the Sun", were followed by the programme makers for their first vintage at the estate in 2016, again in 2017 to check on further development at the property and also in 2019 under the review title, "Where are they now?"

Robert Brimfield & Stephen McMahon of Clos Vieux Rochers, Cotes de Castillon, Bordeaux

With the Clos Vieux Rochers vineyard being located very close to famous neighbours in Saint Emilion, the wines made are of a similar style without the hefty price tag. Using a blend of 80% Merlot & 20% Cabernet Franc for the red, aged in oak barrels for 18 months, the wine offers typical regional style with a nose of dark fruits, vanilla and hazelnuts and a palate of forest fruits with spice. A dry Vin de France rosé is also produced. If you're in the Puisseguin area of Bordeaux, give them a visit and keep the dream alive! You can even get lunch and stay in one of their on-site gites.

Sally Evans, a thirty year veteran of working in France, decided to purchase a chateau in Fronsac in 2015. After renovation work was carried out and a new name, "George 7" given to the property, her first commercial vintage was in 2018. With a French vineyard team and wine consultant in place, her 100% oak-aged Merlot has received critical acclaim in the UK.

Sally Evans of Chateau George 7, Fronsac, Bordeaux

With established 35 year old vines on a clay/limestone soil (similar to nearby Pomerol), and a commitment to using sustainable farming techniques, Sally has produced a wine which Jane Anson describes as:

"A delicious wine in the 2020 vintage, juicy and ripe strawberry and raspberry fruit, immediately appealing with an edge of smoke and a kick of freshness, great Fronsac typicality. Owner Sally Evans is turning this 3ha estate into a name to follow after just a few vintages."

92/100 points, February 2023

In its first ever vintage in 2018, the 'second label' red wine, "Prince de George 7", achieved the excellent critical acclaim from the international Guide Hachette des Vins 2022: 

"It's simply a masterstroke" 3 stars (highest accolade)

A dry white, "Chateau George 7 Blanc", using a barrel fermented and lees aged blend of 70% Sauvignon & 30% Semillon is also available:

"Immensely drinkable and enjoyable with a richness to the texture and fruit concentration with peach, apricot and soft herbal-edged citrus elements. This has a nice persistence from start to finish with intensity of flavour and a lightness of touch as well as salty mineral elements that provide nuance and terroir markers. A lovely white in 2022.... worth seeking out."

93/100 points, Georgina Hindle, Decanter Magazine, May 2023

All three wines made here are top-notch, not cheap, but better value than many much more established names!

On further research it appears that there is a growing number of people living in the surrounds of Bordeaux and the Dordogne who have connections to GB and many were drawn first to the beauty of the region and a "For Sale" sign on a house which turned out to be a bargain when compared to the home country. Purchase agreed and relocation completed, the necessary requirement for a job rears its ugly head. Offering holiday accommodation is probably the number one choice, but, if you're in a world renowned wine region, why not give winemaking a go? After all, the locals manage to knock out a decent drop, or two. And so, yet another British producer has set up shop in France.

One such couple, Gavin and Angela Quinney, did just this, moving from London to Créons in 1999. Chateau Bauduc, situated in the Entre-Deux-Mers (halfway between the cities of Bordeaux and Libourne), was their choice. If you want their wines you'll need to buy from the chateau, or some can be found as "house wines" at restaurants run by a couple of well known British chefs, Gordon Ramsay and Rick Stein.

The Quinneys - Chateau Bauduc - Entre-Deux-Mers

With over 200 acres (60 acres of vineyard) Bauduc is planted mostly with Sauvignon Blanc. Their other white grape, Semillon, is used in a sparkling Cremant de Bordeaux. Quite unusual and, unfortunately, sold out at the chateau. The Bordeaux rosé (Cabernet Franc/Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon) and Bordeaux Superieur red (80% Merlot with 20% Cabernet Sauvignon) make up approximately half of the wine made. Now, with over 20 vintages under their belts, the Quinneys are considered to be veterans of the winemaking scene. Another property to visit if you're travelling in the area.

Many other new vignerons have located their businesses in the south of France. The Mediterranean's a nice place to visit on holiday to soak up the sun, so why not stay there full time and make your living from the land? From Domaine Treloar in the Roussillon, Domaine de Begude in Limoux, Domaine de Garinet in Cahors (sadly, ceased production in 2022), Domaine Sainte Rose in the Languedoc, Domaine Sainte CroixChateau Maris in Minervois, Domaine Jones in Fitou, Chateau Unang in Ventoux, Domaine de Mourchon in Séguret (Rhone) and Leoube & Mirabeau in Provence, these are just a selection of the other French wineries with a great British touch to them.

The Brits are coming!

Personally, my pick of the bunch would be Chateau Maris. Since 1997, Robert "Bertie" Eden's biodynamic Minervois wines, made primarily from Syrah, Grenache and old vine Carignan, can be breath-taking. Not every wine, though, hits this high and some of his wines found in UK supermarkets are just "OK", in my opinion. On the other hand, he's known for making "one-offs" which are simply brilliant wine!

I used to sell (in a previous existence) a Maris Syrah/Grenache blend with a very bright orange label for £16.99 a bottle. It wasn't supplied by either the chateau on their French website, or by the usual UK agent, but only through a specialist organic shipper. Once tried, I can honestly say, that customers would restock by the case on a very regular basis. My problem? It ran out too quickly and there was no follow up vintage produced. Just the most luxuriously textured red I've ever had for the money. The nearest equivalent would be the Michel Chapoutier Bila-Haut "Occultum-Lapidem" Roussillon red, but that bottle was £20.

Robert Eden of Chateau Maris, Minervois La Liviniere

With 110 acres of fully certified biodynamic vineyards in the "Cru" village of La Liviniere (between Toulouse and Montpellier), Maris even has a winery built from hemp bricks. Chosen for its natural insulation effect, hemp lets the winery "breathe". It took eight years to build this plant-based cellar, which is completely biodegradable, self-sufficient in energy and carbon negative. A world first. Also, the wines are made using only natural yeasts and they are fermented in either wood, or specially made "concrete eggs" which encourage the movement of the "must" by convection currents inside the vats, negating the necessity to do pump-overs or punch-downs to extract colour and tannin from the grapes. It's a more natural, less harsh way of treating the grapes to get the best quality possible.

A large range of wine is made at Chateau Maris, including some excellent whites and rosé, many of which are only available to buy in France. A few do make it onto the UK market, but nowadays you can visit the winery, stay at "Villa Maris" or dine at their "Grand Café Occitan". An estate which is constantly evolving. Well worth trying anything you can find. Most are top award winners and critically acclaimed!

Look out for the red estate wines: Les Anciens (100 year old Carignan), Les Amandiers & Dynamic (both majority Syrah), the new sulphite-free Naive (Grenache), Las Combes (majority Grenache) and Les Planels (majority Syrah + Grenache, aged in new French oak barrels).

In France, the range covers every price point from 10 euros to 80 euros a bottle. Très bons vins français.

If you're inspired to become a winemaker or viticulturist, have a stash of cash to spend and lots of time to commit to a full-time career change, you might want to start your training with a BSc oenology degree from Plumpton College. Located near Brighton, the college will teach you everything you need to know about viticulture and vinification. With opportunities to work abroad for a "hands-on" experience in a real winery, you'll need science qualifications (biology & chemistry "A" levels) to make the most of the courses. Never driven a tractor? No problem! Soon you'll be doing a slalom course (forwards & backwards) and reversing a trailer through a farm gateway... without destroying it. Just don't ask Jeremy Clarkson for driving lessons. You do know Lamborghini make tractors? Of course, Jeremy has one!

Studying can be done anywhere in the world and Roseworthy College in Australia and Lincoln University in New Zealand are possibilities you might consider. As far from JC's tractor in the Cotswolds as you can get.

If money's no object to your change of lifestyle, you can always employ all the necessary trained staff to do the work for you, but where's the fun in that? Get your own hands dirty, even your feet. Want to tread the grapes in the traditional way? It's all in the teamwork when foot-crushing the harvest in the Douro in Portugal. Another country with a strong British connection in the wine business for over three centuries.

Here at Frazier's, we'd love to hear your story if you decide to take the plunge and swap your old life for wine. 

Get a new life in the sun. Bon chance!

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