An Irish wine-maker in France
How did a former dairy farmer from Wicklow end up making wine in the South of France ?
My interest in wine and wine-making got off to an inauspicious start when I did the vendanges, or grape-harvest in Burgundy as a teenager. Dressed in a tee-shirt, shorts and gymshoes, I was poorly equipped for some of the worst weather they’d had since the war. Hail and heavy rain for days on end. I was soaked, frozen, over-exploited, under-fed and thoroughly miserable. Milking cows in the rain was better than this.
I remember coming away from the experience thinking that it was better to concentrate on drinking the stuff rather than to enquire too deeply into how it was made. Which is what I did for years - drinking industrial quantities of low quality wine, quite often the product-of-more-than-one-European-country...
A passion for wine
That is until I went to live in Tuscany where, amidst the ancient chestnut woods on the terraced slopes of Monte Amiata, forty kilometres south of Siena, I tasted my first really great wine, a Brunello di Montalcino. Brunello is a deep, dark, tannic wine not unlike a Pomerol, it was " invented’ " by the Biondi Santi family who were convinced that the Sangiovese grape variety could offer more if it were aged in oak barrels and sold after 3 years in the bottle. Today it is one of the finest and most expensive of Italian wines.
After eighteen months, I left Tuscany and went to live in France. Once there, my enthusiasm for wine, kindled by the passion of the Italian wine-makers I had met, led to my getting involved in as many aspects of the wine business as I could.
At the Commanderie de la Bargemone, near Aix-en-Provence, I worked in the vines and learnt the rudiments of vinification from Jean-Pierre Rozan. I then went to the fascinating and astonishingly knowledgable Parisian wine-merchant Jean-Christophe Estève, exporting French wine to the UK and Ireland. Then, very briefly, to the L’Ecluse chain of up-market wine-bars where I proved myself to be an aimable but hopelessly inefficient wine-waiter. Eventually, in the absence of a proper job in the industry I reverted to my former career as a journalist and then went to work in French television as a producer..
Finding the vineyard
On the eve of my fortieth birthday I did what any self-respecting clapped-out media hack does and went off to the South of France in search of the good life. In my case, it was in order to try and find an area that resembled southern Tuscany where I could buy a vineyard and make my wine before I got too broken down to live out my dream.
With Tuscany on my mind and the idea of living in a chestnut wood and working vines on narrow terraces, I headed for the Cevennes, in the Lozère. Plenty of chesnut woods there, but not many vines in the beautiful narrow valleys. I went further south, with the half-baked notion that I would eventually come upon a place where the chestnut trees end and the wine-producing plain of the Languedoc would begin. In the Haute Vallée de l’Orb, between Bédarieux and Olargues, fifty kilometres north of Béziers, I found what I was looking for.
I was able to buy vines on the terraced slopes of the Caroux, the mountain which dominates the valley and constitutes the tail-end of the Cevennes. The soil is the same as in Tuscany, an unusual mixture of schist and limestone. The climate is similar too, hot and Mediterranean, but cooler than the plain to the south because of the altitude, 250 meters above sea-level.
The grape variety here is predominantly Carignan, one of the traditional Languedoc cépages along with Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre. Like the Sangiovese, Carignan was widely looked down upon as a variety only good for producing low-grade quantity and one which lacked the finesse to make a really exceptional wine. This attitude is changing, pace Jancis Robinson, and now Carignan has an increasingly large following of fervent afficianados. I set about tasting as many 100% Carignan wines as I could get my hands on. There weren’t many, but among others, Jean_Marie Rimbert’s Mas aux Schiste (geddit ?) convinced me that one could make a very respectable wine by reducing yields and paying close attention to the vinification.
I was lucky to find pretty well the only wine cellar in the valley which hadn’t been turned into a holiday home for Belgian tourists. In January 2001, I had bought my equipment, and was ready to make my first wine.
My first task was to embark on some pretty draconian pruning. My vines are vieux Carignan, between forty to fifty years old. They were being cultivated to produce as many grapes as possible for sale to the local cooperative – yields of up to 150 hectolitres (15,000 litres) a hectare are not uncommon. My target was to reduce yields to somewhere around 25-30 hecto per hectare. The vines are planted to a density of 4400 per hectare, pruned in gobelet, the traditional shape of vines in the Languedoc, which ensures that the leaves get the maximum amount of sunlight and which encourages early ripening of the grapes before the arrival of the autumn rains in early October.
It was a perfect year. A mild Spring with just the right amount of rainfall was followed by a hot Summer. As I have decided to make a wine which is produced according to the principles or organic farming, I spray with rather ineffectual organic sprays which are harmless to the environment, the sprayer and the consumer, but they don’t do much damage to diseases either, blight and mildew being the two principal enemies. That year it was too hot for either to get a grip in the vines which was just as well as my spraying in that first year was as haphazard as my wine-waiting had been.
The vendanges, contrary to my earlier experience, took place in perfect weather conditions, warm and sunny during the day, coolish at night. The pickers had all worked on the same vines in previous years and knew them much better than I did. The complicated logistics of picking and bringing the grapes to the cellar went without a hitch and this was entirely due to their experience - and their patience with the new-comer.
Making the wine
I opted for the traditional – and simplest - form of vinification. The grapes, picked by hand and emptied into plastic containers (comportes) holding 50 kilos each, were brought to the cellar and put directly into a 3000 litre vat, without de-stalking. Care was taken that only the absolutely ripest grapes were selected and foreign bodies like leaves and branches were scrupulous sorted and discarded. It was a clean harvest, potential alcohol levels were high (nearly 13°) and volatility was exceptionally low. I stuck to my plan of adding minimal amounts of sulphur, which is used to ward off bacteria but which is also responsible for the pain in your head if you drink as much as I do...
The decision not to use sulphur or artificial yeasts or tannins which are commonly employed by the vast majority of commercial wine-makers, brought me into conflict with my oenologist, a brassy, ambitious young woman with a strong belief in chemicals, a too-pristine four-wheel drive and no sympathy for natural wines. I studiously ignored her advice and we parted company half way through the year, amicably but at loggerheads.
After a long maceration, nearly six weeks, in which the skins, flesh and pips of the grapes are kept in contact with the fermenting juice, I fiddled around with it as little as possible. I pressed the skins in my old-fashioned vertical press and kept the vin de presse seperate until just before bottling. Throughout the year I drew off the wine from time to time, to ‘air’ it and to get rid of the deposit which accumulates at the bottom of the vat.
After nearly a year in the vat, I bottled the wine in August 2003, clarified with egg-white and unfiltered. Leaving the wine to ‘settle’ I began to sell it in Spring 2004, much to the disgust and increasing indignation of my bank manager.
The wine is currently distributed in Holland, Belgium and Northern Ireland. I make regular deliveries to customers in Paris.
I attend local markets in Olargues, Lamalou les Bains, St Pons and Bédarieux, where I am absolutely merciless in collaring anyone I hear speaking English, or French with a Welsh accent. These people are overwhelmed with a battery of half-truths and exaggerations until they go staggering back to their car with a case under each arm.
Why Vin Bleu ?
Vin Bleu is a reference to an 19th century name for Carignan, ‘le cépage bleu’. In French, un bleu is a beginner, someone who is wet behind the ears, or ‘green’ in English. For my first wine it seemed appropriate...Vin Bleu is a reference to an 19 century name for Carignan, ‘. In French, un is a beginner, someone who is wet behind the ears, or ‘green’ in English. For my first wine it seemed appropriate...
The label, designed to reflect the organic and rather unorthodox style of the wine, represents a stylised bunch of grapes and was designed by a Belgian artist, Els Knockert.
Vin Bleu - Carignan 2002:
Deep ruby red, with aromas of garrigue (thyme, rosemary) and spices. An attractive tannic structure indicates its capacity for laying down. Pleasing balance between fruit and alcohol which is accentuated when served in a carafe.
Serving temperature 16°C, to accompany grilled or roast meat, stews and ‘hard’ cheeses.
Vin bleu - Carignan
€ 6.-- / Btl. / TTC
Please contact me for delivery and transport conditions.
Further details on request.
Charles HaskinsTel : + 33 (0) 679 02 14 62