When Guy Hibbert, France Today’s editor-in-chief emailed me, mentioning that he’d planned a press trip to Provence and asking whether he could visit our vineyard, Mas des Brun, I panicked. Vineyard was suddenly a very big word! How exactly did it translate in my would-be visitor’s mind? Did it conjure up an image of elegant iron gates, beyond which a gravel path led up a hill dotted with vines, each row decorated with a heritage rosier?
At the end of this manicured chemin, would Guy spot a courtyard lined with topiaries? Would his eyes, tickled by the sculpted trees, then feast on a Provençal bastide? And would the chatelaine then gracefully appear, before immense carved-wood doors flanked with antique urns and some sort of noble moss flowing out. Indeed, is moss noble?
I don’t know. But there is such a thing as noble rot! And that’s how we ended up here, in this vineyard by the sea. But let us step away from the excitement of the moment – follow me, now, back to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where a life-changing harvest was underway…
“That’s noble rot!” exclaimed Uncle Jean-Claude, who waved his clippers as a sign to go ahead and drop the mouldy grapes into my bucket. We were picking the classic ‘13 cépages’ at my in-law’s vineyard, the Domaine du Banneret. It was September of 1995 and my second vendange.
“Keep them! They’re the best grapes!” my husband shouted, relaying the message down the line of pickers – a motley crew of family members, ranging from our firstborn, Max, to Jean-Claude’s mother, Marinette, who wore a floral-printed apron and kept an eagle-eye on everyone.
I can still hear the thunk of metal handles hitting the sides of the buckets each time we set them down beside another heavily-laden vine. The trunks being goblet-shaped, we had to crouch down, level with the smooth galets. The stones were heated by the afternoon sun, but we were freezing from the ankles up as the Mistral wind tore through the vineyard, carrying off our sunhats and whirling my hair around my head, effectively blinding me.
“Watch your fingers!” my husband, Jean-Marc, called out. I could barely see him through my sun-bleached blindfold. The girl next to me, who would become godmother to our unborn child, spit windblown hair out of her mouth, and swore, “This is my first and last harvest! Quelle torture!”
I spied my husband one row over, tending an old Grenache vine. The look of rapture on his face was unmistakable. The realisation hit: there would not be a last harvest for me, ever…
Jean-Marc quit his fluorescent-lit auditor’s office in Marseilles for the sunlit campagne Aixoise. Over the coming years he would work as sales director for two prestigious wineries. His new career involved travelling outside of Provence, where he met cavistes, restaurateurs, importers and other key figures in the wine world.
Switching wineries in 1998, we now lived in the grounds of a 12th century château, a stone’s throw from Saint-Tropez, where our apartment overlooked orchards and vine fields. Our children – we now had a beautiful baby girl – would spend the next few years chasing each other through the vines and playing cache-cache among the olive trees. On lazy family walks around the domaine, Jean-Marc often paused to tuck an errant branch into place along the wire or pull a greedy weed from the foot of an ageing syrah. It was clear just where in the world of wine he needed to be: at ground level!
A Vignoble Quest
Jean-Marc wanted his own vines and he knew exactly where. A boyhood spent swimming in the calanques and hunting oursins, or sea urchins, along the Mediterranean held a trance over him. He set his sights on a modest vignoble in Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer, but we soon learned that buying a vineyard in France wasn’t a straightforward procedure.
All agricultural transactions had to go through SAFER (Sociétés d’Aménagement Foncier et d’Établissement Rural), the government entity which controls all farmland purchases. We were assigned a representative, who seemed to favour our profile. Thus encouraged, we began sketching where the cellar would go and scouting the countryside to see where our kids would be schooled and where we would buy our morning baguette. But our hopes were dashed when a call came from SAFER: the buying rights would be given to a local farmer. The next months were bumpy – Jean-Marc was let go at work, but the good news was that his lawyer succeeded in winning him damages for unfair termination.
It was while perusing a viticulture journal that Jean-Marc noticed vines for sale at Sainte-Cécile-les-Vignes in the Vaucluse – prime Côtes du Rhône terroir. The grapes were being sold to the co-op, but once we purchased the property – 23 investors and a bank loan later – Jean-Marc created a winery-sur-place, naming it the Domaine Rouge-Bleu, after our Franco-American union.
The salesman-turned-farmer learned from the ground up, living the emotional highs and quirky lows of winemaking. The wind broke his vines, the locals stole his compost and the tractor nearly cost him his life when the brakes went out, sending him and a ton of grapes hurtling downhill toward traffic! However, the newbie winemaker persevered and put a price tag on his first bottles which made area winemakers jealous. And when they snickered at his unusual ideas, calling him an hurluberlu, or nut, for practicing biodynamics – he was steeping horsetail plant tea for his vines and concocting field sprays made of cow manure – Jean-Marc was too busy receiving the good news to care. His first vintage, ‘Mistral 07’, received a gold medal from the Paris International Agricultural Show and 91 points in The Wine Spectator!
However, after five years in the Rhône, that soulful yearning for la mer returned. We began looking for a vineyard in Bandol, a search which proved impossible until a local winemaker gave us a tip about a unique property. There was just one catch – it only had olives, no vines.
The 20-acre domain safeguarded an ancient oliveraie. Historical restanques – or stone terraces – ascended the hillside, whispering the property’s raison d’être. Here was an amphitheatre for the grapes that would make Jean-Marc’s very own Bandol wine! He wrote to the owner, introducing himself, his family and our collective dream. Encouraged when the propriétaires responded, supporting our project, we began – once again – to envisage our dream estate, the children’s school, the morning baguette… when another hope-dashing call came!
By progressing with our plans, we’d somehow set off an alarm at SAFER headquarters and now the French government was interested in the property, too! Irony of ironies, for it was their job to help us locate farmland and now they might take our finding away and, according to buying rights legislation, provide it to a “fitting” candidate.
Our situation was all but hopeless and there was nothing to do but cooperate. After all, each party had something to lose: if SAFER bought the property then they risked not being able to sell it right away as the farmer they had in mind didn’t want the house that belonged with the land. In the end, we came to an agreement: the two best parcels would be sold to the local. We could now buy les restes…
Let me now return you to the opening scene of our story, at our budding vineyard, where we’re anxiously anticipating the visit of our editor-in-chief, in the middle of a storm. On the upside, it was too dark and grey outside to tell whether we have a manicured courtyard or just some old wine barrels hosting a gaggle of daisies. And as for the antique door and heritage roses, well, our honoured guest hurried in out of the rain so fast that he didn’t realise they were missing! In any case, at that point, our collective attention was focused upon the kitchen door, beneath which a flood was rushing in.
“Bonjour, Monsieur Hibbert!” Throwing Guy some towels, I explained that we’d just need to stem the flood until Jean-Marc arrived. Just where the devil was he, I thought? He was due here an hour ago for this interview! In the meantime, our eminent guest looked relaxed, even amused – if a bit damp – as we sloshed wet towels around the makeshift tasting room.
Although I’d tried to imagine the perfect setting for this crucial meeting, the eventual disaster possessed a charm all of its own. And when Jean-Marc appeared in time to dig a trench – re-routing the torrent to a future vine field – Guy may have recognised him as a true paysan, ever at the mercy of the weather and French bureaucracy, but who – if worth his wine – is willing to labour through all such uncertainties.
Kristin Espinasse writes the French Word-A-Day blog, where she chronicles life at Mas des Brun, the dream-come-true vineyard that she and her family call home.