A Winemaker’s Life …

Patricia Atkinson explains the joy of being a winemaker in the Dordogne.

On the morning of 3 September as your alarm clocks roused you from your beds for another day at the office or in court, over here in South West France I had already been up since 4am. It was the first day of my vendange (grape harvest) and the culmination of a year’s hard work in the vines.

I’m a winemaker with a vineyard which lies on the ridge of hills that run along the left bank of the Dordogne. With gentle hills, sloping rows of vines and ancient limestone houses, it’s certainly very beautiful. Its most famous product is undoubtedly wine and you could be forgiven for having a romantic vision of what living here and being a wine grower entails. There is no doubt that it is exciting. And it’s fascinating too. But mostly, it’s actually just very hard work. You have not only to grow your grapes and harvest them, but also to vinify them, barrel them, bottle them, market them and finally sell them.

To state the obvious, in the growing of grapes you are very much at the mercy of nature. You can do everything right – prune before the start of the season, weed to keep the terrain conducive to the health of your vines, cosset the grapes as they grow, spray to protect them from maladies, trim to ensure maximum concentration and de-leaf to give them more sun – yet a hailstorm can arrive without warning and decimate your entire crop in less than four minutes.

The 2009 season

This year our vines grew at a truly alarming speed. From four or five delicate buds at the start of the season spurted thick branches which grew upwards, outwards and then downwards before we had time to lift them up and onto canopy wires. And once we did, trimming and weeding and spraying and mowing followed without a break throughout the season.

If we thought the growing season was speedy this year and it was, remaining consistently three weeks in advance of normal years, our vendange has been more so, taking us into overdrive in the chai (wine shed). Unusually, both the red merlot and white grape varieties reached ripeness around the same time. We normally have time to pick the whites and at least start their fermentations off before the merlot reaches maturity – not the case this year.

The white grapes arrived at the chai in full to overflowing trailer loads. They were sent through a crusher (which doesn’t crush, incidentally, simply separates any stalks or leaves from the grapes). The noise was deafening and the work hands on, as with pipes and pumps at the ready, grapes, skins, pulp, pips and juice poured into the crusher then out again and up through a vast pipe into a vat. The vats filled up at astonishing rates, reds following the whites, with 4am starts each day becoming the norm. Now most of them are full. Their temperatures and density readings are taken three times a day and we are currently pumping over the juices, cooling them and adding yeasts to start the fermentations. And about to head into our hand picks.

Falling into wine …

You may ask how I came to be doing this. The simple answer is by accident. I arrived here in 1990 with my husband. A brief three month interlude of enjoying the hot, sultry summer and I found myself through circumstances running the small estate of four hectares we had bought on my own – really not how I imagined my life in France. It required some basics, such as speaking the lingo, knowing something about winemaking and being able to drive a tractor, none of which I had. I’m happy to report I acquired those basics, in a hurry it has to be said, and now have a sizeably larger vineyard of 26 hectares which is considerably better run than it was in the early days.

I guess, having fallen into wine making rather than being born into it, I have a different approach. Wine is fascinating and intriguing and bewildering and frustrating, from the moment the vine is planted in the ground to the time when its fruit is bottled. It’s also wonderful. But it’s something to be enjoyed rather than revered. Putting aside the growing of it and making of it, all that sipping and slurping and swirling of glasses with other winemakers in the early days of my life here was not only deeply intimidating, it seemed like some mysterious cult only the initiated, which definitely excluded me, could join. Words like aromas and bouquets and legs and body were bandied about like stardust – very baffling.

But once you get it, it’s quite extraordinary how you really do get it. I couldn’t believe it the first time I actually identified aromas of raspberries and strawberries positively bursting out of a glass of rose at a tasting one day or how by swirling the wine in the glass the bouquet intensified. And as for the extraordinary mineral aromas and intensely flavoured citrus fruits and butter I found in a glass of white burgundy once I had joined the initiated, it was pretty much a revelation. I never looked back.

There is something deeply seductive about the black ruby colour of a glass of red with a nose of creamy, ripe cherry fruit or a glinting pale gold glass of white wine full of intense honeyed fruit and crisp acidity. That sense of anticipation you get from the aspect and the nose only accentuates the sheer pleasure of its taste.

This year looks to be a wonderful vintage judging by what I have in my chai. In twenty years of making wine here, never have I felt so assured of a great year, both for reds and whites. I’m holding back on the sweets as botrytis or noble rot, the fungus that one needs to make what I call liquid gold, hasn’t yet appeared on the grapes. But it will soon, of that I’m sure. The wines of this area come under the appellation of Bergerac and Saussignac and for those of you who haven’t tried them, I would recommend you do. The last 15 years has seen a huge leap in quality with young, innovative winemakers making exciting wines that really are worth sampling.

What to look for

What one should be looking for in any wine is balance. Balance between acidity and fruit, between fruit and wood and alcohol and you can find some excellent examples of such wines under the Bergerac appellation; reds which are full, firm and dense and whites that are crisp and fruity with the delicious combination of semillon and sauvignon shining through, clean and elegant. For those of you who like sweet wines, the Saussignacs can be truly luscious, packed as they are with exotic fruit flavours and honey.

You couldn’t do better than to sample the whites of Luc de Conti at Chateau Tours des Gendres or the reds of David Fourtout as a good introduction to the wines of this area. The better Bergeracs stand on their own merits today and rightly so, meeting as they do the demands of an increasingly discerning wine-drinking public. So here’s to good wine generally and Bergerac wines in particular.

Patricia Atkinson’s Close d’Yvigne wines  can be purchased at Majestic Wines, Justerini & Brooks and John Avery’s. Her books The Ripening Sun and La Belle Saison are published by Random House. Visit: www.cdywine.com

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