Glass Half Full: The Ups and Downs of Vineyard Life in France

Glass Half Full: The Ups and Downs of Vineyard Life in France

by Caro Feely


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781849539913
Publisher: Summersdale
Publication date: 09/01/2017
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.75(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Caro Feely is an author, wine teacher, speaker on agriculture, and a biodynamic winegrower.

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Glass Half Full

The Ups and Downs of Vineyard Life in France

By Caro Feely

Summersdale Publishers Ltd

Copyright © 2017 Caro Feely
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78685-142-0



Lemon-coloured reflections skittered across the table as I lifted the glass to my nose to check the aroma. Satisfied, I poured two more tasting samples and handed the glasses to Christophe and Seán. They sniffed, swirled and sniffed again.

'How do you make this wine?' Christophe asked after tasting and aiming an expert jet into the spittoon, the motion coming as naturally to him as it did to us.

'Oh, easy,' said Seán. He laughed and his solid six-foot-two body reverberated. I knew how that laugh felt when I had an arm resting on his shoulders: it rolled through him. I hadn't felt that in a long time. We didn't have time to sit together – or, if we did, it was on opposite sides of our large kitchen table to talk business. Now his laughter spread as we shared the conspiratorial humour of knowing how much work went into making wine.

Seán lifted his head, his face framed by a mane of wavy hair, streaked blond from working in the sun, and by his stubble, worn to mark the start of harvest, displaying a dash of salt and pepper I hadn't noticed before.

'We follow a simple process: harvest, press, cold stabilise, rack, ferment, rack the finished wine into a new vat with the fine lees, mature for six months then into the bottle.'

He ran through the steps; simple, swift words masking how complex and physically demanding the process was. Each step included a myriad of decisions. As the winegrower and winemaker at each point, our senses were taking in information and processing it to make the right decisions. For example, in the first step of the harvest, in making the call about when to harvest, we analysed the grapes for sugar level and acidity but, more importantly, we walked through the vineyard tasting grapes. Our senses took in taste, texture, colour, tannins. We considered each part of the grape individually – skin, pulp and seeds – but also the grape as a whole.

'Simple, like we do with our dry Riesling,' said Christophe.

I smiled knowing their 'simple' was not the average person's 'simple'.

'What do you call this wine?' he asked.

'Sincérité,' said Seán, holding up the bottle, showing the name and logo, an embossed mosaic three-way spiral called a triskell.

'I like the names you have given to the wines,' said Christophe. 'More interesting than putting a varietal on it like we do in Germany.'

'But for wine lovers it's easier if the varietal is clear and on the front,' I said. 'Most people buy wine based on the varietal.'

'It's crazy that there are more than a thousand grape varietals and the majority of wine drinkers only know and buy the top few,' said Seán. 'Bang goes our biodiversity.'

The room was quiet for a moment. Outside, vine-covered hills ran into the distance, filling the expansive windows. Inside, walls of limestone and a ceiling of poplar and oak enclosed the scene, bringing a sense of solidity and calm. But it was harvest time, impossible to feel calm.

After spitting I looked up out of the window again and saw a small thunderhead in the distance. It spread like a charcoal coloured duvet being shaken over the blue sky then hung still for a few moments before growing and moving closer, its dark grey curves plumping out as if being spread by an unseen giant. I felt a tinge of fear.

'The taste is our terroir,' said Seán, seemingly oblivious to the storm cloud. 'We take what it gives us. I shepherd what nature provides rather than "making" wine. With our natural farming, the wine reflects the limestone that underpins our vineyard; you taste the ancient seabed in the glass. If you lick the roof of your mouth you'll find a hint of salinity, like a sea breeze.'

'Hmm, yes, I see what you mean,' said Christophe.

Seán's description transported me back to a visit years before when a Loire Valley winegrower had sparked our dream to go wine-farming in France. We had planned and saved for almost a decade. After years of searching, we found our vineyard, the one we were looking on to now. It had been in liquidation, a 'fire sale'. We told ourselves it had potential but we had to look beyond the rotten shutters, un-trellised vineyards, rusted fences and mouse infestation. Seán returned from his fact-finding visit and said, 'It looks like the vineyards of the premier grand cru classés we visited in St-Émilion.'

We were idiots without a clue but, after tasting the wines and seeing the views, we were smitten, our rational selves swept away by an unaccountable force, a passion, a deep need to grow and make our own wine. We sold up, left our jobs and put everything into the failing farm. Since that shaky beginning, we had farmed organically and it showed. The Sauvignon Blanc was clean and carried notes of grapefruit, gooseberry and lemon on the cool undertow of limestone.

'We harvested the Sauvignon Blanc this morning,' said Seán.

'What was it like?' said Christophe.

'Smooth,' replied Seán.

They were men of few words.

'It's rare for it to be smooth,' I added. 'Simple; yes. Smooth; no.'

They laughed.

'Every year we're guaranteed some breakdown and the expensive repairs that go with it,' I said. 'We need to re-equip but that will cost a fortune.'

'I know the feeling,' said Christophe, whose family owned a vineyard. 'It's a juggling act.'

I pushed the thought of machinery breakdown out of my mind and opened the La Source red, a classic St-Émilion-style blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. As I poured, the room darkened, as if following the change in colour in the wine. We gathered close to the windows, fascinated. The cloud mass grew larger with each second, the initial dark bank expanding like a tidal wave rolling in slow motion across the sky and throwing the room into darkness as if night was falling. The top of the almond tree in front of the tasting room began to thrash, then the lower level cherries and hazelnuts followed. I felt a shiver of dread and saw a similar thought on Seán's face.

The poplars on the driveway began to swirl like mops shaken by angry cleaners. A few large dark circles splatted on the terrace outside. I felt anxiety rising and tried to calm myself. It will be OK – it's only rain. As if hearing my internal voice, the wind upped the ante, thrashing the trees more ferociously and making the vines on the hillside dance like dervishes. With each passing second the drama notched up like a Wagner symphony. The first hailstones clattered on the terrace and I felt a cold bolt of adrenalin.

My attention was drawn to a car pulling in alongside the tasting room. Michael and Lisa, architect and artist from London, were regular guests to the Wine Lodge. I waved from the window, not chancing going out into the violent weather. They waited a few minutes, hoping the storm would ease. It got worse. They threw caution to the wind and raced inside. We kissed hello and I introduced them to Christophe.

'I'd better get you over to the Lodge before it really comes down,' I said, taking the Lodge keys from the counter, delighted to have something to take my mind off the brewing disaster.

'What does this mean for the harvest?' shouted Michael as we stepped into the maelstrom. I could barely hear him above the noise of the storm.

'I don't know. We have to wait and see,' I yelled. 'Be careful you don't slip.'

In the few seconds crossing the uncovered section of timber deck from the tasting room to the Lodge we were soaked. I opened the door and hung on to it with all my strength to stop the wind giving it a life of its own.

'Bonne installation! Happy settling in. I'll be back with a gift bottle of wine when the storm eases. Cross your fingers that it isn't too destructive!' I shouted, laughed hysterically, then forced the door closed behind me, the wind like a magnet, keeping it from closing then throwing it forward, so it took all my power to stop it from slamming.

A pile of hail had gathered at the door of the tasting room. I felt a jolt of panic for our future – something I had felt many times since we had given up relatively secure city jobs for farming in south-west France. I steeled myself, pulled the tasting-room door open and rushed in before I got any wetter.

It felt safer inside the protective capsule of glass, stone and wood, but I felt dizzy with worry. We had only harvested the Sauvignon Blanc, about a tenth of our harvest. The rest was still on the vines and not quite ready. My brain flipped through potential outcomes. The only acceptable one was for the hail to stop.

Hail was more frequent than it had been a decade before. Global warming was creating unstable weather, including more storms, and farmers like us were experiencing it up close. I felt my stomach twist with worry.

Seán was going through the motions of the tasting, trying to ignore the unfolding disaster. The darkest part of the storm was still the other side of Saussignac but it was only a matter of minutes before it hit us full on. There was nothing we could do. Seán commented on this aroma and that tannin, what he had done in the vineyard and in the winery. It was like making small talk while watching a car crash.

Then the dark mass boiled out, as if an invisible force holding it back had let go. It rolled like angry water released from a dam wall and raced over Saussignac Castle. The hail drumbeat on the roof increased. We stopped talking. The noise outside reached fever pitch; rain and hail pounding, and wind thrashing the trees and vines relentlessly.

I felt like our lives were suspended over a void. In a few minutes our harvest could be shredded. Some long seconds passed as we stood mesmerised, then the mass split into two and the destructive darkness raced away; one part towards Gageacet-Rouillac in the east, the other to Razac-de-Saussignac in the west. The battering of the hail calmed, then stopped.

'Holy smokes,' I said.

'That was close,' said Seán.

Christophe was wide-eyed.

'I wonder what the damage is?' I said.

'Not as bad as it could have been,' said Seán as he rinsed the glasses.

'We should go and check now,' I said.

'Relax,' said Seán. 'If we see it now or in ten minutes it's not going to make any difference.'

I swallowed my panic and tried to concentrate on the wine.

The sun came out. Like the returning light, the last wine was golden: our Saussignac botrytis dessert wine.

If it were not for the hailstones thick against the tasting-room door, it would have been hard for a newcomer to believe a storm had passed.

'This is very good,' said Christophe after taking a sniff and a sip. 'It's like a trockenbeerenauslese.'

He took another sip, savoured it and spat into the spittoon, then set his glass down.

'Your wines are great. Real terroir. I would love to stay and talk more but I should leave you as I know you're anxious to check the grapes.'

He had a reserved Northern European way about him. We were in the midst of a crisis and he acknowledged that but was calm. I wondered what they would do in southern Italy, Sicily or Corsica in a similar situation – probably scream and race out into the vineyard as I felt like doing.

'It is what it is,' said Seán. 'I think we missed the worst of it.'

We exchanged bottles with Christophe. The tradition of swapping wine with other winegrowers was one we cherished. Since becoming winemakers we rarely drank wine made by someone we didn't know. It added a special dimension to our enjoyment of our favourite drink.

As we waved his small white car farewell, our minds were already in the vineyard. Before the car had turned up the hill to Saussignac I was pulling on my boots. Night was falling. We needed to get out there fast.

With a worker lamp in hand, we followed the track below our house, a long stone building covered in grey concrete. Beneath the seventies concrete that the locals called crépi we knew there were original cut stones that had been quarried on the farm. Removing it was one of many tasks that would keep us busy far into the future. If the hail damage was bad, that and other projects would be pushed out. Sometimes I felt like we took one step forward to take two steps back.

The Dordogne Valley spread below us like a quilt of perfect country scenes. Vineyards, plum orchards, forests and pasture were sewn together, patterns of green and gold with the river in the middle. The scene looked so peaceful and safe. Yet the village of Mardenne's only water source was one of 500 community wells that had special project status because it was so polluted by local farmers' activities. A programme of phone calls and meetings had been initiated to cajole farmers to stop using the legal poisons that were showing up in the water. So far it wasn't working. Recent analysis of the town's water showed the herbicide level to be so high that there wasn't a scale for it. A farmer had weed killed a field hours before a storm and it had washed the herbicide directly into the community's water. The herbicide was glyphosate, classified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as 'probably' carcinogenic. It was still legal in the EU and should have been banned long before. Mardenne's well showed glyphosate but also traces of chemicals that had been banned for more than ten years, including atrazine and arsenic. Atrazine was a popular herbicide in the twentieth century but has been shown to be a persistent endocrine disrupter and carcinogen. Arsenic is a famous poison – it was a favourite method for murder in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance – but was considered a great idea as an agricultural pesticide in the 1900s. It is a poison that can kill and in smaller doses it leads to nervous-system disruption that can be the cause of diseases like Alzheimer's. When I thought about it I felt desperate, frustrated and very grateful that our tap water didn't come from there.

Our local Saussignac district was slowly transforming to organic farming. A large percentage of winegrowers had already converted: around 20 per cent of the vineyard surface area, compared to an average in France of around 4 per cent at the time. Local farmers had started on the road to organic for different personal reasons. One neighbouring couple were driven to find an alternative to chemical farming when their five-year-old daughter got leukaemia. Their research concluded that systemic chemicals were behind their daughter's terrible disease and they went organic. With treatment their daughter recovered. Another close friend went organic after realising chemical farming was bad for the quality of his wine and for his long-term yield despite what the agricultural advisers said. Not surprisingly, many of the 'advisers' were connected to the sale of agricultural chemicals.

I set aside my thoughts about Mardenne's water calamity and focused on our immediate one – the hail. The vines alongside us were covered in green plumage and, without getting closer, I knew the storm had not been as devastating as the one in StÉmilion a couple of years before. Then the vines had been hit so hard that it looked like winter, the leaves and just-set fruit shredded off the trellis, leaving only the solid wood and cane structures like emaciated skeletons.

But, given the fragile state of our almost ripe fruit, even a small amount of hail could wreck our crop and the old Sémillon vines that ran down the east-facing slope looked ruffled. There was no mistaking that the storm had passed through.

I stepped into a row and lifted leaves so I could scrutinise the grapes.

'No broken skin here,' I said, feeling a flood of relief.

'Nor here,' said Seán, doing the same on the next row. 'A bit windblown, that's all.'

'Thank God.' I popped a grape into my mouth. After chewing and tasting the skin and pulp, I spat the pips into my hand to look at the colour. There was still a line of bright green along the centre. They were almost ready. In a few days the green would diminish and the pips would brown and start to taste a little nutty instead of bitter astringent.

'I think we should pick on Thursday as planned,' said Seán after doing the same.

Each year we started harvest with a vague idea of which days would be ideal for each grape and then adjusted our plan based on the weather and development of the grapes. We were on target.

We kept walking, hurrying but stopping every few rows to check the bunches. The vines changed from Sémillon to Sauvignon Blanc.

'The further we go the more roughed up the vines look,' I said. 'Thank God this Sauvignon is safe in the winery.'

Seán nodded.

'There are a few perforated leaves here,' he said, lifting one to show me.

I felt anxiety rising and wondered what we would find around the corner in the Hillside Merlot, our last parcel on this stretch of land, a steep east-southeast slope already dark with the shadows of the evening.

In the first row of it I found grapes with broken skin.


Excerpted from Glass Half Full by Caro Feely. Copyright © 2017 Caro Feely. Excerpted by permission of Summersdale Publishers Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Part 1: Fire and Fruit,
Chapter 1: Hail the Destroyer,
Chapter 2: Harvest Thrills,
Chapter 3: Hunting Black Gold,
Chapter 4: Orange Eggs,
Part 2: Air and Flowers,
Chapter 5: Chance Meetings in the Time of Flowering,
Chapter 6: Golden Wedding,
Chapter 7: Mothering and Memory,
Chapter 8: Take Ten Deep Breaths,
Chapter 9: Cancer Up Close,
Part 3: Water and Leaves,
Chapter 10: Language and Philosophic Challenges,
Chapter 11: Powerful Herbs and Dancing Bees,
Chapter 12: Blossom and Honey,
Chapter 13: Growing Pains,
Part 4: Earth and Roots,
Chapter 14: Orange Wine and a New Era,
Chapter 15: One Yogi and Five Tibetans,
Chapter 16: Back to Our Roots,
Chapter 17: Seeking Equilibrium,
Message from the Author,

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