You may recall that a couple of years ago Jess and I moved lock stock and barrel to southern France. Cynics amongst you might have mentioned that the climate, proximity to beaches, mountains, San Sebastien, and the great food might have had something to do with that; but no, I say, it was all to keep the postage costs down for new producers when we ask them to provide us with buying samples of their wines. The fact that I can try those wines in a nice environment was a mere accident.
There was of course another reason. After many years buying, selling and drinking wines both as a hobby and for a living, Jess and I both had a winemaking itch. In some ways its odd, as most of the winemakers we know (and all of the good winemakers we know), spend most of their life in isolated, windswept, sunbaked fields ripping their fingernails off, but sometimes that itch just has to be scratched. When we first came down to look for houses in the Pyrenees Atlantiques, the main consideration was actually access to vineyards, and in particular to one of our real loves, Jurancon Sec. In its best guises, this rich yet dry white wine combines true depth and complexity yet the Petit Manseng and Gros Manseng varieties lend a zip and freshness that you would never expect in such a warm climate. What’s even better is that wines are relatively unknown, even within France, and so lots of the interesting terroirs remain undiscovered, and not ruinously expensive to acquire.
If you havent already tried a Jurancon Sec, have a word with yourself and get with the cool kids
So, having found a house, we began the search for a vineyard. Every evening we would sit on the terrace gazing at the coteaux behind the house discussing our winemaking plans, but not really having much of an idea of how to get it started. After a year or so, we began to get to know the locals a bit better, and eventually overheard that the coteaux behind the village had itself once been covered in vines, and indeed on local maps even has a “lieu dit” name of “Les Vignes”. This hillside is a continuation of the Jurancon coteaux itself, lying between the “Gaves” (Béarnaise for the two large rivers draining the Pyrenees snowmelt). It turns out that the hillside used to be planted to red grapes, but after phylloxera in the late 19th century was never replanted. Ooh, said we, how interesting.
Another year or so passed, with us gently probing the local paysans about whether any of that land might just possibly be for sale. Buying things as an outsider from the French is an interesting experience – they are completely happy to sell you a house, but land is different – there is an emotional attachment to land that seems to be more abut trying to keep it within the family or community than about trying to make money from it. Eventually, after many many bottles of wine at our Christmas party for the local villagers, we heard that one little parcel, right in the middle of the hillside, facing due south, just might be for sale to the right buyer. But we probably wouldn’t be interested because it is very steep and not very fertile. Umm, given that mid slope (the correct altitude), due south (best sun exposure) , steep (good drainage and frost protection), and low fertility (more effort goes into fruit than leaves) are all perfect for vines, we tried not to look too excited.
A visit quickly followed, and after being shocked by encountering both a family of eagles and a family of deer on our first visit onto the land, it was so perfect that we agreed a price there and then. Oh my goodness, we are going to be farmers.
The future vineyard. Going to be hard not to just sit there looking at the views.
It turns out that, France being France, you cant really just start a company, buy some land, plant some vines, and make some wine. This would be far too easy, and require not nearly enough forms to fill in. So, after now spending effectively months speaking to accountants, the ministry of Agriculture and the dreaded Douanes, we have just set up a company to buy the land and grow the grapes – E.A.R.L Hutchinson et Filles. I have always wanted to be an Earl, but my wife Jess has put her foot down and insisted that she is the Earl and I am the lady. You can call me Lady Hutchinson from now on.
As you might have worked out, this is going to take a while to actually produce any grapes never mind have finished bottles of wine to drink, so in the meantime we have also set up a negociant business to make the wine from the grapes produced in the vineyard, and also to be able to buy grapes from some of the producers we have made friends with in Jurancon and make a dry white too. This is called SARL Domaine d’Audaux, (pronounced Oh-Doxx) named after the village we and the vineyard are in.
So, there we have the first big step. Over the coming months and years I will give you updates on building the winery, our difficult choice to make about which variety to plant, the sourcing of our white grapes, and hopefully eventually the making of some good plonk!