Margaret and Dick   


August '07: A stroll in the vineyard

There is a campaign here to encourage people to visit the farms and winemakers deep in the countryside, to better appreciate the traditional culture and products.  At such a Balade Vigneronne (stroll in the vines) in the Minervois, I joined other tourists – Dutch, Spanish, French – for a two-hour hike in the Domaine d’Azéou.  Owners Odile and Gilbert Carbonnel guided us into the hills to see the old stone quarries that made the local stone buildings possible.  Odile showed us the herbs used in flavorings and medicines, as well as young olive trees growing back from ancient roots after a freeze 50 years ago.  We sampled ripe figs and ripening grapes.  They shared a hidden treasure, an ancient capitelle, a small domed stone shelter for workers caught in a storm.  These vineyard owners regret that this traditional knowledge is being lost as the younger generation adopts city ways.

Odile’s family came here in 1820 to work in the stone quarries, and then branched into grape farming.  Her grandfather was a founder of the co-op winery in town. 

“We left the co-op in the 1970s.” 

“Why?,” I asked, knowing that this co-op is now very successful. 

“We wanted to try our hand at making wine.  In the co-op, our only function was to grow the grapes.”  Co-ops unite independent grape farmers and provide the expensive equipment and subtle expertise to make and sell the wines. 

During the walk, I asked our hosts a leading question about their domaine.  “How many acres do you have?”  Around here, a domaine of forty to sixty acres is considered sufficient to support a family of 4.  Their response:  we had 38 acres, then 24, and now we have less than 10.  They are sadly ripping up their old vines in preparation for their imminent retirement, since none of their children wishes to continue with the family winery.

But why not sell the domaine with the vines?  “We tried for 8 years and had no takers.  And our business has not paid off.  After expenses, we clear little profit.”  Not easy, the life of a small independent grape-grower/winemaker.  So they are gradually leaving the business.  As we walked through their property, Odile avoided looking at the bare fields that formerly held her vines. 

Why not leave the vines planted?  “It is not allowed.  If you let vines go wild, they attract diseases, which then infect your neighbors’ vines.  No choice – regulations require the vines to be ripped up.”  Plus, with a perceived glut of vines in the European Community, grape growers are actually paid a yearly subsidy if they rip up some of their acreage.  It’s like when US farmers are paid not to farm the land.  Go figure!

And in the remaining 10 acres, what is planted there?  We were just passing that area of their domaine.  “That is vieux (old) carignan.  We just cannot bear to tear it up.”  Carignan is an old-fashioned grape that previously dominated this area.  It produced a large volume of coarse but flavorful wine during the era when yield was more important than quality, to accommodate a working or warring population when each man drank several liters per day.  While carignan is now out of favor, old carignan vines make a wonderful wine.  The Domaine d’Azéou's old vines were thick and gnarled, with roots burrowed deep into the dry rocky soil. 

After two hours of energetic walking, we returned to their home for lunch.  After an aperitif with home-made sangria, cold sliced pork, melon, and quiche, the smoking barbecue signaled the main course:  the local specialty cansalade, thick slabs of bacon cooked crisp on the grill, served with a ratatouille of garden vegetables.  Dessert was a tiramisu with ice cream and fruit compote.

I sat next to a couple of Dutch doctors in their fifties, old friends from high school recently re-united.  Across the table was a Spanish couple.  She spoke no French but some English, and he spoke no English but some French.  Overall, our little group had no common language.  Aided by hand gestures and lots of wine, we bridged the language gap.  After four hours at table, we communicated fabulously.  It’s amazing how a little wine improves language ability.

As soon as I got home, I called Margaret in Atlanta.  Want to buy a winemaking domaine?  The answer was a swift no.  It’s probably for the best.  They say the way to make a small fortune in the wine business is to start with a large one. 

But please, Odile and Gilbert, do hang on to those last acres of vieux carignan!

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