When pondering culinary memories of France, common thoughts often revolve around cheese, croissants, and wine. Especially the wine, and for good reason; as there are hundreds of thousands of acres of vineyards in France, almost spanning the entire country from Alsace in the north down to Bandol in the South, producing thousands of different reds, whites, roses and champagne. As well as the commercial production in the country, many people have a few vines on their property where they produce enough bottles to sustain them through the year. Naturally, our little row of vines at the bottom of the garden had piqued my interest and I was keen therefore to learn a great deal more. I decided I had to make the life of a wine-grower a part of my ‘Local Artisan’ series. Earlier this week I drove south-east across France to the Dordogne for a meeting at Chateau Feely where I hoped to discover so much more about the trade of a vintner. The life of a wine-grower might seem like a dream job to many people; think France, sun, wine and it’s easy to get carried away, however, as I have now learnt, it is most definitely not that straightforward. It’s very time consuming indeed and a huge amount of hard work, and unless you happen to be selling Chateau de Rothschild for 200 euros a bottle it also will not under any circumstance turn you into a millionaire. However, it is extremely addictive and totally fascinating. So, here is my fifth artisan in the series, wine-grower Caro Feely.
I could have chosen any number of vineyards for my project but because I am particularly interested in organic wine, Chateau Feely intrigued me immensely as they have gone one step further and produce not only organic wine, but also biodynamic wine – which takes everything to the next level. The original name of the vineyard was Chateau Haut Garrigue, but as Chateau Feely it now produces ten different award-winning wines a year, their two lines of production are called Terroir Feely and Chateau Feely. Their range includes reds, dry whites, sparkling and dessert wines. Each year they produce around 12,000 bottles from their nine hectares of certified organic and biodynamic vines.
Both Caro and her husband Sean are South Africans with Irish roots. They met in Johannesburg and wine growing is in their genes; Sean’s father is a Master wine grower in the Cape wine-growing region. They always had a dream to own a vineyard and produce their own wine, and originally thought that would be in South Africa, but work took them to Dublin in Ireland and they pursued professional careers there for several years that had nothing to do with wine! But eight years after moving to Dublin and with a baby and a toddler in tow, they quit their jobs, sold their house, said goodbye to the security of earning a guaranteed salary and a life of comfort and became the proud owners of a vineyard in Saussignac – a small village near Bergerac in the department of Dordogne in South West France. The land, the house and the buildings were in liquidation and all in desperate need of renovation, but it had been a vineyard for centuries with a reputation for incredible wine, and within a short space of time a whole new life began for the couple. This is a life with no guarantees, a life quite literally of blood, sweat and tears, but also a life full of passion and that feeling of truly being in charge of one’s own destiny.
That first momentous change for the Feelys took place ten years ago. Since then they have had to learn more than many of us learn in a lifetime, with those ten years a passage of time divided into weeks of 100 hours or more of labour, every year, each season. Their passion has taken them first from growing organic wine to the next stage of becoming biodynamic wine-growers, and all of this they’ve learnt in a foreign language. I truly have nothing but respect for Caro and Sean, and their vineyard, and I felt truly privileged to be able to meet them and chat with Caro about Terroir Feely.
So, back to earlier this week, and the winding road through the vineyards of France. Due to work commitments Roddy was unfortunately unable to come with us, so the day turned into a road trip for the girls as Izzi was home from University with her Floridian best friend, Lisa, and along with Millie (who has a passion for life unlike any other fifteen year old I have ever known) we set off ! An extremely early start saw us skirting the outskirts of rush-hour Bordeaux and then heading east before the real heat of the day took hold. We knew we were in wine country as we were surrounded by vineyards and Domaines of every denomination wherever we looked. At 10am we finally turned down a narrow lane and into Chateau Haut Garrigue, and a sense of excitement filled the car. Although I was there in a blogger’s guise, we joined a group of three other people for one of Caro’s wine tours to start with. This was a two hour tour where we walked through the vineyards, learning about the soil, the vines and the history of wine growing in the area before moving into the cool of the air conditioned tasting room, where we learnt about different white and red wines. The Feely’s vineyards are on steep hillsides with absolutely stunning far-reaching views and many of their vines are 30 years old with some of more than 50 years old. I was amazed at how much we learnt in such a short space of time; how to appreciate all the different aromas in individual wines, how to tell a young red from a much older vintage, the differences in taste, and by the end of the morning I had a far greater appreciation of wine than I had ever had before. At 15 years old, Millie was just a “sniffer”, but even without tasting anything she still learnt so much and was quite entranced by the whole experience.
The wine-tours are just one of the many inventive ways that Caro has learnt to make ends meet. With the wine-growing industry in France under immense pressure from so many imported wines from all around the world, it became vital early on for the Feely’s to diversify if they were to compete against foreign wines that are far less regulated and therefore much cheaper to produce and sell. Whilst their main business is the vineyard and the wines they produce, Caro studied and qualified to become a certified wine-educator so she could then teach people about the wines from their vineyard. They also welcome people to learn a little more about their wines through their vine-share scheme and they also have two eco-gîtes. In addition she is an accomplished author of two books, Grape Expectations and Saving our Skins, where you can read their story as wine-growers in France. I can highly recommend them, I have read them both twice!
However, for the true wine-lover and for anyone who cares about where their wine comes from, this is one vineyard that is hard to beat. After our wine tour we were able to chat to Caro on her own and walked a little further in the vineyards. I was still keen to learn more about organic and biodynamic methods; did it really make such a difference to a bottle of wine? Whenever possible I try and buy organic produce anyway, by habit I buy organic milk and I buy organic wine, but I wondered if this really was a vital step for wine that was stored for so long before drinking. As a result of my question, I was stunned to learn that while the amount of pesticide use is controlled for fruits and vegetables sold in grocery stores, there is no regulation in the wine industry, and in recent tests it was found that the average glass of French wine contained 300 times more pesticide residues than is allowed in our drinking water; that is just the average. I asked Caro if she would still do it again now she knows so much ?
“Half-way through what we have done,I would probably have said no,” she told me with a grin, “but now, ten years later, I wouldn’t change my life at all.” Her answer said it all, for despite all the hard work it’s a passion that doesn’t diminish. She feels they still have so much to learn as it’s a constant learning curve. Despite the tough lifestyle, she would be delighted if one day the children were to follow in their footsteps and take over Chateau Feely, and although the girls are still way too young to choose their future it said a great deal to me that despite the difficulties Caro would still love for her children to follow as wine-growers.
At the end of the extended walk Caro took us into the Chai (pronounced shay, a French term for an aboveground structure used for wine storage and aging). Vast modern stainless-steel tanks stored the majority of their wine, but there was some wine also in both French and Californian oak barrels. Perhaps it is the organic and biodynamic background that evokes such passion in this couple, I thought, as I heard that Sean had been up and working in the vineyards since 5.30am (a real labour of true love as he has no help whatsoever!). Most of us know about organic farming but biodynamic methods are far less familiar. The organic route returns the land to a natural state. However, the problem with most modern farming methods is they strip the earth of everything natural; the more insecticides used the more that need to be used as they are not selective, killing the good bugs that in turn would normally kill the bad bugs; in addition pesticides strip the soil of so much goodness that more chemical fertilizers are needed. The cycle is endless and deadly, driven by a desire to produce huge quantities of grapes as cheaply as possible. Biodynamics, however, take natural farming and working with the land a step further, where growers think more of the vineyard as a whole farm system, where working with the moon and the lunar cycles is normal and plant and animal-based homeopathic type preparations are used for the plants.
If all this sounds a little bit too much and you are, understandably, a little skeptical, then perhaps understanding the impact that biodynamic farming has had on the Feely’s vineyard will change your mind. Since going biodynamic they have been able to decrease their dose of copper for combatting downy mildew fungal disease (which can be a problem in the region) from 6kg/ ha (the max allowed in organic) to 1,5kg/ ha, and with this ratio they already have 25% less mildew than when they started out using the maximum. In their own words, the result is “Our vines are more resistant to disease than ever before and our wines taste better”. It is certainly something I plan to learn a great deal more about, as I had never really heard of biodynamics – but it’s seems to make a great deal of common sense and I am intrigued.
We left Chateau Feely as the temperature climbed to a whopping 40◦ Celsius (104 Fahrenheit); motorway-signs warned of extreme heat and the necessity to keep hydrated, and the radio kept talking about the heatwave. We had plenty to talk about as we had learnt so much, and our girls’ day out had been enlightening, fascinating and fabulous. When we finally arrived home we were most certainly in need of a glass of wine, and uncorking a bottle of Terroir Feely ‘La Source’ sulphite-free red wine, and a bottle of Terroir Feely “Sincérité” white wine we were able to share a little of our day with Roddy, who remarked he had died and gone to heaven and he’d drive back the next day with a large lorry to Saussignac to buy some more! It really was that good!
Thank you so much Caro, for such a perfect day, it was truly a pleasure meeting you.
For anyone wanting to find out more about Chateau Feely or to buy their wines online, click on the link here. If you are visiting France and the region I highly recommend at the very least a wine tour with Caro, or you can go one step further and book a week at one of their gites, I cannot imagine a more perfect holiday. http://www.feelywines.com/