Who doesn’t dream of giving up the day job and buying a vineyard in France? Can’t be that hard, can it?
Franck Pascal and Isabelle Carles are fully wearing that tee-shirt, and talking to Franck about their life-changing move from Paris to Bergerac over 20 years ago, is a fascinating insight into the highs and lows of jumping into the world of viticulture with no experience whatsoever.
The mental picture I have of vineyard life is one where dusty ancestors look down from cellar walls, their land and expertise passed on to the next generation. Franck and Isabelle had no such forebears, dusty or otherwise. Their jobs in finance in Paris were becoming increasingly insecure at the end of the last century, and they were both united on the need for a major change of lifestyle. Isabelle had fond memories of childhood holidays in South West France, so they moved to the Bergerac region with a view to becoming winemakers. After going back to school to learn about viticulture for a year, they bought Domaine de Jonc Blanc.
The disadvantage of having no experience and no family expertise to rely on meant learning from their mistakes. A heavy hand with a pruning shears cost them dearly with the following year’s poor harvest. The advantage though, of not carrying on a family business, was that they could do their own thing with no pressure to follow the style of their predecessors. They had no history of Bergerac wine to follow, but could make the wine they wanted to make.
The farm they bought had been farmed conventionally, and one of the first changes they made was to move towards sustainable farming. Using the ‘Agriculture Raisonnée’ principles for a year, they quickly decided this was not enough. Neither for themselves nor the planet.
Now certified biodynamic, I asked Franck what motivated him to go down this road. It was the inspiration of a neighbouring winemaker, Jacque, who, though not known, is, according to Franck, a ‘great human being’. Jacque organised monthly meetings of followers of Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy, which is the basis of biodynamic farming. It was all a bit too much for Franck and Isabelle at first, but moved to organic farming, all the while watching their biodynamic neighbours from the sidelines. Another little nudge came from Jacque, who agreed to give them a parcel of Sauvignon Blanc grapes on the condition they were farmed biodynamically. Over the next 4 years, they moved the whole farm over to biodynamic viticulture, parcel by parcel.
I asked the question that everyone asks: so, does the wine taste better? This is not easy to answer. Many changes have been made over the years, how they work the vineyard affects the grapes, so yes, the wine is much better than when they took over, but it’s not just the biodynamic influence, but a result of many practices.
In common with all the biodynamic vignerons I speak to, their reason for this method of farming is sustainability. Franck believes that, for today, its is the best way to farm for nature, for the planet. Tomorrow maybe something better will come along. Biodynamic farming does not allow anything to be killed- pests, weeds, or fungus. Killing changes the life balance around you, which is what Franck and Isabelle seek to preserve.
Did they miss the buzz of Paris? Not at all! Will their son, Jules, now 17, follow them into the business? Who knows. At present he has no interest, so he will live his life and make his own decision when the time is right. There are no dusty ancestors putting pressure on him.