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A guide to owning a vineyard in France
If you ask people why they want to move to live in France, very often the response will involve wine. Now that is not to say that we British are a nation of drunkards, but rather that good wine is an essential part of the French dream, and as such of great importance to the idyllic lifestyle and excellent quality of life that La Belle France can provide. For many of us, that requirement stretches only to a glass in hand at the end of a long sun filled day, but for some the dream goes further. They want to own their vineyard, to know that the magical liquid in the bottle on their dinner table has been produced from their own grapes, and they want to experience at first hand, the industry and the way of life that has been the backbone of rural France for hundreds of years. For these people, just seeing the vineyards changing with the seasons, and watching the workers cutting, tying and harvesting the grapes is not enough. The dream can only be fulfilled by buying… or planting… their own vineyard.
If you are one of those who hanker after becoming the proud owner of a vineyard, you will need to ask yourself some questions before you proceed to the irrevocable step of buying one. Owning a vineyard is rather like deciding to have a baby, or buying a horse, in that it is a big commitment to a living thing, and one which should not be undertaken lightly. If you have a vineyard, unless you are immensely wealthy and can employ a manager to oversee everything, you will need to tend the vines everyday, winter and summer, or at the very least you will need to check that this has been done by your employees. You will battle with the authorities, with the weather, with insects and plant diseases, and worry about the competition and pricing trends.
Certainly they are very beautiful in summer, with the vines all green and glossy and bursting with grapes. In autumn too, when some varieties turn burning red, a vineyard is a lovely thing to behold. You can enjoy these sights by living in a wine producing area, without the need to become involved yourself, but despite all the hard work and worry, many British ex patriots in France are indeed choosing to become vineyard owners. The reasons are as varied as the people themselves, for to misquote Shakespeare it could be said that 'Some are born vineyard owners, some achieve vineyard ownership and others have vineyards thrust upon them.'!
Sandie Apthorp, together with her husband David, has a vineyard in St Martin de Villereglan, in the Languedoc region of southern France. It's now in its first productive year, and Sandie explains it like this. 'Having looked at all sorts of properties in our chosen region, from town houses to farm houses, we finally settled upon a six bedroom country house with eight hectares of land. At the outset, we did not think too seriously about running a vineyard, even though there were vines already on the land. They were overgrown and messy, and anyway we had no understanding of the wine business. We had our work cut out restoring the house and gardens, and installing a swimming pool and sun terraces facing the Pyrenean Mountains to the south of the house. When the summer came however, we saw how beautiful all the vineyards in the region looked, and realised that a vineyard would enhance our property, making it both more attractive to potential holiday makers and also for ourselves.'
'We brought in the experts, who condemned our existing vines, and advised us on the planting of new vines. They took soil samples and analysed the land for drainage, prevailing winds and various other mysterious factors. Following their advice, we engaged a local farmer to bulldoze the old vines, and began to plant the land with the recommended varieties of grapes (Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc). We had to obtain a certificate from the local authorities confirming our rights to plant in the future. This is vitally important, because here, simply owning the land does not confer the rights to plant vines. Our rights extended to two and a half hectares, not the whole of the land as we had assumed.'
'In order to obtain some of the financial help available in the form of grants, I had to register as a French farmer! The grant process is also complicated (nothing is straightforward in France!) with the higher amounts being allocated to those who send their grapes to the local co-operative to be processed, rather than processing them yourself. The Cave du Razes, our co-op, were very helpful, as was the local viticulture office.'
'We found a neighbouring farmer to work the fields, another essential as we do not own the tractors and other pieces of machinery necessary for the job. Finally, the great moment came when we were able to assist with the planting of our vines, in the straightest rows you have ever seen. Each plant had to be given two litres of water on planting, and this alone took fourteen hours to complete, giving us a taste of the long hours to come. Growing vines is a seriously labour intensive occupation, and the returns may not be as great as you may think, in financial terms at least. Nevertheless, it has been an experience we would not have missed for the world, and we look forward to that first taste of our very own wine!' Further information on the Domaine de Nerige can be obtained from Sandie at email@example.com, or see the website, www.zenobiozone.com.
Sandie's experiences give a good account of what it takes to set up a new vineyard, but what if you want to buy an existing working vineyard? Mark and Nicky Adams, bought their gîte complex in the village of Douzens, between Carcassonne and Lézignan-Corbières complete with a working vineyard of around two hectares. They work their vines partly themselves, doing the routine maintenance, cutting and pruning. The specialised work of spraying and harvesting is done by the farmer who sold them the property.
The arrangement is reciprocal rather than financial, with the farmer using Mark and Nicky's old wine cave to store his equipment, and Mark and Nicky receiving bottled wines from their grapes in return. This arrangement works well as the gentleman in question, Olivier Mandeville, is one of the most experienced wine producers in the region, even being famed in the UK as the supplier of Marks and Spencer's quality Chardonnay! Even if you don't have a member of the Mandeville family to turn to however, chances are there will be a wealth of experience amongst your neighbours, so do talk to people and take the advice of local co-operatives.
'There is so much to learn when you first start', said Mark. 'You need to check the age of your vines, as although they have a long productive life, they do begin to lose productivity and quality as they get older. Some of ours are about 70 years old now, and the quality is still good although we know we will have to replace them eventually.'
Mark also warned; 'Another thing that you should take into account if you want to buy a vineyard is that it may take longer than usual for your purchase to go through the legal processes. This is because in France, there is a requirement that land offered for sale must first be offered to the agricultural commission SAFER (Société d'Amenagement Foncier et d'Establissement Rural), as they have the first right to buy any land over one hectare in size. They must, however, match the price which you have agreed to pay in order to secure the land, which means that the right is rarely exercised, but the process is obligatory and does take time.'
Mark and Nicky are very happy with their arrangement, as it affords them the satisfaction of owning their vineyard and enjoying their own wines, yet without the need for specialised equipment and full time work. It also greatly enhances the rental appeal of the gîtes, which is a factor well worth considering if your potential purchase is intended to generate an income through holiday rentals. Do, however, take Mark's advice and consider the commitment carefully first, as he says; 'Nature waits for no man, and an untended vineyard can quickly become an eyesore and a liability!'. The Domaine de Barthe, Mark and Nicky's property and vineyards can be seen on their website, www.barthegites.com.
If you have begun to feel a little overwhelmed by the prospect of all the work and knowledge required to run your own vineyard, you may be interested in another option. It is possible to buy a row or two of vines in a large concern, such as Gayda, who will then do all the work for you, presenting you with some bottles of wine at the end. If you are considering the purchase of a holiday home in France, rather than a full time residence, this may be a more realistic option for you. The possibility is explained on Gayda's website, www.buyavineyard.co.uk. This way you can enjoy wine produced from your own grapes without the work, worry or commitment.
If you want to buy a property in a wine producing region, owning a vineyard is a great way of integrating into the life of the area. It is a considerable investment in terms of finance, time and effort, but ultimately those who have become involved in the process have found it immensely satisfying. That glass in your hand at the end of the day tastes all the better if it has come from your very own grapes!
Joanna Simm moved to the Languedoc area of south-west France in October 2004 having found her property through French Property Links.
Any information re: French government finance and incentives, lending, deposits etc. much appreciated!
Not being an expert on the subject, I can only suggest you contact the following, for the information that you require:
a) Chamber of Agriculture - local office for your area (http://paris.apca.chambagri.fr/apca/)
b) Your local Co-operative bank
c) Your local viticulture office
d) Your Mairie (always good for information)
As with most things in France, it will probably depend on where you live as to what help you get (as many things vary with region, department and even town!). If you don't yet know where in France you may live, I would suggest you contact the Chamber of Agriculture first of all.
I am sorry I can't be of more help.
Do you have any good recommendation for insurance cover for vineyards? We have a small vineyard where the vines and land are owned by ourselves and the local cooperative manages and sells the grapes. We are finding it hard to get insurance cover as every insurer is selling us commercial vineyard cover. We need to find out what cover we actually require and what we are legally responsible for. Any help?
Thanks for contacting us. I would suggest you contact Schreinemachers, which is an agency which specialises in providing French insurance to UK ex-pats and English speakers (http://www.insurance.fr/). They are very helpful and quite often able to help with different situations and unusual requests. And if they can't help, they could possibly point you in the right direction.
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