Brave or mad: setting up a vineyard in France
Nine years ago Caro Feely and her husband Seán were city dwellers with a long-held dream to own a vineyard and make wine. Now they’ve made it happen, basing their business on biodynamic farming
Caro and Seán Feely with their children, Sophia and Ellie, on their vineyard in France
The Feely vineyard, in Saussignac, in south west France
It was one of those crazy ideas way too risky to follow, but a rundown farm at a fire-sale price in southwest France tempted us to make the leap. We swapped professional careers and a comfortable house for an 18th-century near-ruin and 10 hectares of vines. Making the move with two small daughters Sophia (two) and Ellie (five months) was “brave or mad” (our Dublin doctor) and a “risk with a capital R” (an accountant friend).
Our first three years in France were a baptism of fire: there was a farm accident – a third of a finger chopped off – and immersion French, offset by a good measure of laughter at the sometimes ridiculous situations in which we found ourselves. Then, just at the point when we should have been finding our feet, we were hit with a late frost that wiped out half our harvest. It was fragile moment for our fledgling business.
Two chance phone calls were critical to saving our farm: one from RTÉ suggesting we appear on a TV show; and a second from a businesswoman in Florida looking for organic grape skins. The calls led us on a journey that saved our business, took us to diverse winegrowing regions such as Alsace, Burgundy and Napa Valley, and left us with a message we want to share.
Since the beginning we farmed organically and, for the past six years, biodynamically as well. People often ask why we farm organically. Soon after we moved I recall seeing a skull-and-crossbones sign on pesticide cans left by the previous owner. I looked closer and read, “Do not enter the vineyard for 48 hours after spraying”. This would be difficult to do if you live in the middle of it. I didn’t know much about the subject at the time, but common sense told me that putting something so toxic on food, or in the vicinity of homes and children, made no sense. Grapes are not washed before they are made into wine.
A few months ago French watchdog magazine Que Choisir did an analysis of 100 wines bought randomly off the shelf. The results were shocking: it found the level of pesticides were on average 300 times the amount allowed in our drinking water, and some were well over 1,000 times the amount.
Farmers have just been banned from spraying near schools within 20 minutes of school opening and closing times – a knee-jerk reaction to a class of children and their teacher ending up in A&E after a farmer sprayed nearby.
A farm a couple of kilometres from us recently lost a landmark case to an employee claiming damages for developing serious health problems after working in the vineyard at 6am following a pesticide treatment the night before.
We ask: why spray such toxic chemicals at all? We have farmed healthily for nine years and have not lost anything to pests.
On our farm, natural habitats, plants under the vines and in hedgerows, encourage good bugs such as ladybirds, which kept unwanted bugs like aphids in check. On conventional farms herbicides often remove all growth that can be competition to the crop.
The only living things left in the vineyards are the vines themselves, ensuring they are the target for plant-eating pests arriving in the area.
To fight those pests, the conventional farmer sprays carcinogenic pesticides, including those so toxic they can kill a man like Yannick Chénet, a 43-year-old wine farmer who died of cancer directly attributed to insecticide a few months after receiving a jet of it in the face.
Another part of the chemical cocktail used by conventional winegrowers are systemic fungicides. In organic farming we use a copper-sulphate mix and in biodynamic farming we complement this with teas made from naturally occurring plants on our farm including horsetail, stinging nettle and willow.
Systemic fungicides stop beautiful wild orchids and delicious truffles from growing. But critically, they stop the vine’s natural access to nutrients offered by their symbiotic relationship with mycorrhiza, essential soil fungi. This weakened access to natural food in the soil means more chemical fertilisers are required to achieve an economic yield. These have mineral salts that make the vine thirsty so it takes up more water and holds more water in its cells – as we do when we eat too many salty snacks – and this extra water makes them more susceptible to fungal disease, meaning more systemic fungicide is required.
Each time I explain this on our vineyard tour, people are dumbstruck. It seems illogical to be caught in this vicious chemical circle – why would anyone farm that way? Because converting to organic means lower yields (not a bad thing given the oversupply of wine in the world market) and takes three years of hardship.
Vines go through cold turkey, like someone coming off drugs, and struggle to cope; their immunity is low. They need more care than they will in a few years when their resistance has improved. As a farmer you have to invest in new equipment but you cannot charge more for your product since you cannot mention organic until you are certified. It’s a dangerous journey that many farmers are not in a position to make financially, even if they wanted to.
We were at the tail-end of that journey when we were hit with a devastating frost. We were questioning if it was worth it to stay on the farm. We were not making ends meet despite working crazy hours, and the frost was like a death knell for us.
A month or so later, I received my first call from Naomi Whittel, an American businesswoman looking for organic grape skins. By the time the full pain of the frost hit, we were successfully selling our grape-skin waste to Whittel for her Reserveage anti-oxidant food supplements. It filled a critical gap. She wanted organic and biodynamic because tests have shown that resveratrol – an anti-oxidant in grape skins said to help fight aging – is higher in organic and even higher again in biodynamically grown grapes.
Sticking to our organic principles had brought us a new line of business – but it wasn’t enough.
Each month we were on a precipice, wondering if we would meet our commitments. It was at during time that Niall Martin, a producer with RTÉ’s Nationwide, contacted us about filming a harvest at our farm.
It was perfectly timed for our harvest weekend, when a band of 40 Irish clients of our rent-a-row vine share were helping us hand-pick our grapes. The show was a success and we watched in awe as orders poured in through our website over the next 24 hours and beyond.
This success gave us a kernel of funds and the confidence to take the next leap, with our wine lodge, tasting room and wine school. These projects involved more risk, and were several years in development, but they took us away from the precipice.
Now, nine years on, we make nine wines each year. We see the individual wines in the different fields as being like the climats of Burgundy – a few metres can make a great difference and create a completely different wine.
The dry whites on the east-facing slopes get the cooler conditions of the morning sun, such as the Sincérité pure sauvignon blanc, which is on a limestone-encrusted slope that offers a deep minerality. Our Générosité and Silex wines, from sémillon vines planted in 1945, offer roundness and a flinty, smoky touch from the seam of flintstone that runs off the plateau down into the east-facing sémillon vineyard. Luminosité, our classic white wine blend from sémillon and young sauvignon blanc vines, also forms the wine for the Feely methode traditionelle sparkling wine – made in the champagne method with bubbles created via a second fermentation in the bottle.
Our reds, Résonance, La Source and Les Compagnons, are handmade from merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. Our commune appellation, Saussignac, is famous for botrytis dessert wine and our range wouldn’t be complete without ours, Premier Or.
We still work hard but without the constant, exhausting stress about our future. Our daughters have settled in like natives. Following a bumpy school start for Sophia, who did not speak French at the time, a couple of years later her new teacher exclaimed: “I knew Sophia was born in Dublin but I thought her parents were French! Her French is better than most of the class.” My accent is still so bad it is clear there is no French family involved.
We are deeply motivated by the change we see taking place on our farm and by sharing our passion for organic and biodynamic wine with guests and clients. With biodiversity and natural farming, more labour is required, but it is compensated by depth of flavour, by not buying expensive chemicals, and by being alive. I know what sort of farming Yannick Chénet, our winegrower colleague, would be practising now if he were still alive.
Details of Feely wines at feelywines.com and the wine school and tours at frenchwineadventures.com.
Caro Feely’s second book, Saving our Skins (€13.40), has just been published by Summersdale