By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 5 September 2015
Edinburgh-born Wilson Thorburn and his wife Anna moved to France ten years ago to realise their dream. Leaving high profile legal careers in the UK, they fancied having their own wine estate and making their own wine in a tranquil corner of France.
A decade on they are proud owners of an enchanting 13 hectare wine estate near the sleepy village of Vinsobres in the southern Rhone – and as winemaker and viticulturalist they say it is far harder running a wine business than being a lawyer.
Running a winery sounds idyllic, but as the Thorburns discovered, you have to be able to turn your hand to anything – from pruning vines, herding wild boar from the vineyards, dealing with difficult vintages, cleaning tanks, dealing with local laws and endless red tape – and – the hardest bit – selling the wine. Ultimately you need money, guts and plenty of passion to succeed – and a real love of the area.
“We discovered Vinsobres really by chance – and fell in love with it immediately”, says Wilson. “We were driving south to the Gard to visit Anna’s mother. For a change we decided not to rush down the autoroutes, but to take a few days and amble down to the South across country. We had ended up in Grenoble and after going up into the Vercors we descended down out of the mountains into the Southern Drome, which was not an area that we knew at all, but one which we immediately loved.”
“We had mapped out a route cross country which passed through a town called Nyons (now our local market town), but when we arrived we found that the roads were closed for the local cycle race (always held on the first Sunday in September as surely everyone knows!) and had to take a detour through the Vinsobres plateau vineyards to get back on route”, he says.
“We had been looking in other areas in the Languedoc, but we felt that this corner of the southern Rhone had more potential as it was less well known”, he says. Certainly the view from their estate over to Mount Ventoux and Alps beyond is quite stunning, so it is hardly surprising that the Thorburns set their heart on this pretty rural outpost – which has more of a ‘local French’ than an ‘international’ feel which you find more in neighbouring Provence, where many ex-pats tend to head.
Located an hour’s drive north east of Chateauneuf du Pape – and close to Vacqueyras and Gigondas – the Vinsobres plateau is slightly higher in altitude than other famous southern Rhone appellations. They grow the same grapes, Grenache and Syrah, but at 400 metres in altitude, the cool nights crucially retain acidity in the grapes, giving the reds an inky dark colour, freshness and a chunkier robust feel.
In 2006 the Thorburns bought a “corps de ferme” with 17ha. The collection of old buildings used to be the old school – hence the name ‘l’ancienne ecole’. Initially they employed a consultant oenologist and viticulturalist to help them get started, but they now do the majority of the work themselves from early morning effeuillage (leaf plucking) to fermenting, racking and supervising maturing the wines in their cellar.
So has it all been easy? “At the start we made lots of mistakes, we put too much into bottles when we should have sold more in bulk to the co-op. In 2008 we had terrible hail and mildew but persisted putting something into bottle which we should not have done. When in 2013 it was too cold to get good ripeness, we sold it off and only made rose”, says Wilson.
With such vintage variation at the mercy of the weather, the Thorburns found other incomes streams useful. “We have a second income stream from our gites – and now we have a third income stream from the solar panels on the winery roof”, he says
Expense aside, they both felt that following the ‘organic’ principle in the vineyard was very important. “The local microclimate of this area with the mistral drying winds is suited to organic and biodynamic production”, says Wilson. They eventually gained organic certification for their vineyard last year.
So what were the main hurdles for two Brits making wine abroad? “I think for anyone thinking of moving to France – or any country – to do what we have done, one of the key things is being able to speak the language”, says Wilson. “We were lucky as although Anna is English, she was brought up in Belgium and spoke fluent French which really helped us – although my French is still terrible”, he says.
They say they felt it was very important to immerse themselves in the local community; sent their kids to the local schools, go along to the local activities and festivities and Anna has joined (and is on the Executive Committee of) the Comite des Vignerons.
“The locals see us out in the vines doing the same as them and getting our hands dirty”, says Wilson. “I know that not everyone is as fortunate as us in terms of acceptance, but to an extent I think that you get back what you put in. I also think that as Vinsobres is quite a new appellation, there is a real sense of common purpose in getting the name Vinsobres better recognized”, he says.
To encourage customers to visit their domaine they run wine and charcuterie evenings, bread making sessions (next one in October if you happen to be nearby) and take part each May in the local Pique-Nique chez vignerons with local pizza made in their own oven en site to accompany the wine tasting. With two gites to rent they also offer people the chance to stay at the domaine.
As I often get asked to taste bottles made by enterprising couples who have moved abroad to make wine, I did approach the L’Ancienne Ecole wines with the usual skepticism, but was pleasantly surprised. The Thorburns wines are good quality and good value at the offer prices.
COTES DU RHONE ‘CARPE DIEM’ ORGANIC ROSE 2014 Domaine L’Ancienne Ecole
Grapes: Grenache & Syrah
Special offer price: £7.99 normal price £8.99
Bright pink colour, very enticing sweet ripe fruit bouquet, rich strawberry and raspberry fruit notes on the palate with distinct sweetness, but good length finishing crisp and dry. A very attractive rose at this price – popular with our tasters. STAR VALUE BUY
COTES DU RHONE ROUGE 2012 Domaine L’Ancienne Ecole
Grapes: Grenache & Syrah
Special offer price: £8.99 normal price £10.99
Deep dark red colour, meaty peppery aromas with underlying black fruit notes. Firm on the palate with dry chunky tannins and pronounced acidity, but well-structured in style – serve with charcuterie platter or rich red meats.
VINSOBRES 2009 Domaine L’Ancienne Ecole
Grapes: Grenache & Syrah
Special offer price: £11.25 normal price £12.50
Baked fruit, mulberry and slightly peppery bouquet, black fruit palate with some tannins and balanced acidity – a good value Rhone at this price from a ripe vintage – watch the hefty alcohol.
VINSOBRES ‘CUVEE DAME ANGLAISE’ 2010 Domaine L’Ancienne Ecole
Grapes: Grenache & Syrah
Special offer price: £12.50 normal price £13.99
My favourite of the range. Rich ripe blackcurrant bouquet with underlying vanilla notes, smooth tannins, very rich mouthfilling palate with good length. A big, but elegant wine. STAR BUY
Available from: De Burgh Wine Merchants, Dalkeith 01875 595100 firstname.lastname@example.org www.de-burgh.com
For further information on visiting the domaine
Telephone +33 (0)475263905
Open for visitors Thursday to Sunday 3pm-7pm until 30 September
Join Rose’s wine tastings in Edinburgh, Glasgow & St Andrews www.rosemurraybrown.com