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Life at Provence's smallest vineyard

Briton Lindsay Phillips is celebrating an exceptional harvest at what he reckons is the smallest vineyard in Provence

IT IS 16 years since Lindsay Phillips swapped his marketing job at computer giant IBM for growing wine in the south of France, and 2010 looks set to be his best vintage yet.

Mr Phillips, who is 76, runs what he believes is the smallest independent vineyard in Provence, the two-hectare Domaine St-Marc des Omèdes between Lorgues and Draguignan in the Var.

Other commercial vineyards in Lorgues range from 12 to 80 hectares and, although there are plenty of other properties in the region that grow a small number of grapes, they then sell them on to a cooperative, where they are mixed up and sold as a big batch.

Mr Phillips is a rarity in that, despite his small amount of land, he goes to the trouble of making and selling his own wine. "I’m certainly the smallest producer who sells his own wine independently," he says.

"If you produce your own wine, you’ve got your name on the bottle and it’s rather good fun – it’s my wine and I can send it to my family in England, and you have the curiosity of people coming here to buy."

Mr Phillips had help from a "very good bunch" of 16 local volunteers to hand-pick the vines. This year’s vendange was completed on October 5, and produced 12,000 litres of wine: about half of it red, 4,000 litres of rosé and 2,000 litres of white.

It could have been a disastrous year. Just a few kilometres up the road, Draguignan was hit by severe flash flooding in mid-June; a deadly storm that killed 25 people and destroyed buildings, vineyards and crops.

Mr Phillips’s domaine was hit by the sharp burst of rain, but was not damaged, and the sudden downpour was followed by a long, pleasant summer that has helped the grapes mature.

He describes this year’s harvest as "exceptional", especially the cabernet sauvignon, which is now maturing in oak barrels and will be ready to drink in 2012 or 2013.

"There’s never been a year like it in the 16 years I’ve been here. Usually at the end of August, we get rain and storms, but we didn’t get anything. It was fine all the time.

"Then in September, when we pick the grapes, we usually have tons of rain. But there was just a bit of dew in the morning. The weather was so fine that there was no rush to pick the grapes.

"They were just slowly maturing. The red wines just got better and better. There wasn’t one rotten bunch. I’ve never ever seen that before. It was perfect."

In September he picks samples every few days and tests them for sugar content with a hand-held instrument – over-ripe and they will produce too much alcohol. In the old days, he said, wines typically had more alcohol, but a less fruity taste – a fresh taste for modern rosés and whites is also ensured by "thermo-regulation" – refrigerating the wine while it ferments.

"You can tell how good a batch is when you taste it, and the oenologue’s expertise comes in here. He might say, ‘That one needs more time in the barrel’, or, ‘We need to add a bit of this or that’. I’ll taste it with him and I usually agree with him."

Until now, Mr Phillips has sold a large part of his wine under the appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) Côtes de Provence banner, but he says the rules and regulations governing this – and the cost – are proving too prohibitive and he will now sell his produce as simple vin de pays or vin de cépage.

"There are quite a lot of other rules and inspections and other hassles. I find it totally ridiculous. I’m not going to make a wine next year under the Côtes de Provence name.

"It will be much simpler and it will enable me to keep my prices at the same level. If I went on with Côtes de Provence, I’d have to put prices up. It costs something like 20 centimes a bottle.

"It’s the same quality whatever the name is. I’m going to save myself all the charges you have, all the inspections and tests. I think people will prefer that.

"I don’t sell to supermarkets and shops. I sell to people. They taste it before they buy – they appreciate it. If they like it they buy it. They don’t care particularly if it’s a vin de pays or a Côtes de Provence."

He says other producers in the area are starting to lose faith in the AOC production system, but adds: "People still feel that they are under pressure to follow the herd."

He believes the AOC restrictions on grape varieties have been a factor in some people preferring New World wines.

"If you buy an appellation contrôlée wine, it must be made from approved varieties, but the label will not tell you what ones were used. With a wine from Australia, for example, if you know you like cabernet sauvignon, you can see on the bottle that that is what is in it."

Certainly, Mr Phillips is no stickler for tradition – much of his vin de pays goes into "bag-in-a box", which he said was convenient for people to collect and kept well for a year or two. However, he has found that trying to modernise his production methods is something of an uphill struggle, in what he says is a very conservative wine region.

"When I started selling wine in boxes, my oenologue threw up his hands and said, ‘The French won’t drink that,’ but now they are used to it," he says.

"The quality with the rosés and whites is just as good. It’s simply an image problem. There’s no advantage at all to bottles."

He also uses plastic corks and is even considering screw-top ones. "Real cork is expensive and can contaminate the wine. Some people say it’s necessary because the wine ‘needs air’, and plastic gives too tight a seal, but red gets all the air it needs in the barrels, and whites and rosés don’t want any at all.

"I would love to move towards screw-tops. A lot of people want it. Unfortunately the man who bottles my wine does not want to go towards screw tops because he would have to spend money a new bottling machine.

"France is always the last to adopt new technologies and techniques, and particularly Provence. They’re not very innovative. But there’s a big demand for it."

Mr Phillips would also like to go towards organic and has already worked on limiting his use of herbicides on the vines. His main problem is that the vineyard is close to other neighbouring ones, and the process of cleaning the vines is slow: it takes at least three years.

He deliberately keeps his prices affordable – about e5 a bottle, and cheaper still for the boxed wine.

"It’s very hard now to find a wine that comes from an independent domaine that is under €6 a bottle. Most wines, even the most modest, are €7 or €8," he says.

The cabernet sauvignon sells for €7.50, slightly more expensive because keeping it in oak barrels is a costly option: the barrels cost about €600 for 300 litres.

His reds have had enthusiastic write-ups in the past. The wine-lovers’ bible the Guide Hachette des Vins recently described the wine as "charming" with "elegance, gaiety, luminosity and delicacy."

In previous years, Mr Phillips sold most of his Provence rosé to the prestigious London importers Berry Bros and Rudd, who supply the Queen. However, he says the export market is very competitive in the current climate.

"The market in England is very difficult. I’d be delighted for the Queen to enjoy my wine. It might happen yet."

Until then, he says he is happy to keep his wine sales local. He pays his pickers in wine and some come back the next year and ask for the wine from ‘their grapes’. "There is a mystique about grape-picking and people like doing it," he says.

He has no plans to stop making wine and loves the community spirit around his work. "I have great fun doing this. We’ve been here long enough to build up a stable, very close-knit bunch of people to help us. It’s a family."

People are also welcome to visit any day to see the vineyard, taste and buy the wine. "It is very informal here. I’d love to have more and more visit."

How I got here

Mr Phillips moved to Lorgues in 1994 with his Belgian wife, Anne-Marguerite, who died earlier this year. They had decided they wanted to be in France, partly so they could more easily visit their son, who lived in Paris.

Mr Phillips was no stranger to Provence, having worked in the early 1970s at the large IBM premises in La Gaude in the Alpes-Maritimes, marketing computerised telephone systems for large companies.

When the couple decided to move back to France, they toured the country before deciding on a place to settle. The Alpes-Maritimes had become more built-up and more expensive, so the couple decided on the Var, with its open spaces and stunning views. The Lorgues area had an ideal, moderate microclimate.

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