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A vintage 25-year French affair

Circumstances meant that Patricia Atkinson’s brand new life in France offered anything but rest and relaxation. But as she tells Jane Hanks, the pioneering Dordogne winemaker has no regrets

Twenty-five years ago a Channel 4 documentary, French Affair traced the story of four British families who came to make a new life in the Dordogne. Many people still remember Patricia Atkinson from that programme; the woman who came to France with no French and no knowledge of wine. But when her husband fell ill and had to go back to the UK, she found herself alone, having to make the wine her husband had wanted to make, and doing it so successfully that eventually her wines were given a Coup de Coeur in the Hachette wine guide.

She became the first woman and the first non-French member to sit on the Bergerac Appellation board. Her story inspired many of us who had that dream of moving to rural France. She is now retired.

Patricia Atkinson lives in a house built in the warm stone of the Périgord, with a wonderful view over the Dordogne valley. She is surrounded by her carefully tended vines which she still owns but she has sold her own name and the name of her wine Clos d’Yvigne to her local co-operative and apart from assisting in the blending and approving the wines her name is given to, leaves the hard work to them.

There is a quiet beauty in this serene setting in the ancient village of Gageac-et-Rouillac near Bergerac, and it is difficult to think how challenging it was for her at first. The first harvest failed, but she just had to keep on going. She tells her story in her book The Ripening Sun.

Just how hard was it?

Well there were days when everything seemed impossible. Paradoxically, I often felt worse when I had just achieved something. I can remember one incident when I had just received a big UK order and the lorry came to pick up the wine at six in the morning.

It was pouring with rain and I had to carry all the boxes of wine to the front of the house and they were getting wet and what a mess it was. When the lorry arrived it hadn’t got a fork lift and I had to lift all the boxes up to the driver and it was still pouring with rain. I walked back to the house and my arms were aching and I just sat down at the table and I cried and thought I just can’t do this. But of course I had done it, and I’d got the order.

It was physically really hard to make your wine. Perhaps we don’t realise that when we open a bottle?

Yes it was and I did everything. It is very hard going up and down ladders with very heavy pipes and shifting tons of grape skins and rolling barrels and there was also a lot of work outside which I had never done before, like driving tractors and putting equipment on the back of tractors.

The positive side of that is I have never been as fit as I was then and never so driven. Because at a given moment I realised that what I was doing was really interesting. When I started I just had to do it, because my husband had gone back and we had no money to pay the electricity bill. And let me say that even then the bank gave me a loan on the amount of wine I was proposing to make so I could pay that bill. I mean how extraordinary is that? All these people did all those wonderful things to help me. I mean, I came along and I might have been going to steal their market, though I didn’t, but they didn’t know that and yet they went out of their way to help me.

Were you actually the first woman and the first foreigner to be on the appellation board?

Yes, I was and I am very proud of that. It was terrifying but as it happens I have got a good nose, and I just had to trust my own judgement. Generally speaking, if you put your nose in a glass and it smells nice it will be good.

When was the moment that you thought ‘I am not doing this because I have to, but because I want to’?

I can tell you exactly when that was. I’m driving along on a tractor chopping up wood between the vines that I have pulled off earlier, and as I drive along I see two little blobs which look like clear nail varnish on a leaf and I stop the tractor and I think this is evidence of the grape worm which can destroy the vines. First I feel outraged that the worm is on my vines and then I suddenly realise that I recognised the problem and it was at that moment I thought, wonderful, fascinating. That was a turning point for me.

When you came were you coming to live the French dream?

Oh yes, I was not coming to make wine. I had a completely different idea, you know lying around and reading books and going to the market and enjoying the sun as lots of us like to do.

Do you think you would have been happy doing that?

The person I am today would say no, but who knows if things had been different.

What are the advantages of living in a French rural village?

Great communality, great kindness. I know I keep using that phrase, generosity of spirit. But it is true. There has not been anybody who hasn’t been kind and generous.

Can you give me an example?

Gilles Cholet, whose house I bought and who sold me his vines when he retired, was so helpful. If he heard my tractor making strange noises he would come. Once the spraying tank fell off the back and I could see him running across and I was thinking ‘Oh my God, my God, what am I going to do?’ and he immediately helped me put it together again. How many people would do that? It is dangerous, it is hard work but he helped me.

When I broke my leg and had to lie in bed for six weeks for it to mend Michel, the cantonnier (roadmender) and Gilles both came up to see me and said they would spray my vines and they never asked for a centime, they just did it. It is still true today. If they think anything is wrong they will come to help me.

Do you think the rural life has changed here in thirty years?

Oh yes. When I first came here every house had a pig and chickens and a little potager. Everybody lived from what they grew and raised and that has gone.

There isn’t a pig and there isn’t a chicken in this village. Avian flu got rid of the chickens because there was so much paperwork and many of the paysans couldn’t read and write and so they just thought no, they were not going to do this. Quite a few of those people I knew when I first came here, have died now and I miss them. Their sons and daughters don’t work the vines.

However, it is good that everybody is better off. Not everybody had hot water and electricity when I moved here.

Do you think it is true that many of us don’t realise just how hard rural life is and when we come here to live the dream we are a bit naïve?

Yes, that is right. We think of the television programme The Good Life, but that is just middle class people and it is just not like that. People here were doing it to live. I certainly was naïve. We had the idea that it would be nice to have a bottle of wine with your name on it, but now I know what a lot of hard work there is just to do that. And I am sure the newcomers who arrive today are like we were and they have got a lot to learn. 

What do you think you do learn when you come over here?

You have to interact with the people in whose lives you have just dumped yourself. You certainly have to learn French. You can get by I guess, but if you don’t speak French you miss out on the richness of life here.

How did you learn French?

I started with a dictionary and I was reading Marcel Pagnol’s Souvenir d’Enfances and it took me four hours to read the first paragraph. And then I was quickly overtaken by events when I had to get on the tractor. So when you have to learn, you do. I might have made lots and lots of mistakes but I probably learnt to speak much more quickly than I would have done if I had had lessons. Needs must. Can I just say for anyone who may be reading this article and doesn’t speak French, and is feeling depressed about it that it doesn’t matter if you are making mistakes. The point is to make yourself understood and the very fact that you are trying will mean that those people you are speaking to will love you for it.

Is the wine industry still healthy?

I think the wine industry is changing. It used to be the first exporter to the UK, but now it is not. The best fine wines will always come from here, but the middle range have been overtaken by miles by other countries. Some of the rules need to be changed. Here you cannot irrigate your vines at all. In the 2003 drought the vines were shrinking. In Australia they can water their vines and that is sensible.

I do think there are fewer vines here than when I arrived. There are three types of people who grow vines. There are those who farm vines and who sell to the co-operative and who are paid by the ton. Wine maker number 2 is Gilles who used to own some of my vines and he would start the basic wine-making process and sell it to a merchant and then there are people like me who do everything including bottling and selling and do their best to produce a good wine so they can sell it.

There are so many silly rules and people in the third category should be exempt from these.

Do you miss the wine making?

I miss it and I don’t miss it. I don’t miss getting up at three in the morning and when I think about it I am so glad I am not going up and down the vines with my tractor, I am so glad I am not going up and down ladders with equipment. I miss it in a romantic way but not really.

Do you think we are right to follow a dream to live in France?

People who decide to do it are really adventurous. It is not for the faint hearted, because you have setbacks just as you always do in life. Life in France will not always be wonderful and rosy because life isn’t like that. But what you do get from living in France is the generosity of the people and the incredible beauty. It is an amalgam of everything. You have to jump in and if you do so you will only get good things back.

What has living in France meant to you?

I would say it has been the most wonderful experience. OK, it was hard emotionally, physically and professionally. Of course, I didn’t know anything about wine-making or tractors or anything related to that so I learnt a lot very quickly but in terms of that profession and my life here I feel very privileged. I have got a beautiful house and I look out of the window every day and think, I am so lucky.

The Ripening Sun is published by Arrow

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