The grape escape: Fed up with Britain Dream of a sun drenched idyll in France Meet the family who moved to Chateau Calamity and think again
00:19 GMT, 22 June 2012
With the Bordeaux ring road behind us, we began the long climb to Saussignac — a postcard-perfect village with a chateau on the main square and a restaurant, a bread shop and the church opposite. So far, so good.
We passed the school and a few vineyards and took a well-worn road past the cemetery and three new-looking houses. And then, there it was. Our new home. No warning, no avenue of trees, no signs. Just a bunch of dishevelled buildings at the end of a bumpy dirt road.
The owners’ dogs thrashed around the car. Broken farm equipment lay scattered in the yard. The shutters had been eaten away by rot and termites. The house looked nothing like the pictures on the website.
Finding their feet: Caro, Sean and daughters Sophie (left) and Ellie at their home in Saussignac
Tentatively, we got out of the car. The fence around the ten-foot high terrace had rusted away completely — a death trap for our two small children. ‘My God!’ I thought. ‘What have we done’
Swallowing back a wave of tears, I concentrated hard on the view.
Over dinner at our B&B that night, I explained in halting French to our hosts, Bernard and Myriam, why we were there.
‘We are buying Chateau Haut Garrigue in Saussignac,’ I told them, more brightly than I felt. ‘The sale won’t be finalised until next week, so we are staying here while we wait.’
Pretending I hadn’t noticed their disbelieving stares, I continued: ‘We left our jobs and moved to France today. We see that you have a vineyard, too. Perhaps you can tell us what it is like’ There was a long silence. They obviously thought we were out of our minds.
‘C’est tres dur [it’s very hard],’ said Bernard finally. ‘Prudence. You must be very careful. The costs are high and the sales are difficult.’
Myriam, for her part, simply could not believe that my husband Sean and I had actively chosen to swap our well-paid City jobs and the comforts of modern life for the relentless and financially precarious slog of wine-growing. And with a three-year-old daughter and a newborn baby in tow, Mon Dieu!
Four delicious courses helped remind us why we were here. Rillettes de canard (a local delicacy of cold shredded duck in its fat) matched with their Saussignac dessert wine; lamb chops from their own flock of sheep cooked to perfection with rosemary and matched with their red; then home-grown green salad with a selection of fine fromages, finished off with a home-made fruit compote. It was a feast extraordinaire.
‘Would you like anything else’ asked Myriam as we finished.
‘No thank you, that was delicious. Je suis pleine,’ I replied, using the only words for ‘I have had enough’ that I could think of.
Idyllic: When the Feely family arrived at Chateau Haut Garrigue in Saussignac, they were blown away by the views – but were not as delighted with the leaky roof
Elodie, their teenage daughter, almost fell off her chair laughing. Myriam giggled politely.
‘Used like this, “je suis pleine” means “I am drunk”,’ she explained.
Clearly, I had a lot to learn … And this was only day one.
That evening, Sean and I sat outside our apartment breathing in the warm evening air. We had finally done it. After a decade of thinking it was the kind of thing that only other people did, we had left our life of high-octane stress and M&S dinners behind us.
And despite the horrors, we felt remarkably upbeat. The chateau’s 300-year-old history, and the breathtaking natural beauty all around it, created a magic that far exceeded our expectations. We were embarking on the adventure of a lifetime.
The dark, shuttered house didn’t feel much like a home. Anything but, in fact. I set to work. The sink had brown gunk so deeply ingrained into the stainless steel that it must have been there for generations. But after an hour it was stainless again, and I was feeling better.
A scattering of sinister droppings in the baby's pram confirmed our suspicions from the night before. Mice. They were everywhere
Then, just as the dirt was starting to drag me down again, my hero, Sean — looking like a happy cowboy in his leather Stetson — drove into the yard in a large hired truck. Together we heaved our newly acquired double bed, freezer, washing machine and dishwasher inside.
/06/21/article-2162866-0062C78100000258-175_634x458.jpg” width=”634″ height=”458″ alt=”Picture perfect: Caro, Sean and their daughters left their home in London for the Dordogne” class=”blkBorder” />
Picture perfect: Caro, Sean and their daughters left their home in London for the Dordogne
France Telecom wouldn’t connect us because the previous owners hadn’t yet disconnected their line, they said. That fabled red tape I’d been warned about. On the positive side, though, the roof was about to be fixed.
‘Quelle vue!’ said the builder, looking over the lethal terrace that wrapped round most of the house. The summer sun glowed down on the hillside, accentuating the outlines of the rows of vines. The Dordogne river, meandering towards Bordeaux, twinkled in the distance.
He climbed the ladder and ranged across the roof like a mountain goat, while we waited anxiously below. After pushing a few tiles into position, he leapt to the ground again.
‘It’s fixed,’ he said. ‘You just needed to realign the tiles.’ He showed Sean how to do it and refused to take any payment — a gesture of unexpected generosity that left me grateful and strangely humbled.
Further small triumphs followed. France Telecom finally agreed to connect our phone based on a certificate of residence provided by the mayor. And the local one-man hardware store came up with the world’s most sensitive mousetraps ever. At less than a euro each, they took the entire horde of rodents down.
Sean was my hero again, valiantly removing the dead bodies, mouse by mouse, as they succumbed. I almost missed them when they were gone.
We hadn’t made love for weeks — living in the one and only habitable room with our young daughters didn’t help — and I couldn’t remember when we’d last been out for a meal together
With these challenges solved, we turned our attention to the renovations. And the grapes.
Our first project was a bedroom for the girls. While Sean dealt with the mouldy window, I tackled the wallpaper, steaming and scraping until my arms ached. Drops of boiling water, molten nicotine and soggy paper fell incessantly onto my arms and hair.
Weeks later, we still hadn’t completed our first job, and Sean urgently needed to get on with the vines. But the very thought of battling on by myself prompted a wave of tears.
‘We have moved country, you know, Caro,’ said Sean, trying to cheer me up. The stress of our new life was already taking its toll.
It wasn’t just the grinding physical work. We hadn’t made love for weeks — living in the one and only habitable room with our young daughters didn’t help — and I couldn’t remember when we’d last been out for a meal together.
Romance was forgotten. We were spending more time together than ever, but I had never felt so estranged from my husband.
High summer was upon us, and with the long, hot days our vines were progressing at a rapid rate from hard, green ‘peas’ to soft, sweet grapes. It was time to look ahead to the harvest, and then the wine-making itself.
What we needed was a young, keen, modern wine scientist — oenologist, as they are known — to work alongside us, said our friends. Lucille Deneuve seemed to fit the bill.
We liked her a lot. Well, Sean liked her a lot. She was a classic blonde bombshell — the sort you might have expected to find in St Tropez rather than in the vineyards of Bergerac. She was pretty and bright, with a luscious body that made men peer with the utmost attentiveness at the strategically placed words on her T-shirts.
Life in the sun: Caro, Sean and their two daughters moved to one of the many beautiful villages in the Dordogne
Over the next two months or so she would visit for a couple of hours twice a week. Then, suddenly, it was every two days.
She and Sean would disappear for hours to taste the grapes and assess their ripeness. Stuck inside, looking after the baby and tackling decades of grime, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy.
As the weeks stretched into months, I found myself imagining them having a full-blown affair. My trust in Sean had plummeted with our stumbling relationship.
I began to spy out of the windows to see what they were up to. I kept reminding myself that I would know from Sean’s eyes. He couldn’t pass through a border post with a single bottle of liquor undeclared, he was so honest.
I had never been jealous before, but the state of our relationship had left me feeling completely unsure of myself. I told myself to get a grip.
Stuck inside, looking after the baby and tackling decades of grime, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy
Our daughter, meanwhile, was coping with a new life, a new country, a new language and a new school. /06/21/article-2162866-01012EB3000004B0-941_634x469.jpg” width=”634″ height=”469″ alt=”New horizons: Caro and Sean left their jobs in the city for the financially precarious slog of wine-growing” class=”blkBorder” />
New horizons: Caro and Sean left their jobs in the city for the financially precarious slog of wine-growing
‘Ca va’ said Lucille when she arrived. ‘I came as soon as I could. Did the finger land in the wine’ An oenologist has to get her priorities right.
As for me, all I could think was: ‘What the hell am I going to do’ I was completely out of my depth.
As evening fell at Saussignac night market, traders put up stalls and music began to waft through the village square.
The DJ, an extrovert with a wide smile, set up his stand right against the church. Soon he was boogie-ing to wild rock music under the ancient clock tower. It somehow summed up everything I’d come to expect from France.
Twenty-one months after we arrived at
the chateau, we were selling our wines for the first time at a market.
After everything we had been through, it was nothing short of a miracle.
like this wine,’ said Olivier, our winemaking neighbour, coming back to
buy a second bottle of sauvignon blanc from our stall. ‘It’s different.
It’s very good.’
Sean was at the sink clutching a bloody tea towel over his hand. 'I've chopped my finger off,' he said.
My heart swelled with joy. Olivier was from a wine-growing family of several generations. His comments were high praise.
Sean ran after our two little girls, weaving between the tables in their pretty pink dresses. He bought moules et frites and they enjoyed a finger feast standing next to our stall. Then, leaving Sean to man the stand, I took the girls to boogie with the DJ in the shadow of the church.
That Christmas, Sean and I went out for our first meal alone in more than two years. It was time to dust off a little black dress and sheer stockings that I hadn’t worn for I-don’t-know-how-long.
Sophia grilled me on where we were going and what we would eat, her fine sense of cuisine yet further developed thanks to the French school system.
We arrived at Au Fil de l’Eau in Sainte-Foy-la-Grande feeling a little nervous. But a bottle of Bergerac sauvignon blanc alongside a delectable asparagus soup helped to loosen us up. Our lives had been going in different directions for a while. We needed to get to know each other again.
As we drank and ate, we talked about our future and where we wanted to take Garrigue.
‘I’ve been a bear with a sore head,’ said Sean. ‘I like my space and I haven’t had any in months. Add all the visitors we’ve had to the harvest, and the chopped finger, and you’ve got a caged lion.’
The situation had been a pressure cooker for both of us.
‘I’m so sorry, Caro,’ said Sean. ‘I love you, really I do.’ We talked about visiting other growers to learn about our new profession, about taking a family holiday to Spain.
Dinner was followed by a fruit tart with a swirl of chocolate accompanied a glass of Saussignac dessert wine.
Maybe it was that wine, a legendary aphrodisiac, but I found my mind wandering from pleasure in the future to pleasures far nearer home.
My stockinged foot touched Sean’s leg under the table. His eyebrows lifted and he called for the bill.
Extracted from Grape Expectations by Caro Feely, published by Summersdale at 8.99. 2012 Caro Feely. To order a copy for 7.99 (incl p&p), call 0843 382 0000.