At 300m above sea level, James and Catherine Kinglake’s vineyard, Domaine Begude, is about the same height as Sutton Bank in North Yorkshire, or Exmoor in West Somerset. The views stretch in every direction and looking east you can see the Pyrenees where snow still caps the 3,000m peaks.
The weather today is warm, sunny with a strong breeze, but not all winds are the same, as James tells me. “This is the cool wind from the Atlantic and not the hot, humid wind from the south, and that’s unusual,” he explains. This humid wind that comes in from the Mediterranean brings too much moisture, which can be damaging to the vines and lead to rot, and a cooler Atlantic breeze is always preferable.
It’s a pleasant walk through the organic fields, teaming with insects and butterflies and James points out the tiny flowers that are appearing on the vines which means, according to tradition, he can now count about 100 days to harvest. Fingers crossed for a good crop this year as the last two have seen very dry conditions, making it difficult to get much volume.
So far, the tiny green grapes on the vines are growing well. There are 29 hectares (68 acres) here and in this elevated and cool climate they can grow excellent white wine grapes (Chardonnay) as well as red (Pinot Noir). This area, close to Limoux in southern France, has hot, humid summer days and cool nights, known as a high diurnal temperature range. The heat creates the sugars and the coolness creates the acidity to balance the wine.
The purpose-built winery has a shiny row of stainless-steel vats where the wine is being stored before bottling. He pours some Chardonnay for us to try, and after first breathing in the aroma and detecting some lovely honey tones, it tastes smooth and lovely and not at all oaky.
Catherine tells me lots of visitors say they can’t possibly drink Chardonnay, and I know this is true as I’ve said it myself, recalling the taste of the heavy Aussie oaked wines I grew out of about 10 years ago. Of course, not all Chardonnays are the same and this one tastes lovely, fresh, zesty with hints of honeyed apple and pear. All their barrels are made of French oak, except two new ones from Austria being used as an experiment.
According to Catherine, the Chardonnay grapes have great diversity and can appeal to many different palates, so I’m looking forward to drinking more!
I am also keen to taste the red Pinot Noir as this is one of Riverford’s best sellers. I find it a lovely high-quality red wine that is pure, fresh and dry, aged in old barrels to give a hint of earthiness. There are also notes of raspberry and cherry. It is reminiscent of a good Burgundy.
The Kinglakes’ story is an interesting one. They bought this vineyard in 2003 with no real experience in growing grapes but a great desire to learn. In those early years, the weather was kind to them and they made a go of it. They recruited an excellent and knowledgeable manager and began to renovate the derelict farmhouse and build the new winery, alongside also having a baby daughter.
They got to grips with all the challenges that accompany organic growing such as replacing chemical pesticides with pheromone pouches to dissuade unwanted vine moths, and only using organic sheep manure.
Their hard work and dedication paid off and the vineyard is successful, but there is no room for complacency as the weather is proving more and more challenging, but organic farmers are nothing if not optimistic and James and Catherine are hoping for a good harvest this year.
Some of their neighbours have been here a long time and Catherine would like to emulate them: “One day our elderly neighbour was out in her garden immediately after heavy rain and we wondered what she was doing so urgently, so we asked her and she said, ‘collecting snails for dinner of course’.” Clouds always have a silver lining.
I really enjoyed visiting The Domaine Begude vineyard and learning about James and Catharine’s organic wines. They have certainly become master winemakers. I thank them for reintroducing me to Chardonnay after my long absence, and I think it is high time to drink it again. Cheers!
Liz Pocklington is a Riverford veg lady and franchisee, delivering to North Yorkshire and South Durham.