Leaving the cities for vineyards
Meet the young people yearning for a more rural life
Illustrations: Naomi Tipping
Wednesday 02 February 2022
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Aurélien and his girlfriend Isadora could hardly be a more glowing advertisement for country life. Sun-kissed and radiant, they uncork a bottle of last year’s Beaujolais to nourish their thirsty band of vineyard volunteers. It’s the first casse-croûte (snack) of the day. It’s only 9am, but they’ve been working for several hours; the late summer sun is gently frying the gang of coupers, triers et sorteurs (cutters, carriers and sorters). T-shirts and faces are stained by sweat and grape juice.
‘Snack’ doesn’t do the spread justice. Glasses of mulberry-red liquid are decanted alongside thick, circular yellow cheese. It’s pillowy and looks like giant bubble wrap, ready to pop as soon as it’s cut. The energetic group helping with the vendange (wine harvest) today are mostly Aurélien and Isadora’s school and university friends, in their late 20s or early 30s.
At the age of 29, like an increasing number of young people in France, Aurélien and Isadora left city life in Lyon behind them to start their own vineyard in Quincié-en-Beaujolais. They’d met at the vendange on a much larger vineyard some years before, working and playing hard. Long, back-breaking days spun into short, booze-filled nights, and Isadora felt that it was the happiest she’d ever been.
Even with such happy memories of a summer spent on vineyards, it wasn’t an easy decision to leave urban life behind. They’d both studied in Lyon, had plenty of friends in the city, and couldn’t resist a party. There were several advantages to country life though. Other than the obvious health benefits of spending all day outside, rent is much cheaper, and Aurélien and Isadora’s home is at least triple the size of their apartment in Lyon. Today, instead of welcoming in the weekend by dancing until the small hours, they’ve woken up at daybreak instead. The two vineyard plots that they rent are small, and the grape cutters should be able to harvest everything in just one day.
Leaving city life to prune vines
Starting a vineyard from scratch isn’t cheap, but in spite of the financial implications, more and more young people are leaving city life behind to open their own vineyards. Belgian couple Michaël and Alexia, who met studying in Brussels, hemisphere-hopped, and worked and saved for five years in order to open Domaine du Long Nuage Blanc, in Chiroubles, Beaujolais. Michaël had just finished studying to be a brewmaster when he discovered wine during a backpacking trip in New Zealand.
Strapped for cash, he looked up WWOOFing (organic farming) placements and took a temporary job at a vineyard. His passion for wine was born. Four months later, when Alexia finished her studies in speech therapy, she came to join him. For the next five years the pair gained experience wherever they could, pruning vines in Australia, working the vendange in southern France and returning to New Zealand to work for a wine manufacturer. In 2020, they had finally saved enough, and gained enough experience to open their own vineyard. Michaël and Alexia were aged 29 and 27 respectively.
Domaine du Long Nuage Blanc (Domain of the Long White Cloud), was named after Aotearoa, the Māori name for New Zealand, where their love of wine had first begun. Chiroubles is a far cry from Brussels and they deal with the annoyances of living somewhere so isolated (the phone signal is a nightmare!) but they’ve never looked back. Last year they produced 840 bottles of wine, but in their second year they’re set to more than double this, and to start supplying restaurants. Similarly to Aurélien and Isadora, Michaël and Alexia don’t use any pesticides or chemicals on their vines. An awareness of human impact on the environment seems to be another reason why so many young people are choosing to open small, sustainable vineyards.
Returning to country roots
Thirty-year-old Sylvain Dabadie of Domaine Laougué in the Midi-Pyrénées, south of Bordeaux, was always a country boy at heart. He’s the fourth generation of his family to run the family wine estate and started helping his father on the vineyard when he was just eight years old, even driving the tractor occasionally. When he finished school, though, he moved to Bordeaux to study. It was his first taste of city life.
“Friends would invite me out for dinner and drinks and I just wasn’t fussed about city life,” says Sylvain. “Wine was in my blood. I moved back the moment that I finished university.”
Sylvain hopes that if he has children, they’ll follow suit and take over the family business from a young age.
“I do notice that I’m younger than most winegrowers, but I think that’s an advantage,” he says. “I tend to be more experimental and innovative than the older vineyard owners.”
With the final grapes cut, Aurélien and Isadora heave a last crate of blushing grapes into the tractor. Their youngest volunteer, a boy of around 10, is tired of helping and is hiding under one of the buckets with just his wellington boots showing.
The tractor is a relic from the 1960s. It was gifted, as was much of their equipment: they could hardly afford to buy everything new.
Their friends, who have been singing folk songs
as they work, are handsomely rewarded with bottles of Aurélien’s wine La Grignette, from last years’ harvest.
“Une grignette is how we describe a skinny, flighty girl in Lyonnais slang,” explains Aurélien. “It reminds me of the temperamental vines, so it seemed an appropriate name for our wine.”
For the volunteers, the day is over, and they’re heading to Isadora’s to be entertained with music, food and free-flowing wine. For Aurélien, the day is far from over and he’s off to the wine cellar to destem, crush and press the grapes. Whilst waiting for the vineyard to turn a profit, he’s been working at a larger vineyard to make ends meet, and it’s not uncommon for him to work days as long as 17 hours. Young people starting high-powered jobs in the city might work 17 hour days to rapidly climb the career ladder, but would it come with the same quality of life?
“I don’t want to spend my days sitting at a desk. This is my office view,” says Aurélien, gesturing at the rolling hills, dovecotes and a dilapidated château, behind which the sun is beginning to set.
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