From Languedoc to Provence, Patrice Bertrand reveals what it takes to realise your dream of making wine in the sun
“When we bought Mourchon in 1998, there was no winery, the houses were in ruins, and there were only 17 hectares of old vineyards,” says Walter McKinlay in the office of his brand-new wine estate. Domaine de Mourchon is located in Séguret, one of the 17 villages of the renowned Côtes du Rhône Villages PDO. “The former owners had another vineyard. They harvested the grapes here and trucked them to a winery for vinification. So we had to build a winery as well as fix up the house. Of course, Mourchon was the name of the property but there was no wine available with the label Mourchon, so there was also the task of creating a market.”
Twenty years later, Domaine de Mourchon, with its terraced hillside vineyard, is a flourishing enterprise exporting 80 per cent of its production of whites, reds and rosés despite the fact that Walter, who hails from East Anglia, had very little knowledge of winemaking when he bought the property. “If you don’t know about something, you have to find people who do,” says Walter. “I’m very lucky; I found people who know about wine and our winemaker is doing an excellent job. Now, we have 32 hectares and two companies. One makes wine from the grapes we grow on our estate. And then, we have a négociant company, which enables us to buy, blend and bottle wine from producers in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where the price per hectare is ten times more than here. It enhances our portfolio of Séguret wines.”
So what led Walter, his wife Veronica and their daughter and her husband and three children to settle in these hills scorched by the sun, but conducive to growing grapevines? First, a Vacqueyras wine they served in a hotel they had bought in Scotland. “We liked it so much that we became more and more interested in the wine of the South of France,” says Walter. “After I sold my main business – an IT company – in 1994, we thought that we should buy a vineyard.” After a bit of research, they discovered Vinea Transaction, one of the few property brokers specialising in the difficult art of selling wine estates in the South of France and other wine-producing regions. “I spent two years looking and I saw many estates,” says Walter. “But I never found what I wanted. In the end, I said, a winery is going to be expensive to build, but at least we can do it the way we want – and that’s what we did. I found Mourchon through Vinea Transaction. It took ten to 11 years for it to be profitable, but I think it was a good decision.”
Vinea Transaction, strategically based in Montpellier, sells properties throughout the Languedoc, the Rhône Valley and Provence. “This is a very active market because the region is bathed in a culture and a climate very favourable to vines,” explains founder, Michel Veyrier, a trained oenologist who likes to define himself as a “midwife, diplomat and psychoanalyst” as the relationships with buyers and sellers can be complex and sometimes tense.
“Every year, one per cent of the Mediterranean vineyard ownership changes, representing about 50 transactions a year. The market is liquid. If someone buys, they can resell five years later quite easily. Except in exceptional cases, I have never met anyone incurring capital loss,” he says. His clientele comprises wine professionals, of course, but also a large number of buyers new to the sector, who are keen to engage in a wine tourism activity – small or large – or are simply striving for happiness and after a lifestyle change. One third of this client base is made up of foreigners with, first and foremost, Britons representing 50 per cent of all purchases, followed by Belgian and Swiss buyers.
So what do they buy and for how much? According to Michel, prices vary widely, ranging between €800,000 and €20 million – for example, a renowned estate in Châteauneuf-du-Pape can see each hectare going for an eye-watering €500,000. “There are areas where the prices have sky-rocketed, such as in Bandol where you’ll pay around €200,000 per hectare,” says Michel. “In Provence, a large country house with a vineyard costs around €10 million. Near Aix-en-Provence, it is very difficult to find anything affordable. Fortunately, there are still places where the price tags are attractive – for instance, in the centre of the Var département. In the Côtes du Rhône, the most interesting sector is Ventoux. It is a good appellation that is growing.
“For €2 million, it is possible to find properties of 15 hectares with a winery and an attractive Provençal farmhouse. Finally, there is the Languedoc where there are still undervalued areas such as the entire Corbières region or the Minervois.”
Also based near Montpellier, Les Chemins du Sud, another major estate agency specialising in wine property transactions, covers the entire Languedoc: from the Spanish border to the Camargue.
“This region is distinguished by its attractive prices, lower than in Provence and the Rhône Valley, and its appellations are booming,” says co-director Pascal Graillet, a former winemaker-turned-property broker. “The prices are going up, but it’s still possible to find very reasonable opportunities – with the exception of two appellations due to their proximity to Montpellier: Terrasses du Larzac and Pic Saint-Loup, where the price per hectare can be €50,000. But in Minervois, for example, a hectare ranges from €10,000-€16,000. Other appellations – such as Corbières, Saint-Chinian and Faugères – are also very accessible.”
It is in this region that Englishman Jonathan Hesford and his wife Rachel Treloar, a New Zealander, chose to settle, in part because of the attractiveness of the prices. Today, they own Domaine Treloar, located in Trouillas in Roussillon, a few kilometres from Perpignan. Their story is unusual: they were both living one block away from the World Trade Centre in New York and lost everything in the aftermath of 9/11. “The experience made us think about what really mattered in our life,” says Jonathan. “We wanted a different environment for our children. And, as wine lovers, we wanted our own vineyard.”
They first moved to New Zealand, where Jonathan studied viticulture and winemaking and worked for high quality vineyards, and then returned to Europe to start their own business. “We decided to go to Languedoc-Roussillon because we were excited by the different and unique wines being made by other pioneering producers,” Jonathan explains. “We didn’t look anywhere else as the price of land here is not as high as elsewhere.”
In January 2006, they bought the property with its old winery, ten hectares of vineyards and basic equipment from a family who were making unbranded bulk wine. “We were able to make wine right away, but we had to buy equipment and build our own house in the winery,” he recalls. “The original price of the property is probably 60 per cent of the total investment. Today, Domaine Treloar is profitable and I think it will take around five years to pay off our investment. The main problem is trying to find a good market because the region’s reputation is not very high – although it is improving,” says Jonathan. However, he notes that buying a winery can be risky.
“A wine estate is an investment but it also requires a lot of energy, time, money and cash flow in order to support yourself with this purchase and turn it into something successful,” stresses Pascal Graillet. Michel Veyrier calls for caution too: “Buying is not enough: afterwards, it is best to have a lot of working capital because an estate is not really profitable for five to seven years.”
DELEGATION’S WHAT YOU NEED…
“To avoid mistakes, newcomers, if they are not seasoned winemakers, should delegate tasks and recruit staff or use a service provider to take care of the vineyard and winemaking,” he adds. “It is also possible to maximise cash flow with holiday rentals or seasonal activities. This works very well because profit for these is immediate.”
These are more or less the solutions chosen by Anna and Wilson Thorburn after they left London in 2006 to settle with their three children in the north of Provence, near the village of Vinsobres. “We were looking for a wine estate that also had sufficient property so we wouldn’t be relying on a single income and could run gîtes and make wine,” says Anna. “We looked at property in a very wide area. But when we saw this place, we knew it was the one.”
A LESSON IN WINEMAKING
The property they made their home is Domaine l’Ancienne École (‘the Old School Estate’), a school until it closed in 1962 and became a vineyard. Today, the Thorburns sell their wine in a former classroom and can accommodate a dozen guests in three recently renovated gîtes with a shared swimming pool. Somewhat like Jonathan and Rachel Treloar, sad circumstances led them to become winemakers. “My father had planned to retire to France, but he died aged 54 never getting the chance to do it,” says Anna. “It was a life lesson: if you want to do something, just do it. So we did.”
Today, the Thorburns are helped by a viticulture consultant, but have no employees. If they lack the right equipment, they hire people for specific jobs or get contractors in. “Wilson had taken some evening wine classes in London, but here we had to learn everything: how to run a tractor, use the machinery, farm the land,” Anna continues. “It’s a joint effort. I do the admin and deal with customers, while Wilson looks after the marketing and website. We work together in the winery.”
However, Domaine l’Ancienne École is not profitable yet. “Making wine is a hard business,” says Wilson. “The venture makes money, but we had to build a winery and the investments were huge. We probably put more in than the price of the property when we bought it. But we are happy here.”
It is with a completely different mindset that French-Canadian André Tremblay bought the Domaine du Tix, near the village of Mormoiron in the foothills of Mont Ventoux in 2016. The property was ready to go and came complete not only with 12 hectares of vineyards, a cellar, and winery but also a strong customer base and sales network, making it instantly profitable. “I’m over 60 and, because of my age, I was looking for something that was already well established. I wanted to continue somebody else’s adventure, rather than starting from scratch,” explains the passionate winemaker who already owns another vineyard in Portugal.
“I built a new cellar, expanded the winery and would like to increase production. I’m really a one-man-band and rely on the expertise that already exists to allow the property to express its real potential. Ventoux PDO is a very nice appellation and I believe we have a story to tell.”
Is André happy with his life as the owner of a French vineyard? Almost… In common with all foreigners-turned producers in France, he sometimes resents the burden of the administrative work and legislation foisted on winemakers. “It is a strain you don’t find either in Canada or in Portugal,” he says. “For the size of my business, it is a bit appalling. But we make do.”
Rules, as they say in all walks of life, are rules.
Where to buy your vineyard
Before you start looking for your dream vineyard, consider carefully the area you’d like to purchase in as this will determine the kind of wine that you will be producing. The main regions include: Alsace, renowned for high-quality whites; Bordeaux, producing more classed wine than any other region; Burgundy is responsible for some of the finest Chardonnay and Pinot Noir; Beaujolais, known for its Gamay-based wines; Champagne, home of the sparkling favourite; Languedoc-Roussillon, has many varietal wines, as well as rosés. Prices start at around €500,000 to about €1.3 million for a vineyard; the most expensive tend to be in Provence. You’ll pay more for an estate with a château. The ideal size of vineyard is about 20 hectares – this will produce around 130,000 bottles a year.
New to winegrowing? Factor in expert advice to get you up and running and have a solid marketing plan to help you sell your wine in a competitive market. Get in training now – you (or your employees) will have to tend the vines everyday and you’ll have to learn how to protect the vines from the weather, insect and plant diseases, as well as abide by the local authorities’ rules. Choose somewhere with the potential for B&B or gîte rental business, so you can have an immediate income, while you’re establishing your winemaking business. It can take up to three years before you begin to see a profit. Happily, vineyards hold their value well – so even if the winemaking isn’t a success, you’ll get a good return on the land and property.
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