Caroline and Sean Feely took on Ch
Caroline Feely left an IT job in Dublin to pursue her dream of wine farming with husband, Sean, in France. From Château Haut Garrigue – their base in the Dordogne – the couple juggle an organic vineyard with family commitments. Here, Caroline tells FrenchEntrée how life has changed and reveals tips for those interested in drinking wine and growing grapes abroad…
When did you move to France and why?
We dreamed of wine farming since 1993. For a while we thought of returning to South Africa where we both grew up, but after a visit to France in 1998 we were smitten. After that, we took night classes in French and wine and put the practical building blocks in place for the move.
What were the reactions of your friends and family to your move?
Horrified, especially my parents. ‘Why would you want to give up good jobs in the city for uncertainty out on a farm in a foreign country?’
Is it true that you bought the château without seeing it first?
Yes, our second daughter was six weeks old and didn’t have a passport yet. We had to make a decision fast, so Sean went to view the property on his own. It was a risk and when I saw how much renovation was needed, I was beyond shocked. Bathrooms and kitchen needed gutting and rotten windows needed replacing. The roof was in a reasonable state but even that leaked like a sieve on our first night.
How did you pick up all the necessary skills, the French language included?
Alliance Française were fantastic for French. WSET (Wine Spirit Education Trust) was excellent for the wine knowledge. Our wine school on the estate is a certified WSET wine school offering their Foundation and Intermediate certificate courses. There is no substitute for learning by doing: we very quickly got to grips with what needed to be done, with a few hard lessons learned along the way… like Sean’s missing finger!
You’ve since produced some award winning wines – a great achievement! Does competition seem to be growing in terms of organic wine producers in France?
Yes, more people are going organic and we are delighted. The consequences of farming conventionally with weedkill, pesticides and fungicides are horrible: for the person who eats or drinks the produce, the land and others living there like birds and insects and for the farmer. The death of a French winegrower at 43 years, due to vineyard pesticides, brings home how important organic is to health. We have never needed to spray any pesticide on our vines. Good bugs keep the bad bugs in check.
What makes Bergerac and the surrounding area so good for growing grapes?
Here in Saussignac we are on a major limestone outcrop that is like the grand cru classé plateau in St Emilion. Limestone and clay are ideal for grapes, especially high quality merlot for reds and sauvignon blanc for whites. The climate too is excellent for producing wines from these noble variaties.
Take us through a typical day.
Most days I get up at 6.30am to catch up on emails, then it’s time to get the girls ready for school (about 800m from our vineyard) before either wine classes, work in the vineyard or in the winery. A good break for lunch à la française is ‘obligatoire‘. We eat a lot of garden produce and eggs from our chickens. If I have lunch guests, then I work through. For the afternoon, I normally do something different to the morning but there are times when the whole day has to be devoted to accounts or something not so fun. My best day is when I have bookings for my Vineyard Walking Wine Tour. I take my guests though organic vineyards and we enjoy beautiful vistas of vines, valley and castles, a gourmet lunch in a local restaurant and wine tasting en route.
What happens during vendange?
Loads of hard work! This is the busiest time for bookings for our gîtes, the classes and the wine tours because people want to see the action. Some days I am up at 4am in overalls to harvest with Sean until 10am, then quickly into jacket and pearls to welcome guests for a tour and lunch. It’s hectic but exciting. We do two special harvest weekends for our vine shareholders where they come to hand pick, stomp grapes and have dinner in Saussignac castle – guests love it.
You offer a wine and food pairing ‘revelation’ lunch – tell us about one of the more unusual matches you can make…
Chateau Haut Garrigue Saussignac dessert wine with Roquefort blue cheese and sage and Saussignac jelly on a little disc of baguette. It’s a classic match but it always gets a WOW from people, even those who don’t like dessert wine or Roquefort.
Who are your main customers?
We have clients in the UK, Ireland and the USA. We grow the direct business each year. At the moment, we sell about 40% to customers on our mailing list.
Do you have a top tip to help us choose a good wine?
A little knowledge goes a long way. Wine is a massive subject and if you enjoy it, you will find even more enjoyment with knowing more about the different wine styles/regions etc.
Living and working in the same place can be difficult, how do you find a balance?
I think for any small family business to succeed, you have to give your all. It is 24/7 and the office is in the house. We are moving my office out to the tasting room, which will be better for everyone.
How do you like to spend your free time in the Dordogne?
We have taken two long weekends to Arcachon in almost six years, so we don’t get away much. I run a bit but we haven’t time to play tennis like we used to.
How did you make friends when you arrived?
Our friends were made through the wine business. Our best friends in our commune are a winegrower and our wine bottler.
How have you benefited from the move?
While we will never make the kind of income we would have in the city, we have a great quality of life in the country. We have no commute and get to share our passion for wine and for organic with people every day.
What have been the main challenges related to living and working abroad?
Language, customs, red tape… When we arrived it was all Greek, from the names of our neighbours’ farms to the strange custom of kissing people you had never met….
With hindsight, would you have done anything differently?
I would have understood more about the French social charges – they can cripple a small business if you don’t plan for them. Research as much as you can about the industry you are in (or plan to be in) and how it is operates in France.
What advice would you give others hoping to move to France?
Do as much as you can to learn French and ask a French accountant to look over your plans, taking into account the social charges.