When David and Jo Cowderoy met at university in London they not only fell in love – together they dreamed that one day they would grow their own grapes and make high-quality, carefully produced wine. Many years on they have fulfilled this dream in France.
Today they are the proud owners of Chateau La Bouscade, a 12 hectare estate not far from Carcassonne in the Languedoc. Here they produce award-winning red and white wines plus a rosé.
They are, however, anything but amateurs. David was born into wine-making, his father owning a vineyard in southern England, and David himself was responsible for creating the first commercial English sparkling wine under the Chapel Down Wines label, back in 1989. He has a degree in soil science as well as viticulture, and has made wine all over the world from Australia to Chile and Romania. Jo has a degree in agriculture. All of this has makes them a highly experienced team.
So why decide to make wine in France? Having become disillusioned with wine-making in England – ‘it is still largely amateur and is unlikely to go anywhere fast,’ says Jo – David had sold his vineyard to travel the world bringing in harvests and making wine in both the southern and northern hemispheres. ‘But this meant he was away for about six months of the year and by then we had three young girls,’ explains Jo who had her own business at the time, running conferences on computer software.
To end the travelling, David became an importer who also made wine. ‘But in having to sell to supermarkets he found that the price for wine was constantly being pushed down which he felt compromised on quality,’ says Jo. ‘And it was galling to see that the budget for making wine was lower than that for marketing it!’
It was, they decided, time to pursue their dream. Owning their own vineyard would not only allow them to make wine the way they wanted, but also give them time together as a family. The decision then was where to set up their business? ‘We looked at all the wine-producing areas of the world but we decided on France because of the potential of the land, the language – David spoke French from working here some years ago – and because it was in Europe and so close to friends and family in the UK,’ says Jo.
In France it was always going to be the Languedoc. ‘David had worked there for a short while and felt there was real potential not just in the land but the area as well,’ says Jo. It is also a very beautiful part of the country. Sandwiched between the Black Mountains and the Pyrenees, it is wild and rugged, the scent of sage and thyme filling the air. Hot days are tempered by wind and cool nights.
Buying a house, a winery and a vineyard!
First, Jo and David tried to buy the entire package – family home, vineyard and winery – but that proved impossible. ‘If the house was right, the vines weren’t and vice versa. In the end we decided that we had to work to two priorities – one, to find somewhere that would allow us to put our daughters into school and integrate into the village; two, a vineyard with good soil. If they had to be separate, then so be it.’
In 2004 they bought a maison de maitre which came with an old cave (cellar). It turned out to be a good decision – the cave has since been converted into a winery while the attic was transformed to give them four extra bedrooms that are used to accomodate the wine pickers when they come to help harvest the grapes. To cap it all David and Jo found their treasured vineyard just a 10 minute drive away – ‘or 30 minutes on a tractor,’ laughs Jo.
They completed the sale in July 2005 but started work on the vines four months earlier. Still, the first months were frightening hectic. David and Jo plus a student looked after the vines, plus creating the winery which meant redoing the electrics, putting in a new floor, completing insulating and lining the stone walls and kitting it out with temperature control. ‘We also had to install seven stainless steel vats which each weighed a ton,’ recalls Jo. ‘It was just the three of us doing that too! There were lots of panicky moments – blood, sweat and plenty of tears.’
At the end of that summer they picked their first grapes, with pickers (all students on summer jobs) coming from around the world including Sweden and Germany. ‘We did have Polish students but at the time they weren’t allowed to work in France so had to go home after a week,’ says Jo. ‘That was a sad moment because they were a lovely bunch.’
That first Chadonnay won best in class at the International Wine and Spirit competition and the 2007 Chardonnay is now listed in the 100 best Vin du Pays of France. The red wines too – Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Carignan – have won a number of awards and they sell worldwide including Australia, Canada, USA, Japan and Switzerland. In France, they sell direct from ChateauDirect (the wine is delivered to your door). The secret of their success, says Jo, is that they hand-pick the fruit so only those that are truly ripe are chosen and they do not get bruised. They also carefully remove any debris such as twigs, leaves and even earwigs, that often make it into some local wines, affecting the flavour. ‘We wanted to make hand-crafted wine and that is what we do,’ she says.
With such immediate acclaim it would easy to think that it has all been easy. ‘But running the business has been an absolute nightmare,’ says Jo. ‘It is convulated and intensely bureaucratic. No-one gives you information before you need it and it is very hard to find out what you need to know – you have to make the mistake first which is very stressful. We seem to always just be getting the paperwork in before the deadline. It makes the process of producing wine very difficult.’
Life in France
That said, David and Jo are happy here. They have plans to expand with a new winery and shop and perhaps even a restaurant in the future. Their three children, Charlotte, Harriet, and Annabel, (see picture left) have all settled in and are doing well. Charlotte was 14 when she arrived and after an unhappy year at a local collége has gone onto study at an international school in Aix-en-Provence, where she does weekly boarding. ‘She had a tough first year, learning the language and then having to sit the brevet,’ says Jo.
Harriet, then 12, learned French very quickly and immediately went to the top of her class. However, she too elected to go to the international school where the academic standard was higher.
Annabelle, 10, when she arrived in France, is currently in collége in Narbonne. ‘They all still consider themselves English and like to go to the UK to visit,’ says Jo. ‘But they are also very happy in France.’
While David spoke French, Jo admits she found it tough when she first arrived. ‘I didn’t mix much with the outside world because I was so absorbed in getting the business going, and I didn’t have time to take a course. But it’s much better now. As is everything!’
For more information, see Chateau La Bouscade
Read more real life stories at: We Made It!