Vaucluse-based winemaker Gabriel McGuinness gives a rare interview to Tootlafrance on a hands-on life in France working in his award-winning Domaine des Anges vineyard
The dream of working in one’s own vineyard in the South of France is a common one. From an Irish perspective, this is a particularly seductive dream – living amidst sweet-scented flora and alcohol-producing crops in a country where the sun shines all summer long and the food is wonderful…
For 70-year-old Kilkenny native Gabriel McGuinness, this dream became a reality. His Domaine des Anges vineyard 14km east of the ancient Papal town of Carpentras in the Vaucluse department (a French “county” made famous to English-speakers through Peter Mayle’s highly popular book A Year in Provence) produces a range of top-quality wines.
So how does one make the transition from Leinster to Provence?
“I was working in freight-forwarding in England. We bought a company and, as a result of a death in the company, we came down to see La Domaine des Anges because we were doing transport through that company…. I suppose the quickest way of explaining it is that I fell in love with the place rather than the process.”
It is a beautiful part of the world and it’s difficult not to be charmed by its white rocky rolling hills carpeted in maquis, olive trees and vines, all bathed in the Provencal warmth. How much did he know about wine-making before he took over the vineyard?“I knew very little about wine… The wine-making process and the fact that it was an agricultural pursuit was an attraction but it was the absolute beauty of the place that was the first thing that got me interested at all.
“It’s across the valley from Mont Ventoux. When you get up in the morning, you’re looking across a valley straight at Mont Ventoux. It’s on a hillside about 400m high underneath an old Moorish tower and an old church, which stand on lands where the Romans once had a camp.”
During the summertime, McGuinness says, the whole area is a wonderland of village festivals, beautiful nature and great cycling routes. People here are friendly, he says.
What about the recession in rural France? Many people feel that it’s biting hard in places like this and there are many reports referring to it in the Anglo-American press. Is he seeing much evidence where he lives?
“It is very difficult for a lot of people, particularly those in small businesses. It’s not unlike Ireland in that respect. Small businesses are suffering in France – it’s very hard for them to make a profit as distinct from making a living. The social model that has been built in France probably needs a considerable amount of overhauling.”McGuinness spends about half of the year in France. After that, he says that he’s travelling and still spending time in Britain, as well as occasionally getting back to his native Kilkenny city every once in a while.
It was in 1989 that he fell for the Estate of the Angels. “I’ve been getting to know more about wine in the intervening years. It’s very nice to be working with the rhythms of nature. It’s really nice to be working in a place where there are only a very small number of people – this is a very small vineyard: we only produce about 6,000 to 7,000 cases a year.”
McGuinness compares the pace of life to that of many small farmers in Ireland – with the difference, of course, that the produce is altogether more exciting and the weather is warmer.
What the vineyard produces is of high quality and two of their wines – namely the 2011 Archanges and the 2011 Seraphin – have achieved a 90 point grade from American wine guru Robert Parker in the last year.
McGuinness sells his wine to about 9 or 10 countries, he says, including sales in Germany, Holland, Switzerland, UK, Ireland, the US and Canada. About one-fifth of all sales are in France.
How has he assimilated himself in the local area over the last 25 years?“The French lead more private lives than we do in Ireland. I would know some people but my circle of friends is small… I think that that could be said about France in general. I wouldn’t describe it as coldness; I think that it’s probably a habit created by history. People are very family-oriented and around that, you have a number of friends that you value and outside of that, it becomes more sparse – it’s definitely less like Ireland.”
The period from Spring to Autumn, he says, is very pleasant and sunny but the winters also get very cold and they have been snowed in on more than one occasion. The Mistral wind has been known to be merciless as well as driving people insane (it used to be a mitigating circumstance in cases of marital violence).
This was highlighted in A Year in Provence too, but at the mention of the famous book, McGuinness points out that the popular Englishman’s diary “doesn’t do justice to the place. In fact, it’s a bit of a parody of what goes on in France – it isn’t the France that I recognise.”
So is he living the dream?“It’s certainly hard not to feel lucky when you wake up in the morning and the sun is shining and continues to shine for week on end. You’re lucky if you are dealing with the rhythms of nature rather than being pushed about every day and every hour by commercial considerations and pressures of modern-day living.
“But there is a price to be paid – you have to enter a market (for his wines) and you have to sell your stuff. I suppose it’s a good balance.”
All of the above represents the best of life in France, along with the nice weather and the wonderful food. On the negative side, McGuinness says that the worst part of life in France is “watching the country slide in the way that it’s doing – the unhappy state that a lot of people are in at the moment and the pressure that is being put on people now.”
Recessionary fears and uncertainty aside, 2014 was a generally good year for the French wine trade, however. The fortunes of Domaine des Anges followed the same positive pattern – a “good year” according to McGuinness – although not an exceptional one.
“The harvest is a bit late,” he says, “but we’re happy with what we’ve got.” He sounds like he means every word of it: It could apply to 2014 or to his life in general.