Today is volunteer day in Domaine des Trinités’ newest vineyard and Ali Ballantyne and 8 of Simon’s friends have come to clean it up in exchange for lunch and the chance to do something special in the great (and very beautiful) outdoors. Jackie and Graham have a holiday house in Roquessels and are regular volunteers. “He bought this vineyard recently and it’s a view to die for, isn’t it? The horizon is the Mediterranean and that’s Cap d’Agde over there. Bit too cloudy to see the Pyrenees today but they’re there.”
By 9.30 the clouds have blown away, the sun is warming us up and the sky is that perfect blue it only gets to be in this part of the world. Fleeces are being draped over vines, hats pressed on heads and sun cream applied.
Simon has a plan. “Today Team 1 is pruning back the old canes to help the sap start pushing back through the vines. This is just a rough prune as the vines have been abandoned for 5 years. Then we can prune properly at the end of this year, pick in 2016 and at the very earliest, maybe, maybe, we’ll get to drink it in 2017.” The women pick up secataurs and loppers and the men eye up the spades and pickaxes. “Team 2 is clearing out the scrub oak trees, brambles, cistus and all the other big stuff between the vines, which means we’ll be able to get the tractor through. Then we can mulch the pruned canes into the soil and after that, plough or rotovate. It’s great because the vine cuttings are full of potassium and phosphorous, so it’s a natural way of putting goodness back into the soil without using fertiliser.”
To be honest, this isn’t the easiest work in the world. The old canes are tough to cut, the ground is ankle-turningly rocky, the brambles are vicious and, let’s face it, most of us could do with being fitter. But there are plusses. John and Jane have brought along their Texan friends Laura and Sid. “There’s such history here, this is where it all began and it’s gorgeous to be here. You know, there’s something truly magical about a vineyard, especially when you can see it at bud-break when it’s just coming back to life, and to come and work knowing that what we do is going to produce the wine we enjoy every night completes that circle.” It’s also good to be part of a team. “Most importantly,” says Jane, “Simon’s a friend and it’s good to help a friend. And there’s companionship too, meeting new people, making new friends.”
By midday it feels a long time since breakfast and we build a small ring of volcanic rocks and fill it with old vine souches. When the flames have died down Simon lays duck thighs and rings of sausages spiced with espalette onto a grill. While they cook we sip Simon’s delicious chilled rosé and he tells us more about the vineyard. “It’d been abandoned because it didn’t give enough fruit for the previous guy but that doesn’t worry me because I want quality not quantity and the fruit it does give is delicious. In the old grenache vines, and they’re about 60 years old, there’s maybe 10% mortality but in the old cinsault vines further down the mortality is much higher, so do we keep it, do we rip it up, do we replant? That’s the question. I want more old vine cinsault because it makes delicious wine like my l’Etranger but if there’s too much mortality, well, we’ll have to see.”
He breaks off to open the back of his car to reveal dishes of beetroot, potato and tomato salad and a big bag of baguettes. “This year” he goes on, “ we’ve planted a hectare of syrah and next year we’re planting another block. and then there’s another hectare which we’re planting with roussane and possibly, possibly something else a bit, well, exciting. We’ll only be picking 20 hectares this year but in about 7 years time we’ll be back up to about 26 and a half.” He rubs his hands. “We can’t wait.”
And nor can we. The sausages are done, our plates are stacked and it all tastes ridiculously delicious. Hard work, fresh air, great food, wine and company. Who could ask for more? We’ll be back.
Domaine de Trinités is breaking new ground. In the hills above Roquessels on a blue-skied but batteringly windy morning, Simon Coulshaw talked to Ali Ballantyne about their new vineyards.
“We’re buying this land to replace the fermage which we rented. It was flooded in the December storms and we lost a lot of vines. Some of the new land is abandoned vines and some of it needs clearing and re-planting. I’ve had my eye on it for years and the owner is selling because it delivers a low yield. But that’s fine with us. We’re only interested in quality.
All in all we’re talking 8 hectares but we’ll leave 2 of them as woodland and garrigue to keep an eco-system in place – birds and herbs and trees and wildlife. The wild boar and rabbits can be a pain but it’s important – it gives the wine that garrigue-y character. “
Clattering and clanking and carving through the land beside us is a huge, yellow, Caterpillar earth-mover driven at astonishing speed by a man with a wide smile. Like Simon he loves his work.
“This slope was a vineyard a long time ago. You can see, he’s taking out all the big stuff, the scrub oaks, and giving it a rip. Right now the land looks as if it’s covered in soil but the first rains will wash all that away and the surface will go back to rocky schiste – wonderfully free-draining. If it was granite below the vine roots would just hit it and stop, but here they’ll find their way down and down between layers of slatey rock. And for me, that’s what makes schiste the top terroir.
In total this particular block is 1.7 hectares, about 300 metres above sea level and south facing, it’ll get the sun all day. We’re going to plant it next year and it’s going to be entirely Syrah. And that new parcel over there is ours too – Carignan vines, gorgeous, about 45 years old.
When you start from scratch though, the great thing is that you get to choose. I’ve looked very hard at what I want to plant and I can hand-select the root stock specifically to give me quality not quantity. This schiste here for example has quite a low PH so I chose a root stock that would work in these conditions and the clone is from the Hermitage area in the Rhone.”
Domaine de Trinité’s new vineyards are in three parcels. The next one we visit is even higher, on top of Faugère’s famous La Serre dome. East-facing and fresh, it will be cleared and planted with Roussanne. The third plot is abandoned old Grenache vines, nearly 2 hectares worth. “It was last pruned 4 years ago “ says Simon, “ but we’ll bring it back. The locals say it’s low in quantity but super super good.” He rubs his hands. Below us the foothills of the Haut Languedoc settle into the Littoral and the Mediterranean glitters on the horizon. It is impossible to imagine that anything short of divine could grow in a place as beautiful as this.