Vineyard visits: Sharing the crop

Owning part of a French vineyard can be an enticing prospect. Dominic Rippon explores a leisurely way to live the dream

France cannot be France without greatness,” wrote Charles de Gaulle in his Mémoires de Guerre in the mid-1950s. He might as well have added “...or wine,” without which it would indeed be impossible to imagine France as we know it. From harvest festivals and aperitifs on sunny terraces to rolling hills dappled by the reddish-browns of autumnal vines, wine and its culture are indivisible from French life. And what better way to live the dream than with your own parcel of vines to tend?

First you need to find either a suitable plot of land or a working vineyard. If you haven’t studied oenology, you will need to employ a winemaker, while you set about building a cellar and navigating the rigorous legislation that governs viticulture in France. A newly planted vineyard takes at least three years to bear fruit for wine production; so assuming that you have found a niche in the competitive international wine market, you will be in your fourth year before beginning to see a return on your considerable investment. Add in the vagaries of the weather (such as the hail that lacerated vines in Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne earlier this year) and owning a vineyard can be a daunting prospect.

There is, however, a more relaxing choice for those keen to buy a slice of French wine culture without the associated risks of vineyard management; a way to enjoy the fruits of vineyard labour without breaking either your back or the bank. The concept of ‘shared ownership’ fell out of fashion in the 1990s, but has since seen a resurgence, spurred on since the 2008 economic crash by waning public confidence in banks and financial brokers.

There are plenty of ways to invest in a vineyard, from Burgundy to Bordeaux to the Languedoc, depending on your vinous preferences and budget. In return, you receive a share of the vineyard, which entitles you to an annual dividend – usually payable in wine – and an opportunity to engage in the winemaking process throughout the year.

A little corner of Burgundy

In May this year, my wife and I were invited to the hillside village of Vergisson, near Mâcon in southern Burgundy. Our host was Scottish entrepreneur John King, founder of the aptly named Vergécosse estate, which perches majestically above its own vines on the high slopes of the village.

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We arrived at a break in the otherwise torrential spring rain and the vineyards shimmered damply in the afternoon sun. In addition to its three hectares of chardonnay vines, Vergécosse includes three luxury holiday cottages, one of which (La Forge) would be our home for the week. We hastily uncorked the complimentary bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé that we found in our fridge, and settled on the terrace to admire the breathtaking view. The landscape fanned out into a sea of vines beneath us, descending through the Pouilly-Fuissé appellation before climbing the giant limestone escarpment of the Roche de Solutré, upon which a picture-book rainbow had appeared.

As we sipped from our glasses I felt a nagging anxiety lift. We were meeting John King and this was the first time I had tasted his wine. What if I hadn’t liked it? Happily, it was delicious. Pouilly-Fuissé tends to be one of the richest, most tropical of Burgundies, but the north-facing slopes of Vergisson make a cooler, more mineral style of white wine. The Vergécosse blends – a Pouilly-Fuissé and a white Mâcon-Villages – are made by award-winning vigneron Roger Saumaize, so although their quality was no surprise, I was reassured by the lively freshness of the chardonnay in my glass.

As we kicked off our shoes and sighed comfortably, John King appeared on the terrace, shook our hands, poured himself a glass and began telling the story of Vergécosse. “It all began in 2006,” he said, “when the previous owner of the property decided to sell.”

At that time, Roger and Christine Saumaize were working the land and handing over a share of the harvest as rent payment, according to the ancient Gallic system of métayage (paying rent in kind). As the sitting tenants, they had a pre-emptive right to purchase what was, after all, their ancestral home and cherished vines. They lacked the funds to buy the estate, which needed extensive restoration, so they approached John to see if he wanted to take on a wine estate in Burgundy.

Already a hotelier in the Alps, John had enjoyed a long-standing friendship with the Saumaizes and the opportunity was too good to miss, but even he was not able to buy the estate outright. So the enterprising Scot set about convincing a group of wine-loving associates to make a joint investment, and soon he had two dozen potential shareholders. The shortfall was made up with a bank loan and the Vergécosse project was born. Roger continued to manage the vineyards and make the wine, for which he agreed to take two-thirds of the annual harvest; the remainder going to the joint owners.

Vergécosse is different from most shared vineyard ownership schemes in France in a way that betrays its British roots. It includes a substantial investment in property as well as vines; a hybrid between holiday timeshare ownership and a joint stake in a vineyard. Owner benefits therefore include two free weeks every year, from October to May, in the estate’s restored cottages, as well as a case of Pouilly-Fuissé. After that the cottages and wines are available to owners throughout the year at discounted prices.

Number crunching

The relatively small number of co-owners and the inclusion of property in the investment mean that shares in Vergécosse do not come cheap: a subscription will cost you upwards of £40,000. There are, however, more affordable ways to buy shares in a vineyard for those on a tighter budget.

As with so many areas of wine these days, the Languedoc-Roussillon region is leading the way in innovation. In the peaceful enclave of La Clape, near the Mediterranean coast, vigneron Jacques Ribourel offers investors the chance to “become a vineyard owner for €600”. More than 200 co-proprietors each own a share in Jacques’s business Vin d’Initiés (“wine of the initiated”), which holds ten hectares of vines.

The vineyard at Domaine de la Ramade is managed by a partner company, which makes the wine and pays rent back to Vin d’Initiés in bottled form. Owners receive two cases of wine each year at the reduced price of €6 a bottle; they also get a 20 per cent discount when they stay in the estate’s B&B accommodation. Investors are kept abreast of vineyard developments throughout the year and encouraged to participate in the estate’s wine events.

Another Languedoc winemaker, Ludovic Aventin, has taken the concept a step further. A vigneron-philosophe of the old school, Ludovic sees shared vineyard ownership primarily as the basis for valuable “shared experiences” and “human contact”. It has proved a popular idea. Ludovic’s first co-owned domaine was Mas Angel in the Faugères appellation d’origine protégée. Interest was so great that he decided to create Domaine Montgros, a new estate with a difference: to qualify for a share, every investor had to be a rugby fanatic as well as a wine lover. News spread like wildfire and even French international players were persuaded to invest.

Like every founder of a shared vineyard scheme that I spoke to, Ludovic was optimistic that his ‘associates’ would eventually see a return on their investments. But his words echoed those of John King; he was not looking for financial speculators. Equally, a share in a vineyard, in this sense, means a stake in an indivisible whole, rather than a small, tangible parcel of land where you might, in theory, be free to grub up your old carignan vines and plant gewurztraminer instead. Shared vineyard ownership schemes might best be viewed as enthusiasts’ clubs, bringing together wine-lovers to enjoy the annual fruits of their joint investments.

Forever restless, Ludovic is now selling shares in his third vineyard, Domaine Laur Bauzil in the Minervois appellation, at €1,750 each. And he doesn’t plan to stop there. “We’re expanding Domaine Montgros to create a Six Nations project,” he told me, “which will be open to rugby enthusiasts from Britain, Ireland and Italy. We may also create an estate in the future that will be reserved exclusively for British investors.”

Dominic travelled by train from Geneva to Mâcon to visit the Vergécosse estate, courtesy of Rail Europe (tel: 0844 848 4070, www.raileurope.co.uk). The standard return fare costs €70.

Estates’ details

Domaine Vergécosse

Vers La Croix

71960 Vergisson

Tel: 01738 84088

www.vergecosse.com

Contact: John King

Vin d’Initiés

Route de Narbonne-Plage

11110 Armissan

Tel: (Fr) 4 68 41 31 15

www.vindinities.com

Contact: Julie Fontanet

Domaine Laur Bauzil

Chemin des Aires

34210 Siran

www.laurbauzil.fr

Contact: Ludovic Aventin