A WAY WITH WINE
- Credit: Archant
A chance meeting changed the course of Denise Gitton’s life and she now makes wine in Sancerre with her French husband Pascal. They tell their story to Paul Shearer
Sancerre is a delightful French town in the Cher department which sits proudly on top of a hill. To the north, the River Loire meanders past, heading downstream towards the stretch of river famous for its royal châteaux. Around the town, there are panoramic views from the roads winding towards the château, which perches on the crest of the hill. The townsfolk have the luxury of looking out onto the surrounding slopes, which are covered with the vines that have been the source of Sancerre’s enduring wealth and renown, and one such domaine, is run by independent vignerons, Pascal and Denise Gitton.
Winemaker Pascal Gitton stands at the corner of a field and points out the landscape of his childhood.
“I used to play in the little house in the middle of the vines there, and it was in this field that I learnt how to prune the vines with my father. Our house at the time was just beside the rows of wines.” He points to the house and garden that he still owns but which now serves as a gîte in the summer months. “I first learnt how to use a tractor in this field, and my father’s ashes are scattered along the top there beside the old railway line.”
Pascal’s father, Marcel Gitton died in 2010, aged 91, and was still pruning three hectares of vines when he was 86. He founded the Gitton Père et Fils marque in 1945, beginning with just over an acre of vines.
“At first it was a small parcel and was for making wine for my grandmother who had a café-bar right by the canal in the town of Ménétréol-sous-Sancerre,” explains Pascal. He points to an aerial photograph of the region which shows the relationship of the small village beside the Loire canal nestling beneath the hilltop town of Sancerre.
Together, father and son expanded the business over time to 75 acres. Their vines snaking in rows across some of the best terroirs of the region, both in Sancerre and the nearby Côteaux-de-Giennois, as well as the neighbouring Pouilly-Fumé, which is also a well-reputed white wine. While his father worked the hills and cellars, Pascal roamed far and wide bringing the wine to market.
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On one export promotion trip to the Vanuata in the New Hebrides, Pascal was chatting to his wine importer when a cheery bloke called Bob, came over to join them. In no time they had swapped business cards, and after a congenial meal, Bob was casually invited over to France to visit. A few months later Pascal received a phone call.
“Hi Pascal, it’s Bob McKnight from Vanuatu.”
“We met last year and you said I could come and stay.”
“I’m just down the road in Ménétréol. How would it be if I came to stay tonight?”
At the time Bob was spending six months of the year in Australia and six months in Europe. He stayed for a few days and the next year Bob returned with his daughter, Denise, who was recently divorced. That summer, as the grapes ripened on the vines, romance blossomed between Denise and Pascal.
“Pascal is very passionate about what he does,” explains Denise. “He really enjoys the processes of wine, of experimenting, of making different cuvées of wine from different parcels of terroir. Travelling with him is a delight. He is selling a product that he really loves and that is infectious.”
More of a shock to Denise’s system was her first winter. She had left her life as a primary school teacher behind and had been used to subtropical weather in Brisbane in Australia. The hoar frost winter of 1993 was a surprise. “Icicles were hanging off the trees,” she exclaims. It was not something she had ever experienced before.
But the winter was not cold enough to freeze the heart, and Denise and Pascal married that year, first in a civil ceremony at the mairie and, in the spring of 1994, with a service in the nearby church at Chavignol. Gourmands will know that the town of Chavignol is umbilically linked to Sancerre, not just geographically, sitting as it does near the bottom of the Sancerre hill, but also by its renowned goat’s cheese. It’s a product which even comes with its own AOC – rules which govern provenance and production quality – making Sancerre an area which boasts not just one but two AOCs for its perfect wine and cheese combination.
Pascal and Denise began to settle into their life together, and their daughter, Chanel, was born in late 1994. Denise’s three other children from her previous marriage all stayed in Australia.
“The biggest change was the language,” says Denise. She had studied French at school, but this was an immersion course and she knew she needed to learn to converse. “I learnt a lot with my mother-in-law who was very patient,” she says. Pascal is also a consummate linguist, and among his several languages, speaks excellent English.
“Once I had learned the language, I could begin to understand the culture and the subtleties,” says Denise. “I like what I am doing now, particularly matching a person to the wine that they enjoy. In this industry, you meet a lot of people who love life, and as I travelled around, I was very well accepted by the French who have been very welcoming.”
Denise has also been busy with Pascal visiting many other French winemaking regions. A trip to Champagne was the latest and she has learnt a lot about wine during the 20 years she has now been in France. Initially, some of the wine conversations were not easy. Wine tasting and categorising is largely done with the nose and a shared language of smells. When people referred to the smell of beech tree in a wine she didn’t know what they meant. Where Denise grew up, there are no beech trees. An insight into the art of wine tasting happened when she recognised burnt sugar cane as a flavour in a Côte Rôtie red wine.
The wine life is hard work, however. There are the troubled nights of interrupted sleep when the skies cloud over and the patient work of growing the grapes can be destroyed by nature’s tempests. There are moments of worry when sickness threatens to spread through a row of vines. But the hardest loss of all was when her eldest son, Luke, died in 2008 aged 25, just as he was preparing to take the reins of the company. Much mourned, Luke’s tragic accidental death was compounded by the loss of both of Pascal’s parents in the two years following.
Understandably reluctant to dwell on such sadness, Denise, like many Sancerre citizens before her, turns to the more positive aspects of life.
“Sancerre is a lovely region to be in. It’s an active and competitive region, but in Sancerre we believe that if everyone works hard they can get there. You can achieve success, if you are prepared to do things well. It is possible for the small producers to compete even against some of the bigger names.”
They are hoping that the winemaking business Gitton Père et Fils, built up over two generations,
will pass to a third, but until then, Pascal will continue to create structured, characterful and full-flavoured wines, using natural yeast, which express not just the individual plots and terroirs on which they were grown, but will contain the mysterious alchemies of the year in which a full season’s weather shone down on the slopes of the hills outside the charming town of Sancerre. LF