Grape expectations

Banker Graham Nutter swapped the city for the countryside when he moved to Languedoc. He tells Deborah Curtis about his life among the vines in the Aude department

When Graham Nutter was a young man he vowed to his new wife B�atrice that one day he would own a vineyard. She was sceptical but Graham held on to that dream and 11 years ago the couple became owners of a Minervois wine domaine, Ch�teau Saint-Jacques d’Albas, in Aude.

"Apparently, coming out of the maire’s office in the 15th arrondissement of Paris in 1978, B�atrice remembers me saying: One day we will live on a vineyard,’" says Graham. "I don’t remember such an utterance but as time went by we lived in many international places and come 1999, I wanted to start looking for a vineyard."

Graham’s love of and interest in wine goes back to his university days. When he left Cambridge he joined an international bank which led him very quickly to Paris where he went to wine school with Steven Spurrier who is very well-known in the wine world, and that really got him hooked.

"I started looking in the Bordeaux area but B�atrice, who comes from the centre of France said: No Graham, we are not going to Bordeaux. It’s cold and it’s damp in winter. We’re going south to where it’s sunny and the skies are blue.’ And so I changed my compass bearings to Languedoc."

After around nine months of searching with the help of a property agent who specialises in vineyards, Graham stumbled across Ch�teau Saint-Jacques d’Albas, a 90-hectare property, 15 kilometres north-west of Carcassonne.

"It was love at first sight because after seeing over 40 vineyards, it was just what we wanted: secluded, no neighbours, and surrounded by fields, woodland and garrigue," Graham explains. "We became owners in January 2001."

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And then the work started – or as Graham describes it, smiling: "That was the beginning of my madness. There were plenty of good plots of vines but the buildings needed a lot of work. No wine was being made here and the grapes were being sent off to the local cave co-operative."

In the intervening decade, Graham and B�atrice have restored all the buildings on the property, creating a home for themselves and another for their estate manager and his wife. They have built a winery and an underground cellar the size of an Olympic swimming pool. They converted the old stables into a wine tasting room and a hay barn is now used for concerts and seminars. A third outbuilding is now used for dinners and they also have two g�tes.

There are 30 hectares of vines which are mainly red grape varieties – Syrah, Grenache, Mourv�dre and Carignan – from which four AOC Minervois wines are produced. Graham also produces a ros� from Syrah and Grenache and more recently a white wine from Vermentino, Viognier and Roussanne grapes.

"We make about 110,000 bottles a year. Our 30 hectares of vines are dotted around another 60 hectares of woodland and garrigue which I like," says Graham. "It’s varied in terms of ecology and plant life. I like to see lots of worm casts and hear crickets and see birds visiting us and small weeds between the rows. It means the soil is alive."

The vines at Ch�teau Saint-Jacques d’Albas are cultivated according to the M�thode Cousini�, which stimulates the vines’ own strength by rebuilding the soil via the judicious use of organic manure and the application of mineral sprays.

"It’s not organic but it’s very vine sensitive and environmentally friendly," Graham explains.

Graham is very hands-on in the vineyard at pruning and harvest time but has devoted most of his time and energy over the past decade to the sales and marketing side of the business.

"From having no sales network for any of the wines in 2001, we now export about 70% to about 12 countries including Germany, Japan, the US, Canada and the UK. France, however, remains our biggest market," says Graham. "I’ve built it up from scratch and it’s taken longer than I imagined but we are now at the happy stage where people call us. We are on the map and are recognised as being one of the more prominent Minervois producers."

The rising fortunes of Saint-Jacques d’Albas has been mirrored by the renewed success enjoyed by Languedoc as a wine region. "It’s only in the last 10 to 15 years that the area has bounced back," says Graham. "It’s still relatively inexpensive to buy land here. They still call it the California of France where people are coming in with new ideas and new capital.

"Many domaines, which used to sell their grapes to the cave co-operatives, have now gone independent and that’s really how the area’s recovering. The reputation world-wide now is that Languedoc is an area for good value wines relative to price; certainly compared to Burgundy and Bordeaux."

Graham and B�atrice have a full programme of events to introduce wine enthusiasts to their wines.

"It’s important that vineyards are always open to the public so that people can come in to taste and to buy," says Graham. "It’s not traditional in the region but it’s a good way to get people in and to get them tasting and hopefully buying your wine."

And looking back is he glad he took the plunge and bought his vineyard in Languedoc?

"It’s a lifestyle that you have to be passionate about," he says.

"You have to love it. B�atrice says I work harder now than I did when I was doing a regular commercial job. It’s very different, but to be woken up by birds rather than by motorbikes is a great pleasure." LFwww.chateaustjacques.com