High spirits

The Armagnac region, spread throughout the south-western department of Gers, is home to a passionate community of Brits. And it’s not just the brandy that keeps them there… WORDS: KATE CHAPPELL

Until very recently, the UK was the world’s biggest importer of Armagnac. The big hitters in Russia and Asia may have taken over of late, but there’s still something peculiarly British about enjoying a glass of the Gascon brandy after dinner, perhaps while dressed in a velvet smoking jacket and enjoying a large cigar. Even Delia Smith uses it religiously in her recipes – and you can’t get more British than that. So it only seems fair that we should offer the beautiful region of Armagnac something in exchange...

Luckily for us – and for Armagnac – there is a growing collection of entrepreneurial Brits who have chosen to make their home among the vines, bringing their passions and enthusiasms with them. Inspired by the picturesque countryside, the rural way of life and the hard work of the Armagnac producers, they have embraced the Gascon lifestyle and are making their mark in the community.

We caught up with four Armagnac trailblazers who have chosen the region as their adopted home.The EquestrianJill Trier owns Les Ecuries d’Armagnac a riding school and stables close to Condom. She and husband Tam moved to Armagnac nearly 18 years ago.Jill had been thinking about moving to France long before she and her husband Tam actually made the leap from their home in Yorkshire. "It was mainly about wanting a big change, but we were also craving more space,"?she explains from her cosy kitchen in their farmhouse near Valence-sur-Baise. "I’d been riding since I was four and I really wanted to work with horses, so finding somewhere that offered that opportunity was a priority. We’d considered Corbi�res and Dordogne, but we were especially attracted to Gers as it seemed relatively unknown to the many Brits buying in France."

Indeed, 18 years ago the idea of British expats in Armagnac was virtually unheard of. "Back then the area was truly undiscovered and very rural," says Jill. "Thanks to the agricultural wealth in the area, the architecture was stunning and the buildings well-maintained, plus the locals didn’t need visitors to bring in extra money. We were real pioneers and were welcomed wholeheartedly – although we were a bit of a curiosity!"

The couple’s first few years weren’t easy. Tam had an A’ Level in French and Jill had learnt a bit at school, but working out how to complete all the paperwork they were given was a struggle. "I think it’s definitely the language barrier that is the biggest hurdle to settling in France," says Jill. "But once we’d learnt everyday French – and with children at a French school you don’t really have a choice – we started to feel properly at home."

It took Jill a few years to find her dream business venture, but after a lot of hard work she has built up a busy little stables next to the house. "We offer training, breaking in, stabling, childrens’ lessons and hacks and many of our students take part in local competitions. It’s a busy life, but I love it," she says.

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Owning a business in France is rife with challenges. "In the UK, the work ethic seems to be that anyone can succeed if they work hard enough,"?Jill says, "but in France there are all sorts of hurdles that make success difficult, even for the most conscientious small business owner." But the joys of life in Armagnac more than outweigh the challenges. "The chance to lead hacks through the countryside I?love is fantastic."ecuriesarmagnac.free.frThe WinemakerWinemaker Nick Patrick moved to Armagnac in 2003 after falling in love with and buying a vineyard and winery, Domaine de S�douprat, in Eauze. "I adore it here,"?says Nick Patrick as his three enormous Rhodesian Ridgeback dogs nearly knock him off his feet outside his beautiful maison de ma�tre just south of Eauze. The house looks over the five hectares of vines that makes up Domaine de S�douprat, Nick’s own vineyard and winery.

"Before I?came here I had been working as head winemaker at Denbie’s Wine Estate in Surrey, but I?always dreamed of having my own vineyard,"?Nick explains. "I wanted to create my own wines with my own grapes and using my own methods."

After a long search for the perfect place to realise his dream, Nick found the house and vineyard in Eauze and he and his parents bought it together in March 2003.?They have divided the house – built in around 1800 – in two and Nick lives there full time, while his parents divide their time between Armagnac and the UK. Of course, there are the dogs too, not to mention Nick’s pigs and horses.

"The last seven years have been hard work, but I’m really pleased with the wines Domaine de S�douprat is producing," says Nick. The vines are grown on a clay sand mixture, which keeps the plants moist during Armagnac’s long hot summers. Nick does everything around the vineyard on his own, apart from the harvesting, when he brings in a local team of pickers. His award-winning wines use Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Gascon Colombard grapes.

"It’s taken a while, but I’ve been accepted into the winegrowers’ community, which is great," Nick says. "And I’ve made some great friends. I’ve started hosting big wine tastings here for them all – we have a pig roast and everyone really enjoys themselves."

Nick is so happily ensconced in?Armagnac that going back to the UK?can sometimes be something of a culture shock. "It’s so busy and expensive,"?he laughs. "Even the cost of a bottle of water is a shock and that’s just in the airport!

"This is my home now and it’s fantastic to be able to indulge my passion for wine in somewhere I?love so much." www.sedouprat.comThe Pig FarmersRichard Russell and Meg Bradwell first moved out to France in 1998, with the aim of becoming self-sufficient. They live in Manciet and now own over 60 pigs.A visit to Richard and Meg’s farm in Manciet in the autumn is a riot of colour – yellows, reds, golds – as their lucky pigs have eight hectares of woodland to roam around. "We can often go all day without seeing some of them,"?laughs Richard. "In fact, since we reached 40 pigs, I’m not sure how many we actually have now".

The couple first moved to France in 1998 with the intention of living entirely self-sufficiently. They found a house in Dordogne and bought their first two sows, just for themselves. As their smallholding grew, they needed more room and moved to Armagnac nine years ago. "We love it here,"?says Meg. "What’s not to love??It’s so beautiful." They certainly have the space they needed, more than enough to keep any piggy smells at bay – an important factor in the long, hot, dusty Armagnac summers!

Richard and Meg have built up a successful pig farm, selling pork and other pig products to local butchers and restaurants. Richard makes his own salted bacon and hams and their black pork is particularly sought-after. They still manage to be mostly self-sufficient too, growing their own vegetables in a plot outside their beautiful farmhouse. Oh yes, and they offer chambres d’h�tes too. It’s a busy but rewarding life.

"We hardly ever manage to get back to the UK?anymore,"?says Richard. "There’s just too much here for one person to look after on their own." But that doesn’t seem to be too much of a problem as the couple are completely happy with life in their adopted home. "Moving to France has been a real learning curve,"?says Richard. "We learned the language as we went along and are still getting used to the bureaucracy, but I?think we’re pretty much part of the furniture now. Although I’m sure the local French farmers still think of us as the mad English people’!"

Someone who seems happy with his lot is Casper, the enormous Gascon boar that still manages to sire a hundred piglets a year at the ripe old age of eight. "He’s part of the family now," laughs Meg. [email protected] Armagnac MusketeerAmanda Garnham is an official Armagnac Musketeer. She has lived in Armagnac for 18 years and her four children have grown up there."Victoria, my youngest was only five months old when we moved out here and rented a cottage,"?says Amanda. "I remember driving her around the tiny Armagnac roads to lull her to sleep, and look for our perfect house at the same time."

Victoria is now 13 and lives with Amanda and her siblings in the perfect house that Amanda found on one of those drives. "It’s only five minutes up the road from the place we were renting all those years ago,"?says Amanda of the beautiful, rambling maison de ma�tre where she has brought up her family, deep in the Armagnac countryside. It’s still a labour of love – there are outbuildings ripe for renovation and parts of the house that Amanda still hasn’t got around to dragging into the 21st century, but the house is full of character and full of love.

Nowadays Amanda has become a familiar face in Armagnac, thanks to her work with the Bureau National Interprofessionnel de l’Armagnac (BNIA), the body that represents Armagnac brandy to France and the rest of the world. "Once I’d got my head around the language I realised I?could use the PR?skills I’d learned running my own business in the UK and approached the BNIA to offer my help. I’m so busy with it now, taking journalists on tasting tours and arranging events, but I?adore it. The passion the people and producers of Armagnac have for the brandy has really rubbed off on me and I really want to help let the world know how great it is."

But it’s not just the brandy that has bewitched Amanda – the countryside and its people have changed her life. "The people in?Armagnac have hearts of gold,"?she enthuses. "Bringing up a young family in a strange place was a real challenge,"?she enthuses, "but my neighbours have been so supportive. It’s a simple and rural life here, but full of warmth.

"Luckily the children have learned to love it here as much as I?have. They’ve been able to grow up running about the countryside and took to the language and the lifestyle like ducks to water." LFwww.armagnac.fr

Kate travelled to Armagnac with Rail Europe. She travelled from London St Pancras to Agen. For more details, visit www.raileurope.co.uk