Love, family and wine: Life in a Languedoc vineyard
Neasa and Laurent Miquel live with their two children in Languedoc, southern France, and make wines ‘with elegance and finesse’
Moving from Ireland to Languedoc, France for love at the age of 24, and jumping into her husband-to-be’s family wine business, Neasa didn’t quite realise what she was signing herself up for. Nevertheless, she enthusiastically took on the challenges of the competitive French wine industry and is now raising two children in France, keeping her Irish identity alive, and is reaping the rewards of life in a nature-rich area of southern France.
A summer romance
Neasa was working as an au pair in France when she met Laurent outside a nightclub in Narbonne. “It was really a summer romance just to start with,” Neasa says. Just as she spent time in France, Laurent lived abroad for a time in the UK, studying and then working in engineering. When he moved back to France, he joined the family business as part of the eight generation to work the vines of their Cazal Viel estate in Cessenon sur Orb that has been in the Miquel family since in 1791. The couple maintained a six-year long-distance relationship while Neasa finished her studies in Ireland and got her first job, after which she decided it was time to make the move to France.
“I finally realised that Laurent wasn’t going to plant a vineyard in Dublin. That wasn’t going to work well. So, I moved down then to the south of France,” Neasa says. In doing so she joins a history of Irish ‘wine geese’ a contingent of Irish immigrants to France, and particularly to Bordeaux in the 18th-Century, who then worked in the wine trade. The couple have paid homage to their French-Irish union with wine ranges called Solas & Les Irlandaises.
On arrival in France, Neasa and Laurent moved into an apartment within the family estate where, beside the vines, there are chickens, goats, peacocks, an organic vegetable garden, a fig orchard and an apple orchard. Laurent’s parents and sister and other vineyard workers also lived among the hamlet of houses that surround a central courtyard in Cazal Viel.
Neasa was immediately given the role of looking after the export sales and learned on the job as well as by embedding herself in the lifestyle. “Lunchtime was sacred,” she says, “At 12 o’clock, you’d sit down and they’d always have a bottle of whatever they bottled that day, so we would always taste that and talk about it. Their whole focus is just wine and local politics and what’s going on in the vineyard. So, I learned by absorbing all that.”
As the years went by Neasa and Laurent found their own space in a house in Béziers and also expanded the business into a second vineyard, Auzines, near a town called Lagrasse in Corbières where they now base themselves. But they are still close enough to the rest of the family that Laurent’s mum can help look after the children, nine-year-old Sean and five-year-old Alaina, during the holidays.
Since moving to France, Neasa tells me how she has enjoyed embracing the seasonal eating that comes with life in the area. “It really kind of marks things, especially for the kids, it marks their memory in terms of flavours and colours and seasons,” she says. In their free time, the kids will sometimes get stuck into the vineyard work or go swimming in the river nearby. Neasa will normally also take the children back to Ireland two or three times a year so they can see their family there and experience that contrasting way of life.
The Miquels are not an unusual family in their focus on wine. Wine has been produced in Languedoc since ancient times. “Wine is a real typical way of life here and Béziers itself made its fortune from winemaking in the 19th century,” says Neasa. However, Languedoc wines don’t have the same cachet as those from places like Burgundy and Bordeaux so Neasa’s challenge when selling it is to demonstrate what is special about their products. “Really, the biggest part of the job is just getting out there and telling the story and opening bottles, giving people samples showing them what we make and what the family do,” she says.
Another challenge they have as a team making wine in southern France is the heat. Early in his career, Laurent was told by a vineyard investor in Bordeaux that you could never make wines with elegance and finesse in Languedoc and, according to Neasa, Laurent has worked for thirty years to prove this wrong.
“In order to do that you have to work with nature because you know, nature will do what nature will do, you’ve just got to adapt to it,” she says. “We have constructed lakes and natural reservoirs to collect rain in the winter that we then use during growing season so the wines don’t overheat, or lose their natural acidity and get to ripe too quickly,” she explains. “The other thing is to plant all the vineyards north-south so that in the morning and evening the sun hits the grapes but at midday the sun won’t be overhead. It allows them to ripen really, really gently and retain their natural acidity and balance with the sugar.” The team also harvest the grapes at night so they come in cooler and fresher, and they have even named one of their wine ranges Vendanges Nocturnes after this process.
Life in nature
Now 2020 has of course brought the new and unexpected challenge of lockdown for us all, but for Neasa and the team, work carried on: “The vineyards just kept going as normal, the vines just kept growing and needed to be looked after.” Outside of work she reflects how the pandemic has made her even more appreciative of her natural surroundings. “Everything’s very unspoiled here and especially this year, you really see that getting out to the lake, swimming in the rivers, getting down to the sea, being able to get out and cycle through the countryside in two minutes – we’re really lucky to have that.”
Visit laurent-miquel.com to see Neasa and Laurent’s full range of wines, which are also widely available in the UK at Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and selected indie merchants.
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