Running a family vineyard in Lot

Carolyn Reynier meets a British couple who have been successfully making wine in Lot for the past 20 years

Ever thought how lovely it would be to buy a vineyard in southern France and make your own wine? Well next year will be the 20th anniversary since David and Sarah Meakin did just that. They bought a farm at Belfort-du-Quercy in southern Lot in south-west France, close to the Tarn-et-Garonne border. This is the Quercy Blanc, so named for its white limestone causses or plateaux. Most of the 48 hectares were planted with cereal, five hectares were vines, and there was a lake and woodland.

Since moving here they have had two children, Zachary and Sophie-Tor, made award-winning wines and, more recently, beers; both made as naturally as possible using the principles of agriculture biologique: minimal chemicals and no herbicides.

Their three-bedroom home is an old typical Quercynois farmhouse complete with various barns and outbuildings including that sine qua non of Quercy life, the pigeonnier, or dovecote. It was crucial to have a home they could live in straight away. “We knew we had to spend a lot of time outside because we had to learn about the vines,” says Sarah. The house is now as it was then. Steps lead up to a little patio, historically used as a drying area. Inside, all the rooms are on one floor leading off either side of a big hallway.

They arrived in August 1994, and with the help of David’s parents, harvested their first grapes that autumn. Their adventure started when Nottingham-born David, a grain trader, decided there was more to life than earning money. He had a vivid childhood memory of visiting a great-uncle’s farm as a six-year-old, and realised that what he had always really wanted to do was to go into farming of some description. However, this was financially impossible in the UK.

David had already holidayed in France but the turning point came when he and his parents accompanied friends who were thinking of buying a home in the south-west. They travelled the length and breadth of Lot and into Lot-et-Garonne. “I just fell in love with the place,” he remembers. It was unspoilt, no motorways, and they passed by small picture-book farms of which everybody dreams. It was just idyllic and set David thinking: “Could I buy a farm here?”

Back home, he researched what was available in France. He discovered the Jeunes Agriculteurs scheme, available to young farmers up to the age of 35. The clock was ticking. He managed to convert his agricultural degree into a French one and started visiting farm properties with his limited French and a little portable translator as there was no translating on mobile phones then.

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For more flexibility, he gave up his job to work on a building site. Holidays and long weekends were now spent scouring this part of south-west France for that perfect picture book farm property. It was an expensive business with no cheap flights in those days. By then, he had met Sarah who gave him an ultimatum for Christmas 1993: find a farm by Easter or find a proper job.

Lady Luck smiled. While on holiday in the area in February 1994, his parents saw yet another farm but his father reported that this one looked the business. David and Sarah flew into Toulouse, visited the farm, and bought it. They paid around £220,000. “It was peanuts really, in today’s money,” says David. And through the Jeunes Agriculteurs scheme, they got a loan at 2.55%.

They changed the domaine name to Merchien, the name of David’s kennels when he was breeding Newfoundlands, and sold eight hectares of cereals to a neighbour. Within two years the vineyard – today eight hectares planted with eight different varieties – was partially organic. David grew up in the late 70s, early 80s, when in agricultural terms: “If you saw a weed you sprayed it.” It was the one thing on the farm he hated doing; he just did not like chemicals. Today they make four or five different red wines, one rosé and one white.

The biggest challenge was learning the language. Taking over a vineyard left little time for learning French so it was a case of being thrown in at the deep end, but they have found that most people are happy to help if you make the effort.

Make no mistake, running a vineyard on your own is hard work. As David points out: “We’ve been here 19 years now and it doesn’t get any easier.” So much so that in 2006, David and Sarah started brewing beer, which today brings in more revenue than the wine and the turkeys they raise for Christmas. The microbrewery helps the cash flow. “I can make a bottle of beer in two weeks and sell it. A bottle of wine takes me two years,” says David. They sell at local markets in Limogne-en-Quercy and Lalbenque, in the Lot, and at Caylus and St-Antonin-Noble-Val, in Tarn-et-Garonne; plus further afield in the summertime. You can also buy direct from the domaine. “We encourage people to come and ask questions.”

Sarah, born in Wiltshire, says: “It’s different now because the kids are teenagers and starting to go their own way, but for them growing up it was one hell of a way of life. To visit their friends, just to run across the road, and swing on trees and swim in the lake and ride ponies bareback… to have all that freedom… It’s something that I could never have given them back in the UK.”

Growing up, Zac and Sophie-Tor spent a huge amount of time in French company so the strict house rule was English only at home. Their culture is French, says Sarah, but they still eat gravy, and Marmite.

The children, born in Montauban, are both bilingual. Zac, 17 in August, is studying for his baccalaureate at Rodez where he is a weekly boarder. Sophie-Tor, 15, attends the lycée in Caussade in Tarn-et-Garonne. They have both enjoyed growing up in the Lot countryside. For Zac, who enjoyed the freedom of running around where he wanted, it’s a nice and quiet place with no close neighbours to get on his nerves. While for Sophie-Tor, the camaraderie of local friends has been important. “We’ve got great neighbours who are my best friends, so we all used to meet up at the lake to swim, and have lots of adventures,” she says.

Life began at 14 when they got their first moped – and independence. Come summertime, Lot is well known for its village fêtes, so Zac travels around seeing his friends. Given where he lives, the nearest one is 15km away. “So I’m always going around; always doing a lot of miles,” he says.

Do the Meakins have any regrets? No, not really, says David. The children have had the freedom to grow up riding horses in their own ground, and they are bilingual. But it is not an easy life. “A British friend, the CEO of a large company, came to stay a couple of years ago. ‘I love your way of life. I so envy you,’ he said, and I said, ‘I’d love your money’. Very few people have both. So there are swings and roundabouts, aren’t there?”

Sarah adds: “Although life as winemakers and micro-brewers is hard in the present climate, we are still happy here. We wouldn’t change this way of life for anything.” LF