Winemaker in Languedoc
Katie Jones has fulfilled her dream of working as a winemaker in the world-renowned wine region of Languedoc-Roussillon and is now beating the French at their own game, as Fiona Webster discovers
Growing up, the idea of sitting on a terrace sipping wine produced by her own fair hand – from grape to label – seemed a romantic dream to Katie Jones yet this is exactly how the Leicestershire lass now spends her evenings in the peaceful village of Paziols, near Narbonne in Languedoc-Roussillon.
Katie swapped a secure job as a PA in the UK for a move to France and a job in a wine cooperative. She then took the plunge again – leaving to become an independent wine producer. Now she is one of France’s top specialist winemakers, with her Domaine Jones wines selling around the world.
It’s been a hard climb but she says she wouldn’t swap her new life for the world. “It’s beautiful here,” says Katie, as she opens a bottle of her gold-medal winning Fitou, in the peace of her fragrant courtyard. “Yes, it’s hard work but this area and my home are so lovely that when I go away on business all I want to do is get back to France!”
It’s certainly a long way from Katie’s childhood in the very British market town of Ashby de la Zouch in Leicestershire. Katie began dreaming about living across the Channel as a young girl, when she saw a film in which actress Britt Ekland married a Frenchman and went to France. “It all looked so idyllic!” says Katie, now 45.
Luckily Katie’s parents shared her interest in France, taking her there for holidays and when Katie went to university in Hull she chose European Studies, improving her French as she went. After university Katie worked as a PA for a French supplier to supermarkets in Southampton, developing an interest in wine.
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Holidays were spent visiting wine regions, then one day Katie decided to fulfil her dream. “On visits to France, I had been beguiled by the drama of its scenery, the charm of its villages, the warmth of its people and their obsession with winemaking,” she says. “I was in my mid-twenties, free and single, nothing was holding me back.”
“I got a job with a wine cooperative in Tuchan [in Aude], which really was a big leap into French village life. Tuchan is one hour from Narbonne and one hour from Perpignan, so you are not close to a big town.
“My parents drove me from England though the French countryside for my first day and someone from the cooperative said they had organised a house for me, so I was very excited. When we got there the house was small and dark, so I decided not to move in and booked into the local hotel instead. The next day, the people from the cooperative found me a much better place to stay.
“I was very taken with the area, which had a few British people living there, but was traditionally French. I settled in well and found speaking the language helped a lot, though it took me a few years to became fluent, which really made a difference to conversations and friendships. I never regretted the move to France and loved the area and my job, becoming the cooperative’s export sales and marketing director.
“I was eventually able to buy a small townhouse for €10,000. It had two small bedrooms and a third on a sort of mezzanine. It needed a lot of work but I loved it and set about making big changes, installing a terrace on the roof and turning it into a lovely home.
“I lived in my town house until 2006 and then sold it for €100,000 to buy a bigger place, where I live now with my new man Jean-Marc, who I met five years ago. Jean-Marc is a grower and has his wines in the co-op. We share a passion for wine and had actually known each other for many years as friends before we realised there was a spark and moved in together. So I got my Frenchman!
“Our home is traditional stone style, with five bedrooms and swimming pool. There’s a lovely outdoor area where we have lunch and supper and we’re surrounded by gardens front and back. It’s on the edge of the village, which is very quiet and not overlooked. Being near the church, it’s on higher ground, looking down over lovely views of the village and countryside.”
Despite her contentment with work, when the opportunity arose to develop her love of winemaking, Kate jumped at it. “I was happy at the co-op,” she recalls, “but then one day I happened upon a small vineyard clinging to the side of the picturesque Maury Valley and decided to become an independent wine producer.” Taking the plunge she bought seven hectares of hillside farmland, near Tuchan and in the middle of rolling countryside.
Fast forward four years and Katie is now beating the French at their own game, winning a coveted Gold Medal for her Domaine Jones Fitou at the International Wine Challenge, the world’s top wine competition. Of her white wine, one respected wine reviewer commented: “This deftly-oaked Grenache Blanc is utterly delicious. Stylish, aromatic and refreshing, with hints of orange zest, citrus fruit lift and haunting minerality.”
Katie wants her wines to capture the scents and textures of this wonderful landscape: “The whites, with the freshness of springtime in Languedoc, and the reds, laced with hints of the herbs and spices of the bucolic south.”
She gets huge pleasure from knowing people enjoy sampling her wines: “I love it when friends and customers let me know on Facebook and Twitter that they are drinking my wine and what they are drinking it with.
“I am always very critical of my own wine and we like to compare it with lots of other local wines to make sure that we are standing out from the crowd. But there is nothing more satisfying than sitting down at the end of a hard day, taking a chilled bottle of Domaine Jones white out of the fridge and pouring myself a large glass. We still find our success hard to believe but in the rare moments that we do have time to look at our achievements over the past three years, we can’t stop that big smile and feeling of satisfaction.”
Katie now exports her wine to more than 10 countries, including Japan, Germany, the US and Holland and although hard work, the business is doing well.
“We rent out the house in the summer months of July and August, which brings in an extra income, while we move into a property Jean-Marc owns,” she explains. “This summer I also used our house to accommodate the pickers we employ for the harvest. It’s great because we have five or six people of different nationalities who are just here for the summer; it’s a lovely houseful! My parents also visit quite regularly and their active part in the vineyards is a real plus.”
Now Katie is on the move again, just down the road! “We love our house in Paziols but have decided to sell it because we want to buy a property nearer to our vineyards, which are out of the village; one is a half an hour’s drive away and the other is three kilometres.
“We might go for a new property this time, but whatever it is, it will hopefully be as good an investment as my previous properties have been.”
According to property investment experts, Katie is not the only one who has made a good investment in France. Fran�ois Laforie, director at BNP Paribas (www.bnpparibas-international-buyers.com), a London-based agency specialising in investments in France and Europe says: “Our recent research, Investing and Living Abroad, has revealed that British buyers are the third highest foreign investors in French property with 9% market share.
“Our report, which is carried out annually, revealed a positive outlook, with 27% of investors already owning property outside their home country, and 42% stating that they are considering another purchase soon, with 50% focusing on France.”
The report goes on to say: “The British outlook on the French market is particularly positive, with 57% of buyers expecting prices in France to increase.”
Katie’s working day now could not be more different to her old life as a PA back in the UK. In the summer harvest season, she will get up at 5am, have coffee, then she and Jean Marc will drive to the vineyards to start work, checking the grapes and picking at 6am.
They work all morning with between four and five pickers then drive the grapes back to Tuchan where their wine cellar – which is known as The Vatican – contains all the equipment needed, such as water-cooling systems.
“We built a cold storage area for the bottled wine – three days’ work but it’s amazing what you can do with bamboo, string, rolls of insulation and an air-conditioning unit!” she laughs.
Lunch at midday is always a slow-paced affair with local produce, of course, and a chance to catch up on wine issues, which can be an unpredictable business.
“The relative lack of sunshine this July slowed down the ripening of the grapes and we were thinking that harvest would be about two weeks later than last year and that would have been great, but no! The sun decided to make up for lost time with temperatures even reaching 39�C during the whole of the month of August. So my lovely grenache gris grapes in Maury were ready for picking at the end of August.”
By evening Katie is ready to relax. “When I first got here, I would always eat outside in the sunshine,” she says. “When you become a farmer and you are spending days working out in the sun, you tend to relax more in the cool shade by the pool or under an olive tree. We will often have a barbecue, cooked by Jean-Marc, and the food is just good quality simple local fare, grilled with a sprinkling of local wild rosemary and thyme.”
Katie admits that it all sounds very idyllic. Languedoc may be a long way from Leicestershire, but as she says herself: “Je ne regrette rien!” LF