Wednesday 23 October 2019

This working life: Living in a vineyard is idyllic - and hard work

Neasa Corish Miquel: Owner Laurent Miguel Wines

Neasa Corish Miquel, owner Laurent Miguel wines
Neasa Corish Miquel, owner Laurent Miguel wines

Mary McCarthy

Alchemy

I met my husband Laurent when I was working as an au pair in France 25 years ago and moved there full-time to work in his family’s business in 2001. The Miquels have been making wine at the Cazal Viel estate in south-west France since 1789. It was the monks and the Romans before them.

When I arrived, we decided to launch and develop my husband’s own range. My job was to find an export market. From the start I was travelling loads with the wine following me on boats. I even went to China but we were too early, though we sell there now. We have since opened a second winery at Auzines at the foot of the Pyrenees and also in the Languedoc.

I look after admin, marketing and logistics. My job is to get people to taste the wine. The essence of a wine lies in how the grapes are nurtured and it’s easier to get behind one if sipping it in its picturesque vineyards so I am constantly entertaining clients, and I love this.

Laurent looks after the technical side, ensuring the right processes are in place. He is not afraid to try something new. In France tradition is absolute king in the wine-making business, so this is unusual. Recently a gamble that worked out for him was re-introducing the Albarino grape to France after an absence of 400 years. The accountants had their heads in their hands but he was determined.

Productive

We have two children, Sean, aged eight, and Lainey, who is four, so I have delegated most of the travelling and only cover the wine fairs in Europe and perhaps one other trip a month.

Thankfully in France you can drop your children to school from 7.30am and you pick them up at 5pm. It is a long day, but they only go four days a week and get a decent three-course meal.

This means I can shoehorn my work into those four days and would be super-efficient so I can be relaxed when they are off on Wednesday – it’s like a mini-weekend.

Our work is our life and the dinner table is dominated by tasting wine (our own and the competitors’) and discussing the climate and the ripening process.

My son will already smell wine and say what he thinks it reminds him of. I did my Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) qualifications and have picked up so much knowledge, but the more I learn about wine, the more I realise I don’t know. The people who know an incredible amount all have excellent memories.

Wine-making, just like any agriculture activity, is relentless at harvest time. I took part once and it is back-breaking work. We got machines in around 15 years ago which do most of it. Automation used to have a bad reputation but France is at the forefront of wine technology and the machines can pick the grapes almost one by one.

In Vino Veritas

It can be a hot house at times working in a family business. We have now moved to the new winery but, before, I was living with Laurent’s parents, with my sister-in-law nearby.

Tensions can flare when you spend so much time together, but for the same reason once differences are cleared up they don’t linger – you need to get along to get the work done. It’s the same working so closely with Laurent. Like all couples you fall out, but because you have to put grievances to one side, often disputes just clear up of their own accord.

Laurent’s family has always made me feel so welcome, though I don’t think a French mother-in-law is ever completely satisfied. I do adore her – a complete firecracker who managed to sell wine in Europe for years without a word of English.

Occupational hazard

Someone in the business years ago advised me to take milk thistle for my liver. We drink wine every day but it’s a very conscious drinking – a savouring. You would not really be drinking more than two glasses in a sitting. In Ireland I am shocked in some restaurants when my glass is filled to the brim.

I run through the vineyards to de-stress, and a few weeks ago ran the Marathon du Medoc. This is set in the vineyards of Bordeaux and involves stopping for wine and local food at least 10 times along the way. My kind of marathon.

Irish connection

Laurent is the star of the show – it’s his name on the bottle – but when customers come to visit they are surprised to see an Irish woman at the helm.

I do miss Ireland, and while living in a vineyard is idyllic it can get lonely. We spend three weeks in Ireland every summer and have opened a back office in Dublin as the Irish are great at sales, especially for our US market.

There is so much emotion to wine. If someone gave you a €1,500 bottle you would taste it in a different way compared to a €10 one, though that cheaper bottle might have appealed more to you if you had no idea on price. If you buy wine after returning from holidaying in that region you have a connection, which will enhance the taste. When people are choosing a wine they are looking for a spark. Maybe they know the area, perhaps they like your story on the bottle.

Non-alcoholic and low-alcohol wine is a growing market, but I think there is a correct balance of acidity, fruit and sugar and something feels missing to me. However, the ritual is there –popping the cork, signalling it’s time to relax – but I am sticking to rosé and holding out for a self-driving Tesla to get me home.

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