Pat and Bob Middleton

A French Connection

26th October 2018

Inspired by a certain 1980s book, Francophiles Pat and Bob Middleton swapped life in Chorleywood for French rural idyll and, with no relevant experience whatsoever, took the risk of buying a vineyard in the foothills of the Cevennes. They’re shortly returning to British soil to talk about their life as novice vignerons and to showcase the results of their labour. Anne Miller reports…

Who among readers of a certain age enjoyed A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle (pub. 1989) and longed to move to the South of France to spend their days in the sunshine, with nothing more taxing to do than write their memoirs and eat fresh figs for breakfast? Fans couldn’t get enough of Mayle’s descriptions of the magnificent Provençal countryside and his hilarious anecdotes about dodgy plumbers, unscrupulous lawyers and chatty farmers’ wives.

Mayle, who stayed in France until his death earlier this year, followed up his best-seller in 2004 with the novel A Good Year (later made into a film starring Russell Crowe), about a City trader who inherits a run-down chateau with its own vineyard near Avignon. Thousands of Brits packed their bags to follow in their wake, believing that all it took to live the dream was to find a shabby French farmhouse with a well-stocked wine cellar.

Not all those starry-eyed Brits succeeded however, but one couple who have managed to turn their dream into reality are the Middletons of Chorleywood. Just a year after buying a vineyard in the Languedoc region of Southern France, Pat and Bob Middleton have harvested their own grapes and six months later, watched the final product rolling off the bottling carousel, with even the notoriously sniffy French raising a glass in admiration.

Married with two grown-up children, novice vignerons Pat and Bob are in their early 60s, have lived in Chorleywood for 24 years and describe themselves as being “a good vintage, mature and well-rounded, with no after taste,” even if their offspring vaguely disagree. “Our kids think we’ve gone bonkers!” they say of the new venture.

Pat is a former marketing manager at both Brunel University and Bucks Chilterns University College and Bob owns his own companies in the energy sector, running several hydro-electric stations in Scotland and England. Both are inveterate Francophiles and Bob, who has a chemistry degree, was always fascinated by what he calls “the myriad of chemical transformations from the grape to the bottle. And I always plunge straight in with projects!”

Twenty years ago they turned down a vineyard in Bordeaux. In August 2017, feeling that it was ‘now or never,’ they acquired Domaine les Caizergues, a former 19th century magnanerie (silk works) in the foothills of the Cevennes, and set about creating their own wines. Remarkably, they have already been recognised as a récoltant – the official designation for a private estate that sells its own-label wines - and have taken their first steps towards gaining the coveted eco (organic) accreditation.

Of course, it hasn’t all been straightforward. Even Mayle found Provençal tradesmen to be rather laissez-faire and, memorably, Crowe’s character’s early attempts at wine-making smelled ‘like a gendarme’s socks.’ The French can also be very snooty, especially if they think les anglais are beating them at their own game, so how did a Home Counties couple cope with both the practicalities of wine-production and the arcane practices of French bureaucracy?

Regarding the first hurdle, the pair laugh as they talk about Philippe, an old retainer who had worked for the vineyard’s previous owners, and who, initially at least, was very sceptical about his new employers. “He’s quite a character,” Pat says diplomatically, before describing Philippe in terms Mayle himself would appreciate.

“He’s in his 50s, he smokes stubs like a chimney and talks non-top in heavily accented French, wears a bleu [blue all-in-one] and shrugs his shoulders a lot.” Stereotypes aside, all was going well until the Middletons took on extra hands for the harvest, only to find Philippe and wine-maker Ludovic locking horns in a protracted contretemps.

“I was in the UK and kept getting these phone calls from Philippe telling me that Ludovic was très désorganisé (badly organised), didn’t know his métier (job) and that he was ruining our terroir (land),” says Pat.

After several tense conversations in Franglais (frequently peppered with merde! by Philippe), Pat finally worked out that Philippe’s main objection to Ludovic was that the ladder he’d bought to reach the vats in the cellar was trop courte (too short).
As for the second challenge, the Middletons found the French legal system and employment laws “positively labyrinthine”. Far less is done online than over here; everything has to be produced in triplicate and their flamboyant notaire (local solicitor) was “short, stocky, with a hat and plenty of panache,” and held court at every meeting. One particularly tedious appointment with him didn’t start until 6pm and dragged on until not far short of midnight.

Deciphering payslips is a nightmare – “the French have yet to discover PAYE” – but fortunately, the name Middleton does carry considerable clout with French passport officials: ‘Ah, Meedle-tonn, comme la princesse et Peepah’ (‘Oh, Middleton, like the princess and Pippa’) they smile indulgently as they wave Bob and Pat through. The Middletons are not, as it happens, related to the Middletons, but no matter.

Already, their wines are proving popular with their French neighbours and early sales to local cavistes (specialist wine retailers) and restaurants are going well. One customer turned her Gallic nose up at the idea of ‘English’ wine but otherwise, the reception on both sides of the Channel has been overwhelmingly positive.

They are soon to launch their online shop, enabling the British to buy their wines, which will cost from £9.95 to £14.95 per bottle. As well as taking advice from an oenologue (wine expert), the Middletons also commissioned a communications specialist – former advertising executive Mayle would no doubt approve – to rebrand their products. The result is an impressive new label for their bottles, featuring a zig-zag of threads, a nod to Domaine les Caizergues’ role in the silk trade.

With the same history in mind, two of their wines bear the name Les Tisserands (weavers); and two are called Les Magnarelles (after the women who cultivated the silk worms). Pat explains that the white Les Tisserands is wonderfully aromatic, with hints of apple and pineapple, while the red smacks of ripe red stone fruits with a suggestion of chocolate underneath, which she says makes it the perfect everyday supper wine – without the merest soupçon of socks.

The Les Magnarelles white is more full-bodied and the rosé bursts with flavours of raspberry and strawberry and, at 14%, has a higher alcohol content than most rosés. The top of the range, Les Armoriers, a more sophisticated, structured red, is named after the mulberry trees that nourished the silk worms.

Fans of Peter Mayle may remember that A Year in Provence became one of the most successful travel books of all time, selling more than a million copies in the UK and six million internationally; and that A Good Year inspired one of the most scenic films of 2006. So can we expect the Middletons to commit their experience to paper, or a film crew to descend upon Domaine les Caizergues?

“I’m not sure our house is quite Russell Crowe-worthy,” admits Pat. “Every time I look I see more work to be done. But it has stunning views on all sides and you can reach the Cevennes hills in minutes.”

And when she tells me that the property is within an easy drive of several airports, I too start packing my bags. And my wine-carrier, naturellement.

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