Ever fancied making your own wine? Judging by the number of people who tell me they’re considering a change of lifestyle, moving to somewhere where the sun shines and no one has ever heard of Tesco, there’s a strong possibility that you have. My response is always the same: don’t do it unless you’ve considered the risks involved, or have so much spare cash that you’re willing to lose some — or even most — of it.
Vineyard ownership is seductive. Who hasn’t dreamt of gazing out over a few sun‑dappled hectares at harvest time, rousing yourself from the post-croissant breakfast table to go and pick a few grapes? Alas, the reality is a good deal less romantic. Even if you have a good harvest, you’ve only just begun. Making wine is the comparatively easy bit; finding someone to drink it is much, much tougher.
If you think I’m exaggerating, get hold of a copy of a new computer game called Wine Tycoon (winetycoon.gotgameentertainment.com), which launched in the United States this month at $19.99. The slightly implausible aim of the game is to become a wine baron, investing in one of 10 French wine regions. You have to build the winery, plant and manage the vineyard, hire the staff and process the grapes. It would be even more life-like if it included having to deal with Gallic bureaucracy.
Still determined to go ahead? Then the first thing you should do is visit a few vineyards. You don’t need to go overseas. Look at the website of the United Kingdom Vineyards Association (www.englishwineproducers.com/ukva) and find someone local. Believe me, if you can make wine in England (or Wales) you can do it anywhere. Ask questions, especially about the financial side of the business.
Once you’ve done that, sign up for a winemaking course. You can do this in the UK, too. Plumpton Agricultural College does everything from a degree in wine production to a five-day intensive course (www.plumpton.ac.uk) that covers the basics. I’d be tempted to do the latter, as it could be the best £450 you ever spend…
There are ways of minimising your start-up costs, too. Rent cellar space and equipment, buy grapes (as opposed to owning vines), preferably in a region where growers are desperate to off-load their crop, and do as much of the work as you can yourself. Make half-decent wine at a fair price and you have a chance of success.
I’ve toyed with the idea of making wine myself. I even had a small piece of unplanted vineyard land in the Languedoc for a while and was tempted to give it a go. Get the formula right (and marketing is a huge part of it) and there are still opportunities to start from scratch, not just in France, but in Spain, Italy, Portugal and South America.
Working on the land can be a very fulfilling experience. Plus you get to drink the results, possibly in even greater quantities than you envisaged.
But for all that, I’m a wine critic, not a winemaker, at heart. I’m going to play Wine Tycoon while I sip a wine made by someone else. As the game is all about France, I’ve narrowed my choice down to four current favourites: the fresh, unoaked, easy-quaffing 2007 Bouchard Vin de Pays de l’Aude Pinot Noir (£6.08, 13%, Asda); the spicy, robust 2007 Domaine Les Yeuses Les Epices Syrah, Vin de Pays d’Oc (£6.99 each for two, 13.5%, Majestic); the taut, bone-dry 2008 Pouilly-Fumé La Côte Blanche, Domaine Alain Cailbourdin (£11.99, 13%, Marks & Spencer) and the lightly oaked, beautifully balanced 2007 Girardin Bourgogne Blanc, Cuvée St Vincent (£13.99, 13%, www.laithwaites.co.uk). That’s as close as I want to get to owning a vineyard, but don’t let me put you off.★
Originally published in The Observer