I love a good rosé but sometimes feel like the world of oenology and viticulture is a too complicated collage of mystery and secrecy to ever feel knowledgeable enough about wine. I know I prefer a Pinot Noir to Cabernet, and Chablis to Sancerre but when I first arrived in the Var, I didn’t know much about how wine was really made.
So I was excited when I met Jeany and her wine-making English husband Stephen Cronk right here in Cotignac, the heart of Provence Verte. Their step-by-step process can be seen in plain English, with taste and humour, colour and fun, on blogs and videos on the Mirabeau wine website. Stephen explains the process in laymen’s terms – everything from testing the grapes for ripeness, harvesting the grapes, designing labels, the advantages of screw-caps, the bottling process, AOC (the French certification granted to certain wines in order to limit yields and use only certain grape varieties) to the concept of terroir. But the journey from grape to wine is not always a smooth one as things can and do go wrong (like designing and ordering 30,000 grey bottle caps but receiving them all in gold). But in some videos (like the one about harvesting) Stephen doesn’t need to talk at all. The pictures speak volumes.
The Cronks’ story of how they got here was just as entertaining. Just over four years ago, Stephen took the huge leap from cushy Telecoms job in London, and Jeany from her small design business, to making wine in sleepy Provence. The entire family blew caution to the wind and took a chance; a dream but a risk too, by any measure, in this very competitive market – never mind the part about them not being French. One just needs peering down a wine aisle in a large supermarket to understand how fierce the competition is when it comes to Rosé.
At first they had thought that settling in Aix-en-Provence would be the wise decision. After all, there are reputable international schools there for their children and plenty of Anglophones. But a friend and colleague, Tom Bove (once owner of Chateau Miraval who then sold to that famous Hollywood couple and their ever growing family) discouraged them. He suggested Jeany and Stephen to go to Cotignac and send their kids (like he did) to French public schools and drench themselves in French culture. It would be counter-productive , he implied, to isolate themselves in the expat world especially if their dream was making wine in the region. This may have been the best advice for the Cronks.
But, why wine? Well, Stephen had a dream that began long ago when travelling as a young adult in Australia. He camped out in vineyards and fell in love with the beauty of the countryside, the vines, and his first (and last) bottle of Australian Chablis (the French banned any other wine producing countries from using French wine names shortly after). This led him to start a wine and coffee business in Wandsworth (South-West London), in his mid-20s. After selling this business, he went into telecommunications where he travelled to many countries and gained lots of sales and marketing experience. But for Stephen, selling sub-sea cables systems and being away from his family (or alternatively working in his office and staring at white walls) just wasn’t his thing. So one day, he brought up the idea (on a cold and drizzly English day) of going back to his dream of winemaking with his wife and they spontaneously found the courage (or experienced a moment of insanity, some might call it) to pack up, sell their house, and move the family to Provence whilst going against the social norms and expectations to stay put and not “rock the boat“. In the face of so many who said “it’ll never work“, and having considered the financial responsibilities required in raising a family abroad, the Cronks dived into it anyway.
The move was frightening, yes, but this couple had enthusiasm, charm, humour, and some expert help and luck along the way. Jeany used her talent at learning languages as well. Being a native German speaker, she quickly adapted to French and speaks it fluently these days. It helped too, no doubt, that the entire family are strikingly good looking, social and enjoy meeting new people while assimilating into rural French village life. Connections, after all, are what one really needs in the wine-making world and Stephen has been supported by an old friend of his who is a Master of Wine winemaker and also by an Australian winemaker who has been working in the south of France for over twenty years. And so they realised their dream of making their wine and even drank it too.
The 2010 Mirabeau Rosé was the Cronks’ very first wine and I still remember the experience – I was so pleasantly surprised that I didn’t want to rush it. It was just my luck too, that it was served alongside a luscious bouillabaisse. When tasting wine, one takes 5 “S” steps: see, swirl, sniff, sip, savour. The wine’s pale magenta struck me as different from the usual salmon or pale peach colour. “Our very first wine is made from Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault grape varieties and the vineyards enjoy their own special micro-climate in the foothills between two beautiful mountains, Mont Aurélien to the south and Mont Saint-Victoire to the north. The relatively high altitude of between 300-400m above sea level means we get cooler nights and longer ripening periods, which is why the wine has that lovely crisp acidity” said Stephen. The fragrance had hints of red fruits (strawberries in particular) yet the taste thankfully dry, followed by a lovely crisp aftertaste. I loved it. And I love many rosés (I wouldn’t be living in this region otherwise) but this one spoke to me.
When I asked Jeany what she would advise anyone (not French) wishing to follow in their steps of making wine in the South of France she said, “learn the language or expect to be taken for a ride.” Before she moved to France she expected the worst of the French, she added, which helped in being pleasantly surprised at every turn. The other important thing to know is to not go into wine making thinking you’ll make a big profit right away. “There is a saying in the wine business, which is that you can make a small fortune in wine, so long as you start with a large fortune” Stephen told me. It can take years before making any real money after investing a fairly large amount in order to set up the business or buy a vineyard (the most expensive choice). But with some marketing savvy on the part of good friends, their own talents and the connections they have made, the Cronks hope that they will attract enough attention in getting wine lovers (like me) to taste their wine…then come back to beg for more while the demand explodes, particularly in the UK and US.
The Cronks took the mystery and French-snob-factor out of wine making for me. I finally feel like I have a basic understanding – and appreciation (particularly after viewing their website) of how wine is made and what it takes to make it without the headaches from listening to or reading too much flowery French. Their 2013 rosé is even better and this year they’ve launched their new, peachier version called PURE – a knockout! For more information: www.mirabeauwine.com
Mirabeau Rosé sells in the UK, at Waitrose for £8.99 a bottle and marketed in conjunction with the BRIT PACK, a group of English wine makers in Languedoc and Provence region. Their wines will soon be available for purchase at their shop in Cotignac village at La Falaise.