Food, wine, travel, music
Pat Neville Owner/winemaker Domaine Aonghusa, Fontjoncouse, Corbieres, France.
For Pat Neville, first generation Irish winemaker in France, making wine is a lifestyle choice. Confined office environments, dancing to someone else’s tune was never right for this maverick. The Wexford man needs space to think.
He got interested in wine while still at school, looking for something to read in the library, on philosophy perhaps. “I wanted something deep and meaningful,” he laughs. “I was a bit intense. I didn’t find anything of interest until I saw a book on the wines of Europe. There was something magical about the idea of wine expressing the character of where the fruit for it is grown.” After the Leaving Cert, as soon as he got as job in the ESB, he bought whatever wine he could afford, learning about where and how it was made.
Pat met Catherine McGuinness (Domaine Aonghusa is named after her) in June 1975 at a disco in White’s Hotel Wexford. “It was the last dance of the evening. Catherine, who came from Wexford town, was lying against a pillar in a green corduroy dress scowling at anyone who dared look at her. I was very drunk at the time so was fearless. Discos weren’t really our thing, but I arrived in from Wellington Bridge and what else was there to do on a Saturday night in Wexford in the early 70’s?” Love blossomed (and looking at them now in their late fifties it obviously still does) and they married in 1983.
Dissatisfied with the confinement of the workplace, in 1984 Pat followed another of his passions and went to study in University College Cork. “I drifted from student into the Old and Middle English end of the English department, ending up as a tutor, which is often the fate of ‘mature’ students. I liked Old and Middle English mostly because of Chaucer, who (along with Beckett) still manages to make me stop and smile at the absurdity of it all most days.”
At this stage Catherine was climbing up the corporate ladder at Apple computers and in 1994, following her job in logistics, they both left for the Netherlands. In 2001 they moved to Switzerland, getting closer and closer to vineyards. The idea of owning a vineyard was slowly becoming a shared dream. All this time, working as a translator, Technical writer for Exact in Delft and Editor for ILO (Geneva), Pat read about wine. “I did a lot of nerdy book stuff, and I did one harvest at a winery in Geneva.” Each year they would spend their holidays visiting vineyards, trying to understand why one plot of land would command a much higher price than another. By the time they bought, Pat didn’t think he knew much, but felt he could learn on the job.
The purchase in 2001 of their house, cellar and vineyard finally came after a long search. Pat was 45 at this stage and wanted to go south to somewhere warm and wild, ideally fairly close to the sea. “We were not interested in buying an up-and-running vineyard operation. They are generally very expensive. We wanted the enjoyment of learning/creating/shaping our domaine, hands-on, over five years or so”.
Their choice was in Fontjoncouse, ‘source of the rushes’, a village of 120 inhabitants. Located in the French Corbieres AC region of Languedoc Roussillon, an hour’s drive from Carcassonne, the rambling old house (across the street from the three Michelin starred Auberge du Vieux Puits) had a winery attached and an eight hectare vineyard close by.
He doesn’t recall what he paid for the property. “I was never good at sums which is just as well as that was only the start”. They paid for it with savings and by selling some shares. The house and cellar had to be refurbished, vines pulled out, more parcels of land bought and planted, some old vine parcels added as they came on the market, next door bought and refurbished. Collecting valuable wines over the years had become a hobby for Pat and proved a wise investment. Sold at a Christie’s auction in Geneva, two mixed cases of the 1982 vintage Leoville, Palmer, Canon, Calon Segur, Pavie and Grand Puy Ducasse wines funded the purchases of four hectares, including a plot of 60-year-old Grenache vines. “That was a good sale. The plot has proved very valuable to me, and those wines were not half as good as they should have been. As far as I am concerned 1982 was a very overrated year!”
From the start his aim was to make wine which expressed the region and the ‘terroir’ which includes clay limestone, shale, and scree bordered by typical garrigue growth of wild thyme, rosemary, wild pears, sweet figs, hazelnuts and almonds, perks of land ownership which Pat and Catherine relish.
Armed with the theory, Pat now had to put it into action and to get started enlisted an oenologist to help him with the first harvest in 2002. “I didn’t get on with him at the beginning, then I worked for a period on my own. In the past two years I have an excellent oenologue (Pat dips into French terms occasionally) as an advisor. Jacques Trannoy is very technical but excellent in so many other ways. As always, we try to let the soil, climate and grapes do their thing without getting too much in the way. Not as easy as it might seem.”
He avoids using chemicals as much as possible and sometimes when conditions are right he doesn’t need sulphites and other prophylactic chemicals and can call a wine a Vin Nature. The Bentouly 2011 is a delicious, bright, fresh, fruity wine. The cuvée Laval is an expression of the energy of the territory – the ‘terroir’ – and the winemaker.
All of this lack of mechanisation is hard work, and pruning in winter is solitary and relentless, but this is a man unafraid of his own company. “I’m a peasant at heart, I like the rhythm of nature”. He also keeps company with Barry McGovern reading Beckett on his MP3 player or listens to jazz and live concerts. At home he has a collection of Quad amplifiers on vintage tuners from the 70s and 80s. He likes his music.
Friends and family join him for the harvest. Pat’s brother Jim (half of wine merchants Neville and Nicholson based in Kilkenny imports his wine to sell to restaurants), but apart from this period it’s just Catherine working with him at the weekends. She still commutes weekly to her work as a logistics expert near Geneva.
Wild boars are a big problem. Electric fencing is only moderately effective and a walk through the scenic, hilly vineyards reveals deep hoofprints and battered vines. A lover of classic music, he took another route: “ I tried soothing them with the radio and found three boars sitting around the radio listening. Deers are attracted to the white noise of radio too!”
Harvest time can be heart-wrenching. The grapes were in great shape when I visited in September, but weeks later, the mizzle, the heavy rain, a lowering of the temperature all arrived at the wrong time. The Syrah needed another ten days to ripen in the sun, the Grenache was badly hit, and the Carignan remained too acid and unripe. He managed to rescue enough Graciano grapes to make 500 bottles. Luckily there are still some of the great vintages from 2005 onwards to sell.
It took ten years to get Pat to a place where he was happy with what he was producing. “We have most things in place, so next on the agenda is selling the wine more widely.” His current market is Ireland and mainland Europe. Also on the agenda is continuing to harvest fruit from the 350 olive trees he and Catherine have planted at a rate of 40 a year. They are pressed for olive oil near Narbonne, but they would like to do that themselves to preserve their organic quality. Catherine prunes the trees; she loves them. They have also planted 40 almond trees for the springtime flowers and nuts in autumn. From time to time they have a chance to look up, owning four different telescopes for deep sky and planetary observation.
“We Irish are still curious in the way that some more self-satisfied cultures no longer are, perhaps that’s why we like to make wine. We still read a lot. I think that perhaps the Irish like to try new things too and we have a why-the-fuck-not attitude to life in general!”
Despite all the challenges, the wines of Domaine Aonghusa are worth all the effort. The individuality and expression of the area are there, tasting more interesting with every glass – always a good sign. Rustic, yet elegant, flavourful yet not overblown, each wine in the range has subtle differences. Pat Neville has got it right. He expresses the area, and himself too.
Domaine Aonghusa wines are available from: Neville & Nicholson, Johnstown, Co Kilkenny: firstname.lastname@example.org
karwig wines: karwigwines.com