Living the Dream: Château les Hauts de Caillevel, Bergerac Wine Region, SW France

Winery proprietors Sylvie Chevallier and Marc Ducrocq are living their dream at Château les Hauts de Caillevel.   Nearly twenty years ago, after careers in the corporate world, they decided to change course, live in the country, raise their children in a pastoral setting and make wine.    Sylvie and Marc see themselves as partners with nature in the creation of wines from their property.

After successfully completing oenology courses, Sylvie and Marc settled themselves at Chateau les Hauts de Caillevel in 1999 with the objective of making wine in the most environmentally friendly way they could.   This approach culminated in their official certification as a “Bio” or a biologique/ organic farm in 2010, an achievement that deservedly gives them a sense of pride and satisfaction.

The vineyard is located high above the river valley on the plateau village of Pomport; approximately 20 minutes drive from Bergerac.   Château les Hauts de Caillevel offers camping facilities as well as tastings to visitors.  It’s a relatively small wine producer farming 18 hectares of which 8.70 hectares are red grapes and 9.30 hectares are white grapes and they produce eleven different wines.

Driving along their expansive drive to the house and vineyard office, I feel the peaceful calm of this pastoral setting at the edge of the escarpment, which faces across the valley to neighboring villages.   It’s the same sense of benign energy I have felt at another Bio winery in the Region, where I expected to see a unicorn appear from the surrounding woods at any moment.

It’s a chilly, misty December day and we are dressed warmly for the weather.  I have made an appointment to visit the winery and meet Sylvie Chevallier on the recommendation of a colleague in the Confrèrie du Raisin D’Or de Sigoulès, the wine confrèrie I have had the pleasure of being a member of for several years.     Sylvie Chevallier has a reputation for making good wine, recognized by the Guide Hachette.   She is also someone who is recognized for her significant contribution to the area through her community work over the years.

December is a busy time for winemakers and so I appreciate the opportunity to visit this winery, which I did not know about previously.

As it turned out, Sylvie had other vineyard priorities she had to attend to on the morning of our visit.  Undeterred, we have the pleasure of meeting her husband Marc.   Over a coffee and warmed by the wood burning stove in their office, we settle down for an interesting conversation with Marc about wine making at Château les Hauts de Caillevel.

Several things stand out from that conversation that imply to me that here are two people who are risk takers and confident in their vision of making their own path in the wine-making world.

After completing their oenology training, they learnt about winemaking on the job with the help of external, experienced wine consultants.

They include in the suite of grape varieties that they grow an indigenous grape variety in the region called Périgord Noir, which has a lower alcohol by volume percentage than the typical varieties. In this way, they believe they are responding to the trend of consumers wanting to enjoy wine but with lower alcohol levels.

They grow Chenin Blanc, a grape variety more usually associated with the Loire Valley in France and in South Africa.   According to AOC regulations, this variety can be blended in small quantities in the Bergerac Region white wine and Sylvie and Marc use Chenin in this way.   They also make a 100% single varietal Chenin Blanc wine outside the AOC Bergerac Wine Region framework.   I am interested to taste this as Chenin Blanc produces some of the greatest white wines in both Touraine and Anjou-Saumur in the Loire Valley. It’s a white wine that ages well.

We have a wide-ranging conversation and exchange of ideas about wine making both in France and Canada.   We also talk about the trend to organic winemaking and the overall reduction in chemical usage, whether vineyards are formally certified Bio or not, that is widespread across the Bergerac Wine Region.

Towards the end of our visit, I ask Marc what was the biggest surprise in being a wine-maker over the years?   His immediate response was the effect of nature and how one is at the mercy of the weather. His view is that wine-makers have to be a fatalist to accept what the weather brings.   It’s an important reality check to hear this comment.   I expect that wine makers also have to an overarching sense of optimism to cope with the unpredictability of nature.

After a pause, Marc also comments that the other surprise for him is how difficult it is to market wine due to various complications in the related processes.       He feels this is a real issue for the smaller local wine producers, who can have difficulty making a living.

We run out of time to taste the wines of Chateau Les Hauts de Caillevel and so a return visit in 2018 will be planned.     We do take a quick tour of the tasting room and I buy several wines including the 100% Chenin and a 2015 red, called Ebène, which is a Cabernet Franc and Merlot blend, to enjoy at home.

I appreciated Marc’s candour about the realities of being a wine chateau proprietor.  Having the opportunity to visit and speak personally with winery proprietors in this way is for me, what makes wine come alive;  recognizing that flow from grape to glass.  

I look forward to a return visit.

References:   http://www.leshautsdecaiilevel.com

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