Basking in the September sunshine and munching on some grapes straight off the vine, I almost forgot that I was supposed to be working. Just as I was getting lost in my romantic visions of one day having a rustic chateau of my own, I was
suddenly caught off guard and brought back to reality.
“Stephanie, how can I say refractometre in English?” the affable Evelyn, one of our women winemakers, asks looking at me with great anticipation.
“Err … refractometer?” I try. Blimey, I knew the French were serious about wine, but not this much.
Myself and four journalists had headed to the Midi-Pyrenees region, in the South West of France, for a wine-tasting tour with a twist. As a Brit myself, I feel it’s safe to say when we think of French wine, our minds immediately spring
to Burgundy or Bordeaux, not Toulouse. But wine-making is increasingly becoming big business in these parts and I’d even go as far as saying that the people are just as passionate about the tipple as rugby (and if you combine the both, like I saw in Fronton’s wine-cooperative boutique left/right, then I think you’re onto a winner). Unusually for the male-dominated industry of viticulture, we were also meeting with a number of women wine-makers who are making their mark in the business with great success. Many of our lovely hosts were award-winning and their wines are celebrated for having a quintessentially ‘feminine’ touch.
For those of you who like myself aren’t wine buffs, a refractometer is a small device into which you squash a grape and then look into the tiny viewfinder to see a scale from 1 to 20. The line, wherever it is along the scale, indicates the alcohol content of the grape. In the weeks and days leading up to the harvest, Evelyn will repeat this process every day to know exactly when to pick her grapes.
As is typical of the Midi-Pyrénées wine-growing regions, Evelyn produces light red wines and refreshing rosés. Much to my astonishment, rosé is widely produced in the area and is the favoured tipple of many locals. Over tapas in Toulouse on our first evening - being relatively close to the Iberian border, the food is very much influenced by Spain – I was advised by our waiter to put ice cubes in the rosé wine which he served us. I nearly choked on my calamari and checked
that I’d heard correctly; even my boyfriend, who is a born and bed Lancashire lad, guffaws when I order a glass of rosé, let alone any French person I’ve ever met.
The only male wine-maker we met on our trip was a tall and dark gentleman called Monsieur Albert, who owns one of the largest estates in the area, Domaine de Labarthe. After a tour of the vineyard, cellars and bottling factory, he told us over tasting that the estate had been passed down from generation to generation since the 16th century and there was even evidence that someone with the name ‘Albert’ had been present on the land in the 1300s.
In 2007, he created a wine called Desirs de Labarthe and recounted, with a twinkle in his eye, the reason behind his rather unique tribute to women: “I love nothing more than watching a pretty woman with a curvy body enjoying a glass of my wine.”
With so many surprises in store over the trip, it was good to know that some things about the French never change.