David and I left the mill in Gennes to volunteer at an artisanal, biodynamic vineyard in Saussignac, in the Bergerac appellation of France. We spent a week at Chateau Feely, a picturesque vineyard overlooking green, rolling hills, with medieval towns and a castle in the distance. Although the views were amazing, we weren’t there just to sip wine and gaze upon the landscape, we were there to work. And the work was hard!
THE FEELY FAMILY
Chateau Feely is the creation of Sean and Caro Feely, a wonderful South African couple (with Irish roots) with two sweet daughters, Sophia and Ellie. For our week at the vineyard, they welcomed us into their home. It was such a lovely experience feeling a part of their family. It made me miss home and the closeness you feel sharing a dinner every night, cooking for one another, laughing, and sharing stories. It warms my heart to think about it as I write.
A WEEK ON A VINEYARD
We experienced many different aspects of life on a vineyard while working at Chateau Feely. Some tasks were fun and some were really tough. It was cool to see it all and realize that owning a vineyard is no picnic. It’s really tough work!
The first day, we helped transfer wine into different barrels, a process that allows wine makers to remove some of the sediments from the wine and/or to transfer to new casks for longterm aging. This was a fun day, where we got to spend time with Sean and learn all about wine making.
Day two, was a hard day. We helped Sean hand weed 2,500 young cabernet sauvignon vines. The work was backbreaking. Mid way through the weeding, my back was hurting so much, I began crawling from vine to vine. It took the three of us, Sean, David and me, the entire day, 8:30am-6:30pm to weed all the vines. I was thankful that only 2,500 out of Chateau Feely’s 30,000 vines are young. The older vines are weeded by machine.
The third day was more hard work, though much less so than the weeding. We helped dig trenches and plant potatoes and chives. Chateau Feely grows much of their own food organically.
Day four, we helped clean the cottage where we were staying (normally a rental gite for Chateau Feely) to prepare for new guests. And David, my gallant knight, cleaned out a spider-infested caravan that would become our new home for our last few days at Chateau Feely. David faced a good dozen large spiders to properly clean our new home. I lost my nerve and ran screaming from the van after facing only two spiders. This was a real experience of country living! Living in a rural area, I guess giant spiders are part of the picture. I’ve only seen spiders that big once before and never so many.
The fifth day was fun! We got to attend Caro on her vineyard tour and wine tasting class. It was amazing! We learned all about biodynamic wine farming, a practice that is mid-way between organic and permaculture farming. It was really interesting to learn about the benefits of organic and biodynamic wine. Traditional vineyards use a cocktail of chemicals to yield their grapes, where biodynamic vineyards use no harmful pesticides, herbicides or fungicides. So their end-product has no trace pesticides. A recent study in France found that the average traditionally farmed wines in France contain 300x the dosage of pesticides that are allowed in drinking water. I will admit complete ignorance on what that level of pesticide exposure means for your body. But we did hear a disturbing story about a young, healthy, traditional wine farmer near Bergerac who sprayed himself in the face with the pesticides he was using on his vineyard and died 6 months later from a cancer that was caused by the pesticide exposure. Disturbing stuff! and perhaps a good reason to buy organic!
In addition to learning about biodynamic farming, we got to drink wine and experiment with wine and food pairings with a lovely group of English, Irish and American couples. My favorite wines from Chateau Feely are “Grace” and “Generosite”. Grace is a yummy fruit-forward Merlot/Cabernet blend and Generosite is a delightfully smooth and citrusy Sauvignon Blanc.
For more pictures of our time at Chateau Feely click here!