The Domaine by Lidewij Van Wilgen, pt.3
Published by Roberson Wine on 14/08/2017
At the height of her career, Lidewij Van Wilgen gave up her job at Saatchi in Amsterdam to start a new life in the French countryside and become a wine maker, producing the beautiful Mas des Dames. She wrote a book about her experience, Het Domein (The Domaine), which became a best seller in The Netherlands.
The winery is like an island. We’re all alone in this sea of green fields. Every once in a while, out in the distance I see a farmer on an old tractor looking in our direction. I follow his gaze, see our brand new machinery glinting in the sun in front of the cellar, and wonder what he makes of it all.
In the shade of the almond tree in front of the wine cellar, Siebe, our vintner, is talking to Bruno, our main worker. I stare at the white jerry cans on the ground with their death heads and choking fish symbols. I kneel down to read one of the labels: très nocif pour le milieu aquatique - highly toxic to aquatic organisms. I think of the small stream down below and the little fish swimming in it. ‘Is it really necessary to do so much spraying?’ I ask. Bruno frowns at me. Suddenly, I see myself as if from a distance, the city girl in her trendy skirt. What would I know about weed killers and pesticides?
Four days later, Adrien and I drive two anxious little girls to school. As we park our sleek blue Land Rover between two old Peugeots, I feel ill at ease – it’s shocking to see just how out of tune we are with our surroundings. At the school gate several small groups of women are chatting idly. Adrien's jovial 'Bonjour!' is acknowledged, albeit grudgingly, but is followed quickly by a resounding silence. These people all know each other; we are complete outsiders. Intruders almost.
When we walk outside Adrien puts his arm around me. His attempts at reassuring me are quickly smothered by a scene in my mind’s eye that is so overpowering it leaves me gasping: Marijn, sitting on the floor in a beam of sunlight at her Montessori school back in Haarlem. I feel the tears welling up as I picture the jigsaw puzzles spread around her, the children's artwork hanging on the walls, all her little friends. What on earth are we doing here?
'Hey, that’s a perfect job for me!’ I say a few days later when Siebe is about to send Mia back into the vineyards to test the grapes for ripeness. Siebe fires me an admonishing look. ‘No, no,’ he says, gesturing at me to sit down. ‘Look, for this kind of work you have to be systematic. You can't just pick one hundred individual grapes at random; you have to have a system.
‘Fine,’ I say, ‘then I'll choose a couple of different rows in each section, and I'll make sure to pick at different heights.’ I stand up to go but Siebe doesn’t move, so I sit down again. He sighs and says: ‘No, Lidewij, I can't let you do this, no way. We’ve been using Mia's system right from the start. The results wouldn't be consistent if I suddenly let someone else pick the samples. It’s just not possible, sorry.’
‘Are we going to harvest the grapes soon?’ I ask Siebe when he stops by that afternoon. ‘Harvest? Us?’ He regards me with something approaching pity, the silly child who's asked yet another stupid question. ‘Lidewij,’ he says wearily, ‘you have to understand that our quality criteria are a lot different from those of a cooperative. They have to gather the grapes on time from a host of different coopérateurs. So they have to start early. But we can wait until that precise moment of optimal ripeness.’
He takes a grape from one of the bags on the kitchen counter. ‘Here, take a look at the seed.’ He pops a grape into his mouth and then shows me the seed on the end of his index finger. ‘See the tip of the seed? It's still green. A grape isn't ripe until the seed has gone completely brown.’ I put a grape into my own mouth and take out the seed. He’s right; the top of it is still green - not yet ripe. ‘You can taste the seed as well,’ he goes on. ‘A ripe one has a roasted-almond flavour, not that sour, greenish taste.’ He takes another grape and bites it in half. ‘Look at this one. Do you see that? The seed is still stuck to the flesh. In a grape that is ripe the seed comes away real easy.’
I have just learned three extremely useful empirical criteria, with the result that I end up eating a lot more grapes over the next few days than is strictly necessary. I get a kick out of being able to follow the grapes' maturation process myself now using this simple, timeworn method. It comes as no surprise to me a week later when Siebe announces that the grenache blanc grapes are ready for harvesting. I had already come to the exact same conclusion myself.
As Mas des Dames' UK importer, we're publishing a series of excerpts from Lidewij's book. Read excerpt one: First Impressions and excerpt two: Where I'm From now - and check back soon for the next part.
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