Century, £12.99 / John Murray, £18.99
Is there no end to the Mayle train? It seems we just can't get enough of the doing-up-farmhouse-in-Provence book, the falling-in-love-with-olive-groves-in-Liguria book, or the producing-my-first-vintage book. Comic tribulations and lyrical descriptions are obligatory, along with a cast of colourful locals and visiting rosbifs. Falling into the alcoholic category of this genre, both these books are rather superior efforts and enjoyably informative, if not without toe-curling moments.
Although she doesn't mention it, Patricia Atkinson was once a London banker. She threw over this exciting life for the dreary slog of being a winemaker in the Dordogne. Her story starts when her husband James, almost on a whim, snaps up a house with four-hectare vineyard, but you know the relationship is heading for the rocks from the brief biography that names her as "the sole proprietor of Clos d'Yvigne".
Everything seems hunky-dory at first. "Fairy landscape... heady scent of lavender and rosemary... sun-drenched peace and happiness..." Zzzzz... Sorry, where was I? Local colour is provided by local drunk Roger and his nose, "truly enormous, wide and mountainous". We're even given a photograph.
There's nothing like a good dose of Schadenfreude to add interest, and the book takes off when things start to go radically wrong. Atkinson wonderfully describes the back-breaking toil of her first harvest and the sour result. "Can't we bottle it as vinegar?" she inquires hopefully. Her husband takes to his bed, then gradually disappears from the narrative.
Atkinson's vivid account of simultaneously tangling with the French language, the techniques of modern wine-making and the fearsome machinery required for tending the vines is unexpectedly enthralling. Though the book tails off - the inclusion of doggerel by one of her English pickers is explained when you learn of his early death - you end up admiring this plucky, warm-hearted woman and lusting to sample her vinous output. Following the success of her second harvest, Atkinson's wines were snapped up by Justerini & Brooks, and she expanded her vineyards.
Patrick Moon offers a more vicarious account of wine-making. A London lawyer, he awards himself a year's sabbatical when his uncle Milo bequeaths him a picturesque but decrepit house in Languedoc. Though he doesn't own a single vine, he follows the progress of Vergile, a dedicated if penurious young wine-maker. Manu, a rarely sober producer of the old vinegary school, provides comic relief. Historical background on Languedoc, a much more interesting part of France than Dordogne, is provided through informal seminars by Moon's wealthy neighbour Krystina. Possibly largely fictitious, she expresses eagerness to engage in some one-on-one tuition, though Moon manfully resists.
In this roundabout way, Moon conveys a host of information about this fascinating corner of France and its main product. He does not share Patricia Atkinson's slightly misty-eyed view of la France profonde, noting that his neighbours are not above flogging him truffles from his own land (did you know flies are as good as pigs for discovering them?) Still, by the end, Vergile is urging him to stay and make wine himself. Quite right too: the world could certainly do with more wine-makers and and fewer lawyers.Reuse content