The garden of Eden

An Englishman in France is moving Heaven and earth to produce fine wines, writes Anthony Fellows
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On a bend of the rocky track above Bertie Eden's vineyard you pause to savour the view over lumpy Languedoc countryside and breathe in the warm air, swirling with the scent of thyme, lavender and rosemary. Bertie does it every day but his antennae are a little more attuned, a little more romantic and considerably more business-like.

It's not just that this year's fine summer is encouraging forecasts of a vintage to match, it's that at this point, above the three terroirs which make up his vineyard he can detect the airs and breezes which affect the grapes plumping up beneath him.

To the north you can see the Black Mountains, the lowering foothills of the Massif Central. To the south, through the haze of the early afternoon, there's a tantalising glimpse of the Mediterranean and to the west the mightiness of the Pyrenees.

He points to the horizons like an earth-bound mariner. "There are mists which come off the Black Mountains in the spring morning which can create a whole different climate. You can stand here and watch a rain cloud coming up a gulley from the sea while it stays dry on the other side of the vineyard. It all makes a difference to the wine's blend and adds to the intriguing complexity, which you already have from the grapes and the way they are mixed and aged. It's all part of what I hope will make a premier cru."

Bertie (great nephew of the former PM Anthony Eden) has owned the vineyard, La Comberbelle - about one hours drive east of Caracassonne - for seven years. Trading under the label Comte Cathare - an allusion to the doomed struggle for survival by a religious sect in the 13th century who were bloodily disposed of by crusaders - he owns two other vineyards and plans to expand with three more. There are ambitious plans to build a new cave as well as a shop on the banks of the Canal du Midi a few kilometres to the south. His fifteen-strong labour force swells by 35 for the vendange with the arrival of itinerant workers from Portugal.

There is something steely eyed about Bertie, 33. His ambition is to become one of the leading wine makers in the region, no less. His very Englishness has not stopped him winning the acceptance of the locals, he has the backing of sufficiently well-resourced financiers and he clearly has acquired the viticultural know how.

"It started at home with dad," he says." He had a proper wine cellar. When people came to dinner he used to take me down there and discuss the wine and decide what we were going to give our guests. This will do for this lot, he'd say."

Out of this father-son complicity came a enthusiasm for the subject, which became a passion after working abroad in the vineyards of Australia, Tuscany and France.

"In Burgundy they test you by making you mix earth and water from a vineyard in a tasse de vin - a sort of flat saucer. You have to sip it, spit it out and then you are blindfolded and have to rely on taste to tell which wine came from which vineyard."

Bertie arrived in the Languedoc towards the end of a revolution in the area's wine growing. With such familiar wines as Minervois, Corbieres and Cotes de Roussillon, the area had long been the world's largest producer of wine with more than 300,000 hectares. But the demand for vin de table was declining and the challenge from the New World intense, so massive financial incentives were offered to the Languedociens to uproot their old crops and replace them with new, more fashionable varieties.

Bertie is all for the fashionable but what sets him apart from most of his French comrades is his determination to grow his grape by a method pioneered in the twenties by seer and philosopher Rudolph Steiner. Called bio-dynamic, it is a development of simple organic farming - relating every activity to the rhythms of the seasons and the influences of the heavens.

So along with the evocation of grapes with their resonant names - syrah, grenache, cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot - there is talk of nettles, carefully selected cow dung, camomile and dandelion.

It sounds, well, eccentric.

"It's all about working the land in harmony with nature and recognising that there are external forces, such as the moon and planetary forces," says Bertie. "I plant to coincide with the old moon and spray when it is new. I get cow shit for my compost from a specific area in the Pyrenees, where the farmers - who do not use any fertilisers - are famous for the quality of their beef. It is selected for me by an expert. I add a mix to the compost made of such ingredients as camomile and dandelion which are picked at a particular time to give maximum energy. For example, the dandelion has to be picked on certain day, just as it opens and before it is attacked by the bees. I make all the herbs into a ball and push it deep into the compost and spray with valerian.

"I don't use any chemicals. I make a tisane of the nettles which I spray on the crop, preferably on a still night because the heat of the day is not a good time. The nettles are full of calcium which is good against uninvited insects.

"It's a good thing to burn the insects which are threatening the crop, mix with ash, sprinkle and plough back in. I tried it with snails and they all disappeared, though that might be because the weather changed or something."

So how does the relationship with the moon and the stars work? Bertie works to a calendar - a bible for the bio-dynamic farmer.

Take a completely arbitrary date - 22 April 1996. A Monday. Gemini in front of the moon, moon on the way up. Earth: light. The calendar instructs the grower to work on his roots until 7pm and then to concentrate on the flowers after 8pm.

"Working with a chemical culture is a nine-to five-job,"says Bertie. "But this means you have to work when the forces indicated in the calendar demand. Some would rather not be working late at night by moonlight, but some understand. I once asked an old boy where the best place for nettles was and he instantly realised what I was after."

But does it make any difference?

"I'm sure it does, the vines have greater vigour, there are no yellowy leaves, everything is nice and green. And maybe the wine will taste better."

Under the ground in his cellar it is all a matter of taste. Barrels of Syrah, sharp and challenging wait to be blended with the mellower Grenache. We sip and spit and savour, trying to be knowledgable about oaky flavouring and tannin. Ultimately, whatever the science of the moon, the influence of the wind from the north, even the subtle distillation of the wild lavender, the success of the crop will depend on Bertie's taste buds.

"I hope that what I like to drink and what I want to make, might sell. I want to be honest to the fruit."

He offers a glass of St Chinian, Comte Cathare '95. Red, warm and mellow.

"In eight months time this will be exploding with perfume and opulence. Smacking the back of your throat."

I took a crate.

Vignobles Cathares SC, Chateau Mans, 34210 La Liviniere, Languedoc,France.

Tel:0033 46891 4263

Fax: 0033 468916215

Internet: www.comtecathare.com

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