British expats Cathy Mawer and Nigel Henton live and work in the beautiful Loire Valley, a famous wine region in France where they own and manage Le Tasting Room.
They both say they miss few things from the UK apart from the country pub, a pint of proper beer (Nigel) and decent bacon (Cathy)! They love the slower pace of life, the lack of traffic and being close to a product that is “both our business and passion”. Making the decision to move to France was easy for them but the first couple of years were hard work as they found many aspects of French life that are different. For anyone considering a move to France Nigel says “take the plunge and if possible learn the language”. The Good Life France agrees totally with Nigel and Cathy that the more fluent you are the more you can integrate into society and become a part of the community.
We asked Cathy to tell us a bit more about where they live and what it’s like to set up a wine tasting holiday and tour business in France…
Tell us a bit more about your background, where you’re from and why you chose the Loire, France
Funnily enough Nigel and I come from within half an hour of each other although we didn’t meet until 2003 when we were studying viticulture and winemaking at Plumpton in Sussex. I’d worked in the UK wine trade in the South of England since I was 19 and had the desire to study the practical side of wine – quite difficult in England as there are few places that offer this kind of qualification. Nigel was in farming yet always harboured a secret passion for wine and so decided to switch careers to viticulture and ran a vineyard in South East England (Breaky Bottom) for 2 years after qualifying. In 2006 we were looking to buy a house together and with our joint experience thought that France would be perfect for us. We flew over to France and looked at houses both in the Loire and Bordeaux but were immediately struck by the beauty and architecture of the Loire as well as its diversity of wine styles – a perfect place to set up a business in wine. The fact that we are well served with local airports, the TGV and within easy driving distance of the coastal ports was a plus too. Growers in the Loire are down to earth and approachable and their wines offer amazing quality at an affordable price. It was an easy decision to make!
What is your winemaker’s home like? Did you have to do much work to it?
Our house is an old winemaker’s home which was sympathetically restored by the previous owners who were both architects. They attached what would have been a very simple three room house to the old barn behind that would have previously been used for keeping animals and grain storage. The result is a living space on lots of different levels and bags of character. All the basics had been done (new wiring, plumbing, fosse septic etc.) which enabled us to move in and put our own mark on it. We’ve done lots of work ourselves since then, such as having lovely new oak doors made, re-roofing the front of the house and arranging our working space to create the ‘tasting room’. As we were looking to establish a business here, we weren’t looking for a restoration project and this property was perfect.
What do you love about where you live in France?
We live in a tiny hamlet about a 15 minute walk from what must be one of the prettiest riverside villages along the Loire so that gives us pleasure all year round. Although in a rural situation the GR3 (one of France’s mapped walks) runs alongside the house so we see a lot of activity with walkers, runners and cyclists, particularly during the summer months which is lovely as they often stop and admire our front garden where we have a few vines and grow all our herbs and a few veg.
The pace of life here is gentle and unhurried which we love and the locals have welcomed us with open arms which has been fantastic. If we need a ‘city’ fix then we are only just over half an hour from Angers, a small vibrant city that does not rely on tourism and is busy all year round. The Loire valley is known as the garden of France and it’s been a change and a pleasure to eat more seasonally than we did in the UK. The arrival of the asparagus in May, the little mirabelles, pêches de vignes or the walnuts dropping off the trees and the autumn mushrooms all give us huge pleasure although it has meant changing our way of shopping. Here you have to see what’s available and then decide what to cook rather than the other way round. We’re both very keen cooks though so we’ve enjoyed the challenge. Of course it’s also a big plus to be able to buy wine direct from the producers and to have personal relationships with many of them.
Do you grow any grapes/make wine yourselves?
No, we don’t. When we bought the house we didn’t rule out the possibility of buying a vineyard but as our business has developed we have focussed on wine education and tourism. Many of the producers we work with have become friends over time and for a couple of years while the business was in its infancy we worked part-time in the vineyards over the winter months which was great for keeping us in touch with what’s happening at grass roots level without the financial commitment ourselves! We do have a dozen vines in the front garden (6 Chenin Blanc & 6 Cabernet Franc) which we use to illustrate the vine’s life cycle to our guests.
Was it difficult for you to set up a business in France?
If we were being honest we would have to say that it was fairly complicated. Everybody we spoke to recommended we set ourselves up in a different way and in the end we settled upon a limited company (SARL) which although having many benefits also incurs a lot of paperwork and heavy social contributions. Despite having good French we used an accountant who spoke good English to make sure we understood all the ramifications and red tape. Five years down the line we are much more at ease with the French system and our business is going from strength to strength every year.
What is your preference red or white wine?!
I’ve been through phases preferring one or the other and if you had asked me the same question 10 years ago I would have said red without hesitation. Since moving here we’ve been struck by the delicious whites so I would say on balance that we probably drink at least as much white as red. Like most people we drink more white and rosé during the summer months and more red during the winter. The Loire is such a varied region with so many different wine styles that it’s impossible to become bored as there’s so much choice.
The wine in my glass! I have such a diverse taste in wine and take such pleasure from the many different wine styles that it would be impossible to pick one out. It depends upon what I’m eating, who I’m with, what kind of mood I’m in, the weather… My favourite wines are always those that are shared with family and friends – those are the moments I remember the most. To narrow it down a bit I would say it would probably be ‘old world’ in style. I love the wines from here in the Loire of course but also have a real weakness for Italian reds, Austrian Grüner Veltliner, great German Riesling and nothing beats a tip-top dry Sherry as an aperitif.
Can you tell us what Le Tasting Room offers…?
We offer a variety of wine tours and wine education that cater for the complete beginner to the wine professional. Big believers in demystifying the world of wine we feel that it should be accessible to everyone at every level. Our most popular day by far is the Loire Wine Discovery which comprises of a morning’s wine tasting here in our tasting room, a 3 course home cooked lunch in our old barrel maturation cellar beneath the house and then a guided winery visit in the afternoon. It’s a great introduction to the diverse range of wine styles and grape varieties that make up the region as a whole and the chance to meet like-minded people. We provide ‘slow’ wine tours, taking our time over a long lazy lunch like the French and do just one winery visit in the afternoon. Our guests are often surprised that our business is also our home and that adds a special touch. It’s also different to most wine tours on offer in that the majority of the day is spent on our premises.
People go away at the end of the day with a real understanding of the region and its wines and each day is tailored to suit the interests and knowledge of those there. We only work with small groups of 6 which keeps it really personal. We really do feel that our visitors come as clients and leave as friends. Some spend two or three days with us in which case we tailor-make a schedule to suit them including the basic introductory tasting and then more winery visits on subsequent days in the different appellations that surround us.
We’re well situated between Angers and Saumur so can easily get to the dry white appellations of Savennières and Anjou, the luscious sweets in the hills of the Layon or the reds from Chinon, Bourgueil and Saumur Champigny. We welcome people from all over the world which is wonderful and as we spend an entire day together have plenty of time to swap life stories. Often one person in a couple is not as passionate as the other when it comes to wine but we like to think that they also go away having had a lovely relaxing day that just happens to focus on wine.
Find lots more information about the tasting tours on Le Tasting Room website.