When in Rhône - A French Family Love Affair
‘My grandfather was lucky; he got a bullet in the eye in 1941,’ declares Franck-Lin Dalle, owner of the 18th-century Château de Campuget in Costières de Nîmes, a little known wine region in the south of the Rhône Valley. ‘It meant he escaped the war and discovered this beautiful place where he worked until he retired in the early 1980s. My father carried it on and has only just retired. He bravely moved away, as he knew wisely that otherwise he would find it too difficult to let go.’
The chateau has always been Franck’s family home. He once tried working in a law firm in Paris but swapped its thick plush carpet for the land he knows so well, where he passes peacocks and tractors on the way to work. His sister Mathilde lives in the chateau while he resides in a small adjoining house in the grounds. He insists they didn’t fight over it. ‘I saw the work my mother had to do just to keep the house going. We have two small children and I wouldn’t want my wife to have to go through that,’ he says almost defiantly, instantly debunking the romantic notion of living in a French chateau.
Franck admits only that is not always easy working with family but he loves the sense of history, telling me quietly, ‘there are stories all around me.’ He has climbed most of the garden’s trees – some as old as 800 years ¬and is lovingly restoring the old walled garden. This will provide all the vegetables for the chateau’s restaurant, but the food here is merely served as an accompaniment to the wine from the estate, which produces one million bottles annually.
‘I have wine in my blood and in my mind’, declares Franck whose passion is palpable and who has the manner and charisma of a jazz impresario. Music is his second love and he puts on jazz concerts on the estate – with musicians meeting the same standard of excellence as his vintages. ‘Wine is a thing you can experience with your eyes, nose, mouth but little with the ears, so for me music is the perfect complement.’
‘The truth is never in one place’ Franck declares enigmatically as we make our way towards his vineyards. ‘We must always experiment and improve’. He could be talking about improvised jazz but he has moved on to the question of organic production: ‘It must always be a choice and never a marketing ploy.’ Franck’s wine is not organic but he does not use copper – as many organic producers do – because it comes from mines in Chile, is a heavy metal and stays in the soil even after heavy rain. He works traditionally, much as his grandfather did, although he planted by hand rather than machine. ‘95% of the work is out here. His rough, wine-coloured hands are testament to just how hands on he is.
Yes, it is my baby, but it is still my father’s too so sometimes it is difficult. It was very hard for him to give up, he had to move away to do it, although he is still very involved emotionally. He speaks to me all the time about it, he can’t let go.’ He is convinced that he will have the best ever vintage this year, although he does admit you never know with nature. ‘I talked to my father and he has never experienced this. He told me ‘this only happens once in a lifetime.’
Franck’s chateau is a relatively rare thing: exquisite yet a little round around the edges and in need of renovation. He shows us the swimming pool nestled in the trees, describing it as the ‘perfect spot for a chilled glass of rosé’. Lunch is laid out in the pretty conservatory for an American couple staying in one of the seven rooms: it’s a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in an interiors magazine.
Maltilde, Franck’s sister, cooks and serves lunch and dinner which costs a very good value 30 Euros. Consisting of five courses with wine pairings changes, the menu changes just twice a year. The menu featuring local produce is unpretentious yet full of robust flavours: brandade (salt cod) and tapenade, slivers of courgettes topped with salami, local lamb with aubergine, péladron, a rich, fine textured cheese typical of the Cévennes served with salad and followed by a very delicate French apple crumble. I tell Maltide it’s very good. ‘I know’, she smiles.
‘I am not a hotel. I very much want to keep the family spirit. My house is your house, it is very important to me that you feel that,’ Franck pronounces, as we sit in front of the fire in his sitting room. He proudly shows me a photo of his grandfather which he plans to put on one of the estate wine bottles.
Measured and engaged, he is concerned for the next generation and clearly cares deeply for the land. ‘I must take care of it because I received it from my father and he received it from his father.’ He laughs when I ask if he will give his vineyards to his daughters. ‘They are four and six! I hope my daughters will enjoy the wine but I want them to do what they want, although I dream that one day I can pass it on.’
Château de Campuget