Pierre spent the summers of his childhood gazing over the gentle hills, covered with his family’s vines. His father was one of the few grape-growers in the village to have a winemaking cave (cellar). Pierre dreamed of the day when he would look after the vines himself. But his father, a banker, had other ideas. Pierre fought hard, but his father fought harder. Biding his time, Pierre took a job in a bank. Finally, stubborn to the end, his father died and, four years ago, Pierre became the vigneron he’d always wanted to be.
Pierre is a good friend; his wife Marie-Pierre was my wife’s best friend at school. We almost bought a house in the same peaceful village but the planned A75 motorway only a kilometre away put me off. “It’s a godsend,” said Marie-Pierre. “The only exit between two big towns is on our doorstep: the first cave those thirsty tourists see will be ours.” Motorways for me spell trouble, but Pierre and Marie-Pierre replanted and invested their savings in better equipment. The only hiccup, until now, has been that French wine is getting harder to sell. The bombshell came from elsewhere.
The Languedoc has been tagged the California of Europe; the golden state where all those Dutch, German and British baby-boomers yearn to retire, and where many northern French people want to spend their working lives. Without the artificial chi-chi of Provence – its overpriced houses and terrible climate – the Languedoc is the fastest growing region in France. It absorbs 45,000 new arrivals a year. They have to be housed somewhere. Pierre’s village (population 706), bordering the now active motorway, is in a prime position.
First came the developers, cash in hand. Pierre sent them away. Next came his neighbours, wanting to sell their land. In that gimlet-eyed way of paysans, they told Pierre that his land blocks their access. Heavy machinery needs to come through, drains have to be laid, roads built. On his land. He’d do well to change his mind.
The mayor, an astute paysan in his seventies, is on Pierre’s side. He doesn’t want his village submerged by outsiders, but how can he refuse his electorate? The mayor refuses every application for planning permission, but four estate agents have acquired a dozen acres each by secret negotiation. Contracts have been signed, dependent on him granting building permission. Him or a new…