Life is rosé for Expats in Cotignac, Provence

Stephen talks to Janine Marsh about wine and life in France: Briton Stephen Cronk is a man who has followed a dream that began ‘many moons ago’ in Australia and has ended up in Cotignac in the south of France.

As a teenager he took a gap year between school and university to travel around Australia and in the course of his journey he discovered wine. Cycling through the Barossa Valley, near Adelaide, on a tandem (on his own, it was the last hire bike left in the shop!) he visited the famous Australian vineyards and was introduced to the “wonderful world of wine” sipping Australian Chablis (as it could then be called) in his tent at night. On his return to the UK he decided that he wanted to work in wine.

Stephen got a job for a small wine importer as a delivery driver in London whilst enrolling on a college course to study wines and spirits. Eventually he set up his own wine import business which sadly didn’t work out as hoped. Stephen admits that he “left the wine trade at the age of 30 with a heap of debt (from trying to set up my own business at the young age of 24)”. He then went into the telecommunications business “which paid well and enabled me to clear my debts fairly quickly”. But after 15 years in telecommunications it was clear his heart was still in wine and when he was offered a big promotion (that would bring financial comfort to his family) he knew he had to turn it down.

Several years before, when Stephen and his wife Jeany bought their first house, they’d visited friends in Perpignan and Stephen says “they walked me round a vineyard that was on the market for the same price we’d just paid for a small terrace house in south-west London. It just didn’t seem right!” There and then he knew that what he really wanted was to produce his own wine, but it seemed like that was one of those grand ideas that would never come true. With a big promotion, the chance of ever becoming winemaker would have become almost impossible…

Stephen and his wife Jeany discussed what to do and Jeany told him to either follow his dream “or forever hold his peace” and in 2008 they took a momentous decision. “Of course” Stephen says, “Jeany needed a little persuasion to sell the family house, take the children out of school and away from all their friends… but in the end she agreed, as she thought I might be unbearable to live with otherwise!”

Stephen, Jeany and their three young children embarked on an adventure to follow Stephen’s dream of making wine. They moved to the beautiful town of Cotignac (about an hour east of Aix-en-Provence) and set about creating a new wine label called Mirabeau.

I asked Stephen why Cotignac: “We got really lucky with Cotignac. We were recommended to move here by an American friend who had moved to the village when he sold his chateau to Brad and Angelina a few years ago. He had moved to France from the US several years before and he advised us to send our children to a village school and he suggested Cotignac. It is not only a very pretty village, but it doesn’t completely close down for winter, as do so many villages around here. There are people from all over the place here (30 nationalities that we know of) and there is a real buzz around Cotignac all year round. Nice and Marseille airports are just over an hour away so we get lots of friends and family visit us”.

Stephen says that when they moved to France the family barely spoke a word of French, they simply packed their belongings up in a truck, sold their comfortable home in south west London and headed off for France. His goal was to set up a small wine business – with the principle objective of creating a brand new Provence rosé – and he wanted it to be able compete with the very best around.

He explains that in order to achieve this aim, he needed a highly experienced winemaking team.  “With no background in winemaking (and the clock ticking on our savings), I knew I had to get my wine right from the get-go. So I enlisted the help of seasoned winemaker and Master of Wine, Angela Muir. Angela is amazing. She’s made wine in over 20 countries and in that regard is probably one of the most experienced winemakers in the world. Our wine – Mirabeau – is already recognised as a top flight Provence rosé and that is all down to Angela. We’ve also engaged with a local winemaker here who consults for some of the top chateaux in Provence.  Thankfully it seems to have worked to plan as Mirabeau is already regarded as one of the best rosés in the region”. Even global wine legends Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker seem to agree as they’ve awarded Mirabeau amazing scores.

Stephen works tirelessly and enthusiastically on his wine, which is already selling in 7 countries and has won several prestigious wine awards. The UK’s Daily Mail has described Mirabeau “a heart-achingly beautiful rosé from the finest region in the world for this style of wine. Effortlessly classy and eminently affordable, this is a must-have wine for refined entertaining”.

So far the move to France has gone even better than they had dared hope. Stephen confesses they had worries about the children going to a French school. Their daughter took it in their stride but their son cried every morning for the first 6 months: “It was very difficult for him (and us). But now he’s doing fine and has made some good friends. The best thing for us is hearing our kids nattering in a language they didn’t even know existed 4 years ago… they switch effortlessly between English, French and German” (Jeany is German and the children have picked up the language from her).

I ask if it’s possible to miss anything from the UK when you live in such a beautiful part of France and can’t help laughing when Stephen tells me he misses “decent beer and pork pies”. He acknowledges as well that it is easier to “get stuff done in England” but “we’ve made some really good friends here and for us life is a huge, hairy adventure.

We’re living in a beautiful part of the world doing what we love doing. We’re creating a new business from scratch; Jeany is helping our friends build three houses, is President of the parents committee in the village and is working on the Mirabeau brand… We’ve got a winery and shop project to work on for next year too. We are planning to renovate a 16th century former winery into a barrel cellar and shop for next summer to give a real presence to Mirabeau… we are very busy…”.

Article written by Janine Marsh for The Good Life in France