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Wild Geese: ‘The Languedoc reminds me of Ireland in many ways’

Carlow native Isla Gordon stumbled on a new career, and more besides, in the vineyards of New Zealand before settling in France

Isla Gordon never set out to become a wine-maker. Originally from Carlow, she left Ireland in 2001 to study agriculture in Scotland graduating with a degree in rural management.

In terms of what sort of career that might have led to, Gordon says she had more or less assumed she’d end up living in the Highlands, possibly working in forestry conservation. However, a backpacking trip to New Zealand turned that plan upside-down.

Gordon got a job in a vineyard, where she met her Australian-born husband-to-be and winemaker, Paul. Quickly bitten by the wine bug, she returned to college to study viticulture, and spent the next five years in Blenheim on New Zealand’s south island completing her training as a viticulturist.

Today, the Gordon family live in the picturesque countryside of the Languedoc in southern France, on the outskirts of a small village nestled between the mountains and the Med. The couple moved to the area in 2009 and, with a modest €20,000 in the kitty, they embarked on making their dream of owning an organic vineyard come true.


To supplement the initial investment required to get the business off the ground, Gordon did a mail shot to everyone she knew in Ireland, inviting them to invest €1,000 in the project. This entitled them to membership of the vineyard’s wine club and a supply of wine for five years. More than 40 people signed up, enough to fund the start-up costs. The wine club is still going strong and still has many of its original members.

From a business point of view, being in Europe means exporting is much more accessible than if we were elsewhere

The Gordons started with five hectares of rented land and a small outbuilding in the Faugéres appellation, and the first bottles of their Domaine La Sarabande wine went on sale in 2010. They now cultivate just over 10 hectares spread over four sites, and produce around 40,000 bottles of red, white and rosé a year. Roughly 40 per cent of the vineyard’s output, which is produced from Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre grapes, is exported. A third goes on to the French market and the remainder is direct sales to customers who visit.

Running a vineyard in the sunny south-east of France sounds glamorous, but it’s back-breaking work and full-on for nine months of the year. The couple currently do everything themselves with a little help from their sons, Rory and Peter, who are 11 and 13. They earn their living from a combination of wine sales (including online), wine tourism and hosting events.

A firm believer in sustainability and making the most of nature’s bounty, Gordon has also begun using the discarded grape skins to create an alcohol from which she distils gin inspired by Mediterranean flavours such as lemon, thyme and mint.

“Working for a big wine producer is an experience, but you start thinking about what it would be like to make your own wine, choosing the grapes you want to work with and the characteristics you want to create,” she says.

“In big wineries, the focus is on producing in volume, and even if you’re responsible for an award-winning wine (as Paul was), it’s the company that gets the recognition, not the individual. After a while, that does tend to make you want to do your own thing.

“Burgundy would probably have been our first choice of location, but it’s really expensive to set up there, so we came to the Languedoc, where our savings went further. We now produce three types of wine: our PIG wines (stands for Paul & Isla Gordon) which are for every day drinking, our appellation series which are powerful individual wines, and our Icon series, which are wines made from a single variety.

“From a business point of view, being in Europe means exporting is much more accessible than if we were elsewhere. And while the French have a lot of rules, they tend to use them as guidelines, rather than something to be rigidly adhered to.”

In 2020, things moved up a gear when the couple built their own winery – a process that was not without its frustrations.

Burgundy would probably have been our first choice of location, but it’s really expensive to set up there, so we came to the Languedoc, where our savings went further

“The project had a very bumpy start, but we eventually found an architect who was brilliant and a very good French builder who was clean, efficient and did what he said he’d do on time,” says Gordon.

“Dealing with the local town hall bureaucracy on the planning was a bit of a nightmare, but I’m not sure it was any harder here than anywhere else. You just have to grit your teeth and accept it’s a process that’s one step forward and two steps back. But when it was finally finished, it was such a great feeling and a huge boost to our confidence.

“When you’re on the rollercoaster and feeling exhausted and a bit overwhelmed, you have to balance this against the great things about living here, such as the food, the climate and the very laid-back lifestyle. We also have access to excellent schools, healthcare and subsidised childcare, and the boys love it here.

“People work hard, but they also enjoy their families and outdoor living. It reminds me of Ireland in many ways. They are very friendly people and community is very important. It would be nice to have my family closer but it’s only a short hop from Dublin to our nearest airport at Carcassonne. We do a lot of business with O’Brien’s Wine, so I’m back and forth to Ireland regularly.”

Olive Keogh

Olive Keogh

Olive Keogh is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in business