Burnt By The Sun

This year’s wild fires in the South of France are a wake-up call to us all, says Stephen Cronk, who makes the top rosé, Mirabeau

By Stephen Cronk

February 15 2023

It was a beautiful Monday in late August at our busy vineyard in the South of France, but my wife, Jeany, and I had found time for a simple lunch with my in-laws, who who were visiting from Germany.

Since we had made the decision 12 years ago to leave London and pursue our dream to make rosé, the wider family had congregated around us.

We were enjoying what the locals call a ‘market lunch’ – some regional cheeses, fresh bread, a salad and a glass or two of rosé.

“This really is your corner of paradise,” said Netti, my mother-in-law. The wine that she, my father-in-law Thomas, Jeany and I were drinking cemented the feeling of contentment. Our plan had been to make rosé, but the dream was to establish our own Domaine. We had successfully built up our brand, Mirabeau, now one of the most popular Provençal rosés in the UK, and we had moved beyond pressing other people’s grapes, having worked with 12 other wineries in the Côtes de Provence. The glass in my hand that day was La Réserve, our first wine to be made from our private Domaine, in the new appellation of Notre-Dames des Anges, just inland from St Tropez and 40 minutes from our home. The 20-hectare estate has 14 hectares of vines and three houses for staff and guests.

As I took a sip, savouring its softness and a hint of the toasted French oak barrels, I noticed a plume of smoke over the hills ahead. The plume grew and quickly turned into a thick, dark cloud.

“That’s strange,” I muttered, looking at my phone, checking the local fire brigade’s Facebook page. For the next few hours I kept my eye on the smoke and the local reports, but we agreed it was better if my wife and her parents left the estate, just in case things got worse overnight.

The following morning I messaged Jeany. “I think we’re OK. It’s missed us by a kilometre.” I was so relieved to see the fire go over the hill. But a few hours later, everything changed. A fresh wind blew in from the Mediterranean and whipped up the flames. It attacked us at every angle, a full 360-degree assault.

Scenes of devastation the day after forest fires spread through the Côte d’Azur
Scenes of devastation the day after forest fires spread through the Côte d’Azur

I was thinking I would stay to see how the fire might develop when a red Land Rover filled with six firemen pulled up. “It’s coming your way,” they shouted. “You need to leave right now.”

I packed the car and anxiously left. Joining the main road I was surprised to see cars and motorbikes tearing down in the opposite direction. This was a phenomenon I had heard about but never believed actually happened – wildfire tourism. All around as we drove and reached higher ground we could see numerous small fires. All they needed was a wisp of air to turn them into raging blazes.

Back home and safe in Cotignac with Jeany and her parents, we endured the waiting game. That evening I kept a close eye on the fire’s path. We could see it burning 20 miles away, the flames glowing bright orange and red against the dark expanse of evening sky.

We were joined by a French party evacuated from our main guesthouse on the estate. There were two, including a celebrated pâtissier from Paris. He soothed Jeany’s nerves that evening by cooking us her favourite dessert – an impeccable île flottante.

The pre-fire Provençal landscape at Domaine Mirabeau.
The pre-fire Provençal landscape at Domaine Mirabeau.

By Thursday morning I decided to it was time to see the vineyard, so I called our manager and set off. We negotiated our way past roadblocks and then, as we approached the estate through a thick black smog, I saw Mirabeau emerge from the gloom. Every tree was burnt to a black, smouldering stump. The ground was black and the smell terrible.

As I came up the drive, five fire trucks were heading towards us on their way out. The vineyard was badly damaged, they said, but they had saved our houses and animals; a small herd of pigs, some goats, chickens, ducks, and two alpacas. Such bravery. They had risked their lives to save our buildings and animals. I saw a measure of that courage as I neared our bicycle shed. The heat had been so intense that the bikes had simply melted.

Last winter, what the locals called a once-in-a-lifetime frost had destroyed 20 per cent of new growth. The fire now wreaked havoc on a further 25 per cent. What is left we are now harvesting and testing to see if there’s a smoke taint – somewhat ironic given that we mature La Réserve in deliberately toasted oak barrels.

In the ensuing days we examined every inch of the vineyard and found to our astonishment that while the flames had fried the leaves and grapes, the main vines seemed to have survived.

Jeanie and Stephen Cronk (centre) have lunch in their vineyard
Jeanie and Stephen Cronk (centre) have lunch in their vineyard

We invest in and practice regenerative viticulture, growing additional trees and other vegetation as part of a more diverse agriculture system to increase the surface for CO2-capturing plants; regenerate organic matter in soils; increase biodiversity above and below ground; and improve all all important water retention in our region.

Meanwhile, these disasters and pitifully low rainfall levels come as a stark reminder that climate change will irreparably damage our food systems and livelihoods, and that putting off thinking about the macro picture is no longer an option.

As I know well, the vine is one of nature’s most extraordinary plants, but we’ll have to wait until next year to see how the grapes grow. This is still a beautiful place. I believe that nature will regenerate. I’m looking forward to seeing saplings emerge from the younger trees that have survived and the new shoots from our hardy vines.

I’m placated at seeing that, while vast acres of new pine were incinerated, most of the old indigenous oaks and cork oaks had miraculously survived.

“You might think that paradise is lost,” Netti said when we next met for an emotional glass. “But paradise can be found again.”

With our love and passion for this beautiful region and the gorgeous wines it produces, we’ll ensure that it does.