September marched in like an army on the attack: searing searchlights scanning a night sky thunderously full of rumbling grumbling. What a storm! The vines held their breath and scuttled for cover. This is emphatically not how we like to start a harvest.
But again the gods were good, and Rives-Blanques got off scott-free. Only 5 ml of rain, and no damage of any kind. Even so, rather unsettling …
And talking about unsettling, what a year it’s been so far: record breaking – the wettest March, the 3rd hottest July since 1900, and the earliest harvest since 1950. Quite a lot to take on the chin, if you are a vine.
Tuesday September 1
Furious activity as we finish cleaning the barrels, putting them back into place, polishing up the press and the sorting table, testing all the equipment. Yes, we are ready! But are the grapes? We go into the vineyard at the lonely crack of a lovely dawn, tasting the grapes, and picking them randomly to test their sugar levels. We are getting very close, maybe the end of the week.
Everything is in place.
And then one of us goes and backs the trailer into the gleaming flanks of the new VW.
Everything not quite so in place after all.
Wednesday September 2
“Refined and endowed with freshness” they say of Rives-Blanques in the newest 2016 edition, just out today.
Must be talking about Jan.
Pleased to see our whole range included again. The other important and very good wine guide, Les Meilleurs Vins de France that came out last month was much more lyrical about our wines, but these guys at least got our nationality right.
And of course, who could argue with ‘refined and fresh’?
Thursday September 3
We were supposed to be harvesting today. But the steady, gentle rain that accompanied us throughout the night has put paid to that. Damn. Frantic calling round to our harvesters for a Monday start. Half of them don’t reply. Tearful, pleading telephone conversations with our machine harvester for a weekend start: he can’t confirm.
The tractors remain firmly anchored to the starting block.
Saturday September 5
Hey ho and away we go, picking the grapes for our chardonnay Pays d’Oc. It is cool and fresh, and there is a clean breeze. This is the only wine we pick by machine, and we always pick at night when it is really cold. So here’s another record broken: the first time ever that we’ve machine-picked in the daytime: not what we wanted, but a compromise with the machine’s driver. And again we are lucky – the grapes are as cold to the touch as they are when picked at night. And we know, because every single one of them passed through our hands on the sorting table. This is a very good start. One down, eight more to go.
Time now to clean up and call it a day.
Sunday September 6
Yesterday’s juice is settling happily in its tanks. We settle happily into our breakfast, and can prepare for the onslaught tomorrow, when the harvest truly begins and the whole crew shows up. There’s even time to read yet another newly published wine guide: Dussert Gerber’s 2016 edition. We sent him only three wines to taste, and have to say, he has given us three very good and interesting tasting notes in return.
The most perfect pre-harvest day ever. The weather is magnificent.
Monday 7 September
We were woken up by things going clunk in the night in the winery, and all stumbled out to source the noise. There was nothing, just a big silent black sky punctuated by stars cut in crystal and a dazzling moon. Good omen, and like the best of good omens, this one came true: the day today was magnificent, a most perfect and happy beginning to our harvest.
The team is en forme, all the old hands back again for another round. Lots of hand-shaking and back-slapping and catching up before we set out and pick the grapes for the fizz.
Very nice to drink, but not nice to pick, the mauzac. Its mangled tangle of leafy branches go in all directions, while the grapes hide in the very middle of this muddled mass, impossible to find. It is also awfully low and difficult to get to. Actually, a good one to begin with when you’ve still got the energy.
And there’s nothing like a glass of Blanquette at the end of the day to give you hope.
Tuesday September 8
We’re doing well. Cleaned out the field we call the Jardin, and now on to our highest field for the Blanc de Blancs. The view is extraordinary. The grapes look good. It is hot.
And then, just when things are going swimmingly, the press breaks down.
Which is how we find ourselves cooling our heels and waiting impatiently for the technician to come. Everything draws to a halt.
Harvesters go home. Sun sets. Moon rises.
Just before midnight we sit down to a hurried dinner once the press has got going again, and then troop back to the winery to pump the juice into the tanks and to clean up.
It’s been a long day.
Wednesday September 9
Magnificent weather continues. And it’s awfully hot. Now we’re pulling in the chardonnay from a field called Vincent, named after some long-forgotten vineyard worker who planted it nearly half a century ago, not after the patron saint of wine. We were here doing the same on exactly the same day last year and the year before – but a month later. The grapes were magnificent then, coded VVG in our harvest notebook.
Now there’s a nasty surprise waiting for us. Two days ago we noticed small pockets of a fungus called botrytis here and there in Vincent. It has spread like wild fire. So we go into overdrive on the sorting table, secateurs snipping furiously at offending bits before the bunches fall into the press.
Another very long day. And we still have a long way to go: storms forecast for the weekend, the absolute last thing we want.
The trouble with hand-harvesting is that you can only harvest as fast as a hand can. If the forecast is correct, we are in a loosing race against time.
Thursday September 10
Uncanny how the weather can change and flip from hot and dry to cool and grey: it clearly isn’t reading the forecast. We wake up to a cool, cloudy day with little spots of rain here and there. Nothing at all like the forecast. Nice and refreshing for the harvesters. A bit worrying for us. It’s not so much about what the weather’s actually doing, it’s more about what it might do. And it still thinks the weekend’s going to be bad. But does it know?
Friday September 11
What a magnificent Chardonday! The weather has done another one of its turnabouts and is fantastic – the mountains are smiling down at us, and we’re smiling back up at them. We set off into the rising sun and start picking the vines in Pech, one of our two top fields for our top chardonnay, Odyssée. The grapes are in great shape … and so are we. The pickers move fast, and by noon the grapes are all safely home and hosed.
The big question is, where to next?
Weather forecasters are still prophesying doom and gloom: the Norwegians, the BBC, France Méteo. Do we bring in the best grapes, or do we bring in the most vulnerable? We have only half a day left; how much will they be able to pick in a single afternoon? These hurried discussions take place against the dull roar of the sorting table. Somewhere along the line, a decision is made. We will bring in the most vulnerable, and leave the most valuable to fend for themselves.
Things are heating up and the harvesters are beginning to tire. On the sorting table leaves and rotten bunches start jiggling past, sure sign that the team is tottering. Even two secateurs fall onto the table with a resounding clang. It is becoming clear we will not be able to finish this field today.
Particularly if they don’t have any secateurs …
Our importer in Latvia stops by on his way to Spain with his family for the European Raceboard Championships . He knocks himself out by walking into his open boot door. I administer ice and arnica. One of the pickers comes up with a swelling eye, she has had a massive collision with a hard plastic basket carried by the porters: more ice and arnica. The Latvian importer’s son puts his bare foot on a wasp: frantic hunt for an antidote. Then a porters slips, and falls on his own basket spraining his wrist in the process. The ex-legionnaire jumps into action and binds it up professionally, while I whip out the arnica out from my back pocket. Oh dear, this day that started so full of hope and glory is waning rapidly.
And this last batch of grapes doesn’t look great. We go into overdrive on the sorting table.
She launched it with a bottle of our Blanquette from her garden in Riga … before going on to a glorious win in the World Championships with it (the raceboard, I mean).
A serious bit of kit, this (the Blanquette, I mean).
Sunday September 13
We wake up this morning to a complete calm. No rain, no wind, no nothing, just a rather quiet humid day. Terasses de Larzac have been hit with a double whammy: last night they had three months’ worth of rainfall in a single blow – that on top of the rain just before the month started. For those whose harvest is still out there, this spells the end.
They say there’s no such thing as a bad year, there are just bad winemakers. But when you get a hammering like this, there is absolutely nothing you can do. Just awful.
Jan goes out and inspects the vines in preparation for tomorrow’s harvest. The mauzac looks great.
Monday September 14
We are on the home-stretch. It’s cool, overcast, with a few threatening splatters of rain. We pack the rain gear in the tractors to be on the safe side. It’s good insurance: you can be sure it won’t rain, and it didn’t. In fact, perfect picking weather, and the team zooms through the field in record time. Particularly our oldest harvester, Monsieur Selmaoui, aged 70. We call him and his brother the Ferrari team. One of the pickers told them to slow down because no one else could keep up.
“But we’re going as slowly as we can!” they replied. And this is not an easy field: very beautiful, but not easy. The slope is steep, the vines are low, and grapes are plentiful but well hidden.
We finish early. At the sorting table, 15,000 kilos of today’s grapes pass through our hands. They really look very good indeed, and we can close up for the night in time for a proper, leisurely dinner. The only one who’s really dog tired is Bacchus
Tuesday September 15.
And then suddenly it’s all over. You feel as if you’ve been hit over the head with a sledge hammer.
The last of the chenin blanc from the Eden field is brought in. The weather is cool and crisp. The harvesters are singing. Some of them sing quite well, actually. Two trailers are filled in no time at all, and we have a little celebratory glass of fizz together. It all went off splendidly. Came up roses. Incredibly splendidly. And what has the vintage given us? Lots of surprises, but also potential wines that are very well balanced, with lovely acidity and lots of fruit.
Should be a good one.
Footnote: here’s the team. They have been great. There is Mr Selmaoui and his brother, the human harvesting machines. There is pretty Penelope, who is bright, switched on, and full of possibility. There is Nicholas, a chef in real life, who talks non stop. And Florent, who is actually many people: choreographer, dancer at the Paris Opéra, film maker, actor. Jean Paul who works in the Mayor of Carcassonne’s Catering Department. Benoit who works with handicapped children. Ahmed, our former foreman, one of nature’s natural gentlemen. Danny, the ex-Legionnnaire, not necessarily one of nature’s natural gentlemen, but certainly a natural disciplinarian who will jump into the fray and do the necessary. And there are any number of stories we haven’t even heard yet. But between us, we have written a book. A book that’s in the bottom of every bottle of our 2015 wine, a complete Chaucerian compendium, there for everyone to read like leaves in the bottom of a teacup …
Saturday 20 September
Today we closed the Harvest of 2015 with our harvesters’ lunch. Guinea fowl stuffed with foie gras, salmon in a cream sauce, an array of cheeses, a variety of pies, coffee. Not bad, in fact rather good. We sat at a long trestle table on the terrace, all 32 of us. A couple brought out their guitars. It was, as the Irish say, great craic… even if this was Cépie, South of France.
And so in the course of things it transpires that Penelope is actually a judo black belt. She spars with Danny the Legionnaire, at least twice her age, on the lawn. Danny is still in good shape. We also learn that he is the World Champion Carp fisherman. And the French champion, and possibly also the European champion. I refrain from saying that I always thought a goldfish was a carp and instead ask his wife if it’s a fisherman’s tale, and she gives me a deadpan “no”, she has photographs to prove the point. He tells us how many kilos the biggest carp was, but I have forgotten. I haven’t forgotten though that Nico cooks 120 kg of cassoulet every day. 120 kg of cassoulet is an awful lot of cassoulet to cook. He also told me how many kilos of beans that actually means, but I have forgotten that too. And then there’s Jan, or so I called him because it has a very familiar ring, whose name is actually Jahyan. He comes from New Caledonia, is a member of the Roche Maré tribe, where they have 90 m high coral cliffs, good for hiding from other tribes. 90 m strikes me as being rather high for a coral cliff. On the other hand, Danny shoots a wild boar from 20 m with a sniper rifle, which strikes me as being way not far enough, even if quadrupled to the height of Jahyan’s coral cliffs. But back to Jahyan, who is a boxer. This was his first harvest with us, and he charmed everyone (he was introduced by Monsieur Carron, whose wife is cared for by Jahyan’s wife). His picking partner, Florent, is a dancer. A serious dancer, by all accounts, last seen performing in the Fille Mal Guardée, at the Paris Opéra a few months ago. They didn’t know each other before they met here, but this seems to be a case of seamless spontaneous synergy, the dancer and the boxer on either side of the vine.
Haven’t been to many dinner parties that are as packed with surprising figures as our harvesters’ lunch.
Really great craic.
And now the party’s over. Time to get down to work and make the wine.
Monday 21 September
Both Jan’s are pulling their hair out. Some new barrels that were supposed to have been delivered last week still haven’t arrived. The wine has started fermenting. It’s becoming critical.
The cooper’s salesman phones and tells us that these six brand new custom-made barrels were all broken in an accident on Friday.
“Shall I cancel the order?” he asks, helpfully.
Thursday September 24
Jan-Ailbe’s been invited to the five star ***** Le Bristol Hotel in Paris tonight, where their famous chef, the legendary Eric Frechon, he of three *** Michelin stars has prepared a meal with courses to match our wines. Quite an event: for us, and for our wines. So Jan-Ailbe poured the chardonnay, Odyssée at the aperitif, and then Monsieur Frenchon presented his creations to accompany Dédicace and la Trilogie at dinner …
The chenin blanc was paired with a gaspacho with a slightly spicy edge. “How was it?” we demanded, impatiently. “Good” said Jan-Ailbe, “but what I really loved was the red mullet. With Trilogie. It was absolutely spectacular.”
“Could you recreate it?” his father asks.
You could hear Jan-Ailbe’s disbelief palpitating down the line. “Recreate what Eric Frechon made?” he asks, disbelievingly.
To be continued …/