September 2010: The Waiting Game

A heat-wave pushed our grapes over the start line and into September, as you will see on our monthly video if you click here. But in the early days of the month, it was clear that they were not ripe for the picking: acidity too high, sugars too low. So we distract ourselves, and try to think about other things while the grapes get on with getting that crucial balance right. A palette of artists comes by to pin this moment on paper: fields of green, swirling vines laden with fruit, brilliant, bold sunlight beating down, and the mountains standing sentinel on the horizon, draped in opiate shades of mauve and blue. In a few weeks time, this idyllic scene will be alive with action, and we with it. And we can already feel it, not just in our bones but on our faces: the wind blowing down from the Pyrenees has a new, cool edge to it, the cut and thrust of that familiar breeze belonging our harvest. In the meantime, we sit back, pinned by heat to the vineyard, like butterflies on a drawing board, caught in the lull before the storm and holding our breath

Wednesday 1 September

You always hold your breath for what will pour forth from the pens of Bettane & Desseauve, France’s most famous wine-tasting duo. Their 2011 wine guide – the Grand Guide des Vins de France is big indeed, a heavy tome well worth its weight in wine. We’re delighted with the write-up they give our previous vintages, and that portends well for this one coming up. The smiley awarded to our chardonnay-chenin vin de pays puts a smile all over our own faces, as well. Not a bad start to the month.

Saturday 04 September
A Great Hachette Job

“In 2005 we already predicted a great future … and we were not wrong”. A wonderful compliment from the Grande Dame of Wine Guides, the famous Guide Hachette, now just out in its 2011 edition. What a pat on the back! A small compliment goes a long way for a pair of overworked, underpaid, stressed out winegrowers, and this one goes even further than that. Every vintage to date has been included in this guide ever since our first harvest in 2001 – but this is the first time that a wine from each and every appellation we make has been recognised in one single volume: the Cremant Blanc de Blancs (with a star), the Limoux chardonnay (Odyssée), the Blanquette de Limoux (with a star), and our Vin de Pays d’Oc, the chardonnay-chenin. This bolsters us with renewed courage as the heat keeps hotting us along towards the new harvest

Tuesday 06 September
The Nose Knows

“Picked a random selection of grapes this morning, to test them for sugar and acidity levels. The infallibly nosed Bruno, a Springer Spaniel came along for the walk, munching bunches along the way. Bruno’s nose knows. We also bite into the grapes: Bruno’s right, you can taste the sweetness rising, and the crunchy nuttiness of the pips. Harvest can’t be far off…. though a bit of rain before then wouldn’t go amiss.

Tuesday 07 September
Just what the doctor ordered

“We asked, very politely, for 20 ml of rain please (and no hail). Last night we got 10 ml of rain (and no hail). Perfect! We think we may harvest our first field on Friday. The day remains overcast and on the cool side, not a bad thing in itself: the water in the ground won’t burn off and dry out. So what do you do when the doing’s done and there’s not much else to be done? You have a nice cosy session sticking American back labels with the Surgeon-General’s warning on to some bottles heading USA-wards.

Thursday 09 September
Two more little overnight top-ups of rain: perfect! We’re on course to bring in the first field tomorrow morning. Forecast simply outstanding from tomorrow on. Excitement’s building up.

Friday 10 September
We’re off!

Well, sort of. Up and off before 5 am. It’s dark, and there’s the lightest imaginable drizzle, so fine you can hardly feel it. The harvesting machine roars into action, the tractors thunder down the road, lights rotating, picking out the shadows along the vines. Otherwise, all is silence and sleep. In two hours we’ve picked and sorted about 1 ha of chardonnay – something that our hand-harvesters need an entire day to do. We’re all a bit rusty, can’t even remember where the ‘on’ switch of the sorting table is, so it’s good to have a little practice run. After all, it’s been a year. I’d even forgotten the sticky touch of the grapes as they pass under your hands, and how they exude that particular, special just-been-picked smell. Like a bite of Proust’s Madeleine, this takes you back exactly to where you were last year, the year before, the year before that. Perhaps we’ve been pinned to this sorting table for ever. Ten years, in fact. And they keep rolling on, beautiful grapes, wonderfully perfect, totally healthy. It looks good. By the time the sun rises, the grapes are safely put away in the wine press, and we’re having a cup of coffee and a croissant. Our hands and hair are sticky with grape juice. And we’re very happy. Now we have a pause of a few days before we swing into action proper.

Saturday 11 September

I just would like to record, in the most sensible and pragmatic way possible, that last night at 11.15, a most enormous, brilliantly luminous ball of yellow-white light passed low overhead at incredible speed, in utter silence. Anyone who has seen the astounded faces of the people looking at Halley’s commet on the Bayeux tapestry will know how I looked. Open-mouthed. I’ve told the UFO observation centre in Perpignan what I saw, but I doubt that, in a country where a UFO is called a PAN, they will take seriously any communication signed by a PANman…

Monday 13 September
Lock Stock & Barrel

Back to earth, and there’s no harvest today. But that is not to say there’s nothing to do. Today 138 barrels were wheeled out of the winery and into the courtyard, scrubbed down, dried out, and then returned back into the cellars in the order of the wines they will hold. Limoux is the only white wine appellation in France insisting on fermentation and ageing in oak barrels, and here are ours: all clean and smiley-faced, ready for the onslaught. Four of us worked on it the whole day long, but the sun shone, the wind blew, and spirits were high …

Wednesday 14 September

It’s actually quite stressful being relaxed while everyone else is stressed out. They’re harvesting all around us; we’re twiddling our thumbs. Sugar is rising, acidity is falling and the grapes look good, but they’re simply not there yet. Maybe next Monday will be the day …

Thursday 15 September

Rain! Soft and not very wet, but rain none the less.

Friday 17 September
The Hotte Spot

Rain lifts and leaves the air thick and humid; okay if this were Ireland (‘a nice soft day’) but it’s not: it’s the South of France and we’re on the eve of our harvest. Going for it full speed, in fact. Monday’s the day, we think, though that depends on the sugar and acidity levels of the grapes this weekend. In the meantime we’re getting ready: tractors parked ready to run, recepticals for the grapes loaded and cleaned, secateurs sharpened, and the hottes lying in the garden waiting for porteurs to sling them over their backs.

Sunday 19 September

Absolutely brilliant weather. We walk 22 ha of vineyard, picking hundreds of grapes at random. Bruno tastes them and barks a happy yappy sort of bark. Not his normal bark at all. Refractometer confirms the sugar content: time to pick!

Monday 20 September

And what a day for it! The harvesters arrive in the dead of early morning, and as they stand rubbing their hands and stamping the cold out of their feet, the day lightens over the mountains. Within minutes a pale pink sky lifts into brilliant blue, and the mountains step forward in sharp relief. We’re off! The tractors roar into action, everyone grabs their secateurs, the porters sling their hottes over their backs, and dogs run around in dizzy delight. The first day of the harvest is a day like no other.

Tuesday 21 September

A heavy overcast day breathing botrytis down our necks. Amazingly, we’re picking the same field we picked today last year … excepting the weather was better then. But it’s the same Mauzac for our Blanquette, the very worst of all the vines to pick. Try finding a bunch of grapes in its mangled tangle of undisciplined branches, and you will know what I mean.

There are two or three harvesters whom we don’t know – and we’re not sure if we like them. Trouble is, they seem to work well, and fast, too. But it just takes one bad egg to spoil the omelette of the working environment, and we don’t want any bad eggs around here. The rest of the team is terrific, though someone is picking the ‘grapillons’, the second growth of grapes, which are round and hard as marbles – and as sour as … well, sour grapes; we’re finding quite a few of them on the sorting table. I suspect the Bad Eggs, and surreptitiously look in their baskets – not a grapillon to be seen. So we make a general comment to everyone: Remember, No Leaves and No Grapillons Please. But at the end of the day, there are still a few grapillons trying to get into the winepress.

The end of the day …. but it isn’t really the end of the day even though the grapes are pressing happily and the harvesters have all gone home: there is still all the equipment to be cleaned and put to bed. But as we raise our weary heads, we are rewarded by a lightening sky, streaked with flashes of red. Tomorrow the weather will be good. Now for a bath … and a glass of Blanquette 2008.

Wednesday 22 September.

God’s in his heaven and all’s well with the world! A brilliant day. Great atmosphere. Everyone happy. All going well, we should finish the Mauzac by this evening; and then that’s one wine ticked off, the Blanquette de Limoux, home and hosed.

Thursday 23 September
Striking when the Iron’s Hot

All of France is on strike again today. We’re not. In fact, it’s amazing how much you can get done in a day if your day starts at 04:00 a.m. There’s a beautiful full moon throwing an ethereal light over the vines. The harvesting machine contrives to look like a thing of beauty, throwing long moon-shadows in its wake. You could almost become fond of it, were it not for the leaves you find later on the sorting table. By 07:30 we’re done and dusted, 1 ½ hectares of country wine in the press, and we’re hosing down the sorting table and the tractors to get ready for the next onslaught … which begins in one hour’s time. Just enough time to gulp down a cup of a coffee and a quick croissant before the hand-harvesters all arrive.

We raise our heads and see that the day is not nearly as bright and cheerful as we are. Grey, overcast .. but not raining, that’s the good thing. It’s going to be a race against time to get the hand-picked chardonnay for our Odyssée in before the rain comes.

The troublesome team appears to have quietened down. They hope to claim their right to two litres of wine per man per day, a right enshrined by French law. But the law also says they can get € 0.41 cents per man per day instead. Forty-one cents?? Still struggling to interpret exactly what that says about what.

Friday 24 September

Torrential downpour last night just as we were waking up to start harvesting – why couldn’t it have been this time last month, when we wanted it? So we rolled over and went back to sleep, and then spent most of today cooling our heels, rethinking. Very unrelaxing to be forcibly relaxed this this.

Monday 27 September
The Waiting’s Over

On Saturday and Sunday we picked more grapes at random, to have them tested. They taste sweet. It’s clear we’re on the homeward stretch now. The results come in and yep! We’re off! An utterly magnificent sunrise announces an utterly magnificent day today, cold (12 degrees), the mountains full of alpenglow and snow. The grapes bounce along the sorting table like cold marbles. The Vin de Pays d’Oc is all harvested, sorted, and in the press! And now we sit down and plan the rest of the week. Weather forecast is great. Great!

Wednesday 29 September
Great ChardonDay!

Jean-Paul likes a good meal, that is quite evident. Also explains perhaps why, in real life, he works in the Catering department of a major government institution. This is the third or fourth harvest he’s done with us – the first was on medical grounds (the doctor said he had to loose weight), the following were for the ‘fun’ of it… though the medical grounds might reasonably still prevail. We’ve become fond of him: he’s the glue that holds together the atmosphere, and even the Tough Tattoo Trio have succumbed and started bonding. Jean-Paul arrived at work early today, to prepare a fire for a big lunchtime barbecue for all the harvesters..

And what a day he chose for it! Absolutely magnificent. The mountains smiling along the horizon, the sky a peerless blue, the temperature brilliant, everyone extremely happy and the grapes singing, I promise you, singing on the vines. Plump, golden, sweet, juicy … and full of song.

Master of Wine Matthew Stubbs comes around with a group of film-makers, who capture this all in HD. What a day they chose for it!

“The harvest’s always like this”, we say.

Nothing but nothing can wrong on a day like today.

Or can it?

At midday, while the happy harvesters are happily barbecuing, the door to the wine press won’t shut. Alarm bells ring. Eric uses brute force to make it close, and miraculously it does and the press rumbles into action. But at the end of the day, when the last of the chardonnay from the field we call Vincent is in the press, and everyone has gone home, we have to do the second press of the day. We hold our breath. Will the door close? Will the press work?

It does! But of course! Nothing could go wrong on a day like today.

…/to be continued