Never has a harvest been so eagerly awaited as the 2013. Never have we had such a complicated year leading up to it: really late flowering of the vines, really late ‘veraison’ when the grapes begin to ripen, hail in July, more rainfall before summer’s end than we normally get in a whole year … it’s been a catalogue of unparalleled statistics. We thank our lucky stars that the rain which fell over large swathes of the Languedoc last weekend, bypassed us. If not, we would have been snookered, to put it mildly. Instead, we sharpened our secators, put the tractors on the starting block, polished up the winery and all its equipment, took late delivery of barrels (which arrived none the less in time for our (late) harvest) and waited to see what would happen. The risk is always grape rot. We inspect our vines. As the month opened, they looked … perfect.
Tuesday 1 October
What a way to go! The sun is shining, the mountains are as clear as a bell. Everyone greets everyone as long lost friends, and indeed, they are. Nearly the whole équipe has worked here before. Another year has flown by, um, that is, another year and a month. This time last year we were beginning to wind up the harvest. Now it is beginning to wind us up …
In the morning we attack Blaise (a field called Blaise, that is), mauzac for the Blanquette. The sun rises as we get there, and in the twilight of the early morning you can smell the grapes. Ripe for picking. But at the sorting table it is clear the yield is down- only two tractor-loads pass through our hands. That translates into 33 hl/ha all-in; that is, the best ‘premier jus’ and the more hard-pressed presse together. Which is less than half of our permitted maximum yield, and something around a third of what they are allowed in Champagne. We’ll only be using the premier jus for our Blanquette, and that makes it even less. We’re going to be stretched, that much is clear.
The good news, the grapes are fine – no sign of that botrytis that is plaguing everyone.
After lunch, we start picking the second press load, from a field called Jardin. It is awfully hot, but the mood is good. And if you raise your eyes, there’s a stunning view to egg you on. On a day like today, you cannot believe it is not going to be a great vintage. What a day to start! What a way to start!
Wednesday 2 October
Man and the Machine
There’s a brutish beauty to the mad, mechanical magnificence of the harvesting machine – particularly when the moon hangs over the scene in a suspended crescent, and the stars are shining constellations of light overhead. It is gorgeous. Really, one should get up in the dead of night every day …
Today we’re attacking our chardonnay for the country wine. Machine harvested in the cool of the night, and standing here at the sorting table, I can promise you, it is cool. The grapes pass through our fingers like chilly little marbles, all bouncing into the press with boundless joy. They look so good – what a relief! Crush time is crunch time: this is when you really get the complete overview of what you are pressing.
The harvesting machine empties its last load into the tractor, and we pause for a cup of coffee. The reward is a fabulous sunrise, with peaks I swear I’ve never seen before stepping forward on our horizon. By nine o’clock, the day’s work is done. We’ve done what it takes 25 people a whole day to do.
Thursday 3 October
The good news and the bad news
So the good news is that we didn’t have to get up at 5 a.m. to machine harvest our Chardonnay for the Pays d’Oc, because Christophe, jockey and owner of the bright yellow harvesting machine, could not come before 8.30 a.m. (the bad news). In fact, he didn’t show up until an hour after that, which, for people who only harvest by machine when it is cold, could be seen as really bad news… but not in this case. In this case, the good news is that it was an unusually cool morning – cold at 10h00, and at 11h00, and at midday – though bad news, of course, for the ripening grapes out on their vines.
And then a spiteful scowling sky started spitting large drops of rain at us: unmittigated bad news all round.
Oh no! Not rain!
We scowled back, and the sky sulked and skulked off towards the Mediterranean. Good news.
The first tractor comes in laden with picked grapes. We turn on the conveyor belt and the sorting table. All the lights promptly go out, the cooling equipment sighs a huge sight of fatigue: no electricity. A short circuit caused by the sorting table. Which will not/cannot sort and convey the grapes to the conveyor belt which delivers them into the press. There’s no arguing this one: undisputedly bad news.
In the meantime, Christophe and his machine out in the field are unstoppable, roaring up and down rows of vines, collecting more and more grapes. Soon a second tractor filled to the brim parks itself behind the first one. Fortunately it is cold, fortunately it is not raining, fortunately the grapes are fine.
So by hand we tip the grapes onto the conveyor belt which conveys them into the press while a pair of electricians scuttle around underfoot trying to sort out the problem.
This is the moment a couple of amiable Italians chose to come and taste our wines. I haven’t the heart to send them away, so we speed-taste the absolute minimum number of wines in the absolute minimum amount of time.
Then Christophe runs into a spot of trouble himself : his harvesting machine wages war with a metal pole, and loses. It is stopped in its tracks. Bad news for him. Good news for us, we keep shovelling grapes into the press and catch up.
The Italians see which way the wind is blowing, and possibly sensing a very real possibility that they too will be put to work, make a quick exit. Good news. Arrivederci. Domani may never come, but it will certainly be much better than today.
Then the electricians turn on the switch, and the sorting table vibrates back into action. The grapes bound joyfully home. The next tractor comes in laden with grapes and we are ready to receive and sort them.
And from then on, everything goes swimmingly. But the best part of today is that it is over. The even better part of it is that the juice tastes really good – fruity, with a nice little lemony kick at the end. That is the good news.
However, the weather forecast is terrible.
That is the day’s ultimate bad news. We still have an awful lot of grapes out there that need sunshine and good weather, and it will be difficult to translate that bad news into good news, unless something really good happens.
Friday 4 October
We got in the rest of our Chardonnay for the Pay d’Oc today by lunchtime. The grapes look very good, and we congratulate ourselves on having done the job before a grey sky sealed this cool day with a steady drizzle. And we know, because every one of those grapes flowed down from the trailor on to the sorting table and through our hands.
We picked some of the grapes in the vineyard by random and checked their sugar. Fortunately, it’s still quietly going up and doing the right thing. We can all sleep on it over the weekend. And hope for a bit of sunshine.
Saturday 5 October
You put Your Left Foot in …
It’s not the hokey pokey, it’s called a pied de cuve. Our wines may be hand-crafted, but today we’re putting our foot in. The idea is to trample some grapes by foot, don’t ask me why but that is how it has always been done, so that the juice can start fermenting with the skins, creating a colony of natural yeasts. All going well, those are the yeasts we will use to kick-start fermentation, instead of commercially produced ones. Another reason why biodiversity is so important in the vineyard: insects on a wing are great yeast spreaders.
Have to say, it’s like a rather good foot massage. Try it some day …
Monday 7 October
The Cers is the wine grower’s friend, a clean wind that blows from the west.
The mood is high. We’re at our top chardonnay field, bringing in our top chardonnay for Odyssée. So far, so good.
Just as long as this weather holds
Tuesday 8 October
The Good Neighbour
Pierre comes by to taste the grapejuice that has already been pressed. It’s the new chardonnay-chenin country wine in the making, and we all like it. The grape juice that is. Now to see how it ferments.
Then a wild boar comes our way.
A whole wild boar. A whole dead wild boar; that is, ‘dead’ as in shot. Neatly cut in half, but still with all fours.
Jan takes it to the butcher, but even the butcher doesn’t want to know about it. He suggests we put it in the freezer. A whole dead wild boar in my freezer? You must be joking.
The tractor roars in with more grapes to sort. Some people drop by to buy some wine. A truck rolls up to collect a shipment. The telephone is ringing. Hands are sticky with grapejuice. Hair is sticky with grapejuice. Telephone is sticky with grapejuice. All together, sticky – a sticky situation.
The last thing we want to think about is the dead boar in the back of the car. The dead, headless boar with his four legs.
And then our neighbour, a lady of many parts and all of them composed of agricultural competence, comes by with a sharp knife. Wants to lay said dead boar out over our Regency dining table. What? Agrees to the garden table, and proceeds to produce plastic bags full of chops, cutlets, filet, haunches, and meat “for the daube” or “for paté”, or “for sausages”. All neatly labelled.
God bless a good neighbour.
Wednesday 9 October
Weather still holding, though it’s cooled down considerably. The Cers is blowing a blowing a cooling, cleansing wind. The harvesters are very happy, and even the grapes are happy. This afternoon we attacked our toughest field, a steep 2 ha of mauzac that we reserve for our Cuvée Occitania. They are old, wily, willful vines, and this is usually the worst day of the harvest for everyone. But it’s lovely and fresh, and a couple of the boys, our mecquipe, burst into song. The grapes look great – good old mauzac! – as they pass cool and clean through our fingers on the sorting table.
The worry is the chenin, which is hanging in on there like newly washed laundry. It is in perfect condition, but we can’t start picking until next week. If the weather goes bad on us now, then that will be end of that.
Something for us to sleep on.
Bacchus has decided to call it a day, and he’s already sleeping on it.
Time now to go and grill some boar chops.
Thursday 10 October
A Swedish lifestyle writer and her photographer come and zoom in on our style of life. It looks pretty idyllic, I have to say. Happy harvesters, beautiful views, healthy grapes. Joy unlimited.
But no sooner have they left than a soft gentle drizzle starts falling. We bring out the raincoats.
“That’s a way of telling us we have to work on”, one of them says.
Right on, mate.
They have other ideas, and we have to call it a day. Actually, it is the day that had other ideas: suddenly it was terribly but terribly cold.
And then, of course, it stops drizzling. But it remains awfully cold.
Anyway, today’s excitement is all indoors. The first of the appellation wines is being pumped into the barrels, a big step towards vintage 2013.
Friday October 11
It’s brisk and bracing and very early in the morning. The locals have an expression Ciel rouge, bent ou plouge, or words to that effect. No one actually knows how to write it, but we all know what it means (“red skies in the morning …”). But the sky is magnificent, flaming over us in huge arcs of fire. One of the mecquipe blasts a reveille on his trumpet – they’re fun, these kids – and we all get down to work. What a great team we’ve got this year. But they don’t manage to finish the field, even though it seems to me that tractors full of grapes keep roaring into the courtyard non stop.
At the sorting table we’re squabbling about what to do. Pick on Monday, or wait? Eric is worried, he says it’s time to bring it all in. The chenin looks good, tastes good, is ripe – but has low sugar. If we leave it, rot might set in, the weather might change, anything might happen.
Horrible situation: damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Hanged if you do, damned if you hang.
Would someone please rid me of this troublesome vintage?
Saturday October 12
Oh what a beautiful day! There’s a light sprinkling of snow on the moutain tops, and the sun is shining with all its might.
And the grapes are smiling
And so are we. Had a quick look at the emails, largely ignored over the past few days, and see that our chardonnay-chenin Vin de Pays has been chosen by the wine writer Matt Walls as one of the wines for the Three Wine Men and Wine Gang pre-Christmas events in the UK. That’s nice. Our wines are always pleased to meet Oz Clarke, Tim Atkin and Olly Smith, and to party with the in-crowd of the Wine Gang…
Sunday October 13
But back to business. Jan-Ailbe and I want to delay the harvest for a week. Jan and Eric want to pick immediately. A question of pick and be hung, and let hang and be damned.
Jan I walk through the chenin field planted in 2004. There’s a bit of botrytis in the lower part of it, but it doesn’t look like much to me, and it’s all drying out. Jan says, we shouldn’t wait. I say, no, it’s not a problem.
Then I go through the chenin in front of the winery, in the Garden of Eden, as we call it. The grapes are beautiful. I measure the potential alcohol, and find it has gone up half a degree in two days. We should leave it, let it hang! Or be damned!
Or should we?
Eric says No. Eric is usually right.
Tuesday October 15
The end is in sight
Like horses heading for the stable.
Jan-Ailbe manages to drive the tractor carrying a ton of grapes into the ditch. That offers a bit of diversion and head-scratching for all of us.
Then it’s back to the picking. The team is flying, largely because we had stripped away the leaves from around the grapes. At the sorting table, the grapes look fine, and they’re coming at us fast and furious. Before we know it, it’s over. The last grape bounds off into the press, we wash down the equipment, and that’s that.
Until Thursday, when we machine harvest the very last field, and then we can have a long lie in.
But in the mean time, it’s time for a glass of Blanquette with the crew.
Thursday October 17
Never has the end seemed so close. The machine is roaring through the vineyard, tractor after tractor roars up to the sorting table, grape after grape jumps into the press. It’s all going terribly fast. And we’re working terribly hard: this field is an old field, vines of about 45 years old, irregular, never before been machine harvested. Great big clumps of vine thud onto the sorting table. It’s a sad sight: arms and gnarled trunks of vine being thrown in with the usual detritus.
And then suddenly, silence. Thank goodness. But only because the harvesting machine can’t get around an electricity pole in the middle of the vineyard. Ah, we hadn’t thought of that. We watch the last grape from the last load bound and bounce into the press, and then start phoning the harvesters.
There was, for them, a certain satisfaction in this. The machine may be stronger, faster, meaner, more efficient, cheaper … but it is reduced to impotence by a mere electricity pole.
So out come the secateurs and off we go, to pick the last two rows of vines by hand.
And then it’s over.
And now I’m going to have a long hot bath, and tomorrow I shall sleep until I wake up – and not wake up until I have slept in … and out.
Saturday 19 October
The Party’s Over
We meet for one last time this year, all around a long table. Everyone has brushed up and scrubbed down – no more sticky clothes, sticky fingers, sticky hair. Marilene, who was a bright blonde throughout the harvest, suddenly appears as a flamboyant redhead, with not so much as a trace of a grape in sight. Sit-fong has brought her granddaughter. Jean Paul has brought his wife. And his brother. Who brought his white poodle called Hyoupie. Daniel, the legionnaire, has abstained, he has a petanque competition where he stands to win € 100. Patricia looks downright glamorous. And the guy who was always late, is the very first to appear.
For one of the mecquipe it’s almost a last proper meal before he takes off for a year travelling around South America. For another, a stone mason, it’s a farewell to Cépie before he sets off to mase stones in Lyon. And there’s the guy who last harvested with us five years ago before he joined the army, sitting next to the guy who’s harvesting with us now for the first time, before he goes off into the army.
“I’ll be back in five years time” he says.
He will too.
A funny, very intense relationship you build with these people – Chaucer could have written these stories: we’ve had the Baker’s Tale, the Seamstress’ Tale, the Legionnaire’s Tale (much of it invented, we fervently hope), the Stone Mason’s tale, the Student’s Tale … and then, the untold tale. The enigma that every harvest brings us. Maybe next year we’ll hear that one.
But in the mean time, there’s a huge daube of wild boar to tuck into.
The pickers’ revenge on the boar who got to the grapes before they did.
Tuesday 22 April
Feeling decidedly ungay. It’s warmer in Paris than in Cépie, and there’s also a lot more traffic. There’s been an accident, and the bus isn’t moving. I’m hot, I’m going to be late, and I’m not at all sure where the Pavillon Kléber is once I get to the Arc de Triomphe.
We all finally straggle in, in the nick of time: fourteen Vinifilles, female winegrowers of the Languedoc, trying to make an impression on the nation’s capital at this Rencontres Vinicoles tasting. We are all dead tired. Some more than others: some finished their harvest two weeks ago, and some ended only yesterday. We all have dirty fingernails, though the ones who finished two weeks ago had the time to cover them with nail polish.
I hadn’t had the time to prepare for this, none of had, really, so I expected a washout. But no, a lot of people come to the Vinifilles space, including the four wine buyers I had hoped to meet.
La Trilogie 2012 went down a treat. Until the tall, slim figure from an iconic wine bar materialised.
“I like the Occitania best” he says.
Always liked this fellow, I think to myself. Charming guy, really.
“Good-oh”, says I, always glad when people like the mauzac. “Why is that?”
“What about La Trilogie, then?”
He wrinkled his nose, and said, somewhat petulantly, “It’s frilly.”
All I can think is: Frilly, Willi? Don’t be such a silly billy! Instead, I say stupidly:
I’m still wondering, now that I’ve finally woken up a bit, did he mean feminine, foolish, or frivolous? Or many-layered, complex, interesting?
Wednesday 23 October
Got home at 02h00, and awoke at noon: the eagerly, long-awaited post-harvest sleep. Only to find that the first of our wines has finished fermenting, and everyone has been tasting it. The annual miracle is taking place!
Friday 25 October
So it’s been quite a week. And a big event slid past almost unnoticed: we started the process of grubbing the field of mauzac called Blaise. The vines here are reputedly 100 years old, that’s what the cadastre says, though none of us was around at the time to confirm that. It seems sad, but that is sentimental. The vines are unproductive, and many of them are not well, they are, in a word, dead and dying. Even so, I wander out with the dogs to say goodbye. It’s the first time in 5 months we have walked through the vineyard without inspecting the vines. And that is how, quite unexpectedly, I noticed a single cob of corn growing in solitary splendour right in the middle of Blaise.
Like a farewell present.
Tuesday 29 October
Place is a hive of activity. Wine in the making! Most of the tanks are stilll fermenting, and all the barrels are hard at it, humming along in happy harmony. It’s the best time of year to be here. If you click on the picture, you will link to the keyhole to the cellars, where you can eavesdrop on them. In the mean time, outside we’re taking soil samples of Blaise, so that we can compare it to how it will be after a period of rest and inactivity; we’re ploughing (or rather, Jan-Ailbe is); we are busy, busy, busy. “It must be nice and quiet now the harvest is over” they say. Ha!
…/to be continued