Well almost. As the calendar turned into September we were congratulating ourselves on our magnificent grapes. Impeccable! Round, clean, healthy, beautiful grapes hanging in happy fat bunches. Hanging just as happily as on these paintings by an amateur group of artists on their annual La Cima Painting Course. The harvest approaches and it looks GOOD! This will be the year we don’t need to use the sorting table! And then …
Saturday 03 September
Falling in epic, monstrous, monsoonic measures. Just thundering down. 30 mm of it in less than an hour, an almost impossible feat. And then it falls some more, right through the night into Sunday. Oh no! By now we’re up to 80 mm. Which is okay provided that we have the Big If. It’s okay IF we have nonstop sunshine and a fresh, dry westerly wind to follow to dry up the grapes and stop any rot from setting in …
Monday 05 September
We’re glad we didn’t get hail. We’re glad we just got a jolly good soaking. And we’re glad, oh so glad that the rain has stopped and the sun has come out. We go out to inspect the vineyard, everything looks okay – but the natural sugar in the grapes has tumbled. Hmmm. This means we might want to hold off the harvest, while the grapes concentrate on concentrating themselves again. And risk the rot setting in.
Tuesday 06 September
We finish cleaning each and every barrel. Our ‘small’ cooper, the big Monsieur le Grand delivers the last of the new barrels; the other coopers – big companies with small reps – have already delivered their’s. This job has taken four men two complete days to finish. The tractor is still in its forward-march position, but it’s just as well we’re putting the harvest off until next week.
Monday 12 September
But it’s demented dogs who bark in the new vintage. Bruno, Bacchus and Mauzac over their heels with excitement. The harvesters arrive, alot of kissing and hand-shaking and back slapping. Most were here last year. The ‘toughie-trouble team’ (who were tough indeed, but happily, not trouble) are beaming from ear to ear. The tatooed ex-Legionnaire is kissing more cheeks than anyone else, and more enthusiastically as well.
Jan gives a little talk, says welcome, reminds them that we don’t make wine from leaves, twigs, or rotten grapes, then with a great roar of tractors and their cortege of cars, we head into the rising sun.
First field: Blaise, the one that the art course students painted last week. A steep slope makes it a steep reminder as we all get into our stride. Happily there’s a cool, dry wind. And the weather is unimaginably beautiful. We harvested these vines exactly ten days later last year.
At the sorting table we breath a sigh of relief. The rot resulting from last weekend’s 80 mm rainfall is not nearly as bad as we had feared. It’s easily manageable on the sorting table.
Tuesday 13 September~
“Always the gentleman”, I reply, relieved.
We move on to the mauzac field called Le Jardin (because it is almost an extention of the garden) to pick more grapes for the Blanquette, which needs lower alcohol and higher acidity than the non-sparklers. A fat, full moon is setting, and brilliant red sun rising. The mountains are crystal clear. The day is blue-ing overhead; it’s going to be magnficent again.
But hot. No cooling breeze. I walk up to the harvesters from behind the vines, taking photographs. The Legionnaire spots me:
“Careful everyone!” he says sotto voce, but easily audible “La patronne is coming! Get to work!” He turns around. “Ah patronne! There are you! How are you?”
His work-mate has stripped down to the very bare essentials – her essentials really are quite bare.
The Laotian in the next row is covered from head to toe. She looks as cool as a cucumber.
The atmosphere is very good. So far. Or rather, so far so good.
Wednesday September 14
We have a day off. Time to catch up on desk work. Time to go through the vineyard again, checking on the grapes. A few of the chardonnay fields do not look great, that rain of ten days ago has got to them. We have to pray that this dry weather and sunshine continues.
“In the hands of time and weather” Eric mutters.
Other fields are much better – relief. Odyssée is positively smiling, so is the mauzac for Occitania. Even so, we’ll go on praying for that good weather.
We plan the next step.
The next step is tomorrow morning, 03h00.
Thursday 15 September
Don’t know whether to say Bonjour or Bonsoir – it’s 3.30 in the morning, pitch black, and there’s an almost perfect full moon. Stars too. And the blinking lights of the tractors, and the hard glaring headlights of the harvesting machine.
Four tractor loads, or was it five?, of chardonnay pass non-stop along the sorting table. Even when you close your eyes, you see grapes. They look fine; huge relief.
By 07h30 we’re done. The press is full. The sun has risen. It’s going to be another beautiful day.
Friday September 16
Weather’s holding out, thank goodness. It’s humid and raining in other parts of the Languedoc, but we’ve still got clear skies and a fairly fresh breeze. The sauvignon looked a bit iffy a couple of days ago, but now it’s drying out beautifully. We’re delighted. Some one is on our side.
We pick some organic mauzac grapes – they look, as Eric said, “the way mauzac used to look”: beautiful fat, round, full bunches. These we’ll use to make the pied de cuve; the native yeasts on these grapes will help get fermentation going in the most natural way possible. Clicking on the picture shows Jan putting his foot in it …
A group of bubbly Brits from Bath come by, clutching the Bath Festival brochure, which shows our Blanquette as the Festival’s special wine. Well, that’s nice to know! (Why did no one ever tell us?)
“How’s the harvest going?” they ask.
“Well, if it goes on like this, it’s going great”, we say.
“But it’s still too early to tell”.
Saturday September 17
In for the long haul
This early morning meeting between the harvesting machine and a tractor in the courtyard looks a bit like a mating dance . Perhaps it is. It also looks a bit blurred, but that’s because we are a bit blurred ourselves. Christophe, who manoeuvres it into impossible spaces as if it were made of rubber, is uncharacteristically late: a full two minutes.
We manage only two ha. this morning, whereas we’d hoped to get all our Pays d’Oc done today. Disappointed. But the weather is playing into our hands. When we call it a day at about 09h30 it’s still very cool. Glad about that.
Also glad about the quality of the grapes. The botrytis has completely dried, and will give that certain, wonderful je ne sais quoi to the juice.
The trouble is, now we’re in the for the long haul: machine harvesting at night and hand-harvesting at day. That’s the bad news. But on the bright side, the weather forecast is very, very good.
That’s the good news!
A group of happy Belgians comes by for a tasting in the afternoon. ‘How’s the harvest going?’ they ask.
‘So far so good’ we say, a little smugly. “but it’s too early to tell”.
“Anything can happen yet.”
Sunday 18 September
Sitting in the office looking out the window at the rain falling. And falling, and falling and falling. The sky is grey. The mountains have marched away into Spain, out of sight. And the rain keeps falling. Big, fat, wet globules of it. Falling as if there were no tomorrow.
But there is a tomorrow! And there is a today too! And today we’re supposed to be harvesting the chardonnay. Christophe phones. We agree to talk later.
And then suddenly, 9 mms later, it’s all over. The rain stops as abruptly as it started. And the sun comes out. And a fresh northern wind blows over the vineyard. Maybe we’ll be okay.
Monday 19 September
In for the short haul
The team sets off at 8 a.m. Spirits are high, and so is the wind. It’s a zippy, zingy sort of day, overcast, terribly cold – but a lovely, lively wind. Looks good.
So does the sorting table look good. No wet rot at all. The harvesters zoom through 25 rows of Tournié, one of our top chardonnay fields named after the man who planted these vines 40 years ago. We’re rather pleased and begin congratulating ourselves on getting in through the eye of a needle. Acidity/sugar levels are beautifully balanced.
You take a risk when you’re the last white wine vineyard harvesting.
And then the heavens open. Ice cold rain torrents down in bucketloads. It’s short, it’s sharp, but it’s very wet and it’s very cold. It’s only lunchtime, and we have to call it a day, the harvesters are frozen to the bone. They weren’t prepared for this, and nor were we.
So tomorrow we’ll be machine harvesting from about 04h00, and then rocking around the clock with our hand-harvesters …
Tuesday 20 September
Amazing how utterly delicious the Carte Noir coffee and chocolate croissant are when the machine has finished moonlight harvesting … and before the équipe comes to start the sunlight hand-harvesting. A lot of coffee goes into making a good wine.
The day presents itself: magnificent. There seems to be a slight powdering of snow on the peaks of the Pyrenees.
So this morning before the day had even begun, we got in the last of the chardonnay for the Pays d’Oc. Now we’re on to the chardonnay for the Limoux, finishing off yesterday’s unfinished business in Tournié. We’ve been tasting the juice – it’s delicious.
Just as Tournié is named after Monsieur Tournié who planted it, Vincent is named after … well, Vincent, Monsieur Tournié’s vineyard worker. The crew are happy, the weather is divine. The yield is good.
We should have named one of our chardonnay fields after Ahmed, because he’s the one who planted it. Instead, it’s called 2001. He’s back with Fatimah, to help the harvest.
And so we wrap up the day in smiles. The sorting table shudders to a stop. The grapes go in to the press. We clean the winery. We think we’ll have a well-deserved bottle of bubbles on the terrace and watch the sun set.
And then the wine-press breaks down.
Wednesday 21 September
Waiting for Pascal
But that doesn’t make us any happier, nor does the fact that we had a good sleep-in. There was no machine harvesting before break of day today, simply because there was no press to press the grapes in.
The agents of our state-of-the-art Vaselin-Buecher pneumatic press promise they’ll have it running again by midday. So the hand-harvesting équipe goes joyfully into the fields and picks a press-load of chardonnay. Then they stop for lunch: tables and chairs come out, glasses, plates, some delicious cold cuts, 50 cl bottles of wine. Jean-Paul, being in the catering business himself, has brought a little primus on which to heat his boeuf bourgignon. Laurent, being a baker, has wonderful bread. The harvesters are happy. And the glorious day is spread before them like a picture postcard.
But we are not happy.
Pascal, the technician, works all morning at the press while we sort the grapes on the sorting table on their way into the press. He closes the doors to the press and neglects to tell us. Grapes go bounding and bouncing off all over the place. Hundreds of them. A second tractor comes into the courtyard with the last of the morning’s pickings. Finally Pascal declares the job done and goes off to have lunch.
We sort the grapes from the last tractor-load, and then turn on the press with its brand-new compressor.
It makes a horrible, violent shuddering noise, like a monstrous death-rattle, and then … nothing.
We wait for Pacal to come back.
Thursday 22 September
Another day dawns
No sooner had we got all our hand-picked chardonnay pressed and out of the way yesterday, and got things ready for the next batch: sauvignon blanc, to be harvested up to midnight by machine, when Christophe phones. His harvesting machine has broken down. This is incredible.
So we have a leisurely barbecue on the terrace with a wonderful 2003 Travers du Rey from Domaine Calet, and watch a sunset so dramatically pink that it seems positively prophetic. Tomorrow will be a better day.
And it is. By 8h00 this morning we’re sipping our coffees with a good hectare of sauvignon already safely in the press, and our team of harvesters at work on the Odyssée chardonnay field. The weather, the mountains, the air … it all defies description. Just absolutely, magnificently wonderful.
No matter how many spanners all our hi-tech computer-driven machinery is throwing in the works, at least the manpower goes on … and on … and on.
By day end, we’ve wrapped up my two favourite, most loyal parcelles, Odyssée and half of Occitania. The French airforce does a low flypast, which is considerate of them. The grapes are absolutely magnificent: 2011 will go down as the Year of the Mauzac.
But day end means day beginning, because there’s some Chardonnay out there calling us to come and play in the moonlight …
But between now and then something else happens: the winepress, with its brand-new one day old compressor, breaks down at the end of its cycle.
We wait for Pascal
But we’re glad for small mercies; at least the mauzac was pressed.
Friday 23 September
Past the Halfway Point
By midnight last night we got the problem sorted: it was a defective rubber strip. A couple of hours of sleep and we’re up again, machine harvesting the last of the chardonnay for our Pays d’Oc country wine. All done and put to bed by sunrise.
We feel pretty done too, and ready for bed ourselves – but the party goes on. The winery is a hive of action
And the day is hot. They’re feeling it out in the field, we’re feeling it here in the winery. There’s an element of pressure: the weather forecast for the weekend is not good. We must get the mauzac in today, even if it kills us. It comes bounding down the sorting table blamelessly and blemish-free, like a throw of emeralds. Absolutely stunning. Mark my words, 2011 will be the year of the Mauzac.
Monday 26 September
Sauve qui Peut
So over the weekend we got all our sauvignon in. Hard work. But it’s wrapped and packed and ready to roll. Today we attacked some of the chenin and the last of the mauzac. It was hot. We were hot. A relentless blue sky burning down on us.
“Nature has all the rights” says one of the porteurs, rather obscurely. But I had to agree.
The local school in Cépie came to visit us. These kids, incredibly, had never been on a vineyard before, though they are surrounded by them. They picked grapes, put smiley faces on them, sent them down the sorting table and into the press, and then had a tasting.
Sharp intake of breath from the teacher as I brought out a wine bottle and started pouring.
They smelled, swilled, swirled, spat. And declared it grape juice. Clever children.
Hard work at the sorting table today. Who was the fool who said we wouldn’t need to use the sorting table this year? This field is like Goldilocks’ porridge: there are single bunches with grapes that are over-ripe, under-ripe and just right.
Tuesday 27 September
I can take one day at a time, but not the whole lot of them together. They all seem to be bunching up and ganging up on us right now. This morning, or was it last night, we waved off Christophe on his 150 horsepower harvesting machine, galloping into the sunrise. That was after they pulled in the chenin blanc for our Country wine.
They’re pretty good, but horsepower lacks something that manpower has: the ability to select. So yesterday we sent the harvesters out to cut off the bad grapes so they couldn’t be sucked up by the machine. Then we sorted them again at the sorting table. And then the day began. Or did it end right then?
Some brave souls of the Dutch community came to help us pick this afternoon. Probably the hottest, hardest halfday they’ve ever had. We bumped up the number of people on the sorting table; we’re going to have to be stricter in the field.
Today we pick most of Dédicace. It’s long, and slow : the harvesters are doing a fantastic job cutting out the rot in the grapes. Trouble is, the rot has become noble rot, and it is delicious. It will add something absolutely fantastic to our wines – but we’re not making a sweet desert wine. The waste nearly kills me. We should be doing a late harvest sweet wine – conditions like these just never happen in the Languedoc.
And hot! The sun continues blazing down on us.
Dany, who is the ex-Legionnaire, tastes the juice on his hand. “Hmm” he says, “14.3 % potential “. He’s wrong. Because they’ve done such a good job of taking out all the concentrated sweetness, it’s actually only 12%.
Tomorrow will be the last day. We cannot imagine it. We open a bottle of pink fizz and sit on the terrace. Suddenly you don’t feel so tired. The sun sinks behind the mountains and the sky is the colour in our glass.
Thursday 29 September
All good things
“All good things must come to an end” says Christophe, the (lazy) porteur. We’re in Eden, the field infront of the winery. The mountains are smiling down on us from the horizon. The sky is blue, the sun is blazing, but it is still comfortably cool. Wild flowers between the rows of vines are as tall as some of the harvesters – no wonder we call this field Eden. (Actually, because we bought it from someone called Eden).
The grapes here are brilliant. At the sorting table they are cool to the touch, coming in at 13% potential alcohol: spot on. This all looks good, feels good.
The team admonishes me for not having pruned the roses at the end of the rows. “The roses were much better last year” they complain. Oh well, we’ll try to do better next year. “But what about the flowers?”, I ask.
“Ah oui. Magnifique.”
And then before we know it, it is all over. We gather in the courtyard for a glass of Blanquette. The Legionnaire declares it the best he has ever had. Patricia nods her head vigorously, “Have you seen all our gold medals?” she asks.
The ‘our’ doesn’t pass us un-noticed.
We have had a short, sharp intensive time with this disparate, some might even say desperate, lot. The only one potential trouble-maker got an impressive dressing down from Jan (“People are treated with respect here, and that includes you; you will treat people with respect too, or you leave”). He won’t be back next year, that news has already been passed on through the grape vines…
A great team.
Some wine educators come for a tasting in the late afternoon, and find the place a haven of quiet.
Saturday 30 September
Quiet? No, the place is a hive activity. Every single last bit of equipment – buckets, secateurs, wine press, tanks, trailers, you-name-it – is washed, scrubbed and blitzed into super-hygienic oblivion, where they will remain until about this time next next year.
And yesterday we filtered the bourbes, dreggs that have sunk to the bottom of the pressed grape juice – made up mostly of particles of skins and pips and so on – which like magic transformed themselves into really tasty juice. It’s all done with suction and white clay-like sand, but don’t ask me how.
Never before have we had a harvest at Rives-Blanques that started with the full moon and ended before the new moon. It was short, sharp, electric and eclectic – and exhausting.
Time now to sip into something pink and pretty with lots of fizz, and drink to the downing sun setting behind the mountains. We’re taking bets: I think it’s the year of the mauzac, and that we’ll have the best Occitania of all time. Jan’s putting his money on the Odyssée – “rich, powerful, like 2004!” – and Eric seems to be siding with Dédicace, the chenin blanc. “Excellent acidity” he says, “finesse”. We’ll just have to see what we make of it.
…./to be cont’d next month