September 2012: Harvesting the Sunshine in our Vine …

August closed with a spectacular clash of cymbals and a dramatic drum-roll of thunder; we had asked for 20 mm of rain, but got 23 mm instead, which is nice. A stiff, fresh northerly wind blew September in, just what the doctor ordered for the health and happiness of our grapes and ourselves. This time last year, and the year before, we had already harvested our first field by now; this year the turn of the calendar’s page finds us waiting and watching instead. The whispered word around France is that 2012 will be a “winemaker’s year”, but as September opened, it was looking pretty much like a “vineyard’s year” to us, (still) sitting pretty on our plateau.

Tuesday September 4

From Russia with love

 Got another one of those emails that make me so ridiculously pleased. “It is very cold in Moscow” it said, “but we are enjoying the sunshine in your vine”. Looked at the guest book in our tasting room, which some people sign and others don’t, and found an unintelligible entry, presumably in Russian, from a couple of months back, with a little explanatory note underneath in French: We are from Moscow.

That must be them.

 “The sunshine in your vine”. I couldn’t have said it as well myself – in any language.


Thursday September 6
The sunshine in our vine

 We were pleased indeed with a very nice write up about our wines in the authoritative wine guide published by La Revue du Vin de France last month. Now two more hit our desk: one by Dussert-Gerber, and the other, a knuckle-dusting block-buster door-stopping volume by France’s top wine-writing duo, Bettane and Desseauve, who heroically tasted their way through 50,000 bottles before drawing up a long short-list of the top wines. Of course, very happy to be included in them all, quite honoured really.

All because of the sunshine in our vine.


Friday September 7
The heat is on

 The weather is definitely warming up, and the tension mounting. Panic and pandemonium is being meted out in deceptively  calm, controlled measures, as we test all the harvesting equipment one more time. Alarm bells ring. Hydraulic system in the tractor has packed up. Barrels are rolled into place, empty and expectant. Fingers are sticky from testing, tasting and squashing grapes. Tomorrow’s the day!  Tomorrow we’ll start pressing the sunshine in our vines. Tomorrow is the start of harvest 2012….

Saturday September 8
Day One!

Tomorrow comes rather sooner than later, at 04h00 to be exact. The moon is still bravely shining a perfectly halved segment of white light, and there is absolute silence.  Until the harvesting machine roars into action, and starts galloping across the slumbering field in streams of light.  There is already that special smell of picked grapes hanging in the night; it sounds unlikely but it is true.  This is a great moment, right at the very beginning of the adventure, before exhaustion, elation or disappointment sets in …

By breakfast time we’ve picked 1.5 hectares of chardonnay. Minor panic when the trailer full of grapes won’t lift.  Then I forget to switch on the sorting table and the grapes all pile up, going nowhere. The press has managed to put itself on the wrong programme.  Gradually we get our act together and into the swing of things again.  Now the grapes are rolling down the sorting table and in to the press, cool to the touch.  Pristine.   Looking very very good.

(Oops! One leaf got through, for ever immortalised on the video if you click on the picture.)

And then it’s already time for a cup of coffee and a croissant. The sun is up and the sky is promising a lovely day.

Amazing how much you can do in a day, before the day has even begun.

Tuesday September 11
The Real Stuff

The harvest never feels properly begun until the hand-harvesting begins.  Now that we have our machine-harvested “Cuvée Fraichure” under the belt, we can count the start of Harvest 2012 as of right now: 08h00 on a sullen and rather sultry Tuesday morning.  They’re forecasting rain and thunderstorms, but we choose to ignore that.

It’s like an old school class gathering: lots of kissing and exclamations and back-slapping as all the old team rolls up, and the two couples of ‘new kids’ hang back looking at the ground.

Ahmed, the former foreman, just got back in the nick of time from his annual holidays.  “It was too hot in Morocco” he grumbles.

“But if you go back to Morocco in August, what do you expect?” Eric asks.

“43 degrees!” he says.  “Much better here.”

“Here” begins to heat up rather horribly as well.  We’re doing the mauzac for the Blanquette, and mauzac is the pits to pick.

“Caryl!” the ex-Legionnaire calls. “Hoi! Patronne!”

Danny looks a bit fresher-faced than last year, somehow les tattered by tattoos.

“Yes, Danny?”

“Hoi, Patronne, you coming to harvest with us today, Caryl?”  He bursts out laughing and gives me a friendly knock-out-and-down punch on my arm that throws me sideways and sends me reeling.

Everyone knows that la patronne avoids picking mauzac like the plague.  Jan jr. whose birthday it is today, sacrifices himself and folds his great length to mauzac height.

At the sorting table,  the grapes are surprisingly cool to the touch.  They are in incredibly good condition, really really healthy.  They look very good.

And then we hear the first rumble of thunder at 18hoo, when everyone has gone home and we’re still cleaning the winery.  Fingers crossed.   No rain tonight please.

Wednesday September 12
Go Away

No, no rain last night.  No rain this morning either. Just a threatening sky. Our harvesters show up, full of sunshine.  It’s going to be okay.

It strikes me what a family-affair this is.  There is our former foreman Ahmed with his wife and daughter (doing her Masters at Toulouse University); there is our present foreman’s ex-wife, her sister, and her nephew; there is Eric’s son and our own son; and Mak’s sister and brother … and then there are all the rest, who come back year after year and have simply melded into the greater family by some sort of subtle osmosis.

Laurent is one of my favourites.   “Are you still baking bread?” I ask him.

“Oh yes.  I take my holiday now so that I can do the harvest at Rives-Blanques.”

But then, he’s a porteur, not a picker; he doesn’t have to scramble around in the deep tangled heart of a mauzac bush.  Instead he ferries loads of about 40 kg from the pickers to the tractor – not a light job either.  Not exactly what you’d call a holiday.

In the field the grapes look good, but on the sorting table you can really see what they are like.   It’s all going tickety-boo, bunches of beautiful bright green marbles jiggling happily into the press …

And then the rain comes.  It is amazing how stoic, uncomplaining and positively heroic our harvesters are in the face of killing heat.  Like yesterday.  But at the first sign of the tiniest drop of rain they scatter like frightened chickens.

It begins falling just before lunch. Gentle drops that hardly moisten the ground.  It  stops …  and then falls more determindly but still with a certain lack of conviction, after lunch.  By three o’clock we have to call it a day.

That throws a real dampener on the affair.

But we’ve got most of it in, that’s the good news.  And we can finish off picking for the fizz tomorrow.

Friday 14 September
Pause Café

The most beautiful bright and blustery day at Rives-Blanques, perfect for harvesting.  Excepting there is not a harvester in sight.  Rives-Blanques has gone into pre-overdrive hybernation, waiting for the grapes to soak up all this sunshine.  2012 is beginning to have the makings of a Very Long Harvest.

Tuesday 18 September
Two Breakfast Day

At 04h30 this morning, it’s a strong cup of Barry’s tea, a boiled egg and a slice of bread with Marmite that gets us going.   Four hours later, it’s a Continental breakfast: hot coffee and warm croisants.

A lot of good coffee goes into making a good wine.

You can set your watch by Christophe.  At 05h00 on the dot, he turns the ignition and the harvesting machine roars into action.  It cruises up and down lines of vines as neatly drawn as the furrows on Cassini’s 18th century map, where this spot is marked by a shaky hand: Les Tres Pechs.  A slight, light mist hangs unhappily over it, dampening sight and sound.

By the time the mist lifts and the sun has burned through, we’re all done.  The grapes look good … but the yield is right down, maybe  just over half of last year.

Thursday 20 September
Sauve qui peut

The great thing about these dead-of-night starts for machine harvesting is that you get to see another magnificent day dawn.

Should do it more often …

Crisp, clear, bracing and bright – wonderful!  The sun slips slowly up the mountainside, and we are still at it, chained to the sorting table.  Today it’s the sauvignon, passing like frozen marbles under our fingers, as perfectly formed as the day is.  The grapes look fantastic: 8000 kg of them jiggle down the sorting table and into the press.  By lunchtime it’s a wrap up, and we all get that Friday afternoon feeling, even though it’s still Thursday morning.

Friday 21 September

That Friday morning feeling comes soon enough.  But it’s a doddle, just the last remaining rows of chardonnay for the country wine.  Then we can put the machine, and ourselves, to bed.

 Grapes are brilliant again.  The machine threatens to break down just when it gets to the very last eighth of a hectar – never has so close seemed so far!  But Christophe talks to it nicely, and we’re off again, just as the sun rises.  This is what the  HarvestMachine looks and feels like …

In the mean time, the first of tank of chardonnay is already fermenting away happily.

And everything would be perfect if only the day would end as it began: full of hope.  Instead, it becomes chilly, grey, glowering and gloomy.  We need sun if we are to pick next week.  The sunshine in our vine.

Saturday 22 September

No grapes to pick today.  We try to sleep in and fail.  So we pick walnuts instead.  It’s overcast and a bit humid.  I see some mushrooms on the lawn, usually welcome but right now,  not.

Sunday 23 September

Grey, overcast and threatening drizzle.

Tuesday 25 September
Great ChardonDay

The team is back.  Dogs barking, tractors roaring, people laughing, and wafting up over the hills, church bells ringing.  Temperature: pefect.  Conditions: ideal.

Just one thing bothers me.  This time last year when we did this very field, the press broke down.  This time the year before that, when we did this very field, the press broke down.  There’s something about this field called Vincent that I don’t quite trust.

Danny is decked out in camouflage and battle boots.  He trips over a vine and roars at it: “I want  your name, your address, and your number!”

“Got the bastard” he mutters, giving a broad wink.

They’re happy.  Conditions are perfect. Grapes are perfect.

Ca coule, ca coule” they say, there’s juice in these grapes.  They guess the potential alcohol: 13%, no,  13.5%.  In fact, it’s 12.8% – what you could call perfect at this stage of the game.

In the winery Eric is also grinning.  A new pump has just been installed, to replace one that is 25 years old.  “It’s not working!” he accuses the technician.

It is working.  It is just that it is so quiet, and we are not used to that.

Really, really pleased with the grapes rolling down the sorting table.  Into the press they go.  Jan pushes the button and … nothing.

He pushes again.


Oh no!

He presses again, and with a slight sigh, the doors roll shut.  This phew moment is caught on candid camera, if you click on the picture.

Wednesday 26 September
More Chardonnay

Rain gear is doled out to the pickers, the sky is low.  It is grey and threatening.  It is very cold, and I swear I can smell snow in the air.  More chardonnay today, from the field we call Tournié.  It feels like a race against time.

The pickers move fast, keeping warm.  They’ve never cleaned up a field as fast as this before. We look at the sky and wonder if we’ll manage to get it all in.  A few light drops fall, but they plough on.  Maybe we will, maybe we won’t.

We don’t.

We like to vinify each parcelle separately, but there are a couple of rows of vines left here that will have to be added to tomorrow’s press.  You can’t force nature to work according to your own plans.

Thursday 27 September
The Home Stretch

The end is definitely in sight now.  Today we are on to our top chardonnay field, Le Pech.
It’s crisp and sunny, and when we set out, a low layer of cloud covers the valley below, but the mountains rise above it into a blamelessly blue sky.  Really wonderful.  Everyone’s spirits lift – including Bacchus and Mauzac.

A vet once told me that grapes are fatal for dogs.  Well, these dogs have been picking grapes for as long as they’ve been around, and they look pretty healthy to me.

It’s still cool enough to keep the pace up, and by lunchtime, Le Pech is basically wrapped up.  Danny & Co have brought a table and chairs which they set up under the old oak tree, and sit down to lunch with a splendid view.

Thankfully, the grapes look good.  Their sugar and acidity levels are perfect too.  The only disappointment is the yield, which considerably lower than our own self-imposed low yield.

Friday 28 September~
The Dedication in Dédicace

On a day like today you can’t believe anything could possibly wrong.  It’s beautiful.  The mountains lie on the horizon at the bottom of the chenin field like a doorstop.  Everything is brilliant, a day worthy of ‘Dédicace’, the wine we are picking for.

But at the sorting table, the view’s a little less pretty: botrytis, a sort of grape rot, has set in – in itself not a huge problem, that’s what we have a sorting table for, but a nuisance.  It means we have to work harder.  It also means we shouldn’t delay another minute in getting in the chenin blanc, because rain is forecast for the weekend.

Four days ago, there wasn’t a trace of it.  But once it sets in, it can spread like wildfire, and damp conditions only fuel the flame and make it worse.

Jan explains this to the harvesters.  It is five o’clock, and they’ve done a good and hard day’s work.  But if we have to wait until Monday to finish picking the chenin, and if it rains in between, well then, we’re snookered.  Or pretty well.

Almost to a man, they elect to stay on.  It’s their decision, there’s no overtime, just the regular wage.  Plus, it’s Friday night.  Dédicace in name, dedication in action.  We  continue picking until 8pm.

By 9 pm the press is turning.

By 10 pm, the winery is cleaned and we can sit down to dinner.

 A beautiful day indeed … but a very long and hard one.

Sunday 30 September

50 ml of rain yesterday and last night.  One terrible moment when the temperature plummeted and the rain contemplated hail.  Thank goodness we got the chenin blanc in.

…/to be continued