Bordeaux Life in a winery
Guest Wines Tour de France
Now the harvest was over, our work moved into the chai at Chateau la Tour de Chollet.
Our first job was to prepare the barrels for the transfer of last year’s red wine, which involved lots of cleaning!
After this was done and the barrels were dried out we were able to attach a pump to the tank full of Merlot and gravity fill each barrel, making for a gentler transfer of the wine, only the last little bit of wine needed to be pumped through. It took some exact measuring to ensure the wine did not spurt out of the top of the barrel as it was being filled but unfortunately we got a bit cocky and on the second to last barrel Kel got showered in Merlot juice as we underestimated the flow.
The tank that was now empty so needed to be cleaned and prepared for the 2013 harvest, which involved climbing inside to scrub down the walls and give it a good steam clean. Kel had a bit of a sauna going on in there and was by now truly soaked!
Our next jobs involved looking after the newly harvested juice with daily tasks of checking the baume (sugar) and temperature levels, pump overs, punch downs or ‘pigeage’ for the reds and temperature control.
We introduced a South African technique to help us break the cap on one of the tanks of red, proving particularly difficult, that involved balancing a plank of wood across the tank (as demonstrated in the photo below) and sitting on it whilst spearing the ‘gateaux’ (cake), a description we were introduced to at Chateau Bertinerie in Blaye. This was always a two person job because of the escaping CO2 gases.
On one of the day’s when Paul needed to bring some juice to the laboratory for sample anaylsis, we were able to tag along and were given a guided tour by the lab manager. It was interesting to see the amount of equipment used to do various tests to ensure the wine is of good quality. Some of the apparatus is the same as that used in hospitals for human specimen tests, however in this instance these test tubes were full of grape juice rather than blood!
Back at the chai, Paul demonstrated the homemade cooling system that he had devised mainly for the whites and rose, this was an eduation for us as it enabled us to see exactly how this process works. Whereas the reds occasionally needed a little help with attaining a higher temperature, which involved taking a proportion of the wine into another vessel and placing what looks like a radiator into the juice, heating it up, then pumping it back into the tank, enabling the rest to increase in temperature.
Florent would call in once or twice a week to see how everything was going and would give Paul advice and direction on the fermentation process.
We were fortunate enough to still be around to see the Merlot complete its fermentation and then witness the leftover pomace or marc, leftover skins, be pressed by the traditional basket press. It was amazing to see how much juice could still be extracted but as this is highly concentrated it is always stored in a separate tank and can be used for blending in the final wine. Needless to say the clean up afterwards took alot longer than the pressing itself.
Once the grape skins have been pressed and squeezed of all their juices, the basket press can be dismantled revealing an impressively compacted ‘gateaux’ or cake. The ‘gateaux’ is collected and taken away to be used for the production of surgical alcohol. It’s good to know a lot of waste produce is recycled.
The fermentation was almost complete on the rose and so it was ready to be fined before being transferred into tank to be stored for winter prior to bottling.
The white had also finished its fermentation and was going to be left a bit longer on its lees, so we had a hand at ‘battonage’, which involves stirring the lees up into the wine, to help this process along.
This was followed by more cleaning and then our time in this winery was at an end. What we have come to realise about this type of work is that there is no room for mind reading! Careful planning and effective communication are essential to ensure that everyone knows their role and understands exactly what they should be doing.
It can be dangerous work!
Our final few days at Chollet saw us returning to the vineyard to remove old posts in need of replacement.
Although our 2013 harvest at this chateau was complete, we shall stay in the Bordeaux region for our next few instalments where we feature Ruth going back to school as well as exploring some of the lesser known appellations before we move out and onto the Loire Valley.
Bordeaux Life on a vineyard
Guest Wines Tour de France
After a good night’s sleep, we met Kirstie for our ‘induction’ tour of the Chollet vineyards and winery. It was a very foggy morning, which leant a rather ethereal and eery air to the surroundings yet it was atmospheric.
Kirstie walked us around the vines, which completely surround the house and winery. It was interesting to hear that the oldest vines are around 60 years old and new Sauvignon Blanc vines have recently been planted, so there are quite a range of ages. It was quite soggy walking around and we risked sinking into the sandy clay at times, wellies were definitely needed for the next day. The soil was quite different to vineyards we had worked in elsewhere but typical of this part of Bordeaux.
Paul then showed us around the ‘chai’ (winery) explaining how everything worked before taking us through a tasting of his wines.
Our following few days were spent in the Semillon vines, average age of 57 years old with extremely gnarly trunks, cutting out any bunches that were unsuitable for harvest, such as where there were any signs of rot as it had been a particularly wet period. Unfortunately, more rain was forecast, which provides ideal conditions for grey rot, noble rot’s evil twin! Needless to say we didn’t escape the wet as we pruned the bunches …
We finished our pruning with the Cabernet Franc on the day prior to the actual harvest.
Whilst pruning we met Florent Niautou, Consultant Oenologist, who has helped Chollet since the early days and provides great insight and advice on wine making techniques to suit each harvest. We soon came to understand that the 2013 harvest was being seen as something of a trickier one in Bordeaux, as well as across France, with producers seeing their yields reduced by as much as 50% or more and desired sugar levels difficult to attain. We also got to experience Bordeaux weather, one day hot and sunny, the next torrential rain and thunder storms, increasing the chance of rot. It will definitely be interesting to see how the wines from this vintage turn out.
It was still very dark on harvest day when we were up and ready to go at a pretty early hour, there was a distinct chill in the air. We were introduced to Joelle and Hugo who had brought their harvesting equipment while Paul’s neighbour was already out busy with the machine harvester. This was the first time we had experienced this up close and it was fascinating to see how fast the harvester moved up and down the rows shaking the grapes off the vines leaving their stalks attached. A job that would have taken a group of us the day to hand pick was completed within a few hours.
Once the grapes were brought into the winery, our work could begin. The white wine grapes, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, were brought in first, which we helped sort by removing unwanted pieces of debris before they were gently pumped into the press and finally into a stainless steel tank to allow the juice to settle before commencing fermentation.
Next to come in were the Merlot grapes as these were also deemed ready to be picked. These grapes were pushed through a destemming machine, which also lightly crushes them. Initially, a portion of the juice was ‘bled’ (known as saignee) from the grapes whilst they rested in the press, this was done in stages so that the colour could be checked at regular intervals to make sure the right level of intensity was reached for the rose. This juice was run off into a stainless steel tank to settle while the remainder went into tank for the red wine. Fermentation was kicked off straight away for the red wine must.
Then began the process of cleaning, so everything was ready to go again for the red wine grapes a few days later. Ah memories of our work in South Africa and Roussillon came flooding back, literally as the water flowed and flowed … you can’t have an aversion to cleaning in this line of work.
The Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon would still remain on the vine a few days more to allow sugar levels to continue to rise to a more suitable level for picking.
Prior to these being harvested we passed through the rows to remove any unsuitable specimens.
Ruth was off studying Bordeaux wine at L’Ecole du Vin in Bordeaux city when it was time to complete the harvest, so Kel represented Guest Wines with completion of the Chollet harvest. The Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes were also machine harvested, apart from a small parcel of younger Cabernet Sauvignon vines that were handpicked.
Once all the red grapes were brought back to the winery, Kel sorted through them for debris whilst Kirstie and Paul processed them through the destemmer into the tank. The harvest was now complete and all the juice was safely in tank beginning to fizz.
The vineyard work was more or less over apart from a few days near the end of our stay when we ventured back out to remove old posts in the Cabernet Franc vines that were to be replaced with new ones. It was pretty tough work but as always a good workout. We were even entrusted with the Chateau’s quad bike to shift the old posts from the vineyard to the storage area, great fun and particularly exciting for Kel as he had not driven a vehicle for some 14 years! Though Ruth was a little bit more nervous about being the passenger in this case. Trying to manoeuvre one of these in reverse with a trailer attached was quite a challenge but we are pleased to say we succeeded – Hoorah!
It was a nice way to finish our stay at Chollet, as on these last few days we were blessed with lovely sunshine and warm temperatures. It was great to feel the sun on our faces in late October.
However, before we leave Chollet, we shall be returning to the winery to feature the process of converting grape into wine.
Grand Cru Drive Thru: Château la Tour de Chollet, Ste-Foy La Grande
Guest Wines Tour de France
It was now time for us to stop and take root for a while amongst the vines at Château la Tour de Chollet in Bordeaux, where we would spend a month helping out with their harvest. We came across an advert in Decanter magazine, which invited interested readers to gain some experience of working on a vineyard in Bordeaux. We didn’t hesitate to contact them to enquire about what they could offer and only a few emails later, we had secured a month lending a hand at this family run chateau.
Our very own Tower!
Paul and Kirstie Rowbotham decided to change careers in 2003 and bravely gave up their jobs in the IT industry to move into the winemaking industry. After spending a year working on a vineyard in Cahors they decided that France was the place for them and started searching for their ideal location. They found Château la Tour de Chollet in 2006 after agreeing to go into their exciting new venture with Kirstie’s parents, Laurie and Linda. We learnt that Chollet is the name of the area and a neighbouring property and the ‘Tour’ in the name turned out to be our accommodation for the period we were there.
They were on a steep learning curve taking over a vineyard which previously sold its grapes to the local cooperative and deciding to convert all 20 acres to organic production but they have managed to do this successfully, building up a reputable business incorporating wine tourism as well as the production of a range of wines for which they have now received several awards, including commendments from IWC and Decanter. They sell their wines to various restaurants in England as well as to those who visit the vineyard for a tour or stay in the holiday accommodation.
It’s a lovely area to holiday in with plenty to see and do within driving distance and the Tower is well equipped with a lounge, kitchen, dining room and two bedrooms. Looking out your window everyday to row upon row of vines is quite spectacular and you can’t help but be seduced by the lifestyle there.
The vines surround the house and winery, which is known as the chai in French, and they grow Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, some of the vines are as old as 60 years of age. Their range of wines consist of two reds, one oaked and one unoaked, a rose, a dry white and a sweet white, which is no mean feat for a small producer.
The chateau itself is situated in the small commune of Les Leves et Thoumeyragues, only 10 minutes drive from Sainte-Foy-La-Grande. Ste-Foy sits neatly by the Dordogne river and is a characteristic fortified town, walking the streets you pass many very old looking timber buildings whose walls worryingly slope outwards above you almost arching across the street. The town has a welcoming feel and there was plenty of activity going on, in particular with sales of ‘cèpes’ on the roadside, wild mushrooms that were in some cases very large!
The local E.Leclerc supermarket proved to be a great place to shop not just for our daily staples but impressively for wine too! It was the ‘Foire aux Vins’ whilst we were there, which is one of the times of year supermarkets in France discount a large amount of wine and you can access many famous Chateaux second wines at very reasonable prices, a taste of what the top guns produce! We found a second wine by Chateau Talbot, Connetable, 2009 and 2010 for less than 20 euros but without the help of Bruno, the wine advisor on duty, we might not have found the other delights that we did. He was so passionate about wine and pointed out a number of good value finds and he also spoke brilliant English, which was even more helpful although we were getting by not too badly with Ruth’s French.
Bruno, our helpful wine advisor!
You can read about quite a different ‘Foire aux Vins’ experience that Ruth had recently in Roussillon here.
On our days off we explored the region as much as we could, eager to learn more about what makes Bordeaux so special. The differences in landscape and soils were quite noticeable between areas, such as the sandy clay found here.
On one such day, after a nice Sunday dinner, we ventured out for a walk around the vines bathed in the early evening sun, which gently settled on the horizon as if performing a grand finale for us. A hot air balloon floated by in the distance, horse riders passed by whilst out for their evening trot, we even disturbed a wild deer that ran across our path, which all made for what was almost an idyllic moment apart from the occasional gunfire that could be heard as it was now the hunting season. This commences directly after harvest has finished, where local boar, deer, hare and a particular speciality the palambra (a type of wood pigeon that migrates at this time of year) are the targets, various lookouts and traps are erected in the local woods in order to catch these birds on their migration, it seems to be quite an event on the annual hunting calendar but we could think of other ways to pass our time.
Our month quickly passed and on our final night we were treated to a curry with the Rowbotham family, needless to say one or two good Bordeaux wines were a fine accompaniment that helped wash it all down. This rounded off our Bordeaux experience as the following day we would be moving on to the Loire Valley.
However, before moving on, we have more tales to share of our Bordeaux experience and our next blogs will feature in a little more detail our time in the vineyard and winery as well as exploring some of those lesser known Bordeaux appellations.
Grand Cru Drive Thru Bordeaux: St-Émilion & Pomerol
Guest Wines Tour de France
We set out on our drive to Saint Émilion on what was to be a rather grey and rainy day but this didn’t dampen our sense of excitement on seeing this infamous town impressively reveal itself as we journeyed along the D670.
We chose to drive straight through the town to begin with as we wanted to seek out Clos Trimoulet, which lies just outside the town walls on a flatter bit of the plateau. Having enjoyed their Grand Cru wines purchased at the Salon des Vignerons Indépendants in Paris a couple of years ago, it seemed fitting to be heading to this particular producer to get our day underway.
The Appollot family has been making wine here for six generations and is currently managed by Joel and Alain Appollot. We were greeted by one of the wife one of the owners, who was pleased to hear our connection with the estate and glad that we were here to taste and take away a few more of their lovely wines, which are excellent value. This we did, not leaving empty handed we filled our car boot with a case of their 2008 and 2010 vintages.
We now headed back into town and upon arrival we discovered that we were parked beside the Wine Information Centre, which is situated around the corner from the main Tourist Office, so this seemed like a good place to start. Here, we were presented with a history of the region’s wine making as well as an opportunity to engage with the “identify the aroma” interactive learning tool, which picked out those commonly found in the local wines.
Afterwards, we decided to take a stroll around the town with its many charms and we were glad to have worn our hiking boots to help us up and down the very steep cobbled streets. The local speciality, a tasty ‘canelé’ cake, gave us the energy to keep going.
It seemed that we had chosen a good time in which to visit as the place was almost deserted, giving us the opportunity to take in the views unobstructed by the hoards of tourists that descend during the summer months.
Standing proudly on the south facing limestone ridged hill is Château Ausone, one of the four Premier Grand Cru Classé (A) Chateaux, so it only seemed right to climb the steep narrow lane that leads to its main entrance where we took in fine views of the vineyard slopes that surround the town and stretch out into the adjoining countryside. And this is as close as we got to this ‘Class A’ Château, as unfortunately, we did not have an invite to hand… maybe next time?!?
We then took to driving around the small and winding roads in and around St-Émilion and Pomerol to gaze in delight as one famous chateau after another appeared before our eyes. The chateaux on this side of the river are definitely not as flamboyant as their neighbours on the other side, apart from one or two, but this does not distract away from their grandeur simply by name alone. For instance, Château Petrus could have easily been passed by if it wasn’t for our GPS informing us that we were actually in the right place!
We also called in for a photo stop at Château La Fleur-Pétrus and were met by a member of staff who asked what the purpose of our visit was. He allowed us to take a photo as long as we left swiftly … no appointments today!
However, there was no mistaking Cheval Blanc with its grand winery designed by architect Christian de Portzamparc, which has been created to give the appearance of blending in with the surrounding countryside. Nobody seemed to mind us taking a stroll around the grounds or enjoying the panoramic views from the top of the winery… we just needed a glass of Cheval Blanc in our hands and our day would have been even more perfect than it was already turning out to be.
Whilst on our St-Émilion journey of discovery, we got a tip off from a friend who suggested that we should try to call into Château Laniote, a teeny five acre Grand Cru Classé that has been in the same family for seven generations. We turned up at the door with a hint of trepidation not knowing if anyone would answer or if we might be turned away because we didn’t have an appointment.
However, all our fears quickly dissolved when Monsieur Arnaud de la Filolie appeared with his extremely friendly and welcoming manner. He was more than happy to receive us despite it being the “official” French lunchtime, which he quickly dismissed with a ‘paf’ as he shoved bottles in our hands so we could help him finish his labelling.
During the next hour we had the most wonderfully entertaining tour of the winery finished off with a tasting. We were very impressed by his wines, which he makes with his oenologist wife Florence.
Arnaud was a real gentleman who loved showing off his magic tricks and kept us laughing throughout. However, his wines were no joke, excellently crafted and to be enjoyed.
Follow us next where we shall be getting our hands dirty for the harvest at a Bordeaux chateau.