The winter chill has now arrived as the plants and flowers in the garden lose their leaves and petals fall from the last of the flowers. Dark nights have drawn in and it’s not just the plants going into hibernation mode, as we hurry home from work to snuggle up in our warm toasty houses.
One day the other week, my mum called me and told me about a bumblebee that was wandering around her garden. I was as surprised as her to hear that a bee could still be alive above ground in December, shouldn’t they be hibernating now? We agreed she had most likely landed en route to her hive but may have grown disoriented as she grew weaker, sadly at the end of her short life. My mum placed the bee under a tree at the top of the garden, sheltered and hopefully at peace.
The following day the phone rang and it was my mum. She explained in amazement how the little bee had made its way all the way back down the garden, walking and walking and walking. After several days of this, Kelvyn and I went over to her house and witnessed this resilient bee for ourselves. She slowly crawled past us before turning back up the garden, it was fascinating to get so close and see the fur on her body and how her legs criss crossed pushing her forward. She certainly wasn’t ready for that great beehive in the sky it seemed.
It was wonderful to see how much the determination of this bee touched my mum. In fact, it touched me too, reminding me of the force of nature and the cycle of life.
It made me think of cycles in the vineyard and how the vines are all now shutting down for winter conserving their reserves ready to grow again next spring. On our adventures this year we have witnessed fresh new buds appearing on the vines in Portugal; bud flowering whilst tendrils sprouted out reaching up to the sun in Southern England; the changing colour of the grapes as they ripened before swelling, juices almost bursting through the skins, ready to pick at harvest time in South Africa and France. However, the last piece of the puzzle we haven’t yet experienced is winter dormancy but more importantly the work needed to help ensure the desired crop the following season, winter pruning.
We hope to get a first hand experience of this highly skilled work this winter and will write more about it when we do, so watch this space!
Have you helped winter prune? We would love to hear about your experiences.
Sadly the little bumblebee that my mum grew so fond of could manage no more and after a week quietly went to sleep under the tree where she was first placed by my mum. But as we know, more bees will appear next spring, just as the world’s vines will provide more grapes next season, and so the wondrous cycle of life will continue.
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.
Day 2 in Roussillon
Up early in the dark … Yes, it’s dark in this part of the world at 6am, all the French pickers had arrived so Jonathon and Rachel got everyone registered and off we went to the vineyard. It got light pretty quickly and by 7.10am we were off picking the Grenache Gris, which is the most wonderful dusky pink colour, and some of the Grenache Blanc.
The vines are called ‘Goblets’ because of their shape, they aren’t tied to any wires or trained, which I thought would make it hard to pick as you have to bend down and kind of hunt under the vines greenery to find the bunches but it wasn’t as bad as I thought. Two people work together on either side of the vine and put the grapes in a bucket. Once the bucket is full you empty it into a crate at the end of the row.
Bunch selection was explained as it’s important not to pick bunches that look diseased, are not fully ripe yet or are hard and underripe, known as ‘grapillons’. The Roussillon has plenty of snails I noticed and it’s equally as important that they don’t end up being picked with the grapes.
Once we all got into the flow, we worked through the rows quickly and the group worked well together. A couple of the slower pickers got teamed up with me and Georgia, not that we were especially speedy, but more to help gee them along a bit and it worked. The first parcel wasn’t too difficult and we were done by 9am, ready to go to the next vineyard.
The sun was heating up now and the vines at the next vineyard were much larger in comparison with plenty of greenery to wade through and huge bunches of grapes, so we had to be careful not to snip a finger or two off, which would not only be a painful loss to myself but could have added some interesting flavours to the wine! It’s satisfying knowing these grapes will make La Terre Promise 2013, so when I drink some of that next year I’ll know I had a hand in making it, a wonderful feeling!
Jonathon and Ruth next to the last trailer load of grapes for the press
Whilst the rest of the gang continued picking, Georgia and I headed back to the winery in the Land Rover … and I’m pleased to report there were no driving incidents! We headed back to load the press, firstly emptying the grapes into the destemmer, which Georgia kept an eye on, whilst I had the joyous job of washing the crates out as they were emptied and restocking them ready to load in the lorry to go back to the vineyard. We completed 3 loads of grapes and then the Champagne 2000 press was kick started into action. The juice from today’s picking went into one of the temperature controlled stainless steel tanks.
One thing is for sure so far I’m pretty dirty and soaked most of the time, it’s hard work but there is great satisfaction in getting it all done.
The work didn’t finish there though. After lunch we had to make sure everything was washed down so no grape juice was around for fruit flies to be attracted to. Boy that felt like an age, the press must be spotless and it feels like you’re just pushing the grape skins around but never removing them. So much water gets used, something I was highly aware of in South Africa too, I believe the water goes into the river here, hence the need to take care what goes down the drains. Any stems or grape bits that end up on the floor are swept up and taken to a specialist recycling centre, not washed away.
Finishing around 7pm, we could relax and have dinner. My body was telling me it needed to lie down but after such a buzzing day, I got a second wind once fed and given a glass or two of Le Ciel Vide and Three Peaks.
Read more in the next in this short series when I get down and dirty in the tanks that will soon house the red wine.