Grapevine Archive for February, 2013
This is the second of Laura Vickers’ two blog posts on working the 2012 vintage at Domaine Jones in the Languedoc-Roussillon. Having told us about the back-breaking work involved in harvesting the grapes in part one, here she discusses her work in the winery…Nestled away in the southern French village of Tuchan is Domaine Jones’ winery HQ, aka ‘The Vatican’ – so-called because it is situated on Rue de Vatican… as well as being full of vats, of course. Although the décor was a little less grand than its namesake, it’s an impressive outfit indeed.
When we arrived after the morning’s harvest, our priority was to get the baskets of grapes from the van to the chiller. The chain-gang system we developed for passing the baskets made the work sociable and gave ample opportunities for laughter – aching all over and accidentally bashing heavy baskets of grapes against your legs has never been so much fun, nor so rewarding.
After lunch, our afternoon lesson was in grape pressing – often with a bottle of French beer to spur us all on. The large local co-operatives have grape presses that fill a room, but The Vatican is more about quality than quantity. The presser Katie has invested in is practically dolls-house size in comparison, but it still seemed a beast of a machine to me.
For each press (roughly 40 baskets) around half the fruit is emptied straight into the pressing machine, and the other half is destalked first. The destalker was a loud, scary-looking contraption which expels destalked grapes out of a funnel on its side, and then viciously spits out the bright green stalks into a bucket at one end.
The press takes a good couple of hours, in which time we cleaned the baskets and floors (a lesson in life: never let young adults loose with a power hose). While we worked, a translucent, lemongrass-coloured liquid dropped steadily from the bottom of the press into a waiting tray. We were allowed to sample it: sweet nectar. Once the press was complete the juice was transferred to stainless-steel vats to begin its fermentation.
There’s plenty more to The Vatican than that of course – including a curious corner filled with Frankenstein-esque test tubes and the like. This is where sulphur is added to the wine – as Jean-Marc explained, this chemical intervention is a vital for the wine’s staying power.
Our stay came to an end before we knew it – it was a week of honest and enlightening work, stunning surroundings, hearty food, deliciously long, hot days and friendships forged for life.
Not only that – I discovered wines I will enjoy drinking for decades to come, and with each new vintage I buy I will remember the effort, tenacity and gusto involved in its creation. Put simply, Domaine Jones is a real pleasure to drink – from the plump, citrusy freshness of the Grenache Gris, to the soft juicy Grenache Noir, and even beyond: the Fitou is a marvel in structure, dark complexity and effortless drinkability.
I finished the week exhausted, sunburnt and a few pounds lighter than when I began. Would I go back again? In a heartbeat.
2012 was known here as ‘the Facebook vintage’: let down by pickers at the last moment, Katie posted pleas for help online and soon received 50 willing volunteers. One of them was Laura Vickers – coincidentally, whose article on female winemakers is also featured in the latest Societynews! – who until very recently worked in The Society’s Member Services department.
Here is the first of Laura’s two-part reminiscence of what it was like working this vintage.When I saw The Wine Society had retweeted an appeal for help harvesting grapes in the idyllic southern French summer weather, I actually did a little dance around my office.
The issuer of said appeal was Katie Jones, whose infectious enthusiasm in her leadership of Domaine Jones in the Languedoc-Roussillon area is impossible to resist.
When she offered to collect my grape-picking pals and I from the train station at Rivesaltes once we’d arrived on the allotted balmy Sunday evening in late August, my naïve sense of politeness insisted we make our own way to the house we’d be staying in at Paziols. Luckily, Katie refused to take no for an answer – the area inhabited by Domaine Jones is about as far away from anything as anywhere I have ever been. Everywhere you look, it’s red roofs, co-operative wineries with their two-storey tall vats, and hundreds of vineyards in all shapes, slopes, and sizes.
We went into this knowing Domaine Jones wines were something special, but as the other volunteers and I toasted our first night there over a glass of Katie’s Fitou and some local sausages, we realised just how exquisite the 2011s are. The expectations for our 2012 vintage were suddenly much higher.
Unsurprisingly, Katie’s warnings to get an early night fell on deaf ears, such was our excitement (and enthusiasm to sample a bottle or two more of Domaine Jones) on our first evening in Paziols. Oh, how foolish we were: the next day, groggy heads were shaken into action by our alarm clocks at 6am – a wakeup call we were due to repeat every day that week.
The morning started with a sleepy walk to the village square, through rustic streets that had a haunting beauty in the pre-dawn shadows. We then embarked on the 45-minute drive to the first vineyard site. Our pickup truck was driven by fellow volunteer and ex-marine Damian, and his military nerves of steel proved very helpful indeed – the tracks are bumpy and unpredictable, and as we climbed up through scenic vineyards, the sheer drop at the side of the road became so high it was positively mountainous, and somewhat terrifying. Of course it was all perfectly safe really, but if us novices had been tired before, we were certainly awake now.
When we arrived (and I’d stopped hyperventilating), we met Katie’s partner – the wonderful, smiley Jean-Marc. His friendly chat as we each collected a bucket and some pruning shears made us eager to show him we were hard workers, but in comparison to the local pickers we were, frankly, an embarrassment.
They might have made it look effortless, but picking is seriously back-breaking work: we were given a row of vines each at a time, and our job was to snip off bunch after bunch of ripe, fat grapes until our bucket was full. We then emptied the bucket into baskets littered around, which – when full – were collected by the stronger men in the group and taken to the van, which filled up remarkably quickly.We moved like this through the vineyards, row after row. Needless to say, the local workers spent half their time helping us beginners finish our rows, but the baskets quickly begin to fill up: each basket takes a good three full buckets of grapes, and on our best day we did 120 baskets.
The sun came up as we worked, and the valley we were scaling was illuminated in all its glory. With the sun came the heat, however, and by mid-morning the work got somewhat more challenging.
It was messy, earthy, unpretentious – and surprisingly easy to forget the airs and graces one is used to in a more office-based work environment. Suddenly, our sticky fingers, unrelenting perspiration and dissolving hairstyles simply didn’t matter. It was invigorating stuff.
Harvesting continued until noon each day, and then we clambered back into the pickup and drove back to Tuchan, feeling the most contented kind of tired imaginable.
During a written exercise as part of my job interview for The Society, I was asked to highlight some wines I felt were particularly good value, and why. In what was almost a reflex arc, for it is certainly what they call a ‘no brainer’, I selected Muscadet as the prime candidate.
Yet I then wondered whether explaining the reasons for my choice within the hastened environs of a timed exam would be a risk. ‘Many producers are struggling financially, the wine’s cheap, hurrah!’ did not quite encapsulate the impression I wanted to give of myself, and so I began to become slightly paranoid. What’s more, it is arguably that very attitude that led to many of the problems the region faces today, with bulk prices being driven to a depth that made many give up and left others clinging on by soil-covered fingernails.Two years on from those nervous stopwatched semantics, therefore, I am ambivalent that Muscadet remains my personal top pick for quality:price ratio in the world of wine.
That fashion has had a role to play in the region’s current problems is especially difficult to get one’s head around, particularly given that current white-wine-drinking trends in the UK almost read like a tasting note for classic Muscadet: clean citrus fruit, food-friendly acidity, freshness, versatility, low alcohol…
Grapevine readers might also like to take a look at an excellent article on the subject by Richard Hemming, published last month on JancisRobinson.com and now free for non-subscribers to view: The Muscadet of Reckoning. As well as providing a useful parallel to the Beaujolais region, the piece focuses rightly on the utterly superb quality of the wines available.
Muscadet’s predicament has not been helped either by the low-yielding 2012 vintage, in which quantities are down dramatically. For Society members, this will probably mean some modest price rises. More than ever, therefore, I would argue that now is the time to buy.
To name but three examples currently available from The Society: in our Benchmark Bottles offer, we list Chéreau-Carré’s Château L’Oiselinière de la Ramée, 2010, which offers remarkable sophistication and class for £7.75. Cuvée des Ceps Centenaires, 2009 gives us the verve of the fruit from 100-year-old vines with change from £10. The aged and distinctive Le Clos du Château L’Oiselinière, 2004 (£11.50), eulogised by one Hugh Johnson recently, is a fuller-bodied proposition and a satisfying and complex equal to many a fine white Burgundy sold at more than double the price.
So why not do your own small bit for a classic wine region that does not deserve its present malaise and add a bottle or two to your next order? Your palate will thank you and your wallet won’t regret it either.
In the Loire last week, on the occasion of the 27th Salon des Vins de Loire (one of the very few remaining specialist regional trade wine fairs), the Savennières appellation was celebrating its 60th anniversary.I learned from appellation president Evelyne de Pontbriand of Domaine du Closel that last year was the true birthday but they chose to wait, they hope, for a more favourable year in which to celebrate.
And there is much to celebrate. There is a degree of unity across this small appellation which is rare in France and they are working hard both on quality and PR. On my last couple of visits I have met bright, thoughtful young winemakers determined to build on the modest success of recent years to shake off a rather fusty old image and establish – or re-establish – Savennières as one of the great appellations of the Loire, and of France.
The grape is the sometimes challenging chenin blanc, here usually creating wines of substance and potential longevity and complexity. The wine style has changed, and indeed is still changing, making it a fascinating place to visit. The austere wines of old, which needed years in bottle before becoming anywhere near palatable, have largely disappeared.
Many producers are working organically, or at least using environmentally friendly methods, producing modest yields, and the goal is to make great food wines, even if this means prices are high. These are serious, even cerebral wines, so will not be for everyone. Chenin blanc enthusiasts in particular take note, however: Savennières is an appellation to watch.
Jo Locke MW
Society Buyer for the Loire
Savennières wines currently in stock:
No pair of wines in The Society’s range is as crucial to our success as these two stalwarts, not simply because of the considerable quantities that members buy, but also because they act as a benchmark by which many members, wine journalists and prospective recruits to The Society gauge the quality of our entire portfolio of wines. Good, affordable claret and white Burgundy are the cornerstones of any serious wine selection. Get the blends wrong and we risk damaging our reputation immeasurably.
Arriving at Maison Sichel’s offices on the Quai de Bacalan on a very cold, but thankfully snow-free, morning we were ushered into their bright and airy tasting room, to begin the blending process.
Sichel’s highly experienced winemaker Yvan Meyer having already carried out a pre-selection of samples to make our life easier, we were presented with ten blends from the 2010 and 2011 vintages, some pure merlot, others blends of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. The slip-label on each sample bottle set out the precise makeup of the wine and the volume available – important to consider, as over 400 bottles of this wine will be sold per day throughout the year.
Jo and I started the process by tasting the current Society blend; this provided the benchmark from which to work. We then began sniffing, swilling and expectorating our way through the ten base wines, taking out the less interesting samples and earmarking the wines we felt had the potential for inclusion in this year’s Society Claret.
Then out came the measuring flask, and the blending process began. Without the aid of a calculator (who says the art of mental arithmetic is dead?), and following our instructions, which were something along the lines of “a little more flesh required” or “too much tannin”, and “more of sample E”, Yvan built up a representative blend from the different cuvées that we picked out, and this year’s version of our best-selling red started to take shape.
After half-an-hour the final blend was complete, and, we hope, the reputation of The Society maintained for another year!
Head of Buying
Domaine de l’Arjolle in the Languedoc makes a range of varietally-labelled wines under the IGP Côtes de Thongue appellation, including France’s only zinfandel, from their 90 hectares.
Charles Duby, their viticulturist gives a great session on the role of the soil. “Fifteen million years ago” he said “this was under the sea” explaining the limestone bedrock from the bottom of his soil pit.
His work, he said, “the work of the vigneron, is to work the soil to help the 80% of the feeding roots that lie within 70cm depth” from the surface. “Some roots go deeper” he said “20%, to find water at 3-4 metres depth.”But his role is to nourish the top part, ensuring there are enough nutrients available for the vine to take up. And there are three ways to do that:
Firstly, to use ripping machines, which they haven’t used at d’Arjolle.
Secondly, to keep grass and weeds in autumn and spring. “The roots aid water filtration” he said, and “we cut them in spring and plough them in” and this organic matter helps with nutrition and porosity as it rots down.
Thirdly, earthworms are encouraged via additional organic matter which is applied in November or December. Duby said “the organic matter is from grape marc and goats’ bedding (straw and faeces) which are mixed together for nine months, and about 4t/ha applied every two years.”
We examine the limestone content of the soil under the microscope. A microscope in the vineyard is an enjoyable first for me. Duby explains they do this, before planting, to determine what rootstock to use. SO4 on limestone, and “if there’s less limestone, we use 101-49” he said.
It all makes so much more sense when you stand there looking at it.
My visit to the Languedoc was sponsored by a group of half a dozen producers.
Sally Easton MW
I was amused to receive this comparison via e-mail from a Wine Society member (who also happens to be a colleague in the wine trade). And I think members who are fans of the fruity little tempranillo we list called Sabina and those who have a leaning towards good Scottish rock music (in the form of Biffy Clyro) may also find this artistic similarity amusing: