Grapevine Archive for Harvest
20 years is a short time in the wine world. Just enough for your first vines to have become fully mature and to be providing great fruit.
Couple that with one of the best ever summers for grapes on England’s South Downs and expect some delicious wines to come from the 2016 vintage.
The first Ridgeview vines were planted in 1994 by Mike Roberts MBE and his wife Chris. Sadly Mike passed away in November 2014, but the baton has been picked up by the second generation, namely winemaker Simon and his wife Mardi and CEO Tamara and her husband Simon They are continuing the family vision of creating world class sparkling wines in the South Downs. You can check out this short video to hear Mike, Simon, Tamara and others talk of their involvement in the business.
Ridgeview has been supplying The Society since the 2001 vintage, and I have been enjoying their wines since I started at The Society in 2004. Every year I enjoy them more as the vines get more established and as the experience of the Roberts family grows.
The proof of the ever-improving pudding came when they started making our chardonnay-dominant Society’s Exhibition English Sparkling Wine. We have just this week moved on to the 2014 vintage after selling out of the maiden 2013.
When Mardi Roberts invited me down to the estate at Ditchling Common in East Sussex for a day’s picking and pressing I didn’t need to be asked twice.
On arrival I talked with head winemaker Simon, vineyard manager Matt Strugnell and vineyard assistant Luke Spalding. They were visibly excited about the quality of this year’s harvest, agreeing that it is of the best quality they have ever had at Ridgeview, although rain at flowering time has meant that pinot noir quantities are down.
Walking around the winery and meeting chief operation officer Robin, production manager Olly, winemaking assistants Rob and Inma and others, it was clear that they were energised by the quality of the grapes and by the job they had to do to ensure that we will be enjoying the fruits of their labours for years to come.The winery and vineyards were abuzz with activity when I got there: the brilliant, efficient and hard-working Romanian and Portuguese pickers were in the vines, and the winemaking team was weighing the freshly picked chardonnay grapes on their way to the press.
There are seven hectares (17 acres) of vines on the Ridgeview site, but they work with growers on a further six sites on the South Downs (five in Sussex, one in Hampshire). The viticultural management of everything they grow or contract out is fascinating. There are four experimental rows of vines nearest the winery. Here they try various techniques to improve the yields and quality of the grapes.
These include canopy management (taking away / leaving leaves on the vines), cover crop planting (which crops are best for the soil quality), frost protection measures (currently trialling a warming electric cable along the trellis that is switched on when there is a risk of frost) and other experiments. Once a method has been deemed practical, it is rolled out into their own vineyard, and from there across the vineyards of the contracted growers.
I spent some time with Mardi in the vines harvesting chardonnay. The grapes themselves were delicious – well, it would have been rude not to taste! There was a lovely acidity, a sweetness and a fine texture already in the mouth. Things bode well for the 2016 vintage, with the bunches from row 13 particularly well snipped, IMHO!
Once the grapes have been picked, the bins are brought to the winery and put into the press. The unfermented chardonnay juice was very drinkable and, after tasting it, Simon and Luke were having their habitual daily bet on what the sugar level was (75-76? Oechsle seemed to be the consensus). The sugar level is of course a good guide to the eventual alcohol content of the finished wine. In the case of the 2016 chardonnay, this will be around 12%, with no chaptalisation (the adding of sugar to the grape juice to increase the potential alcohol of the wine) necessary.
The whole team is dedicated to the cause, and doing a fine job. The genuine smiling faces all around were a pleasure to behold, and it is clear to me that our Exhibition English Sparkling Wine couldn’t be in better hands.
Today I’d like to share these wonderful photos from Viña Zorzal in Navarra, Spain, which give a flavour of how things are going at this forward-thinking bodega.
The Sanz family has 70 hectares of vines, some of which – including the graciano and garnacha used for the Zorzal range we buy – are over 35 years old. Brothers Xabi and Iñaki, who oversee sales and winemaking respectively, have injected a new lease of life into Zorzal. Xabi was in touch with me this week- he says the 2016 fruit is excellent quality.
I’ll report back once I’ve tasted the wines in 2017.
One of the Loire regions hardest hit by frost this spring (the worst since 1991, with some growers cropping as little as 5-10 hl/ha, a fraction of an increasingly rare ‘normal’ crop) the Nantais concluded its harvest in fine conditions after a growing season full of challenges to stretch every grower.
A wet spring and extended cold, damp flowering period compounded the in-some-cases gloomy start to the season. Heat and drought ensued in a summer that even challenged holiday makers with more than one period of exceptionally high temperatures. The only good news in this, other than sun tans all round, was that earlier disease pressure in the vineyards was stopped in its tracks, and there will not be much need to chaptalise this year either.
A fine late season, with a little rain at just the right time to revive the vines and restart maturation, and dry, sunny, often windy days and chilly nights allowed growers to bring in a healthy, if often cruelly small crop.
On my recent visit at the tail end of the harvest I saw – and tasted – healthy fruit, talked with sanguine (mighty relieved) growers and heard some pretty tragic stories that may see more Muscadet vignerons throwing in the towel.
And the wines? There will not be a consistent picture (it was a particularly tricky year for organic producers for example), but the best results will produce a richer style of Muscadet, perhaps somewhere between 2015 and 2003 in style.
Jo Locke MW
Read part one here, which includes news from Viña Amézola and Bodegas Palacio.
While they are used to dramatic temperature differences in Rioja, such heat as we experienced during our visit in October was not usual.
How had this affected the vintage?
You might assume that the winemakers we visited would be ecstatic about an early vintage of ripe healthy grapes. Yes, it’s fair to say that there were plenty of smiles on faces – but these are wines that are crafted for the long haul and the winemaking men and women behind them are a pragmatic lot… and these were early days.
María José of López de Heredía told us, ‘we don’t like to judge our harvest straight away. Our grandmother told us you must always wait until after the second fermentation’ (that is the malolactic fermentation – you can read more about that in our series of winemaking articles.)
The general feeling is pretty positive though: the summer was continuously hot and dry and the tempranillo grape – the main constituent of Rioja – was picked in good health and full ripeness. Small grapes (the result of evaporation caused by the heat) may result in lower quantities, however.
María said that having a mix of grapes gives Rioja producers a distinct advantage and that in 2015 at López de Heredía they will reduce the amount of garnacha they use (a variety that tends towards high alcohol levels) and will increase the amount of graciano and mazuelo, two grapes that give highish acidity to the wine. In the face of a changing climate these grapes might become more important, she suggested.
The railway quarter in Haro
López de Heredía, together with La Rioja Alta, Muga and several other well-known names, are all in Haro’s historic railway station quarter. Here the harvest was still in full flow, with tractors trundling in and out of their impossibly picturesque wineries.
Of all of these, López de Heredía’s is the most surreally romantic.
Grapes are brought in to the winery in poplar wood crates in the way that they have been for centuries. The technique hasn’t been retained for any reasons of sentimentality; María tells us that they have discovered that the unusual shape of the crates and the poplar wood from which they are made are ideal for their wines. ‘The wood harbours the indigenous yeasts that we want for fermentation. We have experimented with other methods over the year, but we have come to realise that our predecessors knew what they were doing!’
Across the road at Bodegas Muga, we were treated to the full spectacle of the harvest being brought in. Trucks were unloading and grapes weighed and analysed (15% of grapes come from a network of small family growers as was traditional in Rioja); an optical sorting machine ensured only the best berries made it through to be made into wine, and the barrels were being made and toasted to just the right levels in Muga’s own cooperage. Muga is one of the few wineries in the world whose barrels and casks are made by their own coopers.
La Rioja Alta – ageing the wine and the effects of climate change
The other bodega we visited in the station quarter was La Rioja Alta – home of our Exhibition Rioja Reserva. Here, too we were treated to a tour of the cellars but the wines are not made here (fermentation, bottling and labelling all now takes place at Labastida a new winery some five minutes away).
What sets the wines apart from other traditional producers and the reason we chose them for our Exhibition wine is that their wines still retain vigour and feel alive. This is attributed partly to the skilled job of racking the wine (moving it from one barrel to the next to remove sediment and clean the barrel). At La Rioja Alta this is done traditionally and it is only after five years’ training that a new cellar hand will be allowed to do this skilled job on their own.
The rackers get to know their barrels intimately and notice when things aren’t quite right. Interestingly our guide told us that they usually rack every six months but climate change is having an effect on this part of the winemaking process too. They are starting to notice as humidity levels have dropped slightly the wine is maturing more quickly, the pores in the wood presumably widening ever so slightly. Now they check the barrels more often and top up the barrels every month.
Brave new world at Viña Real
On our last day in the region and in complete contrast to the wonderful historic cobwebby cellars of López de Heredia, we found ourselves witnessing state-of-the-art winemaking in Viña Real’s purpose-built winery dug into the hillside in the Rioja Alavesa. Designed by Bordeaux’s Philippe Mazières, the architecture is as stunning as it is practical, the winery looking like a vast barrel on top of the hillside.
The operation is vast here and highly ergonomic. Tunnels carved out of the hillside were built by the same company that constructed the underground system in Bilbão and took three years to make and were a considerable investment for the company. 25 thousand barrels and three million bottles are housed here, but only nine people are employed.
But the most impressive aspect of this circular bodega is the vat room where the design allows for the vast fermentation vats to be filled automatically using a robotic crane. Gravity alone is used to move the grapes and juice around the bodega avoiding the need for any pumping which has a negative effect on quality.
Grapes for Viña Real wines are hand-harvested then sorted by both a visual inspection and automated hoppers before falling into mini stainless-steel vats which are then slowly hoisted by a crane and moved around the circular fermentation hall by a huge electronic arm. We were lucky enough to see this in action.
You can watch the process in this short but noisy video!
• If you’re interested in buying wines from the Rioja region, including those from some of the bodegas mentioned above, visit our website.
• There’s more on the effects of climate change and its influence (or not) on rising alcohol levels in wine in our article by Caroline Gilby MW here.
2015 was the earliest vintage on record in Rioja and inadvertently we were there to capture some of the hustle and bustle of harvest time.
On a recent study tour of Rioja, timed to take place just before the vintage, we found ourselves instead, right in the middle of the harvest – the earliest on record and three weeks earlier than usual.Harvest is usually the busiest time of year for wineries and not the best time to visit, generally. But it is an ill wind that doesn’t blow some good and for us it was a fantastic opportunity to see for ourselves what actually happens when the grapes come in.
Visit a winery at just about any other time of the year and you’ll be struck by how empty it is. You’ll be lucky if you see another person as you are shown around vast echo-y galleries with serried ranks of tanks and barrels, perhaps with a bit of pumping over or racking going on if you’re lucky. It always makes me think that being a winemaker must be quite a lonely profession!
But seeing a winery in full flood (as it were) is to see it in its true colours, in full operational mode. All those things you’ve heard about or read in textbooks are happening before your eyes, and the wonderful thing about Rioja in particular, is there is such as contrast between the old, highly traditional and the bright, shiny new.The whole region is in action and it’s quite exciting. In Rioja grapes are quite often brought some distances to the wineries and the roads are busy with tractors and trailors trundling back and forth with their load of grapes. Special road signs are put out to warn motorists of slow-moving grape carriers.
At Viña Amézola, sisters Cristina and María said that normally they would start harvesting around 6th October. This year, they had pretty much finished by 1st October; the last of the grapes were coming in while we were there (theirs is only one of three bodegas in Rioja who don’t buy in any grapes) and Amézola were breathing a sigh of relief. Just up the road, some bodegas had lost their entire crop, and even the vines themselves, the result of freak, highly localised hail storms in August.
Tasting the new wine
Arriving at the bodega when we did provided another unforeseen opportunity – the chance to taste wine straight from vat just before fermentation had started (when the grape juice is referred to as ‘must’ and still tastes sweet), at a day old and then at two days old. It was fascinating to taste the work of the yeast on the juice in progress.
During our winery visits, we couldn’t help but remark upon the bundles of sticks that were often seen amongst the vats of fermenting wine. Apparently these are placed into the vats as a way of filtering the wine. Fresh reeds are harvested each year and from specific plots of trees; a traditional method that I for one had not come across anywhere else.
Bodegas Palacio, home of The Society’s Rioja Crianza, had already finished picking bringing everything in (from some 500 different plots) in a record 10 days. Every single vat in its vast cellar was full. Winemaker Roberto Rodriguez looked pretty exhausted when we arrived at the bodega on the outskirts of picture-postcard perfect Laguardía at early evening.Opening up the enormous gates of the winery we were hit by a new sensation… enormous fans, resembling those you see on jumbo jets, were circulating the CO2-laden air. The noise and the lack of oxygen were quite overpowering. Roberto was anxious to check that we were all ok and that nobody had asthma – it is not unusual for people to suffocate in wineries and removing the CO2 safely is a challenge in the winemaking process.
Feeling a little light headed, we were taken to Roberto’s control centre. Looking like something out of a James Bond film, the array of dials and computer screens enable Roberto to monitor what is happening in every single vat, from temperature control to alcohol levels, wine densities, pumping over, micro-oxygenation etc. It makes it sound simple, as though with the press of a button all can be viewed and controlled, but clearly, there’s a lot more to it than that!
…back to talk of the weather
The medieval hill-top town of Laguardía is in the Rioja Alavesa region which produces grapes that according to Roberto are ‘the soul of Rioja.’ From the town you can look out over the surrounding vineyards and appreciate why this might be so. South-facing and protected by the Cantabrian mountain range, the unique soils and cool nights all contribute to producing grapes with finesse and crucially, the vital acidity that’s required to allow Rioja to age.
We were all too aware of this large diurnal temperature variation. In the day the temperature had got up to 28°C, now that the sun had gone down and we were taking an evening stroll around Laguardía we were all freezing.
These are just the conditions that the tempranillo grape loves.
• Read part 2 here, including reports from López de Heredía, Muga, La Rioja Alta and Viña Real.
• If you’re interested in buying wines from the Rioja region, including those from some of the bodegas mentioned above, visit our website.
• There’s more on the effects of climate change and its influence (or not) on rising alcohol levels in wine in our article by Caroline Gilby MW here.
Head of Buying, Tim Sykes, continues his whistle-stop tour of Bordeaux to assess the 2015 vintage. After the Médoc yesterday, he heads for the right bank.
A damp start to Thursday in central Bordeaux, and noticeably cooler than yesterday.
First stop is Château de Pitray in the Côtes de Castillon (an hour’s drive east of Bordeaux, beyond Saint-Emilion), which is owned and run by the very able Jean de Boigne. Pulling up in front of the imposing château I notice that the temperature gauge on the car reads just 13?C. Such low temperatures would be worrying if the grapes were a long way from reaching full ripeness. However, Pitray’s grapes are almost ready to pick, and the cool weather wards off the possible onset of rot which can attack the grapes in damp conditions.
On the dining room table Jean has lined up three plates, each bearing a bunch of healthy looking grapes. He invites me to guess which variety is lying on each plate.
I didn’t exactly cover myself in glory, managing to identify the cabernet franc (the right-hand bunch), but getting the merlot (middle) and malbec (left) the wrong way round.
All three bunches were picked first thing this morning by Jean, and they all tasted delicious.
Next stop Pomerol, and a first tasting from the 2015 harvest with Edouard Moueix at Château La Fleur Pétrus. The wine (or more accurately young-vine merlot grape juice) had deep colour and tasted lush and vibrant.
As we sat down to the traditional Moueix pickers’ lunch (thankfully indoors) the heavens opened and an unscheduled 15-minute deluge ensued. Christian Moueix, attending his 45th consecutive harvest lunch, immediately got up and announced to a euphoric group of 75 pickers not only that there would be no harvesting this afternoon, but also that the entire team was invited to attend today’s matinée performance of Marguerite at the local cinema.
I made my excuses and then headed off to Saint-Emilion to drop in on François Despagne at Château Grand Corbin Despagne. François, much like his neighbours in Pomerol, could barely contain his excitement at the quality of merlot grapes arriving in his cellar. The grape sorters (human not mechanical) were having to discard just a tiny fraction of the grapes, so healthy were the berries, picked just a few minutes earlier.
Having never had an opportunity to look around the cellars at Grand Corbin Despagne, François gave me a quick guided tour, including a peek inside the ‘Réserve de la famille’ – dusty bottles of vintages such as 1929, 1949 and 1961 lay enticingly in the wine bins.
My last visit of the trip before heading back to the UK was to Domaine de Chevalier in Pessac-Léognan, where ever-lively winemaker Rémi Edange updated me on the latest news from the Château. ‘Le potentiel est incroyable’ were his exact words – I don’t believe that I need to include a translation!
Every year The Society’s Bordeaux buyers make one or two whistle-stop visits to the region during harvest time to gain a first impression of the nascent vintage. Bordeaux is notorious for putting out (at best) confusing or (at worst) misleading messages about the vintage, and so there is no substitute for actually witnessing what’s going on with one’s own eyes, and talking to château owners and winemakers that you know will give you an honest assessment of the state of the harvest.
Having made it to Bordeaux on Tuesday night, somewhat later than anticipated, I headed out to the Médoc first thing Wednesday. The drive to Pauillac, where I had my first appointment, was slow (the traffic in Bordeaux is worse than London), but I made it to Château Batailley by 9 o’clock. Owner Frédéric Castéja and winemaker Arnaud Durand were there to meet me, and were happy to update me on the state of the vineyards and the anticipated harvest. Their vineyards are in good shape, with the vines in excellent health. Flowering in spring was good and there has been no disease, hail, rot or other nefarious interruptions in the vines’ vegetative cycle. Early summer was very dry, and there were fears that the vines would shut down due to lack of moisture, but some well-timed light showers in early August alleviated the situation.
The weather today was warm (26C) and humid but despite some distant rumbles of thunder, very little of the forecast rain actually fell on the Médoc. Batailley will start picking their merlot vines on Thursday and, if the decent weather holds, they expect to have harvested all their merlot by the middle of next week. The cabernets (sauvignon and franc) are likely to be ready to pick towards the end of September.
Next visit was to Château Beaumont, a member favourite for many years. Head Winemaker Etienne Priou had a smile on his face, always a good sign at this crucial time of the year. His relaxed demeanour was in part due to the fact that Beaumont’s grapes look to be in good shape, but also because there was a gleaming new optical grape sorter sitting in his winery for the first time. Optical sorters are a recent, but welcome, innovation that discards sub-standard grapes before they find their way into the fermenting tanks. The entire production from Beaumont’s 98 hectares of vines will pass through Etienne’s new toy, ensuring that only perfect berries are processed in 2015.
South to Margaux and Château Angludet
Picking of the early ripening merlots started on Monday this week and so approximately half of Angludet’s merlot crop was safely in the winery by the time I visited. I tasted some merlot berries coming off the vibrating table de trie (sorting table) and was impressed by the sweetness of the fruit.
Ben Sichel, winemaker at Angludet, seemed quietly confident about the 2015 vintage, whilst rightly pointing out that until the cabernets, which are due to be picked in around a fortnight, are safely harvested, the vintage still lies in the balance.
I was lucky enough to join the Angludet team for their daily ‘harvest lunch’, a convivial affair on a long trestle table by the sorting table in the winery. Hearty food washed down with a bottle each of 1986 and 1988 Angludet (both fully mature but delicious) made the lunch a particularly memorable occasion.
My last visit in the Médoc was to Château Rauzan Ségla, a second growth Margaux property that we have been buying consistently for many years. John Kolasa, chief winemaker and manager of Rauzan Ségla and sister Saint-Emilion property Château Canon, retired at the end of July and his successor Nicolas Audebert was on hand to update me on the state of the harvest. The remarkably youthful Audebert was at one time chief winemaker at Krug in Champagne, and more recently the winemaker for Cheval des Andes in Argentina. He seemed genuinely excited by the prospect of a good harvest, taking me into the vineyard in front of Rauzan Ségla and showing me row after row of perfectly ripe and healthy merlot grapes.
The weather forecast for the region for the coming week looks decent, if somewhat changeable, so whilst a fine vintage is by no means a fait accompli, with fingers and toes crossed we can all hope that the Mother Nature will deliver something wine lovers can get excited about.
Next stop the Right Bank….
This is the second part of my report on helping out with the 2014 harvest at Domaine Jones. Read part one here.
The 2014 vintage
Back to the 2014 vintage and the grapes that had already been harvested – all the whites (except carignan gris and a little muscat) plus a few select vineyards of syrah. The whites were bubbling away nicely in stainless steel and barriques and we were to take their temperature and measure their densities twice a day to check on how the fermentation was progressing. Katie’s eighteen-year-old nephew, Owen, who had arrived at the same time as us and was at the start of a gap year, transcribed our daily readings onto a graph – if only science had been this much fun when we were at school!
It also proved to be quite an enjoyable sensation – people have probably paid spas a great deal of money for something similar! This exercise was also to be repeated twice daily… putting the feet into Fitou! As the yeasts did their thing over the time we were there and the density went down, getting into the barrels started to become a bit more precarious for those of us shorter of limb!
Going out the next day with Jean-Marc to test more vineyards for picking (prélèvement), we discovered just how valuable local knowledge is to interpreting scientific readings. The differences between our grape samples were explained away as Jean-Marc knew from experience which parts of the vineyards ripened better.
On the way back to Tuchan we carried out the same exercise on a plot of syrah (still not ready) and on a plot of grenache vines on flatter ground right under the Château d’Aguilar on river stone soils not unlike the famous pudding stones of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. This and the next plot of syrah vines, virtually in the town itself, were deemed to be ‘nearly there’…. perhaps we would get to pick after all!
Ready, set, go…
After tourist trips at the weekend down to impossibly pretty Collioure on the Côte Vermeille, where we were treated to a flash-mob-style sardana (traditional Catalan folk dance) and an energetic postprandial climb up the craggy Quéribus castle – last stronghold of the Cathars, we found out that we would be picking on Monday morning. We were to meet at 7am ready to get going at first light, the aim to get the grapes in before the heat of the day – in the interest of the quality of the wine (and us)! The venue for our first pick was the last vineyard we’d visited on our sampling trip. A plot of 15 rows of syrah vines on the outskirts of Tuchan which we had fondly named ‘Molly’s vineyard’ (having mis-heard Jean-Marc telling us it was named after a demolished church – La Chapelle Démolie).
We got an early night after re-acquainting ourselves with Katie’s instructions for pickers:
Your back will ache. It will ache so much you will want to find your own unique way of cutting grapes – sitting, kneeling, lying down – but years of experience tell us that there is only one way to cut grapes and it kills your back… rest assured the first couple of days are the worst!
I could almost see my osteopath rubbing his hands in anticipation.The morning of our first pick
We were treated to a spectacular sunrise the next day and the sleepy streets of Tuchan were the busiest we’d seen them; the narrow streets alive with little tractors trundling through the town with orange warning lights flashing on their roofs, looking a little like over-sized Tonka Toys than real-life vineyard machinery. Perhaps it was like this every morning and we’d just missed ‘rush hour’ up till now.
After a quick demonstration by Katie of how to pick (see below), we chose our row and got started. Katie had said to avoid the grapes at the end of the stalks and to stick to the centre of the plant. She showed us how the syrah grapes sometimes had a shrivelled appearance but that this was a good sign, showing ripeness not rot.
We had a couple of brief stops for water and biscuits but managed to pick the whole vineyard – a total of 900 kilos in one go, and yes it was back-breaking. The suggestion that we would hurt in muscles that we didn’t know we had was pretty accurate. Probably one of the most back-breaking aspects was carrying the little crates to load them onto the van at the end of the morning. They look quite small but each carries enough grapes to produce about a case of wine, so perhaps it is not surprising they weigh as much as they do.
We drove back to base so that the grapes could be de-stemmed and put in the chiller straight away, stopping briefly to pick up (a for once deserved) pickers’ lunch of homemade meatballs with olives from Jean-Marc’s mother, which was so appreciated after our hard morning’s work.
We all slept well that night.
What next for our grapes?
The sorted grapes would go then go straight into vat to start fermentation. Katie said that they would more than likely go into her Domaine Jones Syrah, but each vineyard would be vinified separately and it might be bottled as a single-vineyard ‘Perles de Jones’ syrah. We would have to wait and see.
The next day we would have to leave our ‘babies’ behind and return to our corporeal off-spring, but before catching the plane we had just enough time to go and watch a vineyard being picked by a team of experienced pickers. The team was made up of Polish, Portuguese and local pickers and it was exciting forming part of the procession of vendangeurs in the early morning light, creeping our way through the dust thrown up by the various vehicles up a mountain road to the vineyard.
The grapes being picked were muscat; the boar had been spotted trying to snaffle them up, so they needed to be harvested quickly, and the speed with which the experienced team did this was phenomenal. The vineyard was in a beautiful spot on a rocky slope surrounded by pine trees and as the sun came up it shone through the amber grapes making it look as though it was little nuggets of gold that were being harvested, not grapes. The multilingual chatter up and down the rows and the common aim of filling up the caskets was exactly how I had pictured the vendange.
But though this had been a holiday and a fantastic one too, we had also learned so much more than you can from a text book. There’s no substitute for getting your hands (and feet!) dirty and we are eternally grateful to Katie and Jean-Marc for letting us be a very small part in their 2014 vintage.
As we left for the airport the Tramontagne had started to blow; a good sign and we left Katie and Jean-Marc fully geared up to getting the rest of the grapes in. We were sorry to miss the full thrust of the harvest but delighted to have played a part in looking after the whites and reds in barrel and vat and to have brought in and sorted OUR syrah grapes. We will now have to wait to see which wines buyer Marcel-Orford Williams chooses when the wines become ready for tasting and hope that maybe some of our efforts will be coming home to Stevenage.
But what else had we learned?
1. It takes guts to start up a winery.
2. Fitou – it’s actually an appellation within Corbières.
3. Grapes for Fitou – must have a minimum of 20% carignan and a minimum of 20% grenache but together must account for at least 60% of the blend (syrah or mourvèdre making up the rest.)
4. Being a small winemaker you need to be able to turn your hand to everything – electrician, DIY expert, mathematician, farmer, host/hostess, scientist, salesman, designer, inventor.
5. The vineyards of Maury where Katie bought her first vines (the next valley along – where the local dialect switches from Occitan to Catalan) once produced 800k hectolitres but now only make 100k hl – mainly due to the decrease in demand for sweet wines.
Don’t worry, nobody dies but does contain holiday snaps!
Who in their right mind would choose to take time out from work and pay for the privilege of picking grapes? I’m sure this question was being muttered by the real pickers when we spent a week at Domaine Jones in the Languedoc recently, theoretically to help with the harvest.
Despite having worked in the wine trade for nearly 25 years and having visited wineries around the world, both in a professional capacity and under my own steam, I have never experienced harvest time. A few of us at The Wine Society decided that it was about time we did, while we still could!
Normally pitching up at a winery during the harvest is not a good idea. It’s an incredibly busy time, but because some of our (younger) colleagues have helped Katie Jones with the harvest before, we knew that she was used to dealing with inexperienced, if albeit much fitter, pickers.As well as being a supplier to The Society, Katie also happens to be a university friend of Liz Cerroti, head of Member Services at The Society. Taking advantage of this connection, Liz, myself and digital marketing manager, Nicky Glennon decided to take the plunge and head south for the vendage.
One of the first issues we had to face back in February when the decision had been made to descend upon Katie was when to book our flights. Though it is possible to give rough estimates of likely picking dates (100-120 days after flowering), narrowing this down to the exact day when the grapes will be fully ripe that also coincides with Ryanair’s availability and family and work commitments is another matter. Added to this, 2014 has been something of an unpredictable year with Mother Nature throwing just about everything she has at grape growers across Europe.
Pre-picking & packing concerns
As the holiday approached, other concerns started to enter into play. How on earth would we be able to pack for a week including walking boots and gear for all weathers as well as ‘clothes that you would never want to wear again’ and comply with the stringent hand-luggage restrictions? Then there were anxieties over how some of us with dodgy backs and knees would cope physically with the punishing work that picking is…. not to mention scare stories about wasps, hornets, accidents with razor-sharp shears, heat stroke…. and then in the winery…. the dangers of asphyxiation from the CO2, limbs being severed by machinery… trip hazards… it was all starting to sound a bit serious and not at all in-keeping with the joyful bucolic scene we’d somehow conjured up for ourselves!
After psyching ourselves up for the big pick we were then a little disappointed to see the forecast looking less than rosy and to find out that the whites were already in. It was starting to look distinctly unlikely that we’d be doing any picking at all.
One of the real benefits of spending time at somewhere like Domaine Jones, apart from the fact that Katie and partner Jean-Marc Astruc are terrific hosts and incredibly patient, is that their operation is small enough for you to see a bit of everything that takes place in the winemaking process. Also, because they too are quite new to this game (Jean-Marc comes from a family of grape growers and used to be president at the local co-op where Katie was responsible for marketing and sales for 16 years), they are still experimenting and learning as they go along too.
In the heart of Cathar country
Domaine Jones is located in the village of Tuchan (toosh-ohn), a small village of around 800 souls (and twice as many dogs, themselves outnumbered by the local wild boar). It is located about 40 minutes’ drive inland from Perpignan in Cathar country, its vineyards nestled around the foothills of the mighty Mont Tauch with its crown of bright white windmills. This is Fitou territory and grape-growing is the main activity of the village, as it has been for generations.
The countryside is spectacularly beautiful with the Cathar castles indistinguishable from the craggy ranges they cling to and deep river gorges cutting through the garrigue – the scrubland perfumed with wild fennel, rosemary and fig trees. There’s plenty to attract the visitor without the draw of the excellent wines.
…a bit of background on Domaine Jones
When Katie decided to leave the co-op she initially intended to set up her own marketing and design consultancy but her Francophile parents had always harboured a romantic notion of owning some vines. So when Katie was offered a 2.5-hectare plot of old vines in nearby Maury (over the ‘col’ in neighbouring Roussillon), she decided to raise the funds to buy it – realising, if vicariously, her parents’ dream.
Katie and Jean-Marc took us to view these vines, high up on the hills beneath spectacular Quéribus castle on black schistous soils; even to the untrained eye they looked pretty special. When Katie bought the vineyard (they came onto the market as the ancient vines – some up to 100 years old – were low-yielding and difficult to farm) she had been told that the vines were grenache noir, but the plot turned out to have grenache gris, carignan and muscat too – quite unusual in such a small vineyard (you can read more about this in our interview with Katie a few years ago).
The beauty of starting out in this way was that Katie was forced to pick and ferment everything separately and learned from the outset how different varieties would behave. It also meant that she had a rich palette of raw materials with which to put together blends. The Domaine Jones Rouge and Blanc were born with the 2009 vintage and met with critical acclaim from the start.
Jumping ahead to 2014 and Katie has continued to buy up small plots of low-yielding vines in and around the village of Tuchan, mainly to produce Fitou, so that there are now a total of around 11 hectares spread out over 25 vinyeards. Like the original Maury vineyard, many of these are small plots of old vines that the locals no longer wish to farm. One such plot is of the extremely rare carignan gris – a mutation of carignan noir. Katie and Jean-Marc only have 500 vines, but apparently theirs are only about two heactares registered in the whole of France. The grape is notoriously difficult to ripen, is low-yielding and is generally lower in potential alcohol but, Katie was very pleased with the first release of this wine which she has labelled under her ‘Perles de Jones’ label and Wine Society buyer Marcel Orford-Williams snapped up the whole production. Fiona Beckett wrote a rave review of the wine which came out while we were at the Domaine; Katie and Jean-Marc were thrilled.Jean-Marc told us how he tried to get hold of more plants from the vine nursery in Montpellier but the pépiniériste only had five roots and was not willing to part with any of them so Katie and Jean-Marc will be taking cuttings from their own vines to increase their plantings of this capricious variety. It was the last grape to be picked in 2014 on 5th October – after we had left and after all the reds were in and it still only came in at 12% potential alcohol.
In the lap of the (weather) gods…
Measuring the potential alcohol of the grapes was to become something we were to be very familiar with over the coming days. Katie told us that Jean-Marc, despite his calm exterior, was becoming quite agitated; pretty much all the neighbours had already picked and the longer you wait, the greater the possibility of the crop being lost to bad weather – as was to be the fate of some unfortunate producers whose crops were washed away in autumnal downpours, particularly in the Gard.
Fortunately the storms passed us by, but the wind coming in from the Mediterranean was bringing damp mild weather; what was wanted was the north wind – the Tramontagne. As Katie says, it’s likes a great big hair dryer, getting rid of any moisture and allowing the grapes to be picked in optimum conditions. As we were to discover, the potential alcohol in the grapes was not the issue – most were already showing good levels, but Katie and Jean-Marc explained that they were waiting for the grapes to show phenolic ripeness. This means that the grape skins, pips and stem are properly ripe and have lost any bitterness and there is a balance between potential alcohol and acidity/PH levels.
Prélevement – the testing of the grapes for ripeness
We were dispatched into the vines, plastic bags in hand, and given a couple of rows of vines each to get a random sample of grapes to ascertain each vineyard’s readiness for picking. We were told to pass through the vines taking a berry from the top of the bunch, the middle and underneath, then to crush the berries in the bag to get some juice. It was also pointed out to us that tasting the berries and crunching the pips was just as important as any analytical tests. Juice from each bag was poured onto a refractometer to measure the potential alcohol. Next we placed the probe of a PH meter into the juice to measure acidity levels – the higher the reading, the lower the acidity and for Jean-Marc and Katie’s liking, the grapes were still not quite ripe enough. We must wait…
Travelling through the vineyards it was remarkable just how different the soils were from one plot to the next, even those in close proximity. Jean-Marc told us later that various studies had confirmed that the geology of the region is particularly interesting in that there is a greater variety of different rocks and soils in a relatively small area than anywhere else in France. The plot of grenache vines we tested first was on lovely red sandy clay soil, yet just a short ride in the truck to look at a plot of carignan, took us to grey-white stony soils.
Most of the vineyards were tiny but there were vines almost as far as the eye could see. We wondered whether it was hard to tell where your grapes ended and another’s started. Katie said that it wasn’t that unusual for vineyard workers to have spent a morning labouring away on a neighbour’s vines by mistake! Telling one variety from another was also a necessary skill and we were given a lesson in identifying grenache and carignan grapes and the curious local clone lladoner pelud, or hairy grenache (because of its spiky leaves) was pointed out to us –a variety much favoured for its small berries and potential for high-quality wine.
The interplay of ‘la chasse’ & ‘la vigne’
Katie also pointed out the unmistakable signs of foraging wild boar – the ground between the vines was completely churned up and there was the odd bunch knocked onto the ground. Katie said that the boar were a real nuisance, destroying a vineyard in no time at all. Perhaps the fact that they hadn’t hoovered up these grapes was another sign that they hadn’t reached optimum ripeness!
A lot of the vineyards we were to visit had electric fences around them to protect them from the boar; they are particularly fond of the sweeter muscat grapes apparently. The countryside is dotted with tall wooden towers from which the hunters take their aim and back in Tuchan the hunting lodge is one of the more imposing buildings at the centre of town. We were there in hunting season when ‘la chasse’ is permitted on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Jean-Marc told us that growing up in Tuchan there were only two pastimes – ‘la chasse’ or rugby. He chose the latter and apparently was rather good in his youth. Luckily for us his father was still actively involved in the former, the spoils of which we were to enjoy on several occasions and in several guises, including the local speciality civet de sanglier, cooked by Jean-Marc’s mother. A sort of boeuf bourguignon of the south which involves marinating the meat overnight in Fitou and cooking it slowly with onions, garlic, carrots and local herbs. Lovely with boiled potatoes or pasta – even in 30°C!Project 2015
Before heading back to the winery Katie took us to see Domaine Jones’ latest acquisition. Having grown out of The Vatican (the 200 year-old stone building Katie bought in the Rue de Vatican), Katie and Jean-Marc have been making wine in the hangar adjoining their house and now just use The Vatican for storage. But Katie has had her eye on the old train shed in the village for some time, so when an opportunity came to buy it they put in a bid. The stone building dates back to 1905 and was part of the Tuchan terminus building and now represents a huge renovation job for Katie and Jean-Marc if they’re to have it up and running for next year’s vintage. It comes complete with its own well (presumably for the steam trains which used to carry the grapes down to Perpignan before decent roads were built) and has a bit of land for potential accommodation. Katie says you really need to live above the shop when you’re making wine and we were soon to appreciate why.
I have just returned from a cycling trip with a friend and fellow Wine Society employee, David Marsh (head of Information Systems). The main objective was to see if we could cycle up the classic hills of Alpe d’Huez in the Alps and the so-called ‘Giant of Provence’, Mont Ventoux, both of which are well-known routes for the Tour de France. However, we put aside a day in the Rhône for cycling through the vineyards and sought out a few of our growers to pop in and see how the vintage was going, and a little ‘degustation’ at the same time.
Most growers are always pleased to welcome Wine Society members, though harvest time is obviously a little busier for them. We managed to visit three growers in Seguret, Gigondas and Rasteau. We were planning on cycling up to Vinsobres to visit the Jaumes too but the mistral wind (and a little wrong turning I made) put this out of our reach in the time we had.
Firstly in Seguret, we visited Domaine Pourra who make Séguret Côtes-du-Rhône Villages Mont Bayon (£14.50) for us. There they said that they will be starting the harvests this week – it would normally be earlier but after the rain of the last couple of weeks, needed the mistral wind to dry the grapes. The harvest is, however, looking good.
Some estates have started harvesting already, particularly those lower down on the plain below Seguret and Gigondas. Indeed we saw a lot of the small narrow tractors on the roads taking trailers full of grapes from the vineyards to the wineries, and we could smell the winemaking as we cycled through the villages. In Rasteau (more later), we also saw the local co-operative working flat out emptying and weighing trailer-loads of grapes from their farmer-members. Domaine Pourra’s vineyards are higher up on the slopes above the village, and above Gigondas so mature and are picked a couple of weeks later. They will start the harvest with their syrah (‘bien mur’). The 2010 of the wine we buy (2009 is on sale now) will be bottled shortly to make space for this year’s harvest – the pallet of bottles arrived the day before we visited, and the corks were due the next day (fingers crossed).
Next a few kilometres on to Gigondas and Château de Saint Cosme, who make our Exhibition Gigondas (we are currently selling the 2011 at £14.95) and whose wines we sell in our Rhône opening offer. They are just north of the village (well signposted) and have vineyards right up to the ‘Dentelles de Montmirail’ ridge.
They make one white wine and the grapes for this are all harvested. They are now starting on the reds, and all the guys were out at harvest. Again, they were glad of the mistral wind and were optimistic about the harvest. They offered us a tasting suite of their white blend, then their 100% syrah Côtes-du-Rhône called Les Deux Albions (after Louis Barruol’s English wife and the vineyard on the Plan d’Albion near Sault on the slopes of Mont Ventoux) and their Gigondas 2012 which is the closest to the Exhibition blend they do for us. They also do a Châteauneuf though this is with bought-in grapes and so does not carry the ‘Château’ prefix on the label.
Last but not least was Domaine La Soumade on the Route d’Orange just outside Rasteau. This involved a cycle against the wind made worse by the aforementioned wrong turning doubling the distance. But it was worth it, we were welcomed by the nephew of the owner, and he showed us the old winery and the vineyards. We sell their Rasteau Côtes-du-Rhône Villages 2011 (£12.50). There we had a flight of wines to taste as shown in the adjacent photo.
One general point about the tastings: we found that we were generally tasting the latest vintage, occasionally the preceding one, and with the exception of the cheaper wines, the wines needed more time to age (hence The Society will often have bought and kept earlier vintages which will be sold when ready). But this does give a good experience of trying to discern what the wines will be like in a few years, and it is still a great way to compare and contrast different wines side by side.
Head of Marketing
And as a PS, I’m glad to say that we did make it successfully up Mont Ventoux, not in a record time and a lot of younger (and thinner?) cyclists passed us.
Or maybe they just had better bikes?