Tuesday 14th October
As promised, the Verdejo arrives 8 a.m. at the Chai. First thing I do is take another sample of the juice from the truck just as I did on departure yesterday in Rueda. The two samples are sent for a laboratory analysis and the results are compared. We do this to ensure that the wine arriving at the Chai is in as good as condition as when it left Spain, sometimes the lorry drivers can take a detour (short holiday) for a few days taking my juice with them! The longer it stays in transport the higher the risk of spoilage to the juice. The news is good from the laboratory so the juice is unloaded into vat H under a blanket of Carbon Dioxide to protect the juice from oxidation.
JMS and I are off for a French whirlwind tour of the Midi, in other words to say a quick 3 hour bonjour and au revoir to all of our Midi producers. I have to meet Jean-Marc in Carcassone for 11 a.m. as he is flying into Toulouse at 8.30 a.m. and we are both in Domaine Lalande in Carcassone by 11:15 a.m. We are met by Andre Ferrandiz, Andre has been friends and working with Tony for 30 years and she knows the Midi inside out, therefore an invaluable help for sourcing new and exciting wines. Andre always looks after us and today is no exception. We had just finished the tasting in the wonderful old Chateau of Monsieur Degrotte and Jean-Marc and I were starting to think food! And magically Andre pulls out from her Mary Poppins bag a full homemade picnic for about fifteen people! Salade, crusty bread, prawns, marinated smoked salmon, courgette cake, quiches, cheese, desserts and even hot coffee!
Next stop is Limoux then onto Maury to taste the XV. Jean-Marc had departed from a 2 degree London this morning so was suffering in his Artic/London outfit in the 28 degree heat of Maury. We tasted through the all 2008 XV vats, the Syrah and the big Rousillon Grenache. Jean-Marc was extremely pleased with the quality and he said in true Jean-Marc fashion that he felt like rubbing every wine on his chest!
We part ways as Jean-Marc heads on to Narbonne and I back to the Chai to help John and Alistair who have been doing a great caretaker job whilst I’m away.
Back in the Chai and after tasting this morning I decide it is time to choose some barrels to put through a secondary fermentation called the Malo-Lactic Fermentation (MLF), the first being the sugar to alcohol. The MLF is when the malic acid (think granny smith apple) is transformed by bacteria into Lactic acid (think milk). As everybody knows, milk and an apple give two very obvious and different perceptions on the palate and it is the same with wines that have lots of malic acid or lots of lactic acid. The MLF is desired in all red wines and total, partly or not at all in white wines. The MLF must be carefully controlled and it is the winemaker’s job to monitor and decide what is best for the final blend of wine. For example; a naturally creamy wine such as Chardonnay must be left with a subtle, fresh streak of acidity to stop the wine becoming heavy and sickly, so no MLF or only 1 or 2 barrels of the whole volume is encouraged; and an over acidic white wine which will go through MLF finishes buttery and rich.
The actual physical part of allowing the chosen barrels to go through MLF is easier said than done, however. Malo-Lactic bacteria will only start to ferment at 21-23 degrees, they do not like sulphur in the wine and they don’t like cold dry air so that means they do nothing from November to March (very French, but do I hear the Spanish bacteria is worse!). The MLF will quite often start naturally but delicate white wines without the minimal legal levels of sulphur will oxidise and spoil very easily during the 6 month wait. It is therefore the winemaker’s job to fool them into thinking it is already March! That means moving barrels away from door draughts, warming the surrounding area, putting water on the floor to create a humid air environment, no sulphur in the wine and resist from talking about Christmas in the presence of the barrels! A winemaker’s trick is to pop in through the bung hole a tropical fish tank heater set at 22 degrees. From here I will monitor each individual barrel twice a day and if a fizzing sound can be heard then it is a sure sign the bacteria is working. Once we have a positively active barrel I will transfer a litre from the MLF barrel to all the others to give them a kick-start (called cross inoculation). If that doesn’t work … just wait until spring! And sometimes winemakers do have to give in!
A very cold start to the day this morning in Castillon and the 2007 ‘La Gabare’ is on its way to the Chai from Bergerac. Denis braved the cold and was up early to load tanker whilst I and the Chai team were getting ready to unload the wine and put it into barrels at the Chai. After a long day, the Bergerac wine is safely in chalk labelled barrels.
Alistair is leaving this afternoon after 2 months work experience but in true stagiaire spirit he is at work this morning tidying up and cleaning before he says farewell. After two months under my wing he has now learnt the basics and can move to more advanced cellar work.
We still have one vineyard of Cabernet to harvest and today I am in the vineyard to have a look to see if it is ready. A good walk around tasting the berries and it’s the thumbs up to pick first thing tomorrow morning.
After a couple of chilly starts, this morning it’s 1ºC and really signals the end of the Bordeaux Indian Summer and possibly the latest harvest in history! For me it has been a long harvest, starting way back in early September with GG up to today’s Cabernet Sauvignon.The best thing about the last day is the last supper! This lunch, we are all invited to share paella at Chateau La Clariere to celebrate the end of the 2008 harvest.
Bad news this morning, the cold snap has also hit the Midi. This means very cold cellars due to majority of them being very old and poorly insulated. I have had two producers on the phone this morning with stopped ferments, the cold temperature has killed the yeast and there is still sugar to be converted. To restart a ferment can be very difficult because the yeast being added are not tolerant to the now alcoholic wine (juice has no alcohol) and along with cold temperatures the alcohol can kill the new yeast instantly. This means I need to find a stronger strain of yeast and nutrients to cope with the conditions. I once again leave John to man the Chai and I whiz down to the Oenology shop and then off to Midi armed with some super yeast.
I arrive in Maury at 8 p.m. and its dark, freezing cold and the Tramontane wind is howling down the main street of the village. My first case this evening is Jean-Charles’ old-vine Grenache Noir. I taste and look at the wine and sure enough the yeast has stopped fermenting, his winery is in his garage and he has no modern equipment (just stuff handed down to him from his father and grandfather), no heating and no insulation.
First thing we do is get some electric heaters under the tanks and then wrap some blankets around the tanks to form a hot tent. The yeast is carefully rehydrated in 100 litres of the old Grenache wine and kept warm in a small 600 litres borrowed tank from the grumpy bloke over the road. I add a little extra sugar to the starter wine so the yeast will have time to build up its strength and some nutrients to build up the cell walls. Jean-Charles will now have to check the density of the ferment with a hydrometer every couple of hours to check that the sugar is being eaten. Once the sugar has dropped he will need to double the volume of the starter vat to 200 litres with more Grenache wine and start checking again. This is repeated until the whole tank has been gradually fermented dry. It is very important that the starter vat is doubled at the correct moment and this may be (usually is) in the middle of the night. It’s a bit like having a baby to feed!
After a long night I awake to bright sunshine and gleaming snow on the Pyrenees, now I realised why it was so cold!
I have to be at the Cave CoOperative de Maury for 9a.m. to taste the tanks and start to drain and press the skins. The time to press off is decided by the winemaker when he thinks enough colour and flavour from the skins have been extracted. Each wine and year is different and the winemaker must respect the wine and allow the correct balance of fruit, colour and tannins.
The first procedure is to drain the wine called the ‘free drain’ from the bottom tap and pump into a nearby empty vat. The ‘free drain’ is all the wine that sits under the floating skins and once the tap is opened starts flowing very quickly until some hours later it is reduced to just a drip. When all the wine has been drained off it leaves behind a big soggy mass of skins. The door and lid of the vat is opened immediately and a giant fan placed on top of the open chimney. The fan is used to blow all the very dangerous carbon dioxide gas caused by the fermenting yeast out of the vat door because somebody or some people (depending on the size of the vat) will be climbing in to shovel the skins out of the vat (an official stagiaire student job!). Once the vat is aerated, the skins are shovelled from the inside and out through the door into a tub, they are then taken to the press house to be lightly squeezed and the remaining wine collected. This last wine is called the ‘press wine’ and is kept apart from the ‘free drain’ as it is stronger in taste and very cloudy, and the sediment will need to be settled.
Tonight is Halloween and the French don’t really care for American traditions, but any excuse for a village party is always welcome! The Tabac, Café, Marie, post office have all been over-decorated. This is Halloween madness in the deep depths of the Midi!
Saturday 1st November
Another day, another Fete! Today is the En Primeur party in the hilltop village of Lesquerde and we have been invited by the Monsieur Le Maire of Lesquerde to the tasting of the first 2008 wine to be released. It is rather like Beaujolais Nouveau but Midi style. Every village hurriedly makes a wine ready for the 1st of November. The wine is not to my own taste and is rather like cherry cough sweets, but it is as good an excuse as any for another village Fete!
The leaves of the vines in the Midi are starting to change colour before they fall and it is now you can clearly see the different grape varieties and even the mixed vine plantings within the same vineyard. The Grenache Noir and Gris stay green, the Grenache Blanc goes yellow, the Carignan leaves redden and the Syrah turns a mix of lime green and brown. It is one of the most beautiful times of the year in the Roussillon but I can’t enjoy it much more today as I have to be back at the Chai this evening. I have taken a photo of one of my favourite vineyards in Maury called ‘Le Pantalon’ as it looks like a pair of trousers and as you can see from the colour of the leaves, it is planted with many different grape varieties.
The reason the vines are planted in different areas is due to the subtle changes of the soil throughout the individual vineyard plots and valley sides. The vines have been grown like this for hundreds of years and the incredible knowledge of the soils has been passed down through the generations. The local growers know exactly where the soil becomes more clay, more limestone or schist even in the middle of a vineyard so they plant the best adapted grape variety to the according soil. The Grenache is always planted on the slate at the top of the valley sides, whilst Carignan prefers the clay of the lower slopes and valley floor.
Saturday 1st November
We are pressing off some of the XV du President this morning. All goes well and the vats are filled to the maximum with the ‘free drain’. Filling the vats is very important as the wine is safe from oxidation whilst we wait for the malo-lactic ferment to start.
The other XV vats still need some more time to extract flavour from the skins which we call ‘maceration’, so I will be back next week to oversee the pressing of the remaining tanks.
It is raining in Maury for the first time in since last spring and the water stressed vineyards really need this, fingers crossed that there will be a good rainfall this winter in the Midi. I am off back to the Chai as John informs me that the Verdejo (pronounced berrdeko) is nearly finished. The back road drive to Limoux (10 minutes from Maury) is a very scenic drive and I pass just one of the many the 9th century Cathar Castles, this one photographed is Chateau Puilaurens.