Saturday, 31 October 2009

Up this morning at reasonable hour (for once) for some coffee on the terrace of the restaurant overlooking the Navarra valley

We said our goodbyes to Javier and Carlos, exchanged some wines and moved swiftly onto a tour of the winery with the cellar master Alex to taste the 2009 ferments. The wines looked great and the vintage is certainly a cracker here in Spain too.

No lunch needed due to last nights marathon tasting dinner! So we left straight for Calatayud to meet my friend and winemaker Norrel Robertson to celebrate his 40th birthday.

We arrived in good time for coffee and a look around the town before heading back to Norrel’s newly and stunningly renovated house. The house is situated in the old town and has the most stunning views over the Church and onto the Moorish castle that dominates the skyline of Calaytayud

Norrels wife Sharon cooked up some fantastic suckling lamb which has its own D.O. here in Aragon called Ternasco, which comes from the word "tierno" meaning tender – and I can safely say it was very very tender!! All washed down with some Chateau Pichon Longueville 2000 kindly provided by our kiwi winemaker friend Nathan.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Dinner at Pagos de Cirsus

I picked Libby up from Bergerac airport late afternoon and we headed straight for Navarra in Spain as tonight we are guests at Pagos de Cirsus hotel, winery and restaurant.

We arrived shortly after 9pm in Tuleda, Navarra after a 5 hour long drive from Bordeaux passing through Bayonne, St Sebastien and Pamplona. We finally turned into the valley where Pagos de Cirsus is situated and soon realised why there were no sign posts as you could see the huge magical castle tower illuminated miles away in the distance.

Approaching the castle was a like a Monty Python sketch as it seemed the more you drove towards it, the further away it became before suddenly popping up in front of us!

The long drive was soon forgotten as we were greeted by the friendly staff in the incredible hotel lobby – dominated by the extravagant staircase – and showed up to our magnificent room in the tower itself.

Pagos de Cirsus is owned by the Spanish film maker Iñaki Nuñez famous for producing films such as Basic Instinct and the hotel can boast some pretty impressive guests such as Jonny Depp and Sharon Stone. We freshened up and made our way down to the superb restaurant where we were greeted by Carlos, the funniest, maddest sommelier I have ever met! Followed by the equally talented and entertaining head chef Javier Luariz-Ayerdi.

We sat down and Javier came over and asked us what we would like eat, when I responded by saying “I will leave it in your hands” his eyes lit up and came alive with creativity! He instantly sat down at our table and flattened out a crumpled piece of paper upon which he scribbled out a personalised menu for us!

The 6 course menu included individual dishes of tempura prawns with orange, amazing white asparagus, local seasonal vegetables, wild mushrooms, hake fillet, and beef cheek ended with a local speciality dessert. Every dish was explained personally by the head Chef and matched superbly by the bull fighting-obsessed sommelier assigned to serve just our table, and with every wine served, a chest out matador stance followed! We tasted through a superb range of wines including:

Pago de Cirsus Chardonnay
Pago de Cirsus Chardonnay fermentado en barrica
Pago de Cirsus Cuve Especial
Pago de Cirsus Tempranillo
Pago de Cirsus Selección de familia
Pago de Cirsus Vendimia seleccionada
Pago de Cirsus Opus 11 selección
Pago de Cirsus Moscatel

I fully recommend trying checking out the Pagos de Cirsus seleccion Especial 2006 from Laithwaites and of course a stay at the hotel


Wednesday, 28 October 2009

A whistle-stop tasting tour and Sauvignon search

Once again another glorious day here in Bordeaux I am certainly not fed up of saying so! And the weather forecast tells me it's not over yet! Today was sunny t-shirt weather but no time to sunbathe because I was expecting a JMS whirlwind to be knocking on the Chai door at any moment!

We had a busy schedule ahead of us so Clare picked me up and we motored off in the sunshine – roof down – to Arveyres where we met Olivier Cazenave at his lovely little riverside Chateau to taste some 2009 whites and reds. The quality is definitely there this year with some lovely dry Muscadelle too!

JMS and I then bolted over to Entre-Deux-Mers and met Ludovic Roussillon at his place in Rauzan. We checked out his 2009 Merlot and Cabernets and they certainly didn't disappoint – already deeply coloured with rich black fruit and silky tannins!

A "merci, merci" and a couple of "bientot's" and were up and away heading ever deeper into the Entre-Deux-Mers and the tiny village of Espiet with its not so tiny cooperative. In this region people tend to farm very large vineyard areas in comparison with Saint Emilion or Castillon.

Espiet is where we make an important element of the Laithwaite Sauvignon blend and Aussie winemaker John Lakey has been monitoring the wines very closely. The Sauvignon here is famed for its great acidity and pure grassy aromas and JMS and I are here to collect samples so we can start blending tomorrow first thing.

Once again back on the road, heading now for Sauveterre where we make our other Sauvignon blending components. Sauveterre is on the other side of the Entre-Deux-Mers and the Sauvignon is richer and rounder here. We tasted samples with winemaker Pascal but just before heading off I noticed an old 1970's aerial photo of the Co-op. As we stopped to take a look a young enthusiastic lady overheard us talking and introduced herself as Mademoiselle President of the Sauveterre Cave Cooperative. This was quite strange as normally the President of a Co-op is a very old man! The photo was fascinating showing the cellar before all the modern development and I also learnt that the now municipal swimming pool in fact was originally a large concrete basin used for drying prunes!

Then it was straight back to the Chai to run through some wines with JMS and prepare for tomorrow's blending when we will make a Sauvignon from all the components collected today.

Friday, 23 October 2009

A picture postcard morning and a day of topping up!

A picture postcard on the Dordogne this morning with a rising mist and a lone fisherman, but things are set to change with a weekend of rain forecast. The leaves on the vine are slowly turning and starting to drop … it will be time for pruning before you know it.

The cold weather has caused the finished wines to shrink and it is incredible how much topping up the barrels require. Today it has been non-stop and we have used almost 3 barrels worth of wine to 'top' 300 barrels!

We do not use pumps to top the wine so we have to carefully siphon the wine and fill each barrel with only gravity's helping hand.

The good news is that the Chardonnays are slowly ticking away. They still need to be monitored very closely and it’s been a long ferment but there is now a light at the end of the tunnel!

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Pressing Time!

We are 'Pressing off' this morning chez Jean-Charles and once again, just like at harvest, we are spilling out of the tiny garage across the pavement and into the road!

JC and I drained all the wine from the fermenting vat early this morning to another clean vat leaving just the skins behind whilst ‘Papy’ (Grandad) assembled his ancient press (we're not allowed to!).

Once all the free-draining wine has been transferred, you are left with a big wet sponge of grape skins full of plenty more top quality wine. So we slowly open the door of the tank ready to catch the skins. As the door is opened the skins fall and, without hitting your funny bone on the vat behind, you begin to shovel the skins into the cage of the press and begin the pressing.

As we press the wine (or more accurately, gently squeeze the wine) I continually taste it as it runs from the squeezed skins. Once I start to taste the slightest bit of bitterness, usually from the pips splitting, I decide to ‘cut the press' and stop, much to Papy's bemusement!

Then we're off to Chami in St.Paul de Fenouillet to take the 'marc' for the distillery. The ‘marc’ is the pressed skins and they still contain good alcohol. When mixed with a bit of water and distilled, good skins, like JC’s, make excellent grappa or eau de marc. The skins have a value, not much mind you, but a few extra centimes are well worth the effort for these guys!

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

The Laithwaites 40th Anniversary Show

The last couple of days have been a whirlwind of excitement, travel and a lot of tasting! Last Friday the final La Clariere Cabernet vineyard was harvested at 6am in -3 degrees! Then I quickly went to the Chai to taste and leave instructions for Chris, who is baby sitting my wines this weekend, before heading to Bordeaux airport to fly to London to make the 5:30pm opening of the Laithwaites 40th Anniversary Show! But after being in the Chai non stop since August there was certainly no danger of being home sick. I entered the venue in the centre of London and was immediately blown away by Libby's amazing full scale Chai au Quai re-construction! It had all the bells and whistles, the lighting, the barrels, the images, the videos on the wall, the wines, the people and of course Dylan, Elvis, Hendrix, Bowie and the Stones blaring out. Home sweet home!

I had an excellent show both on Friday and Saturday and it was great to meet so many interesting customers and I especially enjoyed presenting some wines with Tony in the tasting theatre (right).

I was very tired, but in great spirits on Sunday morning and had to get a move on to catch the flight back to Bordeaux.

Monday 19th
Got back late yesterday and its all go this morning with a quick early stop at the Chai to taste all the wines and check everything through with my assistant winemaker Chris. All looking good and I was very pleased to hear the love and attention last week has worked and the stuck Chardonnay has started fermenting again!!

I have to leave at 10am to be in the Roussillon for 3pm to meet Jean-Charles. The reason being is that the sugars have all been converted to alcohol and the wines are dry but unlike white wines there is an extra stage, what winemakers call the 'post-ferment maceration'. This is a tricky part of the red wine making process when the winemaker must decide when to 'press off' (more on that tomorrow). The post-maceration is when the wine is still pumped over the skins (as during fermention) but now very gently, only for a short time and without aeration – called 'wetting the cap'. This method allows the wine to slowly rinse through the skins and to take, as they say in french, 'le gras!' (the fat), so that the last remaining thin slippery layer of pulp still attached to the skins is slowly washed into the wine giving body and roundness. The danger however is leaving the maceration too long and extracting bad tannin resulting in wines that are drying or pressing off to early and not extracting any body. This results in a thin wine. The winemakers job is to say when to stop, though the length of maceration time will vary from grape to grape, region to region and of course vintage to vintage, and can be anything from 3 days to 4 weeks long!

I tasted through all of Jean-Charles wines and decided that only the Syrah is ready to press off tomorrow which pleased 'Papy' immensely and he hurried off to get out his pride and joy, the old basket press! After tasting, looking and feeling the skins in the vat I predict the Carignan will ready for next Monday, the young (65-years-old) Grenache next Tuesday and the old (104-years-old) Grenache end of next week. I will however come back next Monday to check if my predictions are correct before my final decision is made.

On the way back through the l'Agly Valley (right) to Perpignan the fantastic colours of the autumn leaves in the old vineyards now give away the true identity of the randomly planted Grenache Gris and Blanc vines hidden amongst the Grenache Noir. If only I had a helicopter I could map out their locations for next year!

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Winter is here!

This morning was the first cold day for months. I think probably since March – that’s how good the 2009 vintage is! It was 5 degrees this morning but Chris, John and I refused to submit to winter and we all wore our shorts in defiance! We just have to keep the Chai locked up tight to keep in the warmth for the malo-lactic ferments

Yesterday was officially the end of the harvest for us and it’s been a long one, I picked the first GG grapes on August the 31st – that’s 44 days non-stop!! However we winemakers have to continue in the cellar and the first time we will get to relax without worrying about the wines won’t be until late December!

However today John and Janet, our friends and a core part of the Laithwaites 2009 picking team, held a traditional end of harvest BBQ lunch.


Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Stuck Ferment!!

Sometimes when making wines the fermentation can stop. The reasons for this spontaneous halt are endless and we winemakers are initially left baffled! But we rack our brains and always find the solution.

The main factors that cause the fermentation to stop are level of nutrients (most importantly nitrogen) which are obtained by the grape from the soil type and vintage conditions in the vineyard. If these nutrients are low we will add a little bit extra so the yeast are happy.

The conditions of the cellar are also important as yeasts don’t like the cold and will die! As the yeasts start to die off, the population dwindles and the remaining active yeast cannot combat the rising alcohol level and finish the remaining sugar. The weeks that follow the grape harvests in Europe are the start of winter and the natural air temperature falls significantly. Fortunately our cellar is well equipped with a heating and cooling machine that can keep the fermentations at ideal temperatures.

Oxygen is also very important and often the wine must be splashed (winemaking term for carefully aerating wine) to give a small dose of oxygen to the remaining yeast and try to kick start the fermentation. If all else fails the last step is to introduce new yeast or a ‘rescue culture’ – ‘killer yeast’ as we winemakers call it. We call it killer yeast because once let loose into the wine it will overcome and fight the weaker yeast for the last sugar.

Because it is more adaptable to the conditions (temperature, alcohol etc) it builds a population – or in this case an army! – finally resulting in the extinction of the struggling yeast and finishing off of the sugar. This is done very carefully by starting a small fermentation in a tiny tank keeping it warm and at a constant temperature – we even wrap a nice warm blanket around the bottom of the vat!!

The sugar level is monitored very closely and when it starts to drop, this means the yeast is starting kick and become stronger. It is when – and only when – the yeast has significantly eaten a large amount of sugar that more wine from the mother tank is added. If this is done to early or too late, it could result in a big shock for the yeast and even the killer yeast will die. The right time is never during normal working hours so we will take shifts to watch the progress all night!


Tuesday, 13 October 2009

With all the analysis received this week, we can now be 100% sure that there is no sugar left in the wines

We can now add some sulphur to protect the wine. Sulphur levels in wine are a constant question and the levels vary from wine to wine. Our wines are very low in sulphur and there are a number of reasons why. First of all sulphur is commonly added for protection at the vineyard to low quality, damaged and disease riddled grapes. However, the higher quality the grapes, the less sulphur is needed to be added.

Poor grape quality equals poor wine quality and at every stage of the winemaking process (of which there are three major ones) sulphur is added. Every time an addition is made the total sulphur content builds up. All of our handmade wines come from selected vineyards and I will only choose the cleanest fruit available – therefore no sulphur is added at the vineyard.

The second and most risky time is when the grapes are pressed and the juice flows into the vat. Instead of sulphur I add some gall nut tannin which is a highly pure extract of chestnut gall tannins. This contains natural oxidation enzymes which are more efficient at protecting the wine than sulphur. It also has the advantage of not losing the delicate aromas. This means we skip two out of the three major stages at which SO2 is generally added and therefore end up with low total sulphurs, and no headaches in the morning!


Monday, 12 October 2009

First thing this morning I showed Adam around the Chai and he could barely recognise it

The last time he was here the building renovations were just about to start. I, JMS and Adam had to taste through all the new wines at the Chai by half ten as we had a meeting at the world famous St. Emilion Grand Cru Classé Chateau Ausone with the owner Alain Vautier.

The Chateau perches on the left hand side of the village of St. Emilion. Mr Vautier showed us around personally and we tasted some of the freshly picked Cabernet Franc and the some 2008 from barrel. At 750 euro a bottle, I must confess I did not spit the wine out on this occasion!

Bernadette had been busy too and a huge paella was awaiting us for lunch when we arrived at La Clarière. JMS opened a La Clarière 1994 and 1995 to try. These were the first wines that he made and they tasted very good indeed.

After lunch I stopped quickly at the Chai before heading off to Sauveterre to do the first blending trials for the Laithwaite Sauvignon with Pascal the winemaker/director. It is always very exciting to finally be able to put your components together for the first time but this is just the beginning of a long series of blending meetings until we finally decide on the perfect blend.


Sunday, 11 October 2009

Dinner with Adam

Our friend Adam Mason arrived today from South Africa, where he is the head winemaker for Klein Constantia. We decided to go out for dinner in St.Emilion to the famous wine bar L’Envers du Décor.

It's mushroom season so we all went for ‘omelette aux girolles’, a very simple dish but when done well it is incredible! We had a lovely Château d'Aiguille 2000 and a Vieux Maillet 2004 from Pomerol and both were showing very well.


Thursday, 8 October 2009

I awoke to such a warm morning, 20 degrees at 7am!

Busy start at the Chai – firstly by stirring many barrels until the delightful tune of the fax machine rings at 9am and that should mean analysis results! Sure enough it is yesterday’s sugar analysis confirming that the Roussanne, JMS Sauvignon Blanc, GG and Viognier are bone dry so it’s time to 'rack' and put the wine safely into full tanks.

A lovely lunch of guinea fowl (Bernadette special!) was very much appreciated and certainly helped me greatly for another long journey this afternoon to Perpignan. On the way I decide to stop off in Carcassonne to meet Antonio to see how his wines are shaping up.

Antonio makes some great wines and it is always interesting to listen and taste through the vats to get a picture of his ideas. And it was lucky I stopped off as he has some fantastic Viognier! I think it is one of the best Viognier years for the south of France and this find will make another impressive wine for our customers.

It’s straight off to Perpignan and I arrive to a spectacular sunset over Perpignan with the looming Canigou mountain in the background.

The Canigou has no snow on the 2900m peak yet and I discover why as I get out of the air conditioned car into a very balmy 26 degree evening!

A quick bite to eat on the terrace of the superb and friendly 'Le Vauban' restaurant along the canal with an excellent glass of Domaine Coume de Mas 2008 Collioure Blanc.

Tomorrow takes me back to the l'Agly Valley to check the progress of the XV President, Maury, Syrah de Folie and the Vent de Folie.


Monday, 5 October 2009

The 2009 vintage is shaping up to potentially be one of the classics

So we have decided that we will christen the Chai with some red grape ferments. All that's left to do now is to go and find some!

With most of the Merlot picked, the later ripening Cabernet harvest is now beginning. To get the first choice of potential grapes for the Chai, I have been to the home of Cabernet today, the Medoc.

The Medoc is a very, very long peninsula stretching north of the city of Bordeaux with the Atlantic on one side and the Gironde estuary on the other. The unique climate and range of gravel soils create a vast quality and diversity of styles. There is only one way to find out which is right for you – that's to go there and look at the vineyards and taste and taste and taste berries!

The vineyards are still not fully ripe but the weather forecast for the next five days is exceptionally warm and sunny for this time of year – so I will head back on Friday to re-check the maturity.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Le Chai is as busy as ever!

Perfect timing for Yves the photographer to be here to take some pictures of real post harvest cellar action!

The 2009 GG is what we now call 'technically dry' which means there is no fermentable sugars left in the wine. Now is another crucial moment as it is at this point that – without meticulous care and experienced handling – it could become instantly oxidised, losing all the fruit characters that have been carefully preserved during the fermentation.

The first step is to carefully separate the clear wine from the sediment without allowing the wine to come into contact with air. We protect the surface of the wine and the receiving vat with a layer of CO2. The hoses are filled with water and the wine, when pumped, pushes the water out of the 'T taste off' valve.

When the wine arrives the taps are switched and the wine flows gently into the tank. A tiny amount of sulphur is added to protect the wine and the vat is filled to the top into the chimney – just like a giant bottle of wine! So only the tiniest surface area of the wine is exposed to air and there is no risk of oxidation.

Henry meanwhile is picking the last of his Merlot vineyards and Libby has arrived to give the team a hand.

Once again Mr Hartley is on hand to carry the grapes carefully to the trailer!

The hard mornings work will always be rewarded with a Bernadette lunch!

Laithwaite Sauvignon Round 2!

Very interesting tasting today and wow the wines have changed. Its very important to make extensive notes each time the wines are tasted in order to create a life history of the wine! This is how we learn to taste the young wines and predict in order to reserve the wines before anyone else.