St. Émillion

On Sunday I visited St. Émillion, famous for its wines and long and complex history (it is named for a monk who settled there in the 8th century).  It is an UNESCO World Heritage Site, so the all of the history (including old vineyards scattered through the town) is impeccably preserved.  The AOC St. Émillion is incredibly well regarded and is the home to such famous wineries as Château Cheval Blanc and Château Ausone.

All the green? Yeah, those are vineyards.

Vineyards situated amongst the Roman ruins of the town

My guess would be that around 80-90% of the shops in St. Emillion are wine shops (and really, I’m not exaggerating).

C’est la vendange

A couple of things I’ve learned this week:

  • To make 500 hectoliters of wine, 500 hectoliters of water are required (take-home message – we need to find more efficient cleaning practices!!!)
  • At this winery, the primary aim of blending (assemblage) is to obtain a product consistent across vintages, in order to match the expectations of the consumer.  This is decidedly not true everywhere, and, I think, a very important distinction to make as it plays a huge part in informing the types of decisions a winemaker will make.  At first appraisal one might think that this would make a winemaker more inclined to take a scientific, “Let’s do everything exactly by the book so we can be the same every year” approach, but in reality this is not at all the case.  The reason?  The enormous amount of variability between vintages (and even between vineyard plots, or “blocks” – parcelles in French) for the grapes!  Thus you never are starting with the same materials, so the effort to maintain consistency is at least as difficult as making wines that reflect the year, and requires precise ability to taste and know what needs to be done to get your starting material to align with the required product – thus, a balance of finesse, analysis, and methodology.
  • The whites here are only left on their lees (dead yeast still present in the wine after fermentation has finished – if the yeast have eaten all the sugar and turned it into alcohol they have both ran out of food and created a toxic environment for themselves, so they die) for 8-10 days before the wine is pumped off of them because the belief at this winery is that the longer than that the (dead) yeasts begin to emit undesirable aromas (though some wineries keep the wine maturing on the lees for up to about 6 months and believe that longer lees contact results in better wine – therefore, as usual, individual taste is paramount).
  • Gregory hates Cabernet Sauvignon, so, though we will be processing some tomorrow, they use it as sparingly as possible when blending – same story – the winemaker’s taste trumps all, except maybe the need to bulk up the volume of wine produced, in which case relatively small amounts of less preferred wine (particular batches, or in this case, specific varietals) can be added without significantly altering the overall taste.

Yesterday we had about 60 children visit for a field trip.  They harvested grapes in the vineyard (I couldn’t tell what they were doing more of – eating grapes or cutting them) and had a tour of the winery (which meant that I had an audience as I helped shovel up a press-load of grape skins – not exactly a glamorous task for those kids to aspire to do).  Something about children speaking another language just makes them extra cute (even the ones who were pushing and shoving to get to the front of the line to dump their buckets of grapes).

Ludo and Marine helping the kids climb the ladder to deposit their grapes

Sunrise from the top of a tank

Le Pigionnier from the vineyard

Another shot of the sunset (coucher du soleil)

Old World Appellations Explained

Here is an article I ran across that explains what is often very confusing about French (and other Old World) wine appellations.  This is very pertinent to my experience here, as people keep asking me what type of we are making, and the answer is not obvious to those used to drinking New World, varietal labeled wine.  So here we make a Bergerac Blanc, which is Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, and the red wine is made from (mostly) Merlot, as well as Malbec and Cabernet Franc.  Read the article and this will make a whole lot more sense if you are wondering why I’m not just calling the red a Merlot.

The DOC (or DO or AOC): Nobody Does it Better – David Duman

As for what I’ve been up to, I’ve been working long, but very enjoyable, hours, doing a variety of the tasks in the winery (we started the Rosé this week – which is made from Malbec grapes but we use the same process as for the white wine).  I have worked on the labeling line, performed Chaptalization (adding sugar to the must to increase the final alcohol content of the wine if there isn’t enough natural sugar in the juice to produce the correct amount – it doesn’t make the wine sweeter because the yeast eat the sugar and convert it to ethanol), helped with a lot of racking, etc.

Sunset from the winery: