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).
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)
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:
Today after checking the density and temperature of the musts that we have been racking, Muriel took me with her to hunt for cèpes! This week has been filled with talk of these precious mushrooms, as this is the high season for them and this year they happen to be exceptionally abundant. She taught me the differences between edible and nonedible mushrooms, as well as the difference between a cèpe and a tremoul, which are also edible but not quite as good as the cèpes. There are two types of cèpe here, black and brown, and Muriel gave me some of each to try, as well as some tremoul (which you only eat the top, or “chapeau” of, whereas you eat the stem of the cèpes) and a couple of girolles (a type of chantrelle) that we found. I cooked them all separately so that I could compare, and definitely agree that the cèpes are better than the tremoul, and I liked the black cèpes slightly more than the brown (though they are both very delicious, almost sweet in character).
Muriel with just a tiny portion of our loot!
This year it really doesn’t even require much skill to find them – they are all over!
View from just behind the winery
On Friday I arrived in Bordeaux after a 12 hour train journey (with 6 transfers—and everything was on time! European trains are amazing!). I spent one night there to get settled and explore the city a bit before heading out to Chateau Laurelie in the Bergerac AOC (AOC = appellation d’origine contrôlée – the French equivalent of DOQ). I am staying in le pigeonier – the old pigeon house – that has been beautifully renovated. Vignobles Dubard is a large family operation with many different components, so though I will be staying and working in the cellar here at Chateau Laurelie, I spent Saturday and today at Chateau Nardou helping cut grapes (Merlot and Malbec) for the Rosé Cremant de Bordeaux (incidentally the wine that I purchased from Michael at Fremont Wines when he told me about the Dubard family and suggested that I contact them!). These grapes have to be cut by hand in order to meet the requirements for the Cremant classification, but much of the harvest is done here by machine (something that would be impossible in the Priorat!). It is hard work but punctuated with incredible lunches that last for a couple of hours, allowing your back to recover enough to finish out the day. Tomorrow will be my first real day of work in the cellar (as of now I’ve just been observing here and there), so I’m looking forward to that as well!
Last week I was able to go to Clos Mogador, one of the most well-known and respected wineries in the Priorat, to help with the harvest a bit and interview René Barbier and his wife Isabelle. Harvesting white grenache was hard work on the steep slopes in the summer heat, but very good to get some hands-on action! I also helped out a bit on the sorting table back at the winery, removing any overripe grapes or debris.
After working for a few hours, the Barbier’s welcomed me into their home for lunch. We discussed their views on the importance of art in winemaking – Isabelle, an artist herself, suggested that art and imagination are the most important aspects of wine – the base of any product that one can make, and René eloquently added that art is key because it is representative of spirit. When I asked René how he instills such personality into his wine, he emphasized the importance of terroir, and especially of the winemaker knowing his terroir. He said that the science is important too, as it acts as a tool for choosing what to do, and that now, unlike 40-50 years ago, there is no conflict between tradition and science in winemaking. He suggested that half a century ago there existed a tension between science and “savoir faire” (know-how), which led to excessive pesticide use and other problematic practices, but now people are returning to their intrinsic knowledge of the land, incorporating knowledge of ecology and biodiversity. Isabelle added that she sees art returning to the fore as well. I also asked René what he thought about the importation of viticultural practices from places such as France to a region with such unique terroir. He explained the complications inherent in asking such a question, as winemaking in the Priorat was really founded by the French Carthusian monks, so the origin is French, but taking place in Catalonia. Thus there exists a confusion between authenticity and terroir, and one could ask, « le Priorat c’est quoi ? » (What is the Priorat ?).
Clos Mogador White Grenache Vineyard
René Barbier’s very unique old-fashioned press, which he continues to use.
The Templar castle of Miravet and motorless car ferry to cross the Ebro River.