Language and Wine – Book Teaser

But he goes on. Does he really believe that I’m following along, or simply enjoy the sound of his own voice? It is beautiful after all, rhythmically flowing along at that southern pace, each word closing itself up with a gentle lift like the crest of the faintest little wave. Shaking myself dry of my imagination, I realize he’s offering me another glass of crémant. I probably shouldn’t, but I accept it. I don’t want to seem rude on only the first day. I catch a few words, here and there: those that haven’t undergone such colloquial metamorphosis, altered beyond recognition.

 We are on our lunch break, from my first official day of “work”, a title that has turned out to be a gross overstatement. I have come to harvest grapes, but when the morning coffee led leisurely out to the vines where we were each given a tripod camping stool to perch on as we cut bunches of Merlot, one by one, dropping each one tenderly into bright yellow plastic bins, it dawned on me that this could not possibly be an accurate reflection of typical labor practices in a country that manages to pump out a respectable GDP. I know the French savor their vacation time, but this had to be atypical. Indeed, harvest “à la Parisienne” turned out to be a primarily social occasion, an annual pretense to reunite an old clan of rugby-mates while kicking off the harvest season with a wine consumption that at least equals, if not surpasses, the day’s production.

But see, I don’t know that yet. My lack of comprehension has become a sort of training device in Buddhist philosophy: I can’t understand, or ask, what’s coming so I have no choice but to live in the moment. To be present. And for now, that means accepting another pour, and staring blankly at the lips moving all around me, trying to piece together some meaning from the patchwork of syllables that I can make out. But as I’m sitting firmly in the present moment, enjoying a not so well deserved break from a morning of not so intense seated harvesting, I am oblivious to the fact that this is only the beginning. I have not yet been indoctrinated into the culture of the French apéritif, and thus the idea that an entire meal, paired with wines from across the range: whites, reds and rosés, awaits me. And then suddenly, as if warned by an invisible call – pheromones, perhaps – everyone, spread throughout the garden relaxing in the early autumn sunlight, becomes alert, like the wave of attention as it passes through a coterie of nervous prairie dogs abruptly alerted to a nearby danger. We begin to file into the garage, emptied of its heavy vineyard machinery for this special occasion…

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A little work…

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…and lots of play

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Harvest 2014 : A worthwhile compromise

Yes, it has been an inexcusably long time since my last post, and yes, I hate it just as much as anyone when bloggers post their excuses for their extended absences, but really, I have a good excuse. Or two, in fact.

Harvest 2014 and a Master’s thesis.

harvest hands_MFEWine-stained hands finishing up a Master’s thesis

I defended my Master’s thesis, “Targeted and Untargeted Analysis of Premature Oxidation in White Burgundy Wines Issued from Different Vinification Strategies,” in French, last week in the midst of 2014’s incredibly abundant harvest.

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View from the vineyards at Saint Jean du Barroux

In the AOC Ventoux, where I’m working for the winery Saint Jean du Barroux, 2014 was an atypical vintage. The grapes were bloated due to an abnormal excess of rain throughout the growing season, producing a record-high average bunch weight for the appellation. During maturity checks before harvest began, I noted enormous bunches, which in certain zones of the vineyard were having a hard time achieving ripeness – there were colossal bunches bursting with pink and green grapes interspersed with more reasonably-sized bunches that were already ripe. Philippe Gimel, the owner and winemaker of Saint Jean du Barroux, subscribes to the motto that winemaking is all about compromises. But the tactical approach we put into action turned out to be a win-win on three fronts. We began harvest by going through the most heavily loaded plots to harvest only the biggest, least ripe bunches, which we pressed to make a fresh, bright rosé. Meanwhile, the vine, her load significantly lightened, could focus her energy on ripening the remaining bunches to perfection, and could do so with a greatly reduced risk of disease. High yield and big bunches mean that the grapes are crowded up against each other, trapping moisture and reducing the potential for airflow – a perfect storm for the propagation of rot.

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View from the winery at Saint Jean du Barroux

After a whirlwind three weeks, the compromise seems to have paid off. Now the winery is bursting with wine, almost all of the alcoholic fermentations now completed and all but two tanks of red pressed and racked. Now we’ll be able to sit back and enjoy the fruits of our labor – watching the evolution of these new, promising wines and deciding on blends. The theme of compromise will always remain at the forefront, as this is key in winemaking : compromise between quality and quantity, effort and patience, acidity and tannin, knowledge and know-how, power and delicacy, and of course, art and science.

2014-10-16 18.05.58Saint Jean du Barroux’s Pierre Noire presented at the post-graduation tasting for the Master International Vintage class of 2014

Chateau d’Yquem: Fastidiousness in a Bottle

DSC_0591(Château d’Yquem)

On our recent study trip to Bordeaux, my class had the pleasure of visiting the prestigious producer of Sauternes, Château d’Yquem.  In fact, prestigious may not be a strong enough word, as Château d’Yquem is the only domaine in Sauternes classified as “Premier Cru Supérieur” in the Bordeaux wine classification of 1855 (the system which continues to dictate the classification today, more than 150 years later).  They are also the only producer of Sauternes who do not produce a second label, a sort of all-or-nothing approach that means that years of less-than-ideal weather conditions, they simply do not produce their wine, as they would otherwise risk declassification.  And in fact, 2012 was just horrible enough that we will never see a bottle of the precious golden liquid from this vintage.  They will still produce the wine (though the putrid conditions this year left them with only 216 barrels, as compared with about 900 in 2011) but it will be sold to négociants (wine traders who buy bulk wine, blend it, and then put their own labels on), who are forbidden from putting the name Château d’Yquem anywhere near the finished product.  So the 2012 Château d’Yquem will be lost in the shuffle of 2012 Sauternes, cleverly disguised so as not to tarnish the reputation of the esteemed château.

DSC_0556(Château d’Yquem in the rain, in a reflection of the disastrous weather conditions of 2012)

But despite its lack of existence this year, the meticulous process for making Château d’Yquem remains astounding.  Their nearly 40 year-round vineyard employees (17 of whom are women) are each responsible, year in and year out, for performing a series of 50 pruning maneuvers on the same parcel.  This way each worker develops a rapport with the plot, and can provide the most comprehensive, fastidious care possible.  All of this in preparation for the harvest season, which can only commence after the appearance of the illustrious noble rot (botrytis cinerea), which requires very particular weather conditions (foggy, moist mornings and bright, clear afternoons) and results in a beautiful dehydration and concentration of the grapes (of which 80% are semillon and 20% are sauvignon blanc).   These botyrized grapes are harvested in a series of passes through the vineyard (which could occur over a period of days, weeks, or even months), first selecting only the botyrized grapes and then passing through to collect the non-affected grapes which, even still, have ripened to obtain a sugar content of 20° potential alcohol (this means that if fermented to completion, this juice could attain up to 20% alcohol – and even more for the botyrized grapes – of course this is not the intent, but rather to ferment partially with remaining sugar at the end).  Furthermore, at each pass through the vineyard, there is a triple selection, grape by grape.  First by the harvester him- or herself, then when the small collection baskets are transferred into larger bins for transport to the winery, and finally upon arrival at the winery, just before pressing.

DSC_0566(Re-composed image showing all of the stages of botyrization of grapes.  Harvest occurs grape-by-grape either of the shriveled, fully dehydrated grapes, or of the plumper, non-infected grapes, depending on the interest of the particular pass through the vineyard)

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Grapes are harvested not by parcell, but by ripeness, so on a given day the lot that is harvested could include grapes from across the property.  In this way grapes from the four different soil types of Château d’Yquem, clay, sand, gravel, and limestone are assimilated into one single wine, to which the company attributes the complexity of the wine.

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And what does all of this borderline-obsessive TLC and terroir-mingling give in a wine?  We were able to taste the 2006, which was described to us as not the greatest year, but still gives a good idea of what those of us who can’t afford a 500€ bottle of wine are missing.

First impression? Eggnog! Maybe it was the coming holiday season, but when I plunged my nose in the glass before swirling the liquid gold inside, the aromas of nutmeg-y creaminess jumped right out of the chalice in my hands.  But upon swirling in a bit of oxygen – the gas responsible not only for our lives, but also the lives of our wines – honey, dried apricots, figs, and even notes of tropical fruits such as mango, pineapple and passionfruit.  Thanks to its well-balanced acidity, the wine enters the mouth fresh and clean, evoking more citrus-y, summer-y fruits, which evolve toward more candied versions and then are rounded out by a bit of oak on the finish.  The oak isn’t overwhelming, but gently supportive, carrying the wine on its journey through the mouth as if in a basket.

But is it worth the price?  This will forever remain the question, and a valid one at that, for wines at this price point.

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 P.S. Oh, and just for the sake of thought-provocation, in whatever direction you choose… what I found to be quite an interesting quote from our guide during the visit (translated by me from French, very-nearly exactly):  “We don’t do biodynamics because they [the head-honchos] are scientists.  Thus we dont talk about the cycle of the moon.” 

 

Truffles: The Quest for {Culinary} Black Gold

I knew that pigs are used to hunt for truffles, but not dogs.  So when I learned that there is a particular breed with the innate ability to sniff out the esteemed fungi, the Lagotto Romagnolo.

I was lucky enough to join in on a truffle hunt in Burgundy, home of the Burgundian truffle (Tuber aestivum).  A different species than the more well-known black truffle (Tuber melanosporum) which grows in the Perigord region, the Burgundian version is equally delicious (I recommend it thinly sliced in a simple salad of garden-fresh lettuce and vinagrette, if you are lucky enough to get your hands on them!).

Truffles can be cultivated, in a sense, by taking advantage of the symbiotic relationship between the truffles’ mycelia and the root system of certain types of trees, such as cedars, oaks, and hazels.  If a grove is planted in the appropriate soil conditions (the Burgundian truffle prefers calcarious soil types), the mycelia, or underground component of the fungus, will follow the roots of the trees as they grow up (providing the appropriate shaded and forested conditions), establishing the necessary conditions for truffle production.

The truffle hunter can attempt to search for the prized fungi by himself, but as they are often present as deep as 30 centimeters below the surface, he isn’t likely to have much luck alone.  Luckily, he has several tools available at his disposal – pigs, dogs, and flies.  The difficulty with pigs and dogs is that they must be trained not to eat their spoils.  But this is likely a simpler task than keeping track of your fly!

Though this hasn’t been a great year for truffle hunting, with the help of two canine noses we managed to walk away with a decent harvest!

Remontage, Foie Gras, and Stag-watching – Staples of the Season


Nearly six weeks after it began, harvest is nearly complete.  The last grapes are scheduled to be picked next Wednesday, though the weather keeps surprising us (with sun and warmth, happily!), so this projection remains subject to change.  In the winery, the end of harvest translates into “remontage, remontage, remontage.”  Red wine is made by loading the red grapes directly into a fermentation tank (without pressing), and inoculating the whole lot – skins and seeds included – with yeast.  As it ferments, the marc, or layer of grape skins, floats to the top of the tank.  Remontage, or pumping-over in English, entails pumping the juice from the bottom of the tank over the top of the marc in order to keep it moist and extract fragrant and colored compounds into the must (fermenting juice).  When done by hand, this is a very labor-intensive endeavor (I know because I did it the first day), as it requires perching atop the tank holding the hose in order to spray must in all directions atop the marc.  This is made significantly more challenging by the fact that carbon dioxide gas is being constantly emitted from the tank, in quantities sufficient to asphyxiate you (or at least cause you to pass out and fall off the tank – choose your poison), so you have to maneuver breathing fresh air while still throughouly spraying all over the inside of the tank.  Fortunately, we have special devices that can be attached to the hose inside the top of the tank that have a little spinning rudder that evenly sprays the top of the tank without requiring human intervention.  It is much more effective than remontage-by-hand, and frees up a lot of time to be spent giving TLC to the wine in other ways.  For instance, nutrients can be added to keep the yeast happy, or tannins (specifically, catechin) can be added in order to fix the color compounds in the wine.  Catechin reacts with anthocyanins (the red-colored molecules in grapes and red berries) to form a stable complex that can give the wine a more desirable, richer color.  The anthocyanins don’t need any help to become affixed to your hands though:

  Hand after one day of working with red wine.  Fortunately we are not finished with the white wines, as white wine helps to remove some of the staining, so my hands have not become exponentially blacker than this over time.

Despite there being plenty of work to keep us all busy in the winery, I have gotten away a bit as well.  Last week Sandrine, who works in the office, took me to her house for a night, where I became acquainted with her parents’ pigs,

Ducks,

And all of the products that they make from them, as well as from anything else that they can grow or find on their property.

She prepared a meal extremely traditional for this region (the Perigord), of foie gras with Montbazillac (a sweet white wine) to start, duck confit with cepes and potatoes and a St. Emillion, and Banyuls, a naturally sweet red wine (aged for many years – this one had been for 15 – in wooden casks outdoors where the wine is subject to oxidataion) from the south of France.  We finished the evening with the slightly less traditional activity of Wii Bowling…

I also visited the city of Bergerac, of key importance as I am in the middle of Bergerac wine country here.  When I saw this statue I finally realized why the name had sounded so familiar ever since I arrived…

Just as St. Emillion was riddled with wine shops, Bergerac is teeming with shops such as these:

While there I also tasted a wine with brettanomyces for the first time (smells and tastes like farm animals had a little party in your glass – I knew it was a smell I recognized but, thankfully, couldn’t place it, so politely described it as “interesting,” not knowing what it was until Marine told me later).

Monday evening I was invited to go (attempt to) see – and hear – stags calling for their mates.  We drove to a spot where they are known to show up, and waited for them to appear (with beers in hand, as I believe that in France it is considered sacrilege to sit and wait somewhere in the evening without an apertif).  It turned into quite the social occasion when about 15 others showed up (including someone that I work with), but the stags apparently did not feel obliged to attend the event, as none had appeared by the time night fell.  As someone said on the way home, “Well, at least we had a beer.”


Dans la cuve

Things were quite busy for my first day in the cellar, as we are in the middle of harvesting sauvignon blanc and semillon to make the Blanc Sec.  I helped out with a lot of different tasks, including débourbage (pumping off the clear must after allowing any solids to settle to the bottom of the tank), adding yeast to the clarified must for fermentation, and loading the press – which requires climbing into the tank (cuve) to push out the grapes that are in the bottom!Inside the tank!

With Muriel (who is in charge of the cellar) and Ludo.

In front of the press with Gregory Dubard (left) and Ludo.
With Serge Dubard in front of the tanks and the hose to load grapes into the press.Loading the press