Thursday, 10 March 2011

The Real Work Behind Your Favourite Wine

The next time your wine dealer waxes eloquently about the ‘bouquet’, the ‘structure’, or the ‘sophistication’ of your favorite vintage spare a thought for the laborers who struggle for months with unglamorous agriculture in vineyards all over France just to get their grapes to yield that elusive bouquet, structure or sophistication so beloved of wine writers and merchants.

The agricultural work is more than doubled when, as our friends Joep and Mireille Bakx have done, you want to upgrade a 14-hectare, about 35 acres, vineyard they recently purchased from someone who left the business. Among dozens of other tasks, hundreds of new wooden stakes must be placed at the end of rows of vines, thousands of new metal stakes must be placed – in perfect order – down the 100-meter rows, and miles of  new wire must be strung in each row so the vines can grow to the appropriate height. Then the space between the 50,000 vines must be weeded carefully. Old, unproductive vines must be dug out and then the soil carefully prepared for the new vines – vines that take 5 – 10 years to produce a grape worthy of turning into wine. All this is before the crucial skilled work of pruning that goes a long way toward determining the quantity and quality of the grapes. Oh, and once the pruning is done the unskilled labor, moi, has to pick the pruned material that has become entangled with the wires and place it in the middle of the row. While machines are used wherever possible, most of this work is done by hand.
Joep, Audrey and Mireille Bakx

The long, complicated journey from vineyard to your wine cellar actually begins even before the first vine is planted. The story really starts with the sacred French terroir itself– the very land that supports the vines that produce the grapes. This almost mystical concept of terroir  (loosely translated as a combination of geography, geology, micro-climate and accumulation of human knowledge) is what the French insist distinguishes their wines from all others. What is the combination of clay, limestone, sand, gravel? Is the terroir well positioned high on a south-facing slope or is it on the flat alluvial land bordering the river? How much sun and rain? Does the grower know how to work with all these elements to make superior wine? What is the best type of vine for any given soil? In the Bordeaux region, by far the largest wine producing region in France, these are predominantly merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, malbec and sauvignon blanc . The other famous regions of France have their own grape varieties.
The Important Part Of The Vine

We decided to take a break from Eastern Mediterranean affairs and spend several weeks in a small town near Bordeaux, on the right bank of the Gironde River, with the Bakxs and learn, literally from the ground up, about the production of the grapes that yield the precious liquid that one day will take pride of place in your wine cellar. I can make no claim to having a sophisticated palate, but rather than begin with the tasting part of the business I wanted to learn the process that ultimately results in someone swirling the wine around in a glass, examining it, sniffing it, tasting it, nodding sagely, and pronouncing it good, bad or indifferent.

We were neighbors with the Bakxs in Istanbul for years, and their dream was always to return to France to expand the small vineyard called Clos Monicord that is right next to their house. Last year they took the plunge and purchased the additional land.  The locals shake their heads at the goals Joep has set for himself and the amount of work he has already accomplished. Fortunately for Joep and Mireille, their daughter Audrey shares their enthusiasm for the project and, in addition to helping with the marketing, drives out from Bordeaux most days to work in the fields.

But the locals are forgetting one thing. Joep is Dutch, and, the Dutch often combine a fanaticism for the land and a compulsion for perfection. It’s sort of the ‘work is good, more work is better’ mentality. No short cuts are even considered. I can appreciate this well from my own Dutch ancestry and experiences working for my late brother-in-law who was also from sturdy Dutch stock and could write the book on fanaticism for land and compulsion for perfection. The best way to motivate people like this is to tell them something cannot be done.  Then a steely look with a dangerous glint comes into their eyes and they will move heaven and earth to prove you wrong.

Last fall we joined in the vendange, but quickly decided we wanted to do more than just pick the grapes. So last week we packed up the car, loaded the bicycles and left cold, damp London for the long drive south to Bordeaux. Once we crossed the Channel the weather immediately began to improve, and by the time we got to Le Mans we could open the window and smell spring in the air. We had visions of going into Bordeaux for concerts and museums, visiting several of the fine restaurants in the area, and travelling to various famous vineyards in the Medoc, Pomerol, or St. Emilion.

The first day in the fields dispelled any such notions of frivolity. The weather was glorious, brilliant sunshine and about 15 degrees centigrade. That wasn’t the problem. The sheer amount of work kept us slogging away until the sun went down around 6:45. Unfortunately in March the sun goes down later and later each day which means we can string more wire, pound more posts, pick out more pruned vines, etc. etc. I began to look longingly at the setting sun willing it to go down just a bit faster. When the sun finally set behind the western slopes we slumped on the trailer and gratefully let the tractor haul us back to Joep’s house. Think the work was over?! Far from it. There is more scrubbing and cleaning to do in the winery itself.

By the time I pedaled home and staggered in the door it was about 8:00. Any thought of restaurants or other evening entertainment was quickly dispelled as my head dropped on the table half-way through dinner of lovely foie de veau. Welcome to the life of a farmer.

In other posts I will take a look at the industry from the point of view of a vigneron, or grower. Once the wine is produced how does he market it? How does he cope with the increasing competition from all over the world? How does he deal with the declining wine consumption in France itself? Can he actually make any money in this business, or is it a true labor of love? And most of all, when so many others are selling their vineyards what gives Joep the confidence that he will succeed in this difficult task?

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