One of the many traditions and regulations governing production of wine in the Bordeaux region is that you can water vines only when they are newly planted. All the rest are at the mercy of natural rainfall. While this might seem to put France at a disadvantage to other wine producing countries like Australia and the United States where growers can irrigate at will, it makes perfect sense to at least one Bordeaux producer.
“If you believe in the concept of terroir, as we do, then you must rely on nature and not artificial irrigation. Terroir is the unique combination of topography, climate, and soil that makes our wines distinct. Maybe the terroir in some places is not suitable to wine production and they have to rely on irrigation. Wine is an expression of nature, and we must respect nature,” said Vincent Rapin, owner of Domaine de Valmengaux.
However, because Joep Bakx at Clos Monicord planted more than 2,000 new merlot vines this year we were faced with a large watering task. Each of them had to be watered – by hand. This involved a tractor towing a large water tank with someone, - his daughter Audrey, me or his wife Mireille – manning the large diameter hose from the tank and giving each plant about two liters of water. This was to ensure that the young roots were secured and headed deep down into the rich limestone and clay rather than splay out sideways.
While waiting for the tank to get refilled I could always join my wife Mariella and pull more pruned vines apart and place neatly in the middle of the row. If that didn’t take up enough time I could always help string new wire at a higher level than the old wires. The higher the wire, the higher the leaves grow, the higher the leaves grow the more sunshine they get, and the more sunshine the leaves get the more sugar the grapes get. All very nice in theory, but at the moment I’m trying to get four or five small diameter wires stretched down the 100 meter rows without getting them in a hopeless tangle. Fortunately at this point the tractor returns with a full tank and I can get back to soaking my shoes and watering new vines.
Once all the watering is done, old pruned vines cleaned up and new wires stretched each of the two shoots remaining on the vine must be gently pulled over and tied to the low wire. In the case of Clos Monicord and the new field this amounts to about 50,000 vines or 100,000 shoots that have to be fastened by hand to the wire. When the leaves start to grow they must be fastened to the wires to guide them up and not out. Then, around June, when the grapes start to appear many of them should be pruned to increase the sugar content of the remaining grapes.
When faced with all this hand work it is sometimes easy to forget what the end product is all about. People have been making wine in the Bordeaux region since the Romans settled here in about the 3rd century AD. Henry II, King of England and Duke of Aquitaine – and husband of Eleanor of Aquitaine – was a great lover of the region’s wines and began exporting them to England and started the strong British connection with Bordeaux wines. With rich land –limestone, clay, sand, gravel - and favorable weather it is easy to see how Bordeaux became a center of wine production. The region now produces more than 700 million million bottles a year, mainly red but with some well known whites as well.
|The End Product|
The theory of turning grapes into wine is simple enough, but it takes the great skill of wine makers with years of training to turn grapes into memorable wine. It starts when they taste the grapes to determine if they are ready to be picked. They carefully bite the grape, chew the flesh and pits, and then the skin to test the flavor and how long it stays on the tongue. They are looking for the right amount of sugar and the all-important tannins that occur naturally in the grape pulp, skin and pits. If the tannins are unripe the wine will taste very bitter. Wine laboratories around the world are doing a great deal of work to understand exactly how these chemical compounds known generally as ‘tannins’ work, but what is known for sure now is that red wines require tannins in the right amount to age and improve. The astringency and bitterness you might taste in a wine comes from the tannins. Only after careful tasting in the field will the wine maker declare whether the grapes should stay on the vine or be picked straight away without risking a turn of bad weather.
The first stop for the crushed grapes is the stainless steel temperature controlled fermentation tanks where the wine is held for three – four weeks. This fermentation/maceration period is critical, and each wine maker has a slightly different approach depending on the type of wine he wants to produce. It’s hard to say one method is better than another. It depends largely on taste preferences. Common variables are yeast, sugar/alcohol percentage, oxygenation, pulp extraction, and possibly a second fermentation. Some wine makers will add enzymes to enhance a particular taste that they are trying to achieve or perhaps help mask the harsh taste of a young wine. All of this is done in a large room that could rival most hospitals for cleanliness, and careful records are kept of every step of the way.
After the fermentation and maceration most quality wines are put into barrels of French oak that hold 225 liters. These barrels are an expensive part of the process with each one costing €625 and used no more than two – three years. The premier chateaux will change barrels each year. While quality wine manufacturers will use nothing but oak barrels, makers of more ordinary wines will keep the wine in stainless steel tanks and drop in large sachets of oak chips to add a bit of flavor. But purists insist, particularly with the common grape varieties in Bordeaux and Burgundy, nothing but oak, sometimes scorched to varying degrees (strong, medium or blond) to regulate the flavor of the oak, will allow the gentle aeration and enhancement of the tannins that give structure to the wine, or generally add the flavor that separates the good wines from the ordinary.
|The Critical Oak Barrels|
But all of this is several months away. Right now there’s more wire to string, more pruning, more shoots to tie down, etc., etc.