Sunday, 16 October 2011

The Joy Of The Harvest

Everyone holds his breath while the expert gently and painstakingly chews the grape. Does it have just the right amount of sugar? Are the tannins tasted in the pips and skins developed to just the right level? As the expert chews slowly, looking to see how long the astringency of the pips stays on the tongue, heads bob up and down almost in time with each chew.

Finally the verdict is in. “Let the vendange begin, NOW.” At that moment every friend the grower can find is called into duty to go carefully down each row snipping off bunches of the plump, deep purple grapes and dropping them into a bucket. As the buckets are filled, cries of “Porteur!” ring out and burly young men go down the rows emptying the buckets into large containers that are in turn emptied into machines that pump the grapes into the fermentation vats.

This goes on for most of the morning and then the assembled workers repair to the garden for a good sized lunch accompanied by copious amounts of wine and followed by several varieties of sweets. Needless to say production in the afternoon falls off just a bit.

We joined our friends Joep and Mireille Bakx and their daughter Audrey on their vineyard Clos Monicord in the small town of Verac, just east of Bordeaux for the last part of the vendange late in September. Last spring we spent almost two months there doing the basic agriculture to prepare the vines for the growing season. It was rewarding to see that all the pruned vines fastened carefully to new wires, supported by new stakes driven deep into the rich Gironde soil, had grown steadily and now were filled rich bunches of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and malbec grapes. Having spent so long last spring pulling the thick, pruned vines out of the wires I must admit to a slightly jaundiced view of the lush new growth. All I could think of was the mammoth task of pruning, stripping and fastening the pruned shoots waiting for us in about five months time.

Joep with a healthy bunch of merlot grapes
The weather had been unsettled for much of September, but the last week of September and the first week of October saw nothing but sunshine and summer-like warmth. Perfect for the harvest. While friends and family can be relied upon to pick the grapes in the small one-hectare plot, the remaining 25 – 30 hectares (about 65 acres) require a machine to gather the grapes. Once picked the grapes are pushed onto a conveyor belt where we would pick out extraneous leaves or twigs. We were assisted on this task by our friends Frank and Sunny Velie who joined us from New York. From the conveyor belt the grapes are fed into the 10,000-liter vats for the all-important fermentation.

Audrey and Mariella sorting the grapes
This is one of the key areas where the skill of the wine maker comes into play. How much yeast do you add to convert the sugar into alcohol? How rapidly is the juice extracted from the must, how much oxygen is allowed into the process, what is the temperature of the juice in the vat, what is the density of the must? How many times and at what speed do you circulate (pump out and then pump back in) the juice in the vats?

The answers to these questions depend largely on the taste that the wine maker is trying to achieve. It’s difficult to say there is only one way to make wine. Neighboring vineyards with almost identical terroir and grapes can produce very different wines depending on the preferences of the wine maker. What particular flavor is he looking for? How much tannin (a natural compound giving the wine a more astringent taste), how fruity, how ‘round’, and how much of the all-important ‘structure’ or ‘body’ is the wine maker trying to achieve?

Once the fermentation is completed, in about three weeks, most of the red wines in Bordeaux are placed in 225-liter barrels made from French oak where they will mature for a couple of years. The second fermentation, the malolactic fermentation takes place naturally in the barrels as the temperature rises and the acidic malic acid is converted into the softer, rounder lactic acid. The oak flavor found in so many wines can be somewhat regulated by the amount that the barrels are scorched – heavy, medium or light.

If the whole process from the basic agriculture to the harvesting to the fermentation to the maturing, to the bottling and, ultimately, the marketing sounds like a great deal of work, it is. This is one of the reasons why so many growers in Bordeaux are getting out of the business or relying simply on selling their grapes or bulk wine. Marketing now requires a global approach, and Joep travels frequently all over Europe and Asia introducing his wine to new customers. Each country has different regulations on importing wine, and the paperwork can mount rapidly. Owning and running a vineyard is definitely not a hobby or something to 'mess around' with in one’s retirement. It’s a full time job, and then some.

However, we the consumers can benefit from the number of smaller vineyards run by people like Joep dedicated to the art of making very good wine. We also benefit because many of these vineyards are not in the well defined regions called appellations where the prices can sky-rocket according to the reputation of the appellation in general rather than the quality of the individual wine. All it requires is a bit of pleasant experimentation to find the wine that fits your own taste. And you can do this without breaking the budget.

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