This month, I have given over my usual blog to my godson, Augustine Bowe who spent October with us in Bordeaux helping with the harvest and winemaking. Augustine or Gus as he was soon known as, works for famous wine merchant Morrell & Co. in Rockefeller Center in New York City, who generously gave him a month’s leave of absence to come and work with us. His impressions of the harvest and the act of winemaking are wonderfully fresh and insightful.
Last month, I was very lucky to have the opportunity to work at the harvest in Pomerol at Le Pin and in the Cotes de Castillon at Chateau Goubau. While I constantly deal with wine as a finished product, I had never been exposed to winemaking before, and though I was familiar with the broad strokes of the process, participating in the harvest gave me a much better understanding of how wine is made, and what decisions the winemaker makes during vinification.
On my first day, we harvested the majority of the grapes from Le Pin. A team of harvesters picks the grapes by hand, then the dry and undesirable grapes are sorted out on a selection table installed on a trailer among the vineyard rows, and the rest are taken by tractor to the winery. Once the grapes arrive at the winery, they are fed from a trailer onto a vibrating table that looks like a barbecue grill. Small grapes, pebbles and sticks fall through the cracks in the grate, and the remaining bunches continue on into the de-stemmer. The grapes, after being separated from the stems, fall into the next machine, which crushes them between two spinning rubber cylinders. Finally, the resulting juice and skins are collected in a tub, and are pumped into the vat, where they stay largely undisturbed throughout fermentation. My favorite task related to harvesting the grapes was working on the selection table. The table has a conveyor belt, and, as the bunches go by, the rotting, and dried grapes must be cut away from the healthy grapes. I found that time went by quickly, and that the work put my mind in a meditative state.
There were many sensory experiences during the harvest that stand out when I think back about it. The first is that grapes are high in sugar, which makes the juice very sticky. At first, I was studious about rinsing my hands every few minutes, but eventually I resigned myself to having sticky hands for the majority of the day. When handled, grapes leave behind tartaric acid, which leaves dark stains behind on the hand. After a few days of handling grapes, my hands looked like they were covered in soot. The grapes also varied significantly in temperature based on when they were harvested. Grapes picked in the morning were very cold to the touch, while those harvested in the afternoon on warm days were much more pleasant to deal with. Perhaps the most memorable sensory aspect of the harvest is the smell of the winery. It is a combination of grape juice, alcohol and yeast that is at first off-putting or even unpleasant, but I grew to like it. One smell that wasn’t pleasant was the cloud of carbon dioxide gas that hovered just above the grape skins in the vats. If I ever poked by head too far into one of the tanks, the gas would start to sting my nostrils, my eyes would begin to water, and I would instinctually jerk my head back. While inconvenient and potentially dangerous for the winemaker, this cloud of carbon dioxide gas protects the fermenting wines from exposure to oxygen.
I was surprised at how little the juice was interfered with after it was pumped into the tanks. The two main variables that need to be tracked while the wines are in tanks are the temperature of the wine and the density of the liquid. In order to start fermentation, the juice needed to be heated, which is done by pumping warm water into metal sleeves in the tank, and then yeasts are added if necessary. Once the fermentation started and the wines were warm enough for the yeasts to ferment and reproduce, we needed to make sure that the wines didn’t get too hot, because fermentation heats the wine. So once the fermentation has started, the wines, though closely monitored, are largely left undisturbed until all the sugar is converted to alcohol. Two times a day, it is necessary to pump wine from the bottom of the tank over the grape skins, which float on top of the liquid. This process, called the remontage, keeps the skins on top of the surface from drying out, and mixes the juice for an even fermentation. We kept close track of the temperatures of the tanks and the density of the liquid inside by taking samples every time we did the remontage. The temperature of the wine must stay low enough that the wine is stable, and the density of the wine measures the progress of fermentation, as the liquid becomes less dense as sugars are converted into alcohol by yeasts.
Different winemakers that I spoke to had different philosophies about the “remontage”. Some carefully determined the duration of time each vat should be pumped based on the volume of the vat, the progress of fermentation and the rate at which the pump could move liquid. Others simply started with one amount of time per tank—usually 15-20 minutes, and reduced the time when the density fell to a sufficiently low level. Another decision the winemaker must make during remontage is whether to pump the juice directly from the bottom of the tank, or to pour the wine into a tub before pumping it back into the top of the tank. The latter method introduces more oxygen to the wine, which speeds up fermentation, but in excess can destabilize the wine. At Goubau, there were 10 tanks of wine fermenting, and each went at its own pace. In some vats, the density starting decreasing rapidly soon after the yeasts were added, while some—usually in tanks holding grapes that were harvested at colder temperatures in the morning—took several days before there was an appreciable change in density. This delay made the winemaker nervous, and we even consulted with an “Oenologue”, or wine doctor, to make sure that something hadn’t gone terribly wrong with the tanks.
The harvest brought together professionals from across the world to learn about winemaking in Bordeaux. Between Vieux Chateau Certan and Le Pin, there were people working the harvest from France, Belgium, Netherlands, the United States and South Africa. While much of the vinification process is the same in all of the countries, it was interesting to see what philosophical differences about wine existed across different cultures. A South African winemaker who was working at Vieux Chateau Certan pointed out to me that the tartaric crystals at the bottom of a bottle of St. Emilion that we drank would have been deemed unacceptable in a bottle of wine produced in South Africa. He was also much more sensitive to microbial smells and tastes such as Brett.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Bordeaux for the harvest, and I eagerly await the opportunity to taste the wines when they’re finished. Everyone I talked to had very high hopes for the 2016 vintage, but most were hesitant to make any definitive statements about the quality of the wines, perhaps out of a superstitious concern of jinxing their wines. Whenever I asked Maxime, the first-year winemaker I worked for at Goubau, if he was happy with the wines, he would always respond that he wouldn’t be happy until the wines were in the bottle. It may be several months or even longer before we know how the 2016 vintage will be received in the press and on the market, but I already know that it will be a precious vintage to me.
© Fiona Morrison M.W.