Thursday, 6 November 2008

The latest harvest in history?!

Tuesday 14th October
As promised, the Verdejo arrives 8 a.m. at the Chai. First thing I do is take another sample of the juice from the truck just as I did on departure yesterday in Rueda. The two samples are sent for a laboratory analysis and the results are compared. We do this to ensure that the wine arriving at the Chai is in as good as condition as when it left Spain, sometimes the lorry drivers can take a detour (short holiday) for a few days taking my juice with them! The longer it stays in transport the higher the risk of spoilage to the juice. The news is good from the laboratory so the juice is unloaded into vat H under a blanket of Carbon Dioxide to protect the juice from oxidation.

Monday 20th
JMS and I are off for a French whirlwind tour of the Midi, in other words to say a quick 3 hour bonjour and au revoir to all of our Midi producers. I have to meet Jean-Marc in Carcassone for 11 a.m. as he is flying into Toulouse at 8.30 a.m. and we are both in Domaine Lalande in Carcassone by 11:15 a.m. We are met by Andre Ferrandiz, Andre has been friends and working with Tony for 30 years and she knows the Midi inside out, therefore an invaluable help for sourcing new and exciting wines. Andre always looks after us and today is no exception. We had just finished the tasting in the wonderful old Chateau of Monsieur Degrotte and Jean-Marc and I were starting to think food! And magically Andre pulls out from her Mary Poppins bag a full homemade picnic for about fifteen people! Salade, crusty bread, prawns, marinated smoked salmon, courgette cake, quiches, cheese, desserts and even hot coffee!

Next stop is Limoux then onto Maury to taste the XV. Jean-Marc had departed from a 2 degree London this morning so was suffering in his Artic/London outfit in the 28 degree heat of Maury. We tasted through the all 2008 XV vats, the Syrah and the big Rousillon Grenache. Jean-Marc was extremely pleased with the quality and he said in true Jean-Marc fashion that he felt like rubbing every wine on his chest!

We part ways as Jean-Marc heads on to Narbonne and I back to the Chai to help John and Alistair who have been doing a great caretaker job whilst I’m away.

Tuesday 21st
Back in the Chai and after tasting this morning I decide it is time to choose some barrels to put through a secondary fermentation called the Malo-Lactic Fermentation (MLF), the first being the sugar to alcohol. The MLF is when the malic acid (think granny smith apple) is transformed by bacteria into Lactic acid (think milk). As everybody knows, milk and an apple give two very obvious and different perceptions on the palate and it is the same with wines that have lots of malic acid or lots of lactic acid. The MLF is desired in all red wines and total, partly or not at all in white wines. The MLF must be carefully controlled and it is the winemaker’s job to monitor and decide what is best for the final blend of wine. For example; a naturally creamy wine such as Chardonnay must be left with a subtle, fresh streak of acidity to stop the wine becoming heavy and sickly, so no MLF or only 1 or 2 barrels of the whole volume is encouraged; and an over acidic white wine which will go through MLF finishes buttery and rich.

The actual physical part of allowing the chosen barrels to go through MLF is easier said than done, however. Malo-Lactic bacteria will only start to ferment at 21-23 degrees, they do not like sulphur in the wine and they don’t like cold dry air so that means they do nothing from November to March (very French, but do I hear the Spanish bacteria is worse!). The MLF will quite often start naturally but delicate white wines without the minimal legal levels of sulphur will oxidise and spoil very easily during the 6 month wait. It is therefore the winemaker’s job to fool them into thinking it is already March! That means moving barrels away from door draughts, warming the surrounding area, putting water on the floor to create a humid air environment, no sulphur in the wine and resist from talking about Christmas in the presence of the barrels! A winemaker’s trick is to pop in through the bung hole a tropical fish tank heater set at 22 degrees. From here I will monitor each individual barrel twice a day and if a fizzing sound can be heard then it is a sure sign the bacteria is working. Once we have a positively active barrel I will transfer a litre from the MLF barrel to all the others to give them a kick-start (called cross inoculation). If that doesn’t work … just wait until spring! And sometimes winemakers do have to give in!

Wednesday 22nd
A very cold start to the day this morning in Castillon and the 2007 ‘La Gabare’ is on its way to the Chai from Bergerac. Denis braved the cold and was up early to load tanker whilst I and the Chai team were getting ready to unload the wine and put it into barrels at the Chai. After a long day, the Bergerac wine is safely in chalk labelled barrels.

Friday 24th
Alistair is leaving this afternoon after 2 months work experience but in true stagiaire spirit he is at work this morning tidying up and cleaning before he says farewell. After two months under my wing he has now learnt the basics and can move to more advanced cellar work.

Tuesday 28th
We still have one vineyard of Cabernet to harvest and today I am in the vineyard to have a look to see if it is ready. A good walk around tasting the berries and it’s the thumbs up to pick first thing tomorrow morning.

Wednesday 29th
After a couple of chilly starts, this morning it’s 1ºC and really signals the end of the Bordeaux Indian Summer and possibly the latest harvest in history! For me it has been a long harvest, starting way back in early September with GG up to today’s Cabernet Sauvignon.The best thing about the last day is the last supper! This lunch, we are all invited to share paella at Chateau La Clariere to celebrate the end of the 2008 harvest.

Thursday 30th
Bad news this morning, the cold snap has also hit the Midi. This means very cold cellars due to majority of them being very old and poorly insulated. I have had two producers on the phone this morning with stopped ferments, the cold temperature has killed the yeast and there is still sugar to be converted. To restart a ferment can be very difficult because the yeast being added are not tolerant to the now alcoholic wine (juice has no alcohol) and along with cold temperatures the alcohol can kill the new yeast instantly. This means I need to find a stronger strain of yeast and nutrients to cope with the conditions. I once again leave John to man the Chai and I whiz down to the Oenology shop and then off to Midi armed with some super yeast.

I arrive in Maury at 8 p.m. and its dark, freezing cold and the Tramontane wind is howling down the main street of the village. My first case this evening is Jean-Charles’ old-vine Grenache Noir. I taste and look at the wine and sure enough the yeast has stopped fermenting, his winery is in his garage and he has no modern equipment (just stuff handed down to him from his father and grandfather), no heating and no insulation.

First thing we do is get some electric heaters under the tanks and then wrap some blankets around the tanks to form a hot tent. The yeast is carefully rehydrated in 100 litres of the old Grenache wine and kept warm in a small 600 litres borrowed tank from the grumpy bloke over the road. I add a little extra sugar to the starter wine so the yeast will have time to build up its strength and some nutrients to build up the cell walls. Jean-Charles will now have to check the density of the ferment with a hydrometer every couple of hours to check that the sugar is being eaten. Once the sugar has dropped he will need to double the volume of the starter vat to 200 litres with more Grenache wine and start checking again. This is repeated until the whole tank has been gradually fermented dry. It is very important that the starter vat is doubled at the correct moment and this may be (usually is) in the middle of the night. It’s a bit like having a baby to feed!

Friday 31st
After a long night I awake to bright sunshine and gleaming snow on the Pyrenees, now I realised why it was so cold!

I have to be at the Cave CoOperative de Maury for 9a.m. to taste the tanks and start to drain and press the skins. The time to press off is decided by the winemaker when he thinks enough colour and flavour from the skins have been extracted. Each wine and year is different and the winemaker must respect the wine and allow the correct balance of fruit, colour and tannins.

The first procedure is to drain the wine called the ‘free drain’ from the bottom tap and pump into a nearby empty vat. The ‘free drain’ is all the wine that sits under the floating skins and once the tap is opened starts flowing very quickly until some hours later it is reduced to just a drip. When all the wine has been drained off it leaves behind a big soggy mass of skins. The door and lid of the vat is opened immediately and a giant fan placed on top of the open chimney. The fan is used to blow all the very dangerous carbon dioxide gas caused by the fermenting yeast out of the vat door because somebody or some people (depending on the size of the vat) will be climbing in to shovel the skins out of the vat (an official stagiaire student job!). Once the vat is aerated, the skins are shovelled from the inside and out through the door into a tub, they are then taken to the press house to be lightly squeezed and the remaining wine collected. This last wine is called the ‘press wine’ and is kept apart from the ‘free drain’ as it is stronger in taste and very cloudy, and the sediment will need to be settled.

Tonight is Halloween and the French don’t really care for American traditions, but any excuse for a village party is always welcome! The Tabac, Café, Marie, post office have all been over-decorated. This is Halloween madness in the deep depths of the Midi!

Saturday 1st November
Another day, another Fete! Today is the En Primeur party in the hilltop village of Lesquerde and we have been invited by the Monsieur Le Maire of Lesquerde to the tasting of the first 2008 wine to be released. It is rather like Beaujolais Nouveau but Midi style. Every village hurriedly makes a wine ready for the 1st of November. The wine is not to my own taste and is rather like cherry cough sweets, but it is as good an excuse as any for another village Fete!

Sunday 2nd
The leaves of the vines in the Midi are starting to change colour before they fall and it is now you can clearly see the different grape varieties and even the mixed vine plantings within the same vineyard. The Grenache Noir and Gris stay green, the Grenache Blanc goes yellow, the Carignan leaves redden and the Syrah turns a mix of lime green and brown. It is one of the most beautiful times of the year in the Roussillon but I can’t enjoy it much more today as I have to be back at the Chai this evening. I have taken a photo of one of my favourite vineyards in Maury called ‘Le Pantalon’ as it looks like a pair of trousers and as you can see from the colour of the leaves, it is planted with many different grape varieties.

The reason the vines are planted in different areas is due to the subtle changes of the soil throughout the individual vineyard plots and valley sides. The vines have been grown like this for hundreds of years and the incredible knowledge of the soils has been passed down through the generations. The local growers know exactly where the soil becomes more clay, more limestone or schist even in the middle of a vineyard so they plant the best adapted grape variety to the according soil. The Grenache is always planted on the slate at the top of the valley sides, whilst Carignan prefers the clay of the lower slopes and valley floor.

Saturday 1st November
We are pressing off some of the XV du President this morning. All goes well and the vats are filled to the maximum with the ‘free drain’. Filling the vats is very important as the wine is safe from oxidation whilst we wait for the malo-lactic ferment to start.

The other XV vats still need some more time to extract flavour from the skins which we call ‘maceration’, so I will be back next week to oversee the pressing of the remaining tanks.

Sunday 2nd
It is raining in Maury for the first time in since last spring and the water stressed vineyards really need this, fingers crossed that there will be a good rainfall this winter in the Midi. I am off back to the Chai as John informs me that the Verdejo (pronounced berrdeko) is nearly finished. The back road drive to Limoux (10 minutes from Maury) is a very scenic drive and I pass just one of the many the 9th century Cathar Castles, this one photographed is Chateau Puilaurens.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

A busy few weeks at Le Chai

Saturday 27th
Every year, our UK staff have the opportunity to visit our French cellars for a weekend, and today a group of 30 arrive at Le Chai for a guided tour and tasting. Tony and I greet the very eager group and we all taste through the young 2008 wines that we have fermenting in the cellar. We start with the bright orange GG, the Sauvignon Blanc from the barrels, followed by a sneak preview of the big Roussillon Grenache soon to be released. After the visit we nip up to Chateau La Clariere and then to Tony’s house for a fantastic BBQ by Bridgitte.

I have to leave this evening for the Midi as I need to check the XV du President vineyards.

Sunday 28th
I wake up to blinding sunshine in the Roussillon. It’s 7a.m. and already 21 degrees! The view from the house down to the village is just stunning and I can’t wait to get down into the vineyards below. The XV Grenache vineyards are perfect so we will be picking first thing tomorrow.

Monday 29th
The XV Grenache starts arriving at the Maury Cooperative about 9 a.m. and vats are rapidly filling up by lunchtime. The vats here are not made of stainless steel but of concrete. Concrete vats work very well for fermenting wine as they naturally insulate the heat of the fermentation. This is important for extracting the colour from the skins of red grapes. By the end of the day I have 8 full tanks ready to be inoculated with yeast. This is a big job and I will require some help to make the wines and Benjamin is the perfect guy to keep an eye on the ferments when I am not here. He is a great cellar rat and can do a minimum of 5 jobs at the same time! Once Ben is briefed I am off to Bordeaux as the Chai 2008 Bordeaux Rosé is ready to be transported to the Chai.

Tuesday 1st October
A new month and a new wine for the Chai! The rosé arrives first thing and my stagiaire Alistair (now equipped with his new cellar knowledge) efficiently and carefully unloads the rose juice into the stainless steel tanks. The colour of the rosé is just incredible (a great rose must not be too deep red but be a vibrant pink/red) the fruit is already showing red summer berries, so the cooling is put on immediately to preserve these aromas until the end of the fermentation.

Friday 3rd
I am back in the south of France again and Ben has done a great job with the XV so we taste through together and plan the jobs for the next 4-5 days. The top end Grenache is being harvested today and tomorrow. I will put the grapes from these 100year old vineyards into much smaller tanks because I need to use different techniques to extract the maximum colour and flavour. The top end Roussillon wine is a blend of two tiny producers in the village of Maury so I am off to see one of them today. Jean-Charles Duran’s garage is where I make some of the best wine in the Midi, he has 5 tiny vats under his house and there is so little room you can barely move! His vineyards are 4th generation owned and are 100-110yrs old meaning have very low yields at only 1½ tons per hectare. He has already harvested his inky black Syrah and will be picking his Grenache and Carignan this weekend.

Monday 6th
Our Merlot harvest starts at Chateau La Clariere in the Cotes de Castillon! Everybody is here – Tony, Barbara, Henry, Tom … even Jean-Marc is on time! The grapes are handpicked into small crates and then carried to the trailer by the ‘Porter’. Once at the winery, JMS and I are being very French and needlessly discussing the same thing over and over with raised voices just to look good (this is very catching and once you get the hang of it is actually quite good fun!). The grapes are firstly hand sorted on a table by 4 people before the stalks are removed by the destalking machine. Once the berries are freed from their stalks they roll onto a vibrating table which shakes all dry berries, soil, wasps, ladybirds and bits of broken stalk into the tray below leaving immaculate black berries for the vats.

At lunchtime we have a huge workers lunch at the Chateau consisting of far too much pate and cheese but that’s all part of the French vendange, work a lot and eat a lot!

Tuesday 7th
With reds in at La Clariere and hundreds of barrels at the Chai to be cared for, we are now literally up to our eyeballs in wine! The amazing Indian summer continues here in Bordeaux and sun has been shining all day whilst we have been busy in the cool dark cellar of the Chai. After a hard days work we decide the best way to catch the last hours of the sunshine is a winemakers BBQ. I am in charge of the fire and John and Alistair the meat, we buy some doorstep thick ‘cote de beouf’ steaks for a traditional Bordelais steak frites.

Wednesday 8th
We have some very important guests at the Chai tonight. We are hosting a meal for the board of directors. Bridgitte and JMS have busy all morning hiring tablecloths, chairs, crockery etc. Everybody arrives at 7:30 p.m and the Chai is looking absolutely fabulous, the table is just perfect and the fire is roaring away. We start with some ‘Blanc de Blancs’ Laithwaite Champagne in magnums for apéritif followed by VO 2007 and GG 2007 with shrimps and salmon, then for the main meal of fire grilled steak the Grand Chai 2005 Margaux and 2004 Grand Chai Pomerol. We finished the dinner with chocolates from the famous Lopez patisserie matched with the 2004 Font del Bosc Maury. Once again the wines and company were fantastic and proves that the Chai really has something special and I think everybody felt it this evening. I think all the team deserve a pat on the back for organising a splendid evening and making the Chai look beautiful right in the middle of vintage.

Monday 13th
Today I find myself in Rueda in Spain choosing the 2008 Verdejo VO juice. The place is quite breathtaking and the sun is shining. They have had an unusually cool ripening period which is not so good for the reds but for the white Verdejo grapes, a superb vintage. A quick tour around the cellar to taste all the Verdejo juice with the winemaker and the decision is to take Tank 18. The tanker will be here tomorrow at 8 a.m. ready to be filled before a 7 hour journey back to the Chai.

Friday, 10 October 2008

The 2008 harvest starts at Le Chai!

Friday 22nd August

The bottling of the 2006 Grand Chai Listrac is set for the 23rd of September, so it’s a quick trip up to the Medoc to have another check, taste and meeting with the owner. I give the cellar master some instructions to follow to get the wine ready for the bottling and I will come back in a week before the bottling to re-taste.

Saturday 23th

The last weekend before the harvest starts so we went to see some good friends in the Dordogne. Loius and Anne live in a village called Brantome which is about an hour’s drive east from Le Chai. The village is built around a 9th century monastery and is a must visit if you are in the area.

Monday 25th

As harvest time rapidly approaches for Chai Au Quai my carefully selected vintage team arrive at Bordeaux airport. First to arrive is Alistair Nesbit a wine student (or stagiaire in french) studying oenology at Plumpton wine college. Every French cellar takes on a ‘stagiaire’ for the harvest and our cellar master Denis is eagerly preparing his initiation test (which mainly consists of eating snails and deadly cheeses) but he is fatherly proud to have someone to take under his wing. Later to arrive direct from Melbourne Australia is flying winemaker John Lackey. John is a very experienced winemaker and has worked all over the world and will work with me and hold the reigns whilst Jean-Marc and myself are flying round Spain and the Midi. These guys will be the 2008 chAi Team!!

Tuesday 26th

Today is a very important day as we have the harvest plan meeting. It is today that we put together all the ideas and inside knowledge to decide what and how much wine we will be making in the 2008 vintage.

After the meeting, Clare, Jean-Marc and myself are straight off to Midi to start putting the plans into action. We will stop at all the producers to discuss and bargain for the grapes we want. Over the next two days we will be in Carcassone, Roussillon, Perpignan, Narbonne, Beziers, Montpellier, St.Tropez, Rhone Valley and the Ardeche.

Friday 29th

After a crazy few days, all is in place for the 2008 vintage and my first stop is Maury in the Roussillon to check on the Grenache Gris grapes destined for the 2008 G.G. The vineyards are looking very good indeed and after a week of ‘Tramontane’ (the north wind) the ripeness of grapes has accelerated and I estimate that harvest is 7-10 days away!

I also had a look at the XV du President Grenache noir vineyards and they are in fine condition. Harvest is estimated to be 20-25 days away, so I will need to come back and have another taste and look nearer to the time. Tasting and assessing the vineyards are essential skills in winemaking and it takes a long time to gain experience. It is important that the grapes are picked when they have ‘phenolic’ ripeness, not just with lots of sugar. To give you an idea of how winemakers decide if grapes are ready to make into wine I have listed a few of the tricks of the trade below:

• The pips: is the colour is green or brown? Brown is ripe, taste the pips by putting them under your tongue and if they taste bitter they are not ripe.
• The pulp: if the pulp clings to the pips it is not ripe.
• The skins: if they are crunchy it is unripe so they need to be slightly chewy (not over chewy though). If they bleed red when you scratch the inside of the skins it shows the level of colour development
• The flesh: taste the flavour, is it high acidity or can you taste a real fruit character? Lots of acidity will mean it is not fully ripe.
• The stalks: if they are turning red, the grapes themselves will almost certainly have more flavour.
• The grape pedicels: if they are red then the berries could be about to fall to the ground so its time to harvest … quickly!

Saturday 30th August to Monday 8th September

The chAi Team are cleaning the tanks and moving all 600 barrels into the right places to be ready to receive juice at the Chai.

Tuesday 9th September

I am back off to the Midi to visit the Chardonnay and Viognier vineyards in Carcassone, the Chardonnay vineyards in Limoux and the Grenache Gris vineyards in Maury. Lots of walking up and down the rows sampling and tasting the berries so I take John down with me to help out.

Thursday 11th

Up at 5:30 a.m. to oversee the harvest of the 2008 Grenache Gris, the grapes are in lovely condition and are firstly sorted on a table then de-stalked and finally sent to the press. The first juice drained from the grapes is called the ‘free run’ and consists of the most delicate and light juice. The grapes are then purposely left in the press for a further 4-6 hours to pick up flavours from the pink skins. More juice is then drained and placed in a separate vat and called ‘1st skin contact’. More grapes are placed in the press and it is again purposely left for 8 hours and then drained to a separate vat and labelled ‘2nd skin contact’. Each of the three vats of juice are chilled to 5ºC for 24 hours to settle the rough sediments to the bottom of the vat. The three types of juice will be blended together at a later stage and each will lend a significant component to the balance of the final wine.

The following day the clear wine is ‘racked’ off the sediment into a tanker lorry and transported to the Chai Au Quai to be fermented and lovingly cared for. I then have to beat the lorry back to Bordeaux to help unload the tanker and start the fermentation.

Friday 12th

The 2008 GG juice arrived safely at the Chai last night and now we have to get the delicate fermentation under way. The yeasts are rehydrated and acclimatised before being carefully placed into the Grenache Gris vats. The vats will be kept at 13ºC for the next 2 weeks whilst the yeasts carefully ferment the sugar. The fermenting juice will be monitored twice a day and the fermentation rate will be recorded and tasted each time by myself. This is to ensure the yeasts are happy and not stressed or hungry, when yeasts become unhappy they will produce bad odours and may spoil the wine. So just like when babies (or grumpy Aussie winemakers) complain we will give them a snack to keep them happy!!

This afternoon I have to go back to the Medoc to re-check the 2006 Grand Chai Listrac for the final time before the bottling. This wine comes from a beautiful (but secret!) cellar where Jean-Marc and I have been able to care for it since last year.

Saturday 13th

As I open the door of the Chai this morning I am instantly overwhelmed with the first aromas of fermenting juice in the air. The Chai Au Quai 2008 vintage has officially started, but as any winemaker will know this is also the first sign for early starts and late finishes!

Monday 15th

I am off once more to the Roussillon to get an update on the XV du President Grenache vineyards. After a couple of hours driving around the slate roads I am happy to decide that the first vineyards will be harvested this coming Friday. Now I can get back to Bordeaux to check the Sauvignon Blanc vineyards with John and Jean-Marc in the Entre-deux-Mers region.

However, on the way through the midi I make an impulsive stop at Limoux in the department of Aude as I have heard rumours of incredible Chardonnay grapes this year, and if rumours are true I would love get some Chardonnay juice for the Chai. The terroir of the village of Limoux is very unique as it sits in a crossroads of climatic influences. To the north is the Autan climate, to the East is the Mediteranean climate, to the South is the Haute-Vallee climate and to the west is the Oceanic (Atlantic) climate. All four areas produce very different Chardonnay wines. I visit the four areas to see for myself and sure enough the grapes are tasting amazing but for me the oceanic area is the cream of the 2008 vintage so we will be certainly harvesting and taking this back to the Chai. Just need to think of a name for the wine now.
Any ideas?!

Tuesday 16th

The Sauvignon Blanc harvest begins in the villages of Espiet and St.Radegonde. We are making the Laithwaite Sauvignon Blanc here but will be taking some grapes from a few very special vineyards to the Chai to make a Grand Chai Bordeaux Blanc.

Thursday 18th

I leave late in the afternoon for the Roussillon as the XV du President will start to be picked tomorrow first thing. You are probably starting to get an idea of how much travelling is involved in my job!

Friday 19th

The first grapes of XV du President arrive at the winery this morning. These Grenache grapes are from vineyards located to the south of the village of Maury and wow! The Grenache juice is deep black in colour as soon as the grapes pour into the first vat, this is the proof to confirm that the 2008 vintage is going to be a cracker! The samples of juice from the vats are collected and sent up to the tasting room where I can get the first good look at them.

Meanwhile John and Alistair are transporting the Sauvignon Blanc juice from Ste.Radegonde to the Chai. So I once again I race back to Bordeaux to help get the vats and barrels ready for filling.

Saturday 20th and Sunday 21st

Preparing new barrels for filling with young wine is very important and they must be pre-swelled or the chances of leaks are high. All the barrels to be used on Monday have to be taken down from the seven high racks and placed standing up on the cellar floor. Each barrel is then swelled by putting water in the head (end) of the barrel. Leaving the water here for 4 hours will swell the flat end and tighten the rest of the barrel. The barrels are then turned over and the process is repeated with the other end. Fingers crossed and the barrels are then ready to be filled.

Monday 22nd

It is decided that the Chardonnay in Limoux will be harvested tomorrow night by machine so I will have to pack my bag again and make my way back down south. The Chardonnay is harvested by machine as the vines are trained to grow on a high trellis (wires and posts). Machine harvesters work by straddling the row of vines and shaking the berries off the stalks onto a conveyor belt which takes the berries up and over into the storage pockets on the sides of the machine.

The quality of harvesting machines nowadays is so incredible that they can be regulated to shake the vine in different ways. Rotten or defected berries tend to have a more fragile connection to the main bunch and the harvest machine will actually knock unwanted berries further down the row to the floor before the machine arrives to take the good berries. Green, unripe berries do the opposite and are left attached to the stalk. With the added bonus of picking at night time when the grapes are cold, machine harvesting is a very quick, clean and clever way to pick grapes.

Tuesday 23th

The Chai team starts at 6:30 a.m.! First on the list is the filtration of the 2007 Grand Chai Pessac-Leognan so it will be ready for bottling this coming Friday. David is always here on the dot! He is the only French man I know that turns up on time and also oddly enough also the only French man I know that drinks tea and plays snooker?? David parks up his filter machine just outside of the Chai and the wine is filtered quickly and efficiently.

The rest of the day is taken up with putting the Sauvignon Blanc into barrels.

The end the day for me means it’s back to the Midi for tomorrows harvesting in Carcassone and Limoux.

Wednesday 24th

First bit of vintage luck this morning as both the Chardonnay in Carcassone and Limoux are ready to be picked today. This may not sound lucky but for me it means I will be able to use one tanker lorry with separate compartments to carry both the Carcassone and Limoux chardonnay to Bordeaux, and that’s also one less 6 hour return journey!

Harvest goes well and the juice is in the vats cooling overnight, I will be back in the morning to load the juice into the tanker and send it back to Bordeaux. I have tasted some of the other juice in the winery in Carcassone and by chance have tasted a fantastic small batch of Viognier! I have a quick chat with Monsiuer Degrotte followed by a phone call to Jean-Marc and within 10 mins the Viognier deal is done and it is destined for our Chai in Bordeaux. Tonight I will stay in Maury overnight and be back in Carcassone tomorrow.

Thursday 25th

I arrive at 7a.m. in Carcassone to put the Chardonnay and Viognier juice into the lorry and then onto Limoux to pick up the other Chardonnay. The lorry will arrive at the Chai late tonight so I have to get a move on to be back in Bordeaux for the delivery.

Friday 26th

The weather in Bordeaux continues to be magnificent and the last 3 weeks of sunshine has saved the vintage. This morning was no different with yet another stunning sunrise on the banks of the Dordogne.

Incredibly busy day as we are bottling the 2007 Grand Chai Pessac-Leognan. The wine is lovely and silky and will be ready for our UK customers for Christmas.

Monday, 1 September 2008

It has been a great week for the Chai ...

It has been a great week for the Chai because we have had our first cellar visits from the new Chai Key Holders. We have been very proud to finally be able to show first hand the Chai au Quai. Thank you to all the people that have visited us last week.

Monday 11th

The weather has been rather erratic during the last 7 days, with lots of rain and variable temperatures. Rainfall at this time of year is a good thing as the vines need that extra boost before the ripening begins. However, too much and there could be some consequences … so fingers crossed.

Veraison (bunch colour change) in the St.Emilion and Cotes de Castillon vineyards is just beginning and after a good look around the vineyards, the potential quality of the vintage starts to reveal itself. As reports of poor fruit set come in from all over France, Bordeaux is no different. There has also been an extremely poor flowering here in Bordeaux, worst hit are Pessac-Leognan and the limestone plateau St.Emillion/Cotes de Castillon. Cold and wet weather during the flowering period resulted in a number of problems. The two major consequences of poor flowering are ‘coulure’ (shatter set) which is when the flowers abort and no grapes are formed and ‘milerandage’ (hen and chicken) due to poor flower pollination. It is the latter that we are mostly experiencing in Bordeaux. The ‘milerandage’ produces tiny seedless berries amongst the normal sized ones in the bunch and the damage can range from 1% to 100%. The small berries do not ripen correctly and can be over acidic, over tannic or even too high in sugar so it means careful selection at harvest to remove these before the best bunches/berries are put into the vats, it will be a good year for the sorting table manufacturers! Milerandage is nature’s answer to a green harvest so yields will be small, but the positive side is that the remaining berries will be of an extremely high quality.

The Chai has a big week ahead as we are hosting a dinner for 28 people in the barrel cellar. The people invited include some of the most famous winemakers, negociants and chateau owners of Bordeaux along with our guest of honour Hugh Johnson. Hugh is arriving at 16.20 today at Bergerac airport, so it is on with the Chauffeur hat and I am off to collect him.

Tuesday 12th

Early start and there is a fair bit of tasting to do this morning. Clare Tooley, Dan Snook and my self start tasting some Bordeaux wines at 8am, but we are missing one person from the team – Mr Jean-Marc Sauboua. But with true French courtesy he has already phoned to say that he is late and that “zi traffic iz terribul”.

Tony Laithwaite arrives with Hugh Johnson and we start to taste the Chai wines – about 40 wines in total, ranging from our first 2006 vintage to current barrel samples. The tasting lasts two and half hours and we are all definitely ready for a hearty lunch at La Clariere. Bridgitte has everything ready on our arrival and she cooks some excellent entrecotes steaks to perfection on the indoor fire. After lunch, Tony and co are out to visit some chateaux in Montagne, St.Emilion and Pomerol. I give the tour a miss and start to prepare for this evening’s dinner.

By 6p.m. (people arriving for aperitifs at 7p.m) the caterers and Bridgitte have done a fantastic job, the Chai looks amazing. The guests start to arrive and the Champagne starts to flow, all the guests kindly bring along some wines for everyone to taste and the with calibre of guests there are some very nice wines to try such as 1964 Chateau Angelus, 1996 Cos Estournel, 1998 Chateau Giscours,1998 Chateau l’Evangile, 2001 Franc-Maillet, 2004 La Gaffeliere and a couple of 1966 Quinta do Noval vintage ports thrown if for good luck. Everyone gets to chat and drink champagne whilst delicious canapés are handed round by the smartly dressed waiters before dinner is served. Everyone is seated and dinner is served just after eight, a beautiful dinner with good conversation and the chance to talk to some of the people I have only read and heard about in wine magazines. The whole meal was perfect, from the food, the service to the company and the meal was ended with motivating speeches from Hugh and Tony (plus a short but hilarious speech from Jean-Marc). Thanks to everyone involved and invited for a truly fabulous evening.

Friday 15th

Yet another French bank holiday weekend starts! And if you are unlucky enough to have taken your summer holidays this week, then not to worry as they give you an extra day at the end to make up for it, vivre la France. We spend the long weekend in Brittany as I thought the rain in Bordeaux needed dragging north.

Monday 18th

Denis the cellar master is back from his holidays, he’s on top form and raring to go. He hasn’t seen the cellar for three weeks and is already (before a coffee) rearranging and moving all the things I have touched back into their rightful places!

First job we have today is the monthly barrel topping (ouillage in French). The barrels lose wine or levels change due to a number of factors. Wine in barrel will be absorbed into the wood by and the loss is generally dependant on the age of barrel and the time spent in the barrel. New barrels or barrels left empty for a long period of time (not advised) will absorb more liquid than older saturated barrels with the first four months being the peak loss period. The key is to refill used barrels with a new wine as soon as the older wine has been removed. Temperature in the cellar and evaporation are other factors that changes the mass of the wine and in winter, when the wine shrinks, the barrels need to be re-topped. Last but not least wine is lost through taking samples for analysis and of course tasting!

The barrels need to be kept full in order to avoid bacterial spoilage (vinegar) and oxidation of the wine. Throughout the year each barrel can lose up to 8 litres of wine and with 500 barrels in the Chai there is a lot of regular topping to be done. We have many different wines in the cellar and each wine needs to be topped with its identical matching wine, this is managed by having small 300 litre stainless steel topping tanks allocated to every batch. Topping when the cellar is full is a continuous cycle and as soon as you have topped the last barrel it is time to refill the first! There are many methods to topping the barrels such as pressure kegs with pistols and torches, air pump pistols and gravity tanks. But Denis likes to do things in the traditional way of Bordeaux and uses a specially shaped stainless steel watering can and his acute cellar hearing to fill to the correct level (and that’s why most Bordeaux cellars do not have a radio blasting out music!)

Wednesday 20th

New barrels have arrived! The first of the 2008 barrels I ordered earlier in the year have been delivered to the Chai ready for the 2008 vintage. When new barrels start to be delivered, my winemaking adrenalin and excitement begins to kick off. The fresh toast of new barrels infuses into the cellar and they have an aroma uncannily alike to McVities ginger nut biscuits!

Thursday 21st

Today is our last bottling at the Chai of the 2006 wines which will last about 12 days before the first 2008 whites come into the cellar! We are bottling the Grand Chai Sauternes and St.Emilion 2006. We start with the Sauternes as this is in half bottles and the bottling line is already regulated. We are using a sterile filter because Sauternes contains residual sugar and we need to filter out all yeast cells in case they get hungry later on whilst in bottle! As we all know, yeast plus sugar equals fermentation and sparkling Sauternes is not good. The filters are changed and the bottling line sterilized just after lunch, ready for the St.Emilion 2006. We are bottling the St.Emilion without labels and capsules to store them laid flat in metal cages, this is called Tiré Bouché or TB in French.

Many top chateaux use this method as they can hold back the wine to age further in bottle. The winemakers will frequently taste the bottled wine and only release the bottles to the customers when it reaches the drinking condition. Wine takes time to evolve and sometimes this can take many years or only six months, but this method ensures customers will not be tempted to open too early and be disappointed. It is important to note that many wines are still released young (with further potential ageing) but the TB method guarantees to avoid the ‘bottle shock’ period. Once the wine is thought by the winemaker to be ready for release, the bottles are polished and dressed with clean capsules and labels ready for transport.

Tasting notes:
Grand Chai Sauternes 2006
Deep bright yellow gold colour, dried apricots, clove, marmalade and honey nose, concentrated tropical fruit, luscious apricot, lime zest acidity, long butterscotch and mandarin peel finish.

Saint Emilion AOC 2006
Dark ruby red colour, brooding black cherry and lifted leafy blackcurrant, licorice and rose nose, muscular body with soft tannins, elegant backbone, ripe blackcurrant fruit driven palate, hint of tobacco leaf, rounded tannins, black cherry finish.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

July to August - Mark Hoddy

Saturday 5th

First day of my summer holidays and my girlfriend Elsa and I are driving down to the Roussillon to spend the weekend at her family estate Domaine Eternel. During the weekend we check on the vineyard progress.

Monday 7th

Up early to drive to Girona airport just over the border in Spain to catch a 2 hour flight down to Jerez de la Frontera, the heart of sherry country in Andalucía. We can see that we are close to landing as the famous vineyards with their bright white ‘Albariza’ soils (a porous and lime-rich soil) appear below us. We land around midday and drive 20kms south of Jerez to the coastal town of Cadiz where we are staying. Jerez is a lovely place but being the month of July the inland towns such as Jerez are normally 35ºC+ by lunch time, with no wind! So we sensibly decided to stay in Cadiz which is 5-10 ºC cooler due to the Mediterranean Sea breeze. We spend the rest of the day exploring the old town of Cadiz.

Tuesday 8th

Today we explore the ‘Sherry Triangle’. The sherry triangle is made up of the points of three towns; Jerez de la Fronterra (inland), Sanlucar de Barrameda (on the west) and El Puerta de Santa Maria (south west of Jerez). It is in these three towns that you will find the famous sherry ageing cellars with each town producing a unique style of sherry due to its temperatue, humidity and proximity to the sea. First stop is Sanlucar, the home of Manzanilla dry sherry where we visit bodegas Sandeman and the vast cellars of Barbadillo. Their buildings (in fact, streets!) are painted in their distinctive colours of white and brown and it seems like they own half the town.

We then stop off for a look around the old port of Santa Maria before heading back to Cadiz for a well deserved swim.

This evening we are being entertained by the one and only Bob Dylan who is performing a small concert in Jerez, personally I can’t think of a better match to ice cold Fino than Dylan live.

Wednesday 9th

Today we have a Bodega visit at the legendary Alvaro Domecq Bodega in the centre of Jerez. I was introduced to the guys from this Bodega at the London Trade Fair by Jean-Marc Sauboua in May and they invited me for a visit the next time I was in the area. The owners also have a winery in northern Spain to which Jean-Marc consults. Therefore the red carpet came rolling out for my arrival (thanks JMS!). We arrive in Jerez at midday and it is already 34ºC, we are greeted by Maria Jimenez who leads us down the narrow streets to the entrance of the Bodega, where we are passed into the hands of export manager Jorge Sosa and the winemakers Rafeal García and José Antonio Portales for a tour and tasting of the bodega. After the cellar tour (now lunchtime) we find ourselves situated at the tasting bar laden with heaps of succulent ham, aged Manchego cheese and of course every style of sherry that they produce. I am suddenly called away to taste some samples on the behalf of Tony Laithwaite in the tasting room. I am hurried through the door which house all the offices and professional tasting areas. Walking down the corridor I peer into the third office along (door wide open) and I see the man himself Senor Alvaro Domecq leaning back in his chair, feet up on the desk, cigar and a glass of cold Fino in his hand! Once in the tasting room Alvaro suddenly appears in a chest out stance (he used to be a top bullfighter) to say a quick hello and to introduce himself to me. We finish the 2 hour tasting, most of the cheese and ham and finally say goodbye. These are excellent Sherries so if you can get hold of any of the wines these guys make I would highly recommend that you try them.

For dinner we venture in to the old town quarters of Cadiz to find some traditional dishes to go with the local dry sherries. After walking around the narrow streets we stumble upon the ‘Pena Cazadora’. This is a bar restaurant owned and supplied by the local hunting group. Little did I know but this was to be the highlight of my holiday. As we enter the bar we notice all the stuffed stag, boar and ram heads on the wall, the place is bustling and food is being thrown out from the bar to the customers, the smell is incredible with wonderful rich aged ham and game hanging from the ceiling. Luckily Elsa speaks perfect catalan so we get off to a good start with the barman and order a Manzanilla, he shouts ‘Casa’ and turns to the house barrels behind him to pour two glasses of sherry. The Manzanilla is absolutely superb (surprised to say the least), then the menu scribbled on a chalk board is barely readable so we order blindly. We take a seat at a nearby table, soon we realize there is no table service and all the shouting at the bar was infact for us to go and collect our food that was piling up on the bar! A huge plate of jambon, chunks of cod in bread crumbs and lemon, wild boar black pudding and the tiny flat white shelled snails in a sherry/onion /garlic sauce were divine, this was followed by succulent chicken in a ripe tomato sauce and 34 month old manchego to finish up (plus a couple of house Manzanillas!). The food was marvelous with the dry sherry and convinced me yet again that it is time to revisit this very adaptable and tasty style of wine once more.

Friday 11th

Back to Girona and then spend the weekend in the Roussillon in France.

Monday 14th

We are off to Spain again to spend the week in the fishing village of Cadeques in northern Catalonia famed for being the home of the Spanish artist Salvador Dali. This is a strictly no wine week (or Elsa might kill me). However, the village is situated in the fantastic small DO of Emporda. Emporda is a slate soil region making wines from Grenache, Carignan, Cabernet and Syrah and there are some fantastic wines to be tasted from here. So I will hopefully get to try to taste a few of these with dinner this week!

Tuesday 22nd

After a week of sea, sun and no vineyards in sight we decide to go down to the Spanish DOQ of Priorat to see some friends and visit some bodegas. Priorat DOQ is situated about 150km south of Barcelona and has rocketed to stardom especially in the US (Robert Parker helped). It now has huge outside investments being made and in turn the construction of modern bodegas and the planting of very expensive terraced vineyards.

Priorat DOQ is an area made of pure slate soils and can be found inside the DO of Monsant, all vineyards are cultivated on incredibly steep terraces and the Grenache and Carignan are the king and queen of the grape varieties grown here. The area is unique mainly due to the remarkable temperature difference between night and day. The temperature on average falls and rises17 ºC in 24 hours and it is this that enhances the complexity during the grape maturation. This explains why Priorat wines have this immense strength but remain elegant and fresh on the palate.

We are staying the lost town of Falset in our favourite hotel ‘La Fonda’. The hotel has not been changed since the 1930’s and is 35euros the night for 2 people. The rooms are huge with large doors (accompanied by a key the size and weight of a petanque ball!) and a beautiful overgrown private terrace. It is a ‘no fuss’ hotel and comforts are minimal but the place is spotlessly clean and very friendly. The town of Falset is home to people who are involved in the wine trade so it is a very local village and only Catalan spoken (no Spanish). There are some lovely restaurants, with our favourite being the Baravins – a modern restaurant with a great wine list – we had a lovely DOQ Priorat Rene Barbier Clos Mogodor 2004 with dinner.

Wednesday 23rd

We meet up with our friend Stephan Lismon for coffee. Stephan is a Flemish Belgian who has lived in Catalonia for 14yrs and represents many of the top Bodegas as export manager. He takes us first to Mas Blanc (photo of vines or bodega) which is a 12ha estate adapted to organic and biodynamic methods and with a modern winery. We taste two very good wines the 2005 ‘+7’ and the 2004 ‘Balcons’.

After lunch we are on the winding road from Falset to Porrera trying to find the winery Ferrer Bobet. My friend Norrel knows the owner and has organized the visit for us all and the only background info I have is that he told me “it will blow your mind”. Bend after bend passes by and no sign of life let alone a winery, then out of blue there is a UFO sticking out of the mountainside. After taking the private road up to the Bodega which sits at 600m above the main road we are met by Isabel Fortuny at the winery door. The place is amazing and the two owners Sergi Ferrer and Raul Bobet and spent a ridiculous amount of time and money to construct this winery. It has all the bells and whistles such as huge drive-in fridges to store the grapes whilst waiting to be processed, gravity lifts and cranes, tiny temperature controlled oak and stainless steel tanks, various underground barrel stores, more electric Star Wars-style glass sliding doors than you can shake a stick at, and an amazing bay windowed control bridge (a la Star Trek) tasting room!! After the cellar tour we are showed into a big 4x4 armoured type land Rover and chauffeured out of the winery up towards the vineyards only to stop at a huge gate. As the driver punches in the code and the gates swing open I have a very weird ‘Jurassic Park feeling’! We now get see the vineyards all trained on ‘echalas’ as in Côte Rôtie. After more doors and codes we arrive back at the winery and into the tasting room to taste the 2006 Ferrer Bobet, the room and views are so spectacular that I pay little notice to the wine for at least ten minutes. The wine even though extremely young is very, very good indeed which is refreshing to see from a winery with too much money!

Friday 25th

On our way back to France we stop off at Mas Perinet, another big winery of the area set in 300ha of land (80ha of vines) with a modern winery. Josep Serra the director greets us and we have a wonderful tour and barrel tasting followed by an extremely long lunch. The wines are very good and there are a lot experiments going on here including potential new varieties, barrel makers and different yeast strains. Mas Perinet have also purchased a property in the DO Monsant area where they are planting vineyards and restoring an old farm back to its original state in order to house a rustic style winery and hotel.

Monday 28th

Back to real work today and I am meeting Thierry Cazach the director/winemaker of the Caves de Maury to discuss the 2008 vintage for the President XV and G.G. We go through the details and then I go out with Arnaud the viticulturist to have a look at the progress of the vineyards. The vineyards are looking good and I estimate 4-5 days behind last year.

Tuesday 29th

Today I’m back in the Bordeaux and lots of work to do at the Chai Au Quai. The next jobs are the bottling of the Sauternes 2006 and the St.Emilion 2006.

Maury GG, vintage 2008

Monday, 28 July 2008

June to July - Mark Hoddy

Monday 9th
Last week was a busy one and today is time to round up all of the tasting notes, decisions, blends, bottling dates, barrels to buy and confirm wines to be made for the fast approaching 2008 vintage.

Tuesday 10th
Out early to visit the Sicsoe bottling plant situated at the Bordeaux city end of the Entre-Deux-Mers. It is a good 45min drive but this morning is really bright and sunny so I get to drive through some lovely vineyard country. The Sicsoe bottling plant is one that we sometimes use for our larger volumes of wine. Bottling larger volumes here has the advantage of being much quicker and consequently there is far less of spoilage risk to the wines. I am here today to check on the 300hl of the 2005 Austrailian Mclaren Vale Laithwaite Shiraz and ensure it is ready for the bottling on Thursday. The bottling place is very clean as it should be and on entering the building I am given a white jacket and hairnet, not quite the dusty old Perpignan cellars I have been used to of late, but seeing some sparkling stainless steel puts and winemakers mind at ease.

I am shown to the tank by the in house winemaker Isabel Gonzalez and its tank number 8. The wine tastes great, full rich and a classic Mclaren Vale. I decide that it will need a movement (an ‘aller retour’ in French or ‘rack and return’ in Oz) before the bottling to slightly aerate the wine and coax out the aromas for the bottling. The next stop is the laboratory to look at the technical analysis including the pH, sulphur, acidity and volatile acidity which are all fine. I notice the turbidity is higher than normal but this is due to nothing other than the wine coming from the Mclaren Vale famed for its inky black shiraz. It is not a problem as long as I choose a large pore pre-filter just before the bottling. I only want to stop stones and flies and not the take out flavour and body of the wine! Once everything is ok and we agree on an 8 a.m. start on Thursday. I head back to the Chai Au Quai and for lunch at out favourite restaurant The Voyageur in Castillon.

Thursday 12th
Up really early in order to be at the planned 8 a.m. start at bottling plant to persuade the 2005 Mclaren Vale Laithwaite Shiraz into bottles. I need to be there to check filters and make sure they don’t cut any corners. After a 40minute drive through obscure villages and getting stuck in school drop offs, unfinished road works and behind tractors I finally arrive on time only to be told that the bottling is delayed for 2 hours (probably due to somebody getting there before me even though we agreed on the time!). I should have learnt by now ...

However, I use the waiting time to recheck everything through and about 9:45 the bottling is under way. Once the bottling starts the checklist is endless, some of things to check are: the bottle filling level with the current temperature of the wine, the pressure of the cork in bottle, the tightness of the label rolls, the alignment of the back and front labels and that the box is the right way up (upside down, as the boxes are stacked right way up but cork down). After few label errors all goes well.

Monday 16th
The first thing to do on arrival at the Chai is go straight to taste the 2006 St.Emilion in tank GV1 (it has been on my mind most of the weekend) and sure enough after tasting I decide that it needs to be racked of its lees.

This afternoon I make a trip out to Listrac in the Medoc to check on the wine that I first tasted on the 5th of June. It is now our baby so we have to take care of it.

On returning to the Chai I have a quick inquisitive taste of the Cotes du Roussillon Villages Grenache in barrel and wow! it has suddenly stopped absorbing the wood and needs a ‘rack and return’. That’s the job for first thing tomorrow, the much needed paperwork will unfortunately have to wait. Denis (our cellar master) is still doing barrel chores and so we run through the plan for tomorrow

Tuesday 17th
This morning is the racking of the 2007 Roussillon Grenache but before going anywhere near the wine we need to clean the 5000litre tank, a pump and some hoses. We are racking on this occasion to check the lees to see if they still have some flavour left to extract. The lees or sediment are very important in winemaking. They contain mainly dead yeast cells from the original fermentation, these dead yeasts will continue to give complex flavours to the wine for several months after they have died. In order to this we will stir the barrels once or twice monthly, mixing the lees back into the wine to extract these flavours. The most important thing is to monitor the wine regularly in order to decide how often, how long and when to stop the stirring. Once the barrels have been emptied you can simply turn the barrel and collect a glass of the lees to smell, taste and even feel them. If they are clean and tasty like they are today we can leave them in the barrels with the wine for a further few months.

Wednesday 18th
Having 450 barrels in the Chai consisting of 10 different coopers, 4 different years age, 4 forest origins, 3 thicknesses of staves, 4 different toasts and either white and red requires a fair bit of organization. Before each harvest the oldest barrels of 4 years are removed from our cellars. We feel that after this period of time the wood only gives dryness to the wine, many people who keep older barrels seriously harm the quality of their wines.

The barrels (around a 100) to be removed from the Chai will be replaced by brand new barrels. June is the only month of the year when 95% of the barrels are empty. We have to act quickly before the next barrels and wines arrive! All the barrels have to be taken off the 7 high racks on to the floor and sorted back into age, coopers, wood types etc. Each barrel is steamed cleaned for 6 minutes, rinsed and then put back in a logical order. It is a bit like Tetris! This job will easily take the up the next four-five days.

Monday 23rd
I have just spent the weekend in Calaytayud with a good winemaker mate Norrel Robertson (Scottish not Spanish). Norrel has been living and making wine here for five years and experiencing much the same way of life as I did during my years in deepest darkest Midi France. I have been looking around vineyards and getting a feel for the exceptional quality of Grenache based wines made here just as Tony Laithwaite did first, many years ago.

Calatayud is a small DO (3000ha) situated in the province of Aragon in NW Spain. Something Norrel and I have in winemaking common is the passion for Grenache wines grown on black slate (schist in french or pizarras in Spanish) soils.

There are not many areas in Europe that can boast of having old vine Grenache on slate soil. To my knowledge the three most famous areas are Maury in the Roussillon, Priorat in Catalonia and the Jiloca Valley in Calatayud.

The main strength that Calatayud has is its altitude, vineyards are grown at up to 1000m high and although the climate is still very hot the wines made here have an amazing freshness about them. There are two main soils the slate of the Jiloca Valley which produces dense, complex and mineral wines and the clay dominant Ribota Valley famed for its big, warm juicy reds.

Our first visit of the day is to the San Gregorio CoOp in Cervera de la Canada about 10km NW of Calatayud.

This is where Norrel makes most of his wines my favourite is his ‘Manga del Bruja’ (The Wizards Sleeve) a big deep black Garnacha wine much like our President XV from Maury.

After the tasting we go to lunch in the village. It is a very small village and people mainly keep occupied by playing cards, hunting for stag and the odd bit of top quality winemaking. But it does have the fantastic ‘Bar el Ciervo’ which translates to 'The Stag Bar'. It is packed with locals and we have a great course after course of homemade meals with some excellent local red table wine.

After lunch we head east to Jalon to see the Bodegas y Vinedos Del Jalon. Here the wines are made from the Schist soils and we taste some really complex wines the 2005, 2006 2007 ‘Alto Las Pizarros’ and Norrels other wine ‘Papa Luna’.

The people I spoke to in Calatayud this week regard Tony Laithwaite as the man responsible for putting them on the UK wine market map so do look out for even more exciting wines coming from this region.

A few stops here and there at smaller wineries in Aninon and Ateca and it’s a big 5 hour drive back to Bordeaux.

Thursday 26th
Our 2007 wines from Margaux and Pessac-Leognan are finally ready to transport today. I pass by our French office to pick up the loading forms for the customs and then straight off to meet the tanker at Soussans in Margaux. The 2007 Grand Chai Margaux comes from Chateau Haut-Breton Larigaudiere. The first thing to do on arrival (after saying bonjour, shaking everybody’s hand, drinking strong coffee and talking about life in general) is to taste the wine, look inside the tanker to ensure it is clean and check it is the right size for the amount of wine to be transported.

The tanker which will hold the wine is always chosen with the correctly sized compartments previous to the day of transport. It is not a good idea to put 9000litres of wine in a 15000litre tanker as the wine will be sloshing around on the 80km journey back to the Chai. The tanker has to be full right into chimney so as not to risk any oxidation on route. Once the tanker is full and the all the necessary papers have been signed I guide the tanker south to pick up our brand new Chai wine in the Pessac-Leognan region. Chateau Mancedre in Pessac is a lovely little chateau with good modern facilities , the wine is checked and the next pocket on the tanker is filled (6300litres). We then head back towards the city of Bordeaux and back to the Chai au Quai in Castillon

Once at the Chai the wines are carefully unloaded into tanks ready to put in our barrels tomorrow.

Friday 27th
Denis and I align the barrels in the tradition Bordeaux method and by 10 a.m. the Pessac wine begins to go into the barrel. Each barrel is carefully filled and then topped into the bung hole and sealed with a stopper.

Monday 30th
The same drill as Friday but this time the barrels are filled with the 2007 Margaux, 40 barrels in total.

Thursday 3rd of June
The 2007 Laithwaite Semillon is blended together and prepared for tomorrows bottling.

Friday 4th
Not a bad setting to arrive at work at Chai this morning!

The bottling truck arrives at 7a.m. and sets up outside the Chai and the bottling starts at 9a.m. on the dot.

After an excellent but long day we have 13000 bottles ready to transport to the UK.

I am taking my holidays from tomorrow so I will be fresh and ready for the start of the 2008 vintage in early August. I will however be doing some relaxed wine tasting in Spain starting with 6 days in the sherry region, then to see friends in the Priorat region in Catalonia and maybe a non wine week on the Cote d’Azur, it’s a hard life.

Friday, 25 July 2008

May - June - Mark Hoddy

16th, 17th & 18th - Shop Festivals ...
What a 3 day tour that was! Off to Laithwaites shops to present our Chai Au Quai wines at "mini" wine festivals.
The shops visited in order were:
The Coppid Beach hotel, Binfield
Theale shop
Surbiton shop
High Elms Golf Club, Locksbottom
Park Hotel and Golf Club, Croydon

The tastings were a huge success and I met some great customers all well equipped with their keen palates.

I presented five Chai Au Quai wines: VO 2007, GG 2007, L'Ambassade 2005 Sauternes, Grand Chai Margaux 2005 and the Grand Chai Médoc 2005

Everything was tasting great but the stars of the show for the Chai au Quai were the GG 2007 and the L'Ambassde 2005 Sauternes. Both wines made lots of new friends.

Some other Laithwaites wines on show that stood out for me were the Wrangles 2006 Chardonnay/Viognier/Riesling blend and the Bodegas Primicia Rioja Resevea 2003. I recommend you try them!

After a very busy but fun three days I arrived in London at 9:30 p.m to meet some old Aussie winemaking pals who are here for the London Wine Trade Fair. Tomorrow to recover (!) and then it's an early start at the London Excel centre in Docklands on Tuesday.

Tuesday 20th-21st - London Wine Trade Fair ...
The wine fair is the one of the biggest in the world along with Hong Kong and Bordeaux. There are some 20,000 wines available to taste from every wine producing region in the world. All the winemakers, producer, owners and buyers are present, tasting spitting, bargaining and discovering. The fair allows me to compare and look for new things for our customers.

Have to eat a big breakfast this morning as its going to be a long day's tasting. Tasting on an empty stomach is no fun.

Arrive at show about 9 a.m and the tasting begins.

I have a meeting with Jean-Marc Sauboua at 11a.m at The Wine Challenge stand to browse over our wine medals. Of course, being British, I am there on time, forgetting Jean-Marc is French and therefore consistently late. Finally he arrives and we go and have a look at the listings. Very pleased to see we again have a lot medals, so many in fact that if Jean-Marc put them all around his neck he would look like Mr.T.
It was a really good show and lots of exciting wines around for us winemakers to taste.

Friday 23rd ...
Back in Bordeaux and straight into the Chai au Quai cellar for 7a.m as we are earth filtering the Margaux 2006 ready for next week's bottling. Earth filtering is a natural and delicate way of removing the natural haziness in unfinished wine. The reason this done is so that we can finally get to show off the true complex colours of the wine that we have worked so hard to achieve since the day the grapes were picked.

The principle is very basic. Firstly a small quantity of fine diatomaceous earth is continuously mixed into the wine. The wine is sucked through a stainless steel mesh and the earth forms a cake/filter bed on the mesh. The wine is then sucked through this earth cake and the sediment that forms the haze is stopped by the cake. The result from the other side of the cake is the same wine but clear and bright.

When the finished wine is tilted in a tasting glass, we can now see the deep colour what is called the core of the wine and the young bright edge or rim around it. This is used to show the quality of the wine, the deeper the core and thinner the edge the better … and the Margaux 2006 has the perfect balance.

Monday 26th ...
For one time only it is a bank holiday in UK but not in France!
The week starts back in cellar for a full tasting of all the barrels. I have not done the rounds since the 12th but the wines have been in the safe hands of our Cellar Master Denis. He has been looking after the cellar and staying contact with me whilst I have been away.

Wednesday 28th ...
Today I pick up Jean-Marc from the airport then we head off towards Saint-Emilion and take the Château Pavie road to stop off at Château Rozier (opposite Château Belfont Belcier) to see Monsieur Saby. The Saby family are old friends of ours. They own 60ha in total with vineyards located in the famous Saint-Emilion areas such as Châteaux Grace Dieu, Figeac, Corbin and at the foot of the limestone hill of Château Fonplégade. We're hoping to get some top quality grapes from them next year!

We arrive back at the Chai at 7pm and I have to check the 2006 Margaux to ensure it is ready for tomorrow's bottling.

Thursday 29th ...
Today we are bottling the Margaux 2006 so I am at the Chai at just before 7a.m. I make sure everything is ok and stay until the bottling gets under way. I then leave the rest of the day in the capable hands of our Cellar Master as Jean-Marc and I have a meeting with Phillipe Bourlon, who's agreed to share his extensive knowledge of local vineyards to help us hunt out some new parcels of wine.

I am rather nervous as we have a lot to visit today and Phillipe does have a slight Frenchness to drive fast. First we go to see his family property Château Guibeau in Puisseguin St.Emilion where we have a quick look and a shake hands with his father Henri. Then suddenly we were off towards Bordeaux (direction lunch) via Ch.Gachon in Montagne, Ch.Haut Pourrett in St.Emilion and then Château Vieux Maillet opposite Château Le Bon Pasteur in Pomerol.

After a relatively quick lunch (1hr 54mins!) in the centre of Bordeaux we head for Château Mancedre in Pessac-Leognan. This is a lovely small property situated next to the world famous Château Fizeul. The wines are just amazing and we quickly make a deal to get this wine into the Chai as soon as possible. This will be our brand new Chai Au Quai release the 'Grand Chai Pessac'.

Last stop for me is the Chai to wrap up the bottling of the Grand Chai Margaux 2006 but it will only be a week until we have the 2007 in cellar. It will be a tough week without any Margaux barrels to care for!

Friday 30th ...
Today is a very important day for us in the cellar as everything (tanks, floor, hoses, pumps) has to be cleaned and put in order after the hectic week and to be ready for Monday morning.

Monday 2nd ...
Today I am in the South of France in the village of Maury home to the GG and XV du Président XV wines and tonight I am meeting up Tony Laithwaite for a bite to eat in the heart of the Maury village.

Tuesday 3rd ...
Up early as I want to visit some new Grenache Gris vineyards I heard about yesterday. After a good look at the vineyards I meet up with Tony and we go to see Monsieur Cazach at the Cave CoOperative of Maury. We have good chat and look round the cellar, tasting and checking all of our 2007 XV du Président tanks.

We then take a trip up to the tiny village of Lesquerde (5mins from Maury) to see some of Elsa Lejeune's vineyards of Domaine Eternel (one to look out for), we taste the wines and then have a good lunch.

Tony continued his travels deeper into the Roussillon but I have to leave for Bordeaux this afternoon as I have a meeting in Bordeaux tomorrow.

Wednesday 4th ...
A whistle-stop tour around Bordeaux to taste more potential Chai wines and see if any growers are prepared to share their grapes.

First visit is to the small Medoc appellation of Listrac which is sandwiched between Margaux to the South and St. Julien to the North. Listrac has an unusually high proportion of Merlot grown and the wines are therefore some of the softest in the whole of the Medoc region.

We visit Château Donissan Veyron a 300 year old Cru Bourgeois family estate. Like Château Margaux it is one of the rare Medoc Châteaux to give its name to the village in which it is situated. Some of its neighbours are Ch.Clarke and Ch. Chasse Spleen. The wines were just phenomenal!

We then made our way up to the far north of the Medoc (the Haut-Medoc) past Pauillac to Château L'Inclassable (that really is its name!) in the village of Priegnac.

Here we are greeted by Remy Fauchey who is the 5th generation owner/winemaker of the Château. We had been invited to lunch but politely declined as last time we accepted we were at lunch for 3 hours. We tasted all his charming wines and after we finished he said even though we had declined lunch he had prepared to what he referred to as 'some nibbles' for us anyway! I would be interested to see what a full meal would be like!

After quick evening stop in St.Emilion and then at the Chai it was time to head home and to sleep off the cheese/ham/bread/pate/salade/coffee/chocolate lunch.

Thursday 5th ...
Today is our very important 2-monthly meeting and tasting. A sample of all our wines from France, Italy, Spain, Moldova etc are sent to the Chai. The entire wine production team fly out to Bordeaux and we taste through everything very carefully to check progress and make further decisions.