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.