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.