Wednesday, 22 September 2010

The Chai negociant business is in full swing

The first wine to be bottled from JMS’ eagle eye and quick selection (backed up by myself being ‘on the ground’ to make sure all is well at the winery) is a little 2009 Bordeaux gem from Chateau Bellevue Favereau in the village of Pellegrue in the Entre-Deux-Mers.

This wine will soon be in the UK and on the Laithwaites wine list, so for all those Bordeaux fans out there keep an eye out for this little beauty.

Apart from the pressure of the ever closer harvest here in Bordeaux, the other most important news is that the cold mornings have meant Le Voyageur restaurant have served the first homemade soup starter since last winter!

Madame Mimi’s homemade soup is also the catalyst for the first ‘Chabrot’. Petit Denis patiently talked virgin Chabrot taster James from New Zealand through the process rather like an air hostess doing the safety talk before the flight begins!

Chabrot is a traditional Dordogne ritual when you leave the last of your soup broth in the bowl, place your spoon upside down in the liquid and pour in red wine – diluting the soup but NEVER covering the spoon – then slurp away!

As you can see from the photos, Henry demonstrates and executes the very difficult but obviously satisfying act of ‘Chabrot’ perfectly!

The grape harvest is such a wonderful thing and every year it brings together the permanent Chai winery staff and the ‘flying’ winemakers into a close family as we are together morning, midi and night. This also brings the usual running cellar jokes, sayings and favourite songs.

At the moment the current trend is the “Petit Denis Says” stories. Petit Denis always has a story or fact on the tip of his tongue and I would like to include a small “Petit Denis Says” quote in the blog throughout harvest, so here are two Petit Denis classics to get the ball rolling:

No 1 “Petit Denis Says”:
He knows the best driver of a machine grape harvester in Bordeaux and apparently he is such a good driver because he was also the personal driver for The Queen of England for 10 years………..

No 2 “Petit Denis says”:
The root of the word ‘Chabrot’ comes from the Latin word capreolus meaning ‘to drink like a goat!’

Meanwhile back in the cellar and after a bit of in depth research I am doing something all books tell you not to do, exactly what the Chai is for!

Firstly I am purposely oxidising a small part of the Chardonnay juice until it turns tea brown called ‘hyper oxidation’ followed by adding two different yeast strains. If the theory works it will be one hell of a wine, fingers crossed!

2010 XV du President begins harvest tomorrow so it’s another trip down to Maury.

Tasted some great English ale over the weekend too – Will Laithwaite’s very tasty Abingdon Bridge kindly brought by Henry in the car from the UK.


Monday, 20 September 2010

After a busy day in the cellar and just before I thought it couldn’t get crazier, JMS took me to IKEA to help him get furniture for our Chai office

It was honestly like accompanying a tornado as I watched him ripping through the store, grilling the useless staff for lack of information. More tiring than the cellar! Anyway afterwards we ate calmly at the superb Chiopot and tasted a fantastically youthful 2001 Fleur Cardinal St Emilion Grand Cru.

Back in the cellar early this morning and with ferments checked JMS, James and I headed for Sauveterre in the Entre-Deux-Mers to taste the first juice from last night’s harvest.

From here I went on to the Midi stopping in Carcassonne to check the Chardonnay vineyards. After a good walk up and down the rows tasting and assessing the berries, I give the go head to harvest tonight. The grapes on the edge and I think this is as far as a can push them before the predicted rain turns the vineyard into a disaster!

After a bite to eat at our winemaker base just outside of Carcassonne (which was some pan fried duck breast accompanied beautifully with a glass of 2007 Gevrey Chambertin from Marc Rougeot-Dupin) we were back to the winery for the arrival of the first Chardonnay grapes.

Soon enough the presses were full the juice was being carefully pumped through the cooling pipes and within minutes, the juice was in a vat at 3 degrees to settle out the largest of the sediment.

After a few hours sleep we started the Viognier harvesting by machine. Harvesting by machine nowadays is very efficient as it is very quick, can be done at night or in the cool hours of the morning, takes berries only and most importantly is always on time! With dark clouds looming and laden with the forecasted rain, we harvest the last row just in the nick of time as the drops started to fall.

My good Aussie friend and head winemaker Richard Osbourne was in good form this morning considering his company car got stolen last month when he nipped into a boulangerie to get a baguette!

Pierre Degroot, the owner of Lalande, wasn't so impressed but did give him a new car. But the hilarious thing is it has a big photo of Pierre on the side! Richard though with typical Aussie humour says "I'm sure he's punishing me by making me drive round in this bloody car mate!" Richard showed me some of the Chasselas he was going to harvest tonight. It’s a really hard grape to use for wine but is a great blending component.

No time to waste and I am off straight to Beziers to check the settling of the Marsanne and Vermentino whilst the Viognier and Chardonnay settle out in Carcassonne which I’ll be checking later this evening.

From Bezier we followed the Mediterranean Sea towards Catalonia and into Perpignan just in time for the lunch menu at the Double YY (always time for lunch!) and to see my friend Benoit who runs the place. He knows his Roussillon wine inside out and always something interesting up his sleeve and let us taste. This time it was a very interesting Grenache Gris/Carignan Gris from Domaine Clot de l'Oum.

Lunch over and we are soon in the heart of the Roussillon meeting up with Vent de Folie vineyard owner Jean-Charles Duran. We all climbed into his 4x4 and motored off into old vine territory. The slate soil and old vines produce next to nothing and the knarled vines are bent to the ground from the Tramontane wind.

The old vine Grenache grapes are awesome and we predict next Wednesday for the harvest. I told Maïtena our flying Spanish winemaker that this place was insane but it is only now she is actually here that she really believes me!

Not finished yet and as promised it's back to Carcassonne and the juice from last night and early morning has settled beautifully ready for tomorrow's loading and trip up to the Chai. The separation of the sediment and the clear juice can be seen clearly through the sight glass on the side of the vat.

Back late and a lovely glass of Pic St Loup and some fresh tuna steaks picked up on the Med coast this afternoon was a great way to finish off a very satisfying day. All that's left is to get all the hard work safely back to the Chai tomorrow!

Meanwhile even my mum and dad are getting a good crop in Dorset! We will have a taste off at Xmas!


Tuesday, 14 September 2010

The typical autumn mist and fresh mornings have started here in Bordeaux

The mist was effortlessly rising off the warm river this morning and it was very strange but nice to enter the Chai and taste first the southern warmth of the 2010 Grenache Gris juice here on the banks of the Dordogne!

Inside the cellar the ferments are all underway and the air is full of an array of aromas from the different yeasts going about their business, transforming the juice into wine. The Chai is very busy and James and Denis are up and down ladders, on the catwalk that links the vat chimneys together and preparing barrels for the next batch of juice to arrive.

Every morning at 7am and every evening at 7pm all the vats and barrels are tasted by James and me whilst Petit Denis takes a sample to check the sugar level and temperature.

The sugars are monitored by using a hydrometer which is an instrument used to measure the Specific Gravity (SG) of the density of sugar in the juice. Pure water is defined as having a SG of one so, for example, a liquid with a density twice that of water has a SG of two.

The hydrometer is made of glass with a lead shot in the bulb end to weigh it down. It’s gently lowered into a tall measuring cylinder of grape juice until it floats freely. A paper scale inside the stem allows the SG be read directly and the point at which the surface of the liquid touches the stem of the hydrometer is noted in the fermentation book.

The aim is to ensure that the sugar is falling and at a consistently slow rate with good temperatures to allow yeast survival but to keep aromas preserved. Therefore looking at the SG daily the sugar can be easily seen to be dropping normally, too slow or too fast.

This is a quick and useful tool which allows the winemaker to act quickly and decide the best form of action to help the fermentation. However not all problems can be spotted with the SG and further to this, each individual fermentation is tasted and smelt so that any vats or barrels that may be struggling and showing yeast stress in other ways can also be helped.

I have also been up and down like a yo-yo from the Midi to Bordeaux and I now have precise harvest dates for this week. In Beziers the Vermintino will be cut tonight and the Marsanne on Wednesday evening, in Carcassonne the ‘Caillou’ Chardonnay Vineyard will be picked early Thursday morning followed by the Viognier. The La Voute Limoux Chardonnay should be sometime Friday but I will make a decision for the exact time of harvest on Friday morning.

With this news now in Petit Denis has been frantically swelling up the new barrels so the wood staves tighten up to avoid leaks and they are all now gleaming in place on the OxO barrels racks. Great work Denis!

Meanwhile the reds grapes are having what winemakers call ‘hang time’ in the vineyard. Hang time is a game of risk when the best winemakers begin to play against the elements and try to let the fruit hang on the vine as long as possible for that extra special maturity. The more you play the better you get!


Friday, 10 September 2010

The GG calls!

Maïtena, my eyes in the Midi, gave me a call late last night to say the GG or Grenache Gris will be harvested first thing this morning, so I was up at the crack of dawn to get to the Maury for the first vineyard. I arrived in good time and the first boxes of delicate GG grapes were arriving and being carefully unloaded on to the sorting table before making their way up the conveyor and into the press.

The elusive cellar master extraordinaire Benjamin at the Cave Maury who is always dashing around doing about 15 jobs at the same time stopped to help Maïtena and I load the tanker down below thorough the top window of the cellar by gravity!

The elusive cellar master extraordinaire Benjamin at the Cave Maury who is always dashing around doing about 15 jobs at the same time stopped to help Maïtena and I load the tanker down below thorough the top window of the cellar by gravity!

Many people do not realise that although the GG is one wine, it is made up of very differently made GG’s. Some juice is free run to be fermented crisp and cold for aroma, another batch has been mixed with skins for 6 hours and is as orange as Fanta to help tropical flavours, a third lot is lightly pressed to extract subtle tannin which will help integrate with the oak barrels. Now Petit Denis had all the fermentation, he can allocate the different batches into different vats until I get back to the Chai this evening.

We then made our way to Beziers to firstly see a new Roussanne vineyard that I managed to find. The grapes are in wonderful condition but lack a bit of acidity, but I am going to balance this with a touch of Marsanne from a neighbouring vineyard.

The Vermentino vineyard was also in great shape and the delicate lemony and herbal flavours are beginning to show. Just need to get the bunches on the inside of the leaf canopy a bit riper and I believe in 7-9 days we will harvest.

At Domaine Coussergues, the Champ d’Etoile Pinot Noir harvested earlier in the week was already safely of skins and finishing ferment without the worry over anymore tannin extraction that may leave the wine with hard to get rid of drying finish.

A quick stop off in the Minervois to check the reds which are still a couple of weeks away rounded off a good day’s tour and I sped back to Bordeaux leaving Maïtena to oversee the progress in the Midi.


Monday, 6 September 2010

Flying Winemakers Arrive!

Today I find myself at Bordeaux airport in the rather makeshift new Bordeaux Billie terminal waiting for the two flying winemakers who will be helping me through harvest.

First to arrive from Madrid was Maïtena Barrero, daughter of winemaker Tony Barrero the man behind El Bombero and other great wines. Next through customs all the way from New Zealand was James Macdonald – also from a star winemaking family, Hunter Wines in Marlborough.

With Maïtena’s good experience making wines in a hot climate, I will be sending her to be based in the Midi to keep an eye on lazy grape growers and cellarhands when my back is turned! James on the other hand will be based here in Bordeaux at the Chai and his expertise from the North Island in NZ means he will be assigned to the Sauvignon Blanc, along with helping out Petit Denis and myself in the hub of the Chai winemaking.

Once back at the Chai we started the day with a briefing of all the wines and volumes we were to be making this year and who would be responsible for what. This was followed by a huge range tasting of all the wines JMS and I made from last year so that everyone had an idea of the style of wines which will prove vital to choosing the harvest dates.

The large range at the Chai is not a common sight for winemakers and a slightly concerned look had started to set in. However once I assured everyone that I would be on hand to oversee and that I was not going to leave in the middle of nowhere the faces turned back to normal!

Once the tasting had finished and everyone was clear in their minds we headed out into the vineyards and wineries of the Entre-Deux-Mers to show James the Sauvignon Blanc and introduced him to what will be his new working comrades over the next 2½ months. JMS led the way by pointing, talking fast and giving inside advice – well it is his 18th harvest here so he knows the place rather well!

On return to Castillon and the obligatory introduction to French cuisine at none other than Le Voyageurs, Petit Denis was over the moon and the new winemakers received the apparently Dordogne custom gift of a Opinal pen knife. But for good luck to be exchanged, the winemakers had to hand back a small copper coin – well that’s what Petit Denis says anyway!

In the evening the Chai and Libby hosted magnificently once more, yet another fantastic wedding reception for 100 people! We were entertained by accordionist Cristian Gourault whilst the guests sipped on Laithwaite Champagne and moved freely amongst the barrels inside cellar and outside to the quay.

The outbounder team on their two week stint at the Chai were also on hand to serve up a range of Chai wines including Baron du Roussanne, VO, La Voute, Font del Bosc, Grand Chai Paullac.


Thursday, 2 September 2010

Weird Grapes!

I made way back towards Bordeaux from my Midi tour and after a tip off from Tony, I took a right turn at Toulouse towards Albi to stop off in the forgotten wine region of Gaillac.

Tony knows the area well and had been here in the early days. His talk of the weird and unheard grape varieties of this extra terrestrial wine appellation made me eager to see them for myself. After about 30 minutes I turned off into Gaillac and headed for the first tip to the cave co-operative.

It looked fairly standard as I entered the shop and service was normal (i.e. non existing!). There were lots of bottles, all with different labels and styles; as far as I could make out there was ‘Perle’ a slightly sparkling dry white, ‘Doux’ a sweet wine, dry whites, vin jaune style, rosé, fruity reds, serious looking big reds, two types of sparkling a ‘methode deuxièime fermentation AOC’ and a ‘methode Gaillaçoise AOC’ ... and even a vodka – what don’t they do?!

Then on closer inspection I started to see the grape varieties listed that I have only recently heard about, such as the Loin de l’œil or Len de l’El, Mauzac, Mauzac Rosé, d’Ondenc, Duras, the big tannic Braucol (locally known as Fer Servadou) and I am sure there are more!

Finally I saw life behind the glass separation and a very jolly, passionate and friendly man called Alain Gayrel came to explain a few things about this crazy area. I soon learnt that the co-operative was no more and that he had purchased the whole lot, winery and 600ha.

Alain is a 5th generation winemaker from the region and had a family domaine up in the limestone hills of Gaillac. Before I could say ‘Fer Servadou’ I was in his 4x4 and whisked away to try some of the varieties pure straight from barrel!

Once in the air conditioned barrel room the information was coming thick from both himself and his son on the winemaking and terroir of the appellation. I was pointing left, right and centre at barrels with weird grape names so much I never even took a photo! I finally managed to get Alain to take me back to my car as I was now 4 hours late for tonight’s welcome barbeque for the two flying winemakers arriving to help for the harvest.

Driving back up to Bordeaux I couldn’t believe that for one of the oldest wine regions of France – producing wine long before Bordeaux – Gaillac brings an extraordinary breath of fresh air. Now to get some for the Chai!