Monday, 26 September 2011

Back to The Midi

It was an absolute scorcher down in the Midi and a very different world to the fresh, misty mornings of Bordeaux! Maitena and I set off early into the warm sunshine heading the back way from Narbonne through the Corbières and into Fitou. This old road brings back many fond memories. It was here, in the small village of Albas way back in 1998, I arrived fresh faced for my first French harvest and fell in love with the Midi. I remember sitting on the banks of the river Berre, fishing, waiting for the harvest to begin; a little different to today!

Fitou is where we find our old-vine Carignan. Rare, old vines give deep, rich colour and flavour with the silkiest of tannins not found on the young Carignan from the plains. We carried on up and over the Corbières and down into the stunning l’Agly valley and to my second home of Maury.

The valley was very busy in its usual harvest chaos and I was just in time to see the first XV du President grapes arrive at the winery. The fruit is quite stunning this year with perfect ripeness in the Grenache. The harvest was coming in thick and fast all morning and by midday we had 8 vats ready for Maitena to add yeast to tonight.

The afternoon was spent with Jean-Charles harvesting the Vent de Folie vineyards. The old vine Grenache vineyard is simply ridiculous; steep, hot and half a mile from the road! I hadn’t quite found my Maury feet and nearly came a cropper sliding down the slate soil but holding the precious crate of Grenache grapes safely with dropping any! When you finally get the grapes to the van its is so satisfying, each tiny 10kg box holding about 10 vines’ worth of grapes, carefully stacked ready for the winery!

Jean-Charles and his wife Celine do an amazing job and to see their grapes fermented in their garage they are overwhelmingly proud. Vivre JC: the best Grenache grower I know of! Is there a grower’s competition we can enter him into?


Wednesday, 21 September 2011

A sticky harvest in Loupiac

Another beautiful morning here at Le Chai with the sun rising behind the harvest-time river mist. A perfect start to another grape-picking day here on the right bank of Bordeaux!

The river mist stays low here in Castillon and St. Emilion, safely away from the vineyards. But today I am heading into Bordeaux sweet-wine country; across the Entre-Deux-Mers to the Garonne River. The viticulture and wines are very different here and vineyards are purposely planted so that they are engulfed by the mist everyday. It is here, in and around Sauternes, where some of the most famous Chateau names can be found making the incredible noble rot sweet white wines from the Sémillon grape.

I am heading a little further up-river to a village called Loupiac which is also making fantastic sweet wines. The reason the mist is important is because it creates a perfect humid environment for the botrytis fungus. This fungus can be disastrous to grapes in other vineyards but here, with the thick-skinned Sémillon, the botrytis lives happily on the berry.

It feeds from the water inside causing the grape to concentrate flavours and sugars while still maintaining the high level of acidity needed to balance the wine and keep it from tasting cloyingly sweet. Although the bunches don’t look that attractive, once pressed, the clear sweet juice is released in perfect condition. The harvest is all done by hand and the selection by the pickers is quite something … and a very sticky affair indeed!

The sweet juice was in the Chai by early evening and the plan is to make a dry botrytis wine: very exciting indeed!

Plenty going on at the Chai today. The Chai team, along with Barbara and Tom Laithwaite, were here to welcome personal wine advisors Anna Leach and Phillip Sidebotham, part of the famous “grape crusaders” who have been riding around all of Laithwaites Wine stores in the name of charity.

Having started in Gloucester on the 7th Sept, travelling 287 miles around the 12 Laithwaites Wine UK shops, the group passed the baton onto Anna & Phil who covered a further 300 miles through France; finishing at Laithwaites 13th wine store here at Le Chai au Quai!

The sponsored charity cycle ride is in support of The Prince’s Trust, a charity Laithwaites works closely with. Laithwaites has high aspirations in raising at least £10,000 for the charity and to continue this support in the future.

The Prince’s Trust helps change the lives of over 40,000 disadvantaged youths who have experienced difficulties in their life by offering life changing opportunities for employment, education and training. Well done! If you’d like to help the crusaders reach their target, you can donate here.

I am now off to the Midi to check on the red harvests in the Roussillon. I will be back on Friday in time to welcome a staff trip to Le Chai and to host our International Grenache Day tasting!


Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Red packs in as we start harvesting the reds

This morning really felt like the start of the Bordeaux harvest as I drove down early to Le Chai. It was still dark and misty; a chill was in the air and a bustle of harvest machines were making their way busily in and out of the vineyards. In town, groups of hand pickers were standing outside of the cafes drinking their coffee and eating croissants, getting ready for the days hard graft.

Henry up at Chateau La Clariere-Laithwaite also started this morning and we were invited to join the first harvest meal cooked brilliantly as always by Olivier’s mum Bernadette.

The winemakers at Le Chai are not the only tired things. ‘Red’ our pump was feeling the strain of the long hours and decided to go on strike … well it is a French pump after all! So I lifted ‘Red’ into the van and took him to ‘Leveque’ in town to get a look over by Dimitri the wine pump doctor. Dimitri was busy in what was like a wine pump hospital, full of old, new and different-sized pumps waiting to be fixed. The waiting area was full of worried owners waiting for the news on their wine pump!

Fortunately ‘Red’ came round after a bit of loving care and is now back at work in Le Chai.

Monday, 19 September 2011

The Last of the Whites!

The La Voûte Chardonnay from Limoux was finally picked on Tuesday night and that ends the white harvest for the Chai! Now we can get busy in the Chai with barrel work and monitor the ferments.

The La Voûte this year is of exceptional quality and so I have decided to do ‘The Pyramid’ ferment! I have built a stack of different size oak barrels starting the foundation with 300 litre hogs heads and toping with the ‘cerise sur le gateau’ a tiny, 55-litre cask known as a ‘quart bordelaise’.

Filling the small barrels was very strange and I felt like a giant … here is JMS looking giant rolling one of the 110 litre ‘demi bordelaise’ barrels!

The ferment differences should be very interesting indeed and I will let you know how the wine progresses.

Monday, 12 September 2011

It's all go in Le Chai!

The last 3 days have been a little manic to say the least. The Chai winemakers have been putting in very long hours to get the fruit off the vine in the South of France, up to the Chai and into barrels and vats for selected fermentations. The Grenache Gris, Chardonnay from Carcassonne, the Viognier, the all new Carignan Blanc and the Sauvignon Gris from Le Coin are now all in and we now have 22 individual fermentations underway and WOW, is the Chai alive!

Bad news in the Midi, though; a freak amount of rain has fallen. The latest vineyard to suffer severely is the Roussanne and unfortunately there will be none this year. However, the high-altitude La Voute vineyards survived the rain well but knocked back the maturity by 5 days. I will leave it on the vine longer and if the weather stays warm and dry we should harvest end of next week.

Midi reds including the 2011 XV du President will start end next week.


Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Harvesting Chardonnay and Viognier

After spending another few worrying nights in Carcassonne, visiting the vineyard who knows how many times, I finally decided to harvest the Chardonnay last night!

Unfortunately there is quite a lot of hidden bunch rot on the lower vineyards and I have made the decision not to make any Chai wine from these vineyards this year. Fortunately however, the fruit from the high, well-drained and wind-aired Cailloux vineyard (always the best performer in wet vintages) is very good indeed. So for the first time we will make a single-vineyard Carcassonne Chardonnay at Le Chai.

The Viognier was next and a very different scene here. The Viognier has loved the wet weather and resisted all threats of bunch rot, resulting in some excellent typical violet aromas!

Meanwhile, back in the Chai the cooling is running 24/7 and the vats are ice cold keeping all the ferments nice and slow to preserve aroma. All the vats are controlled individually by a flick of the switch on the computer board.

Cellar master Denis is also having fun and filling barrels left right and centre in a very acrobatic manner indeed!

It’s coming thick and fast now … Maury for the GG tomorrow!


Tuesday, 6 September 2011

And the winner is ... Vermentino!

A nerve-wracking weekend as rain and hot, humid weather darted about France, becoming increasingly impossible to forecast. However we stuck to our guns through several sleepless nights and the vineyard fortunately survived most of the localised downpours. We hung in there until the Vermentino ripeness felt right for this year.

We picked very quickly in the early hours on Monday morning and now the juice has settled, Maitena will rack off the heavy sediment into the tanker whilst I make my way up to Bordeaux to make the weeks picking and cellar plan with the Chai cellar team.

So the Vermentino is this year’s first Midi juice into the Chai taking the crown from the GG; winner for the three previous years! JMS and I are very pleased with the juice. It IS different to last year but then, so was this year’s weather. And so it is every year. I believe we have managed to capture some exceptional aromas and fruit characters unique to the vintage.

Vintages can be similar but NEVER identical and how amazing it is to taste a wine that represents the last 12 months’ weather and is therefore unique in history!


Friday, 2 September 2011

The Harvest Weather Game

This is a game for up to 1,000,000 players for ages 0-125yrs old

To play you need:

• 1 winemaker (or more to make even more interesting!)
• an almost-ripe vineyard
• very erratic weather
• pair of Blundstone boots
• patience
• a bit of luck

Then the fun begins!

We have been watching the forecast carefully and been up and down every row of each vineyard. But just when we decided to play the risk card and wait another couple of days the wind picked up and in swept the most brutal storm; very heavy rain, hot air and a Med wind!

The whole of the last 48-hours’ vineyard assessment was thrown back into the centre card pile. We were right there and literally watching the storm – quicker than any weather report.

Maitena and I made straight for the most fragile vineyard: the Vermentino, where the storm took its full force over Beziers. The bottom half was flooded so last night we picked all the lower part before the vines could drink up, creating berry-swelling and instant skin split and botrytis (fruit mould).

Play starts again tomorrow with the top half of the vineyard!

Thursday, 1 September 2011

An exciting find in Limoux

Started to rain in Bordeaux when I left but four hours later I was through the gates of the Midi and into the beautiful sunshine. However, West-Midi sunshine also comes with the very strong Tramotane wind!

I met up with Madame F, Maitena and viticulturist Regis to do a tour of the Vin de France-trophy-winning La Voute vineyards to see what the maturity is like. Limoux is a fascinating wine-growing area and the La Voute vineyards are in what's called the Oceanique terroir.

The Oceanique terroir to the west of Limoux is completely protected from the Med sea and is one of the four terroirs each with their own micro climate. Here the grapes are fresher and hold higher acid … great for balance and longevity. The extreme corner of the Oceanique borders the highest of the four terroirs – the Haut Valee – and I couldn't resist having a look. WOW, one parcel was so stunning I just have to have it as it will be a perfect component to go with the existing vineyards in the final blend!

The Midi is still waiting to be discovered and even when you think you have seen everything the smallest of areas still excite and surprise and I am very excited. THIS is certainly something, so look out for the 2011 La Voute blend next year!

Windy it was in Limoux but another wind was blowing into Bordeaux in the form of the whirlwind of our chief winemaker JMS! Back on the road again to meet him in Bordeaux at lunch time to tell him the news of my discovery!