Saturday, 17 September 2011

Vendanges thoughts

"Great wine is made in the vineyard" is a pretty established saying but obviously only tells part of the story. I read recently, and rather like, a more embracing sentence that amounted to:-  the vineyard determines the quality while wine making determines the style.

The step that's missed out here is getting those grapes from the vines and into the hutch where the wine making process can assume control. On a per vine perspective the harvest is a short but intensive and critical process. Deciding when to pick is mainly a style decision, unless wet weather influences the pace, otherwise everything about the vendanges focuses on quality.

Here are two extreme and contrasting images.

The top picture has been machine harvested and is destined to be dumped into the receiving pit of a cooperative - a cooperative that hasn't bottled anything for at least six years. It will be tankered off for use in an anonymous blend or even to create industrial alcohol.

Below, cinsault bunches have been hand-harvested by a family with vigneron friends and placed into shallow cagettes. Quality control on selection takes place at the best point - the start of the process. There are no rotten or unripe bunches, no leaves, no stalks, no snails, no grasshoppers.

This is not a dig at mechanical harvesting which has many advantages, not least the ability to pick volume, pick quickly, and in the cool before dawn. Nevertheless, the very best machine results will need a pass through the vineyard in advance to, for example, remove late forming unripe bunches coined «grapillons». On harvest day a labour intensive sorting table will be needed to receive the grapes. Hand and machine both have their place. A fun way to look at it is something like this. A drinking fountain will struggle to put out a fire, hundreds of drinking fountains could, but only with some serious resource and organisation. Think carefully before taking a drink from a fire hydrant.

For finer wines the Languedoc-Roussillon favours both approaches. In most years the grapes will be in fine condition and less selection is needed than in northern climes where the harvest is later. The diversity of grape varieties grown spreads the elapsed time of the harvest to 6 or more week.This aids hand-picking on small holdings where perhaps half a hectare is manageable in a long morning of picking and gives vignerons time to help out neighbours and share expensive modern equipment.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Rosé in a day at Mas Gabriel

The plan, with the timing dictated by grape ripeness tests, was to pick for the rosé at Mas Gabriel over two days immediately after a couple of relatively tame days picking some parcels of red. Forecast rain changed the plan to pick and, this being rosé, also press in just one day. Plenty of pickers ensured a measured pace in the vines - the limiting process being transporting the cagettes (red and grey containers in the photos) to the cave and finding a corner to store them. Part one then was complete by lunchtime.

Every available container is used for storing grapes - Carignan, Cinsault and Grenache - ready for pressing.

The rosé is made the same way as the white. The de-stemmer ejects whole grapes into the empty white container - the only container other than the bath not storing grapes. The whole grapes, along with their separated stems, are then popped into the basket press to be gently pressed with the exuded juice pumped into a cooled cuve to settle overnight. That's it. Problem is there's well over 200 cagettes worth of grapes that, in the end, required three pressing runs.

The basket press in action. Surrounding it with a glass perspex screen (most visible on the top) not only catches skins as they are squeezed out, but also keeps in the carbon dioxide regularly dispensed over proceeding to minimise oxidation. It may look dramatic, but the press is very gentle and very slow. Just to be sure, the juice is tasted frequently towards the end of each pressing for any trace of bitterness.

Juice collects in the white bucket and is pumped away to a cuve through the purple tube.

The basket sits on a trolley so it can be wheeled out of the press mechanism to be topped up with more grapes and eventually emptied.

Despite these precautions, skins can be ejected indiscriminately - in this case on Peter's second shirt of the day. Even the ceiling took a minor hit.

I calculate the skin contact with the juice to be about 90 minutes on average. Long enough to give the wine a seductive colour plus impart a hint of grape tannin.

At the end of each pressing the cage and staves are removed to reveal a "cake" of skins and stalks. It's prised apart and loaded onto the tractor to be returned to vineyard.

The stalks help the release of juice during pressing.

Answers to what's being said on a postcard

Rather like a big party, there's all that washing up and cleaning to be done at the end, and some happy winemakers.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Hérault varietal trends

In my last post I referred to this site Observatoire viticole of the Hérault. Maintained by the Conseil General de l'Hérault it's packed full of data and statistics on all matters relating to the grape in the department. I've been pondering the area planted by vine in 2009 (most recent data) compared with 2004 (oldest data published).

The bare statistics are quite something. 15% of the department is under vines, but as a majority of the terrain is mountainous then where they grow they're dense. If all the vines were in a single square vineyard the sides would be over 30 Kms wide.

From 2004 to 2009 the total surface under vine has declined by more than 13%. In 2004, 99% of the vines consisted of 37 varieties with the remaining 1% is classified as "autres". In just 5 years four varieties have dropped from the list - Servant (blanc), Terret noir, Auban (noir) and Grenache gris.

Back in 2004 Carignan noir was the most widely planted at about 22% of the total, but has declined to barely over 15% - a fall of 40% and accounts for over two thirds of the nett vine loss. While this is alarming, at least 14000 ha (hectares) remain out there - plenty for independent start-ups looking to make something interesting. The other big losers are the reds Aramon, Alicant and, perhaps surprisingly, "king" of the rosé Cinsault loosing more than 30%. Grenache has lost 900 ha or 8%, but at least this is less than the average (13%) loss.

Just picked Grenache vines at Domaine Ribiera Aspiran 23rd August 2011

Just 8 varieties take up nearly 80% of vineyard space - Syrah, Carignan, Merlot, Granache, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault plus two whites Chardonnay and Sauvignon. All big global players except the Carignan of course, but at a time when the world is warming up only three are Mediterranean varieties. Sauvignon has shown the most growth in 5 years of over 37%, Chardonnay expanding some 8% and Syrah a slight increase at just over 1%. The other five are in decline.

Other big winners are Pinot Noir, more than doubling in 5 years but only to a modest 522 ha and driven totally by the premium price for the name - the big case of Pinot Noir fraud in 2010 illustrates this. More aligned to the potential for interest and quality late ripening heat lover Mourvèdre is up 5%. Of the whites, and presumably mirroring the overall increase in white production, is a welcome increase in the Mediterranean varieties Roussanne, Marsanne and Vermentino. Starting from a higher base, Picpoul and Viognier have seen double digit growth with over 350 ha planted between them. Colombard, which didn't appear in the 2004 charts, has stormed in with 383 ha.

These are statistics for part of the biggest vineyard in the world and as such will have little bearing on the fine wines that merit talking about for pleasure. The vast majority of production goes into anonymous blends and big brand names. However, the increase in better known popular varietals, and especially the whites, must be creating a good base for competing in world markets with a more locally identifiable product.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Carignan blanc

My first experience of grape picking was at Mas Gabriel last year. This year I joined in with the white vendange of their two parcels of mainly Carignan blanc. Do see Rosemary George's detailed and informative description with photos of the Mas Gabriel 2010 white harvest. There really isn't anything I can add beyond what happens to the press at the end of each pressing, but I'll save that for a report on the rosé harvest.

Given the quality and popularity of the Clos des Papillons, the Carignan blanc from Mas Gabriel, I am intrigued as to why this variety is virtually unheard of and seemingly rare. After all, red relation Carignan is arguably the defining contributory grape to the identity of the region's red wine. Having picked it for a couple of days I now appreciate that, like the noir, yields need to be low and that even in the best years a labour intensive thorough triage of the bunches is essential for a quality wine. It basically isn't economically viable and can only really exist as a second fiddle for an independent producer.

I came across this site Observatoire viticole of the Hérault maintained by the Conseil General de l'Hérault. Its packed full of data and statistics on all matters relating to the grape in the department. Finding stuff is a bit clunky, much of the content is just documents, the search facility works well at a high level when one gets the hang of it.

In 2009, the most recent data, Carignan blanc is reported to occupy 230 hectares. Maybe this sounds a fair amount, but it represents just 0.25% of the Hérault's surface area under vines. Much of it will end up as the minor component of a blend, but if there's any good news it should all be good quality low yielding old vines. By comparison, in 2004 there were 392 hectares representing 0.36%. At this rate it will be very rare indeed by the end of the decade.