In a reverse of all those school essays, what did I do when I was at work?
Clearly my late arrival meant that the bulk of the grapes in the main vineyards had been picked delivering quantity and quality. Coincidentally, and I’m sticking to that rather than me being a jinx, rain arrived the day after me and so the grapes whilst still good needed more care in sorting which is fine by me as that is probably my forte. Years of being here now and learning from experts like Jeff (and Carole in the early years) mean that I can recognise issues from looking at a bunch of grapes, smelling them and touching them. Something like powdery mildew or oidium are fairly obvious, the grey dusting and discolouring of the grapes are clear signs. Rot, through dampness, disease or the grape worms, vers de la grappe, need a little more finding. Often a bunch can look very healthy on the outside, good sized, juicy grapes. In 99+% of cases that is the situation but occasionally those grapes disguise what is going on in the middle of the bunch.
I usually find the problem by getting hold of the bunch and feeling for the squishiness which tells me of problems. A quick sniff can then confirm that I need to cut open the bunch and root out any rot or worm damage. The tell-tale odours can be vinegary or a dry, dustiness. Careful snipping with the secateurs removes the affected grapes and leaves the healthy ones to go into the wine. Inevitably there will be some bad grapes that escape our attention but, hand on heart, not many and not enough to affect quality by the time that fermentation has completed its work. It’s a question of keeping out foliage, insects, snails as well as those bad grapes so that the overwhelmingly healthy grapes can do their magic with the yeasts they carry and the those in the cellar.
On September 6th I spent the morning working in the cellar as we sorted even more carefully. The Clairette and Macccabeu were heading into an amphora and Jeff wants even the tiniest bits of stalk removed. The grapes are sent through the destemmer and the grapes then examined closely for any remaining stalks, as we can see Marco doing in this photograph. The crates are then sorted again, the third such tri, as we can see myself and Tony doing (on the right photographed by Flora).
Jeff reminded me as were sorting some grapes that when I started there were usually only two or three of us receiving the grapes at the cellar and processing them into the tanks. These days we have more hands to help, somehow the work doesn’t seem any easier despite new machinery to help too.
Whilst the amphora was being prepared with Clairette and Maccabeu more grapes were arriving to go into press. The terrasse from Peilhan, planted back in 2015 is now producing very good grapes from the mix of old varieties such as Morrastel, Piquepoul Noir, Riveyrenc Noir. These grapes will go to help make the cuvée Couleurs Réunies whilst the white grapes from the terrasse such as Piquepoul Gris, Riveyrenc Gris and Piquepoul Blanc will head to another amophora, Jeff having invested in more of these vessels to ferment wine.
The amphora was filled with the Riveyrenc Gris first and then white grapes added on top (above)
Elsewhere in the cellar the grapes from the previous two weeks are well on the way with fermentation and some need pressing or remontage to pump the juice in the bottom of the tank over the top of the thick layer of grape skins which floats on top. This prevents the skins and must from drying out and risking the health of the wine. So, we were in teams throughout the day with Matteo, now two years in Puimisson working with Jeff, leading much of that cellar work.
I have described before the 3D puzzle which Jeff must maintain in his head. He has new grapes arriving and has to put them in a tank. Previous grapes get moved from tank to tank for fermentation, after fermentation, for pressing etc. He has to be aware always of that moving pattern of over 20 different tanks, amphorae, concrete eggs and barrels at this stage of the vendanges whilst working out what they all need next as well. Add in supervising teams of pickers, cellar workers and others and there is no wonder he is stressed at this time of year. I don’t envy him.
The pickers had moved to Segrairals by the afternoon at the opposite end of the village and to the large section of Mourvedre. Now, I have a love hate relationship with Mourvedre, it can be great or it can be awful both as a wine (it often seems to get too animal if not made right) and as grapes. The parcel runs from higher land to lower and the weekend’s rain meant that the vines had wet feet. And Mourvedre is not good in the damp. Therefore, there was some careful sorting to do, the grapes at the top end of the parcel would be much better than those at the bottom and we were sorting the latter that afternoon. Nonetheless there was plenty of good fruit in cuve by the end of the day and it was such a vibrant colour too as you can see on the elevator which takes the sorted grapes to the tank.
That was my first day back. So much going on, a team of hard workers giving their all to ensure that the lovely grapes of 2022 are going to make even better wines. I hope that it has given you a picture of the complexity of what was going on in the cellars by this stage. Next time, a simpler look at some of the unusual varieties of grapes which make Jeff Coutelou fairly unique as a winemaker and conservator of nature.