For me, wine is a masterpiece. Each bottle conceals a story and events as well as an immense work put into its production altogether with a wide range of emotions that accompany every stage of this divine creation. All you have to do is take a sip, close your eyes and listen to the story it reveals…
I join boys, right on time for breakfast. I get a cup of espresso and what they call ‘well toasted’ piece of bread. Under normal circumstances, I would call it ‘burnt’ piece of bread, however, I am too excited with what is about to happen and I eat it with a smile on my face.
Our team gets in the car and we head towards the winery. We give a glimpse at the vineyards when passing them by in the car. The weather in Bordeaux has been good this year and not only there are many grapes on the vines, but also their quality is very promising; the wines from this vintage should be amazing. The gentlemen exchange information regarding the state of grapes in other regions in France and the picking schedules; in many of them the harvest began as early as the second half of August!
We enter the winery and head to the office. I’ve never been inside so early! My companions gather around the big stainless steel table and review the schedule for today. M. hands each of them a piece of paper with their personal ‘to-do-list’ (I have my own one as well!) and literally 2 seconds later G. and J. disappear into the darkness of the winery. M. turns on the computer and digs in the pile of papers on his desk.
My inside voice tells me to wisely use those upcoming couple of minutes in order to relax, as I may not have that possibility later in the day. I smile to myself. I take out my DSLR camera and take a few photos of the office, playing with the frames, focus and different lenses. However, zooming in the paper with my tasks brings me back to reality. Suddenly my Nikon loses the attention it usually gets as I realize I have no idea what those abbreviations mean: LV14, GMI, GV9, RS and C15, BQS and PM12. I become even more excited to what this magical day is going to reveal to me.
The atmosphere in the winery feels a little tense. In about thirty minutes the truck with Chardonnay juice is going to be here and there are still barrels left to wash that are blocking the space between the entrance and the tanks.
The juice that’s about to arrive comes from grapes picked in Beziers (Languedoc). M. has been there recently in order to make the decision about when it is best to start the harvest so that the juice is the best quality possible. His assistant who lives in Languedoc, Monsieur N., is M.’s eyes and ears, when M. cannot be physically present there.
N. is responsible for controlling the remaining processes, in both vineyards and winery. Therefore he manages the picking, pressing, loading the juice and organizing the transport to Bordeaux altogether with taking care of the documentation that is a so-called nightmare for the winemakers during the harvest; as there is simply no time to think about paperwork when your hands are deeply involved with the grapes.
The harvest in Languedoc-Roussillon has been going on for several days, which is much earlier than usual. In general, the last days were cooler and wetter, therefore in many vineyards the grapes are harvested to prevent them from the gray mold.
Beeping. A high-pitched tone comes from the outside. Two short beeps followed by another, longer one.
I go out to check if that’s our guy with the juice. The elderly man, who speaks French with a difficult to understand southern accent, apologizes for being late.
‘Attendez une minute, s’il vous plait’, I answer, ‘Je vais chercher le winemaker’.
Few more minutes goes by. Here I am, witnessing the juice being pumped freely from the truck into the stainless steel tanks at the back of the winery. The entire ‘uplifting’ of 24 000 litres (6 340 US gallons) of Chardonnay should last no more than 90 minutes. However, this does not mean that we have time to rest – quite the opposite actually!
In the meantime, G. and J. wash the remaining oak barrels. Since several weeks these barrels, one after another, has been emptied and washed carefully so that they are ready to be filled with the white wine from the current vintage.
The barrels are washed under pressure. Firstly in hot water and then in the cold one; each shower lasts two to three minutes. Because of the heat (the hot water is usually around 80 degrees Celsius / 176 degrees Fahrenheit) the pores in the wood open, which helps to clean it properly. The cold water shower causes a temperature shock and the pores in the wood close. Then the barrels are put upside down in order to dry naturally; usually the drying takes about five hours. The quantity of the barrels washed per day varies. The Bordeaux oak barrels capacity is 225 liters (60 US gallons). Typical length 95 centimeters (37.4 inches) with the head diameter 56 centimeters (22 inches) and the common wood thickness about 27 millimeters (2 inches).
I did a short analysis. Washing one barrel takes about five to six minutes. Drying it takes about five hours. If we add all the other processes that are part of barrel preparation in order to be filled with wine, the time stretches up to eight hours per barrel. Therefore for 24 000 liters of juice (6 340 US gallons) we need more than 100 barrels. Hundred barrels times eight hours.. wow! And that’s wine from just one tank we’re talking about! In total they need to prepare more than 900 barrels, all of which will be filled with wine in just a few upcoming weeks…
M. goes to a meeting and then to the store in Pomerol in order to pick up the yeasts he ordered last week. I stay in the winery and watch the boys during their work: cleaning barrels, cleaning and preparing tanks, checking fermentation temperature in the juice, sampling wine from barrels as well as from the tanks. Time seems to stand still; on the other hand, however, the same time seems to slipping through the fingers. I’m somewhere in between; suspended in time and space. It feels good.
I don’t want to miss anything, although I have the impression that the same things are happening over and over again…
“The preparation for the harvest is mainly a matter of the organization of the equipment, as well as the planning and space management in the winery” M. told me a few days ago “you need to make sure the equipment is functioning properly, clean and in the right place. If you have a few or a dozen barrels, it’s not a problem to organize the work; but we have almost a thousand of them and only two people to work in a limited space, so preparations take a long time and need to be thought through on every stage of wine production throughout the year.”
Beeping. Two short beeps followed by a longer one. Déjà-vu?
We do not expect another truck today; therefore I go out to check what’s going on. Sometimes truck drivers simply get lost and need help. This time, however, it’s not the case. It’s a truck full of new oak barrels that supposed to be delivered tomorrow. However, as this company had too many deliveries scheduled for tomorrow, they decided to deliver them one day earlier. Great news, M. will be pleased… just… we do not have space in the winery for forty new barrels at the moment.
I cannot find J. anywhere in the winery and G. is about five meters (two hundred inches) up in the air pumping the wine out of the barrel from the top racks, shouting: “Ela, could you please take care of it; I will join you as soon as I’m done here”.
Yeah, no problem, I can take 40 oak barrels out of the truck; I’ve been working out a lot lately, so my biceps are used to lifting weights…
I think G. has some kind of mind reading abilities, as he laughed and added: “no worries, he will not let you carry those barrels. You’re lucky you’re a girl, just smile or flip back your hair”. I love this guy’s sense of humor.
The driver unloads the barrels from the truck and puts them in front of the entrance, in a place where juice was pumped out this morning. The scent of a new oak fills my senses. It is so intense, that it overpowers all the other aromas in this enormous space; I am sure it will hang in the winery for a long time.
Each barrel differs as they serve for making wine from specific grape varieties in order to create desired style of wine. The wood comes from various forests in France, each barrel has been toasted with particular intensity, and each of them has a different thickness of the wood. Moreover, each barrel costs about 750 Euros!
M. returns from the meeting; he also bought yeasts on its way back to the winery. Harvested grapes have their own natural yeast, however, the specific yeast is added in the winery, as it allows the winemaker to control the fermentation and create a unique style of wine. The yeast will be added to the juice in the tanks so that fermentation begins. Each pack is intended for a specific wine, because of its unique properties. The yeast that enhances the aromas is best for wines that need their bouquet to be very aromatic (in our case it is Viognier). Chardonnay likes the yeasts that strengthen its tropical notes, while Sauvignon Blanc needs the yeasts that are friendly to the high acidity of its grapes.
One of the most important tasks during the fermentation is regular (about every four hours) control of the temperature. As the temperature in the upper part of the tank is much higher than in its lower part, the thermometers measure the temperature in the middle of it, as this gives the picture of the average temperature in the tank. When the wine is already in the barrel, the temperature is checked manually.
The winemaker controls the temperature in the fermenting juice. Usually for white wines it varies between 13 and 15 degrees Celsius (55-59 degrees Fahrenheit) , but the decision to turn on the cooling (or not) is made during the wine tasting, while taking into account the grape variety and the style of wine that the winemaker wants to achieve. I found out something interesting that I actually didn’t know- Chardonnay can ferment at a temperature about two to three degrees higher than Sauvignon Blanc or Sauvignon Gris (5-10 degrees for the Fahrenheit scale).
Lunch-time! It feels like end of the day and this is just the lunch break. Fortunately in France the typical déjeuner lasts two hours. I should get my strengths back before 2pm.
We turn one of the desks in the office into our dining table. Food… I didn’t realize how hungry I was! There is a green salad, champignons (mushrooms), fresh veggies: tomatoes, cucumber, red paprika and white radish (bleh!). J. comes back from the nearby bakery and the scent of fresh and still warm French baguettes fills up the office. We also have dark bread with nuts and the black fig & orange confiture I made earlier this summer. As gentlemen are not vegetarians (well… no one is perfect, right?) at the very opposite side of the table they put a can with mackerel, a pâté (homemade by the grandfather of our colleague) and three types of ham.
Moreover, on a large cheese plate that is right in front of me I recognize: heart shaped Neufchâtel, old comté with lovely crystals, silky textured Saint Nectaire with its typical nutty flavours, black-layered Morbier, Brie de Coulommiers (ancestor of all Brie cheeses!) and Pouligny-Saint-Pierre, a goat cheese nicknamed Pyramid or Eiffel Tower because of its cone shape. There’s a space for the macaroons on the table; those delicate famous French cream cookies are cooling down in the fridge. M. passes me a glass of well chilled white wine (Sancerre) and puts an open bottle of Saint Estephe on the table. There is no lunch without wine in France. Bon Appétit!
Unexpectedly, M. gets up from the table and smiles to me “it’s time”.
Time? Ah, macaroons, of course! (Imagine my eyes turning into hearts).
However, M. says “see you later” to the guys, and “Let’s go” to me. My head starts pounding. My heart stops beating.
What? Wait.. He said it’s time.. Time for what? It can’t be the end of the break!? But what does it mean? After all, there’s still one hour left!
Million thoughts, yet I say nothing. I take my camera and put the sun glasses on. I need to hurry up, as I can hear him closing the door of the car outside the winery.
I already know that for the all afternoon I will be day dreaming about eating those delicious macaroons…
We head toward the vineyards to check the ripeness of the grapes and take samples. M. doesn’t do that by himself anymore, however, today he wants me to learn a practical side of sampling the vineyards.
First vineyard. Merlot and Cabernet Franc. We go for a ‘walk’ between the rows of vines. M. explains that we need the samples in order to do the analysis. We pick one bunch of grapes at the beginning of the row, in the middle and at the end of it, each time harvesting a few grapes. We do the same every about 5-10 rows in the whole vineyard. When picking up the grapes, we also taste them and check the ripeness of the stems, the pips and the intensity of the color of the skin.
After about 20 minutes we head toward another vineyard and follow the same steps. This way we visit all the vineyards in order to collect the samples. Despite spiders and other non identified insects that are all over me, I enjoy this journey a lot.
We return to the winery to find out there has been no electricity for the last hour or so. Therefore the work is on pause. Guys run around nervously, so I decide to sit in the corner not to disturb. We will have to stay after hours in order to finish.
There are a few more barrels left for cleaning and the wine needs to be pumped out of about 10 more barrels, but without electricity it cannot be done. G. and J. start to build ‘a pyramid’ from barrels, as it doesn’t require the electricity. This way there will be more space in the winery soon.
The electricity is back! Guys try to catch up with the work as they are about two hours behind the schedule. M. leaves for another meeting. I am the only one who seems to do nothing useful at this moment; therefore I take the samples that M. and myself harvested, and head towards the corner of the room in order to prepare the analysis. I know how to use this device, as I have done it before.
First of the small bags with grapes from the first vineyard. I squeeze the grape as I need just a tiny piece of the must. Enter. A few moments of waiting. Enter. I place the printed results on the table. The Foss device measures the key parameters, which differs depending whether it is a grape must (among others, it will show: pH, volatile acid, TA to pH, density, Gluconic, Malic and Tartaric acids, nitrogen) or a finished wine (the values for: glucose and fructose, pH, TA to pH, density, ethanol, and acids: Malic, Volatile, Lactic).
The analyses for the grapes are ready. I prepare the samples of wines from the tanks and barrels. This way all the analysis will be done before M. comes back. It’ll safe time. When sampling the wine from the tanks I notice J. playing with yeasts. He prepares the yeast for the Chardonnay juice so that the fermentation starts in few hours. The whole left part of the winery smells of yeast so intensely that after a couple of minutes I run back to my little laboratory. Here all I can smell is red wine.
M. comes back from the meeting with a big smile on his face. Both the Sauvignon Blanc juice and grapes from Bordeaux are in a very good condition. However, because of the heavy rains, the grapes are being picked in order to avoid the development of the gray mold. The first delivery is scheduled for tomorrow at 7am and the second one in the early afternoon.
“This is getting complicated” M. says “The weather changes rapidly and we get the juice a few days earlier than planned … in this situation every hour counts! It doesn’t matter whether we carefully plan the whole process – everything flips around with the weather. Now you see what every winemaker goes through during the harvest “. I smile and go back to my analysis.
‘You’ve done it all! You saved an hour or so for all of us! Great job!’ – I’m really proud of myself and happy to be able to contribute. The analyses are ready and accurately described, now lying side by side on a long stone table.
M. explains what the individual values in the analysis are about. He also draws the shape of one of the vineyards we visited earlier today, dividing it into three parts. This drawing and the analysis in front of my eyes allow me to fully understand the ripeness of the grapes in this particular vineyard as well as it becomes clear why they will not be picked altogether.
M. catches up with documents as well as prepares a plan for tomorrow. I sit on the short wall surrounded by the barrels and start writing down the memories while they are still fresh in my head.
G. and J. finish their final tasks in the winery. They also need to clean and put away the equipment they used during the day. Hygiene in the winery is extremely important!
It’s after 7pm and it’s the perfect time for … tasting wine!
We use the samples that G. took this morning as well as those that I collected for the analyses. We taste and discuss each of them. Then we walk to the winery with red wines and taste the Cabernet Franc and Merlot from the tank and the barrels; this blend will be bottled tomorrow. Although I feel exhausted, I really enjoy the tasting.
The lights go out and the winery becomes very quiet. G. closes the massive door of this beautiful over 150-year-old building. The day is over. Well, almost over, as we head to M. for dinner.
Cheers! We raise a glass of Grenache. The sun is slowly setting down; it’s still bright. We are surrounded by vineyards and they look stunning when kissed by the last rays of sun. I can smell the smoke from the barbeque. The black cat sleeps on the barrel. Life is good.
The table is set; it is a piece of wood placed on a few barrels and it looks great. I prepare one of my favourites – the freshly picked zucchini flowers with ricotta, as well as the leftovers from lunch. And the macaroons as J. and G. didn’t eat them earlier, so that we can share them together in the evening. There is plenty of food for everyone.
A few glasses of wine and a pack of macaroons later it’s time to say goodbye.
It was an intense day, especially for boys. I will let myself sleep an hour or two longer tomorrow, but they need to be in the winery as early as 6am because the first truck with juice comes at 7am. Moreover, as fermentation goes on, someone needs to go at night and check the temperature in the tanks with fermenting juice. This time it will be J., as every night someone else has a ‘night shift’.
I look around and feel grateful for everything that I am blessed with. Those people, that I am proud to call my friends, will always be part of my life, no matter the physical distance and other circumstances that may come between us in the future. I’ve known them almost five years and I have learned so much from them so far. I know how blessed I am.
It’s astonishing how much work, attention and effort needs to be put into wine production every single day; this is something we don’t think about while having that glass of wine on Friday night … maybe now is the right time to change it?
Winemaking is complicated; it is the winemaker who is responsible for the final wine. His experience, skills and talent combined with the terroir and grapes create miracles that many of us enjoy in the glass. Wine is a result of a hard work, human work, and it should get all the respect it deserves.
For me, wine is a masterpiece. Each bottle conceals a story and events as well as an immense work put into its production altogether with a wide range of emotions that accompany every stage of this holy creation. All you have to do is take a sip, close your eyes and listen to the story it reveals…
PHOTOGRAPHY: PA©GCE- Private Archives ©Ela – Grand Cru Experience;
PC©J.L. –Photo Courtesy © James Luckie, private archives;
PC©G.L.V. –Photo Courtesy © Glyn Le Var, private archives;
MENTION: originally written in Polish in shorter version and presented during the French Wine Exhibition and Fair in Katowice, Poland, in 2015.