Around here, the start of harvest is like opening day of the baseball season, full of anticipation and uncertainty.
Is all the fruit truly ripe? Are the rookies ready?
Will the old vines continue to produce? Do the veterans have another year in them?
Will this year’s pickers work hard and well? Will the free agents produce?
Yesterday, I went out with Marcel and Carrie and the crew from Domaine des Enfants who were picking the first whites of the season: Muscat, Grenache Gris and Blanc, Maccabeu. Not all the fruit is ripe, but sample testing had shown some vines that were pruned early were ready to go.
Marcel and Carrie feed me often and keep me in wine; in exchange, I wanted to update their photo library. My pix from five years ago were ready for retirement. I also needed to see if I still had the legs to scramble up and down a steep hillside vineyard, kind of like tracking down a liner in the gap. Not bad. I may have lost a step but I was able to keep up with the kids. My average wasn’t great but it’s early and I did manage a few hits.
Back at the cave, a little cathartic foot stomping before refrigeration and pressing, followed by a sausage grillade lunch, which I followed with a nap.
Harvest 2012 is here and it’s a completely different animal. The crop is very small, the yield cut down by multiple hailstorms and the proliferation of the wild boar population. The weather has been extreme: very hot for a while, now cool, cloudy and rainy. It’s not often you get temperatures in the 60s early in September. Feels like San Francisco.
The white grapes are all in, reds still in progress and there are great differences among the winemakers. The Cooperative growers are finished. D66 hasn’t started yet. The Calvets are almost finished; Marcel and Carrie are just beginning. Some of this has to do with the location of your vineyard – the vines ripen in an east to west pattern, – and the elevation and exposure to the sun. Some of it is due to philosophy: in general, the longer you wait, the higher the sugar content and therefore the resulting alcohol content.
But there are dangers to waiting including the weather and the pigs. Marcel says he may have lost as much as 30% of his crop to the beasts and I expect he’ll be eating a lot of sanglier this winter.
I’m not planning to shoot as much this year but I couldn’t resist another opportunity to go chasing after Marie Calvet. I’m definitely a year older but I’m not sure about Marie. She’s just incredible. If you’re working on a crew with Marie, there’s no way you can slack off; she simply leads by example and she does it with good humor, compassion and the understanding that no one could possibly be as committed to this work as she is. She may not need a break, but she knows that her crew does. This is her life, her land, the source of everything she has and what she will have to pass on to her children.
As usual, harvest is a family affair: Jean-Roger is in the winery, processing, but his dad, Roger is there, along with Marie’s brother Cyril, a coop member who had finished picking his vineyards.
And the vineyard was extraordinary, high in the hills, just below Queribus; you can see Estagel from one end and Maury from the other. These are very old vines, farmed with very little chemical intervention and the yield was very small. I asked Marie, if they were going to have to rip them out for new plants and she said no: “There’s not much fruit but these were among the first vineyards my father bought and we love them. There are some vines here that are pre-phylloxera.”
One of those days that makes you feel privileged just to be there.
Educated in Burgundy, Marc Barriot, proprietor and winemaker of Clos de l’Origine, makes a Burgundian style of wine emphasizing finesse, balance, ease of drinking and low alcohol. He is out of step with most of his colleagues in Maury.
Barriot: “I am a dinosaur, I don’t follow the market, I make the wine I like to drink.”
Combine that sentiment with his belief in biodynamic farming practice and you have the village outlier and a guy who appears to relish that role.
Biodynamics marries organic farming with a bit of mysticism to create some practices that go beyond science and cause many to mock. “Burying light” in the vineyard to enhance production is a matter of belief rather than agricultural science; but I want to focus on other aspects of the practice that I think have a more direct effect on the product and the environment. Adherents believe that a parcel of land being farmed is a complete system composed of the soil, insects, and animals that inhabit it and the microclimate that shapes it. It is the job of the grower to work in harmony with this system, managing the land and the crop with as little intrusion as possible in order to create a wine that truly expresses the terroir, which is composed of the grape variety, the soil and the microclimate. Like all other growers, he sprays sulfur to combat plant diseases, but for Barriot, that’s as far as he goes in introducing foreign substances to the land. And the practice continues in the winery: “If you add something not in the vineyard, you change the terroir.”
As you might imagine, Barriot is a very small producer. He owns ten hectares (about 22 acres) of vineyards and in this difficult year will produce only about 20,000 bottles of wine. The early flowering was battered by wind and then several hail storms caused substantial damage. It’s very hot and there’s been little rain. The vineyards appear wild and chaotic, weeds and dry grasses growing everywhere, when torn up by plowing they stay where they fall. Sometimes it can be hard to distinguish the rows of vines. These are small parcels, as small as .17 hectare and separated by miles. This makes harvesting slower and more difficult and therefore, more expensive, but according to Barriot: “the smaller the parcel, the bigger the expression of terroir.”
Once the fruit is in the winery, the idea is to do as little as possible.
RS: “What’s the winemaker’s job?”
MB: “ The winemaker is a guy who allows the wine to go its own way.”
And when it does, he gets the wine he wants: balanced in minerality and fruit, alcohol and acidity. He feels the finesse and lightness allow the delicate flavors of the garrigue to come through.
Most winemakers here would not agree. They’ll tell you the heat and soil naturally produce a fuller bodied, more concentrated wine with higher alcohol. They’ll say we’re not in Burgundy and the wine should reflect this place. That doesn’t seem to matter to Barriot, going his own way makes him a happy dinosaur. As for me: I’m always glad to have a choice.
It’s the end of baseball season, a Paul Simon song, a seasonal affliction for sure, winter coming, end of the year, plants go dormant and people die. Less daylight means that life will move indoors and artificial light does not provide the same energy.
Photographing the harvest and subsequent processing of the fruit, I was struck by how much production remains handwork. The grapes are primarily picked by hand; only a few relatively flat, trellised vineyards can be picked by machine and that procedure is mostly shunned by the region’s better winemakers. The selection process; weeding out fruit that is under ripe or overly dried out is done first cluster by cluster, then again, berry by berry. Equipment is disassembled, washed and reassembled every day. Fermentation tanks have to be emptied and the only way to do it, even in the most high tech of wineries, is for someone to jump in and shovel it out.
Hand crafting fine wines is a very personal endeavor. Sure there is some repeatable science, the sugar content of grapes will determine the percentage of alcohol in the wine if certain procedures are followed. Many parts of this can be predicted, but the really interesting element is in human taste and philosophy and the decisions that are made as a result. Certainly winemakers test the chemistry throughout the process, but they also taste, from grapes on the vines to wine in the barrel and decisions are made as a result of both processes, decisions that will hopefully produce the wine envisioned at the beginning. It’s a gloriously human, incredibly imprecise process and that’s where the fascination lies for me. And it’s why I’ll be focusing on the people who make the wine, crafting portraits in words and photos that I hope will express the personalities of a diverse group of individuals who have chosen to make wine here in Maury.
For the winemaker, processing the last fruit ends the most intense period of labor and that will mean the same for me: wine resting in barrels is not a great photo op. Time to write more, study French, and prepare for several key portraits and interviews while still periodically photographing the vines through the seasons. This is the first milestone in the project. There will be more.
Let me set the scene for you: about 7:30 AM, overcast sky, autumn chill in the air, steep hillside vineyard of old vine grenache noir between Maury and St. Paul.
Last night at dinner I had a lovely bottle of the 2007 Thunevin-Calvet “Les Dentelles”; this morning I’m photographing the 2011 harvest. Or, to be more precise, I’m chasing after Marie Calvet, trying to photograph her as she manages the crew, picks grapes, drives the truck and throws sticks for her dog, Boolah.
Marie and her husband, Jean-Roger run Thunevin-Calvet winery in partnership with Jean-Luc Thunevin. And Marie runs the harvest, really runs the harvest.
She has more energy than an oil company and no time to wait for the perfect photo. She’s a dynamo and it’s hard to photograph someone moving that fast in early morning light. Trudging up and sliding down the hill, bedecked with cameras and a bit of a hangover, I’m trying to keep up with her.
She has no mercy. I get to a vine and she’s finished. I focus and she ducks down for the low hanging fruit. I try to anticipate where she’ll go next and she’s off in a different direction. I turn to photograph another scene and she’s finished the row and moved down the hill. I’m getting better photos of the dog.
Finally, there’s a little rest for refreshment and I ask Marie to pose. She hates this and she can’t stand still, I get two shots and the break ends.
So we’re back at it and the sun and heat finally break through, sweatshirts come off, pants get rolled up but nothing slows down Marie. I’m starting to think I should photograph the rest of the crew and throw some sticks for the dog, but I really want something good of Marie at the harvest. I plan to follow the Calvets through the year, but the harvest is a special time and I really don’t have what I want yet. Keep pushing, if she can do it so can I. I’m encouraged when she walks past me, sighs and says “je suis fatigué”. Who knew?
Noon means lunch. I’m still not sure I have what I need but I know I’m done for the day. Marie tells me that they’ll be picking a beautiful vineyard up near Queribus next week and she’ll call and tell me when. I’ll be there.
I plan to invite Marie and Jean-Roger to dinner, but I’ll wait until after the harvest.
It’s a pretty common fantasy, from wage slaves in cubicles to CEO’s in corner offices, the dream of chucking it all to buy a vineyard and make wine is pervasive and sometimes persuasive. Few can do it, but if you have enough money and are willing to risk it, you can probably find a farmer willing to take a nice profit on a piece of land. Check out the lawyers and dotcom millionaires in the Napa Valley and look up a former Swiss banker in the Agly Valley by the name of Marcel Buhler.
There may be other dreamers in the banking houses of Zurich, but Marcel actually did it. He took off the tie, left the office, and is making wine the way he wants. Good move. Good wine.
I first met Marcel in January of this year when he was pruning vines and I was looking for a story. He taught me about pruning, I made some photos.
Now it’s the beginning of September and the picking has begun, white wine first, grenache blanc, grenache gris, maccabeu and a bit of carignane blanc. Marcel and a crew of seven or eight, including his wife Carrie Sumner, are working a small hilly vineyard between Maury and St. Paul.
Picking is done in the morning, starting around 7 AM and usually finishing by lunch although Marcel has been known to push ahead, skipping lunch when he can finish a vineyard by early afternoon. He is intensely focused, listening to music and blocking out as many distractions as possible. A crew that works with minimal direction and zero friction is essential and seemed to be a reality on the days I went out with them. The workers come from around Europe – Spain, Italy, Czech Republic – and the miracle of communication through the mélange of languages and accents is very impressive. They are, as you’d expect, mostly young, pursuing the romance, sleeping in cars, living free on the road. I can remember.
The method calls for cutting away the dried out berries that retain too much sugar for the blend. Doing this in the vineyard means the picking will take a little longer, but there’s no place in the production line to make this happen. It also means he needs pickers who are experienced and careful and since these workers are transient, every year is a new ballgame.
The grapes are collected in bins known as cagettes, which are trucked to the winery. This bit is important because of what comes next.
Yep, they do it with their feet. I’m thinking isn’t this sweet and pure and terribly romantic until Marcel explained the reasons for it. In his white wines, he wants to retain some of the flavor from the stems, but not too much. Putting the whole batch in a crusher would extract more from the stems than he wants in the wine. Crushing this way does not damage the stems, thereby limiting the contribution to the final wine.
Now I know exactly what you’re thinking, what does that feel like? Well, that’s exactly why I had to try it.
First off the grapes are warm, they’ve just come in from a very hot vineyard, and they’re tough. Those little maccabeu guys are meaty and slippery and it takes a while to get them crushed, big feet are a definite advantage in this business. Unlike dancing, it’s OK to look at your feet while doing this and it’s a good idea because as the juice increases, the berries become more mobile and harder to trap. Finally, there’s a lot of sugar in there, so it gets a bit sticky. This is definitely not the sensual experience of a lifetime and the main attraction for the workers just may be getting to take your shoes off and wash your feet after a morning in the vineyards.
From the feet to the press where the juice that flows free is pumped over the must several times before being pumped into a chilled plastic storage tank where it is left to rest and for the impurities to settle out. Temperature is kept below the point where fermentation can occur. Once the impurities have settled to the bottom, the juice is racked out to barrels for fermentation. Natural yeast, no filtering or fining.
It’s important to remember that this is an outline of Marcel’s methods; along the way he will make decisions based on testing, tasting and the kind of wine he wants to make. Others will do it differently, with different goals in mind, different resources, or simply because that’s the way they learned to make wine. I’ll look at a couple of different approaches in this blog and we’ll check back in with Marcel at different stages of the process.