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.
I haven’t written recently but I have been busy. I managed to open a bank account although I’m not allowed to have checks because I don’t have a salary. I can, however have a debit card so that should suffice. I bought a car – 1997 Renault Twingo – insured it and even, in a clear victory over the forces of bureaucracy, managed to register it.
So now it’s time to get to work, starting with evening walks in the vineyards. I wanted to revisit sites I had photographed in January just to set the scene and because I think the land and a connection to it is a key element of this story.
This is Marcel Buhler’s vineyard in January, looking like an open-air witches’ graveyard:
And this is the same vineyard today:
Sorry, took a short break there to get a glass of wine.
These are Marcel’s vineyards and he is one of the people who represents the changes going on here, in wine and, as a result, in the society as a whole. He is Swiss and came here to make wine. Why are people coming here to make wine and what results from that? Why here and now? There’s a glut of wine, who needs more? What happens to the economy of a rural village? How does it affect the society beyond those involved in wine? And what creates the passion? Because this is backbreaking work and the rewards are uncertain.
Here’s Marcel pruning in January:
OK, I’m going to try to answer these questions by talking to Marcel and others, some new to the area, some who have always been here. I’m going to try to capture portraits of the people and the village in photos and words, but keep an eye on the land. It’s old and tough and difficult to work. It’s beauty is hard, not seductive like a Caribbean beach or a Hawaiian sunset, but it’s always part of the picture.