As you read this, they’re all there. Millions of them. Silent. Dark. Brooding. Waiting to be opened one day. I’m talking about France’s wine barrels. The vintage is coming in September, but last year’s grapes have been long gathered in, pressed, the massive steel vats have cooled nearly a year ago , and the raw wine is in barrels or containers, still maturing nicely. Soon of course, in a matter of a few weeks, it will be time for the miracle that is Beaujolais Nouveau - that extraordinary product – drinkable wine within 6 weeks. For the rest, time is required for the full character of the wine to develop. A chemical process that I believe still isn’t quite understood.
Thus I was reminded of him the other day. I think it was because the vintage or harvest was being discussed somewhere. Who he? It was so long ago I can’t even recall his name. I do recall his appearance however. Quite short, very stocky and with a big red face – smiling constantly, and rushing about carrying heavy sacks of sugar in a small winery in Beaujolais.
It was harvest time, and I had the privilege to be the guest of none other than Christopher Piper – esteemed award-winning wine merchant of Ottery Saint Mary in Devon. He is also an actual maker of wine.
Until my arrival on site – a charming old Château in the Brouilly area – I had never experienced wine making on this scale this close. It sounds rather glamorous doesn’t it? Wine maker. Vigneron. The reality couldn’t be more different. Christopher told me he had about two weeks in which to decide exactly which field of grapes to pick when. Get it wrong by a day even and the whole lot can be ruined. He then had a really stressful time checking and rechecking the fermentation vats constantly. Their joy here is to sleep on an old mattress in a sort of box room over the winery itself and get up every two hours or so to check temperatures etc.
The sugar (a legally permitted aspect of this wine region) comes in here and is carried about by that wonderfully red-faced man – the local fireman. He came to help at this busy time along with a few others.
I recall I arrived late at night. The bright working light of the winery spilled out through the door onto the driveway outside the building. Christopher appeared in the doorway looking utterly exhausted. He was only half-way through this gruelling period.
He welcomed me though with characteristic charm. I was equally knackered, having driven for about three million hours it felt like, and retired as soon as was polite. (Such Englishness all round!)
The next day I was suddenly struck by a further aspect of wine making that I had not seen yet. Pickers. Probably around a hundred or so. Mainly students and all of them slept in a sort of barn. They were fed and watered (and wined) by the château in return for modest pay and several days of utterly back-breaking work. A heady mix of fatigue, alcohol, good honest food and students of mixed sexes living closely together. Need I go on?
Many a love affair started, ended, or started AND ended here I fancy. I hadn’t realised either how fermentation, that incredibly simple process of basically crushing grapes with yeast resting on the skins, is something to watch and monitor. Christopher would say how he would have to wake up every few hours and check the temperature of each massive shining steel vat. This one is a bit too fast, too hot, so needs some extra cooling. That one is too slow. And so it goes on. Painstaking care and attention. A commodity that then starts an incredible process of change – development – and evolves and then starts to decline. How will time affect the young, rough wine? How many years will it take to change? All because of the tiny amount of air inside the bottle and the complicated chemical reactions going on. Wait too long and it will be too late and will taste horrible.
Don’t you think this is fascinating? And so this visit continued. A heady mix of sun, vines, the harsh reality of back-breaking picking, boxes and boxes of grapes heading for the crusher, vats checked every 2 hours for 10 days, singing students at night in the massive canteen, and then those silent barrels just sitting there for years. I commend the subject to you. All you need to do is spend a pound or two more if you can, look for those supermarket bargains, and experiment. Remember, as Mr Piper wisely reminded me, “It’s agriculture.”
(Based on an article by Christopher Slade originally published in the Western Morning News.)