Sunday, September 13, 2009

A day for pressing

The Costières de Nîmes AOC (appelation d'origine controlée) has not always had a reputation for quality. You can count on it to be a concentrated red wine of the South. Good for what ails you and a good companion to steak, lamb stews and such hearty fare. Not every bottle is elegant and refine, with the potential for cellaring. However, this is changing, not for everyone, but for a few.

It requires more work, more attention, and perhaps the hiring of an oenologist to work alongside you as you harvest, press, ferment, decant, and bottle. This week, you can quickly perceive who has chosen to shift gears and aim for quality, and who is content with how things have always been done. Look around you, on either side of the small roads atop the plateaus there are still pickers in the vineyards, and small tractors chugging gently down to private village-based cellars. It may be Sunday, but these men and women are tending to their fermenting grapes, dashing off just after breakfast, and right after their brief noon-time sieste, to the tasks that need doing today, not tomorrow. The vintners and vineyard owners who work with the Cave Coopérative finished up last week. Already the roads are cleaner, the sloshing juice spills rarer. Those huge over-filled bins trailing behind impressive tractors are no longer blocking the road.

At Domaine Cabanis not even half the harvest is in. Careful attention is made to harvest at the right moment; daily the grapes' sugar content is tested, and estimates judged taking into account the local weather predictions. A team of 6-8 men and women are on call this month, ready to come in the next day at 7AM, or to wait a day or two till the next parcel is ready. Picking the grapes at the optimum moment is the goal of every conscientious vintner seeking to make the best wine possible from his grapes.

At the Cave Coopérative, they make perfectly good wine. It is made with care and "correctly" as they say here. But the many small and large-sized vintners who depend on this cellar fit into the schedule provided. It cannot be denied that for a substantial majority, the goal is simply to press out some liquid and get it onto the market -- simple and inexpensive wine sells often more easily than top quality. For them it is speed and facility. They choose not to take any risks, thus protecting their harvest from the potential damage of fall storms, temperamental weather, etc., (for example, they're announcing rain for Tuesday... will it be followed by a drying mistral wind? or by heavy and hot humidity? will the grapes still on the vines recover? or will they rot?).

The quality of the grape, its ripeness, its skin, its health: these are the primary materials, and if they're not right, there's only so much you can do in the cellar to improve on the beverage into which they will be transformed. Green grape seeds can bring bitterness to the final product. The careful vintner will crush grapes in a small bowl, view and then taste the seeds for maturity. One amongst a number of elements he observes and calculates.

This weekend the syrah for the vin de pays and classic AOC red, finished its eleven days of fermentation. The juice of the drip was removed from the solids Friday afternoon, and transfered to a different tank where it will rest quietly and decant the remaining solids in suspension. Saturday thus, was the day devoted to pressing the remaining solids, le marc, remaining in the tank. The vintner, or his helper (when not in bed with the flu) gets into the tank (with a fan going above his head to prevent any carbon dioxide intoxication/fainting spells) and shovels out the marc into the awaiting slide attached to the pump which sends it to the press. At the press the helper (or vintner, depending on the skill at shoveling of said helper) directes the large stream of solids, distributing it evenly throughout the press. It took three rounds of shoveling and pressing to get through all the solids.

Once the pressing was finished, it was time to fully clean, brush, and rince out the tank, the press, the pump, and all the tools used during this process. By the time we were finished it was 8PM, time to retire to the mas and enjoy a good night's sleep.

A very physical and visually staining sort of day. Lots of hosing down, shoveling, manipulating, cleaning, physical labor. The kind of day where someone like myself -- i.e. energetic but not particularly experienced -- can be put to work. Thus I too have legs stained with grapes, hands turning black (best cleaned with pure bleach), and slightly sore shoulders. But, I do enjoy getting my hands dirty, so no complaints!

Sunday dawned with more to be done. A remontage of the carignan (pumped out of the tank, and back in, with the goal to air the liquid, and mix back in the solids that often float to the top of a tank). The transfer of the pressed juice from yesterday to another tank, and the removal of the lees remaining on the bottom of the first tank. It then needed to be fully rinsed, disinfected, and rinsed again to be readied for the clairette (green) grapes that will be picked and pressed tomorrow morning. As with so many activities, the clean-up is as important as the task accomplished, and takes nearly as much time.

I did what I could to help, and still feel it in my hands, wrists, shoulders... then I dashed off to get my boys. It was 5:30PM when I said goodbye to my vintner, and wished him a short evening's labor in his cellar. Yes, a Sunday evening during harvest season ... At least in this country, we do stop for a proper lunch (I made a lovely curry with pork, onions, tomatoes, peppers, a touch of yogurt and tahini...) and a short nap before returning to work. So even when things are stressful and consuming, reason and civility have their place.


Anonymous said...

madeleine, so exciting to read your "being there" notes! fabulous! what do you think this harvest/vintage will bring compared to 2007?

Zuleme said...

It sounds very complicated. One thing I was wondering. The Luberon seems so dry, where do the vegetable growers that come to the markets have their farms? I only saw small home potagers as we biked around and those looked very dry also.

Madeleine Vedel said...

Dorette -- so far, it will be a smaller harvest than other years, perhaps as much as 20% due to the cooler weather of the year before last. As for quality, too soon to tell, but it is looking good. And the cool temperatures that have just arrived will boost up the acidity for the whites, which is a good thing, plus the thickness of the skins for the reds.

Zuleme, though Provence in general seems very dry, it is actually riddled with fresh water springs that the locals have known how to tap since Roman times and before (have you seen Jean de Florette? or Manon de la Source?). So, there are small aqueducts bringing water for irrigation. There is also an elaborate system of canals branching off from the Durance River in particular which permit a flooding system of irrigation (did you notice ditches to either side of many a road?). There are also quite a number of provessional farms with green houses to extend the season and protect the plants from the cold mistral winds. -- take care

Zuleme said...

Ah yes, Jean de Florette.I see. So if you are planning on planting a potager in Provence you need to be sure of a water source. And yes, I did notice the ditches as I was being careful not to fall off the bike and into them! So that's why they are there!

Madeleine Vedel said...

reassuring to know they serve a purpose, hm? though they do make passing other vehicles a rather tricky affair.