Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Testing for grape maturity
Today was a day to harvest the Syrah. Being a Tuesday, normally I wouldn't have been at the winery, but I'd forgotten the folder with all my important papers/documents (lawyer's letters, CAF, Sécu, taxes, ID, etc.,) at JP's and I just needed to have them within reach. I should be able to lower my property taxes this year as the divorce is pronounced, and I've been legally separated and caring for the boys on my own now for more than a year. The Avignon house still has both our names on it, but I've been the sole person responsible for it both in fact and legally, so, with papers in hand, I should be able to go and plead my case.
Thus, once I'd dropped the kids off at school I drove over for the day. Being there, I made lunch (a simple savory tart with caramelized onions, garlic, garden tomatoes and a couple anchovies, peppered with Aurelie's goats' cheese) and stayed long enough for a brief sieste (standard procedure) and to accompany JP on his early afternoon visit to the vines.
The morning had been spent harvesting, de-stemming, and then pumping the Syrah grapes into the tanks. These were the last of the Syrah from the special planting of his Jardin Secret. The grapes were already at 15 degrees alcohol -- rather high for Syrah--, and yet they weren't completely at the maturity JP desired -- due to the minimal rain-fall, the vines had simply stopped maturing, having put themselves on hold. Nonetheless, he felt it justified to harvest them now rather than to await tonight's rainfall, and the following 3-4 days it would require for the grapes to benefit from the rain, continue to mature, and hopefully be in shape for harvesting next week. It's always a gamble. And as there's been both mildew and oidium on the vines this year, waiting would allow these illnesses to spread, and he could potentially lose most of the harvest. So, the decision was made and the Syrah is now in the tanks, cooling down tonight. The careful and controlled fermentation will get going tomorrow.
The Syrah is the earliest-ripening grape (the French use the word précoce, or precocious in this instance) of the vineyard, and makes up between 25-40% of the winery's different blends. The rest of the domaine is planted in Carignan, Grenache and Mourvèdre. So, with a rendez-vous scheduled this afternoon with the oenologist, it was time to go out and randomly pick a selection of grapes from the the Mourvèdre and Grenache vines to check their maturity.
JP armed himself with two pails and a pair of clippers. We hopped into the little farm truck and bounced over to the parcels. He picked 4-5 small bunches from each area and added an identifying leaf (those in the know can recognize grape varietals by the leaf patterns). He tested a couple grapes by crushing them between his thumb and his index. By doing so he could see the color of the seed, whether the pulp still clung around the seed, as well as the thickness of the grape-skin, and the resistence or lack there-of to the pressure of his digits.
Neither varietal was as yet ripe -- which is what he expected. Once down at the cellar, he will crush a selection from each pail of grapes and then take the resulting grape juice and spread it on a refractometer (I do believe that's the word), a tool which takes the density of the sugar content in the fresh grape juice and lines it up on an easy-to-read scale to indicate the future alcohol degree.
Yes, there are tales of traditional vintners simply taking a grape, crushing it in their fingers, and tasting it, knowing empirically whether it is ripe or not. However, others (particularly those who are a bit more humble) use both these age-old visual and physical clues, and the aid of a marvelous and quite accurate tool.