When I wake up on my third day at CRB, the sun has already risen. Today Didier, Julien Pineau and I are going to do a remontage!
Just as I step out to catch some fresh morning air, Julien pulls up ready to work.
Who is Julien Pineau?
photo copyright Jim Budd.
Julien is originally from Tours, where for many years he worked as a geological analyst for a real estate contractor. His job mainly involved analyzing the geological compositions of pre-built or build-able land in order to advise on how to proceed with construction on the most sound foundations possible.
"You'd be surprised how much stuff was built anywhere in the 70's. So much has to be done to make sure these don't crumble to the ground."
Though he found the geological aspect of his job fascinating, the corporate environment was not really his jam so he decided to quit and try something new. Along with a few friends, he had gotten increasingly into natural wine and wondered if there was a place for him working in the vines. After some research he landed at an estate in Provence for 2 years, followed by a year stint as Noella Morantin's employee.
During that time he met Didier, and the two hit it off during Julien's benevolent help in the CRB cellar. He is currently interning with Didier for a year, and will be one of the partners taking over the CRB land in coming vintages (more on that in a future post).
Anyhow, back to wine stuff. For Didier, the two first days after harvest are the most important when making red wine.
"The first two days, you extract the best colors and tannins. After this initial period, it gets much less interesting."
In order to extract said color and tannin, it was time for me to do my first of many remontages! A remontage, which translates to "bringing back up", consists of pumping the juice trapped at the bottom of the tank back onto the grape bunches so they can interact with each other. It is important to remember that at this point the grapes are macerating and haven't been pressed yet. The pumped juice will precipitate the berries that haven't "popped" yet to do so, and the contact with the skins and stems help with extraction of color and tannin.
"What do you have in there (the tank)? Juice at the bottom and grapes at the top. If we don't do a remontage, there is no exchange between the two."
The remontage is done with the help of this pump:
In the photo below, you can see how a tube from the bottom gets pumped through the pump and pumped back onto the grapes:
Before pumps like the one used existed, this process was done bucket by bucket, and would take twice and much manpower and time!
Speaking of buckets, there's always a little juice left in the pumps so we made sure to catch it and not let it go to waste.
"The white foam shows the beginnings of yeasts fermenting and eating away at the sugars."
After Julien took care of the Gamays, Didier asked me to do a "special, one time above oxygen level" remontage. You see, in the very early stages of fermentation, yeasts need oxygen to multiply. Yet the very act of fermentation emits carbonic gas, which smothers oxygen. Didier proved this with the "lighter trick":
The point when the lighter goes out is when their is no more oxygen in the tank.
"You have to be very careful with this. It's the number one cause of fatal accidents in this line of work. The body reacts extremely poorly to a lack of oxygen."
The idea of the "special one time only above air" remontage is to pump the juice where it is exposed to oxygen (where the flame stays lit), which will kickstart and invigorate the active, native yeasts that will then continue to work on the sugars. I was a little freaked out at the prospect of instant death, but got up there and did it anyway. It's hard to see, but this is what the grape bunches look like:
Up until press, a remontage is done each day. After it is done, Didier measures the density of liquid in the tank.
When it gets to 1000, this means there is very little sugar left and it is time to press. Today it was the Gamay was at 1074.
I have no idea how this is read.
On the way back to the cellar, my bud Jack the Rooster was just hanging out.
Back in the cellar, we tasted the juices again. The Sauvignon had just started fermenting.
"You can feel that bite on the edge of your tongue."
The wine was also more cloudy.
"That's totally normal. It means the yeasts are getting to work."
The Sauvignon in wood, however, had not started fermenting.
"That's because of the wood. Unlike stainless steel, which adapts to its environment, wood stays colder in the initial stages of fermentations. However, because fermentation emits heat, the wood will stay hotter than stainless steel at that point. This is ok with small volumes but becomes much more challenging otherwise."
The Pineau D'Aunis Rosé was fermenting a little bit as well, but will really kick start the next day according to Didier. The color this year is surprising, and will be darker than usual.
NOTE: ALL PHOTOS COPYRIGHT JIM BUDD. JIM HAS GRACIOUSLY GIVEN ME PERMISSION TO USE THESE PHOTOS FROM HIS EXCELLENT BLOG JIM'S LOIRE. THESE PHOTOS, ALONG WITH MANY OTHERS, ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THIS BLOG POST.
When I wake up at 7:am, it's still dark outside. The meet-up is set for 8 to harvest the Côt at La Boudinerie, the farm where Didier, Noella Morantin and Laurant Saillard live (the first picture here is the parcel we harvested). Catherine drives me over and we are the last ones to get there. The team of harvesters is a hodge-podge of younger people and some middle aged women who, as I would later find out, love gossiping about the goings-on in the village like some weird rural Days of Our Lives recap. They are not particularly friendly to me, but not mean either. Then again, I'm showing up 2 weeks in, working at a slow and confused pace.
Like with most things, my first attempt at harvesting grapes comes with a hefty amount of over-analysis. It this bunch with a few shrunken grapes good? What about that one with only four grapes? When I ask Catherine, she just says: "Sure, take it." and keeps moving. In a year like 2014, there weren't any issues with rot, so harvesting is really as simple as finding bunches and putting them in your bucket.
Everyone works at a steady pace, and my bucket always seems half full compared to the rest of the group. The organization is semi-informal: two people per row, but Catherine and a few others jump around rows to help out where they see fit. If someone finishes a row before the other, then they help finish their neighbors' before moving on to the next. Two harvesters man the "hotte", big open container backpacks which the pickers dump their grapes in for them to unload back to the truck.
Didier is knees-deep in arriving grapes, sorting through bunches as they arrive, making sure to get rid of leaves, grass and undesirable grapes. When we are almost done with the first parcel, he tells me to come with him to do a "prélevement" of the Cabernets, which are just a short walk away. Walking through the unpicked parcel, Didier randomly picks grape bunches here and there from various rows. We return to La Boudinerie, where he crushes them with his hands to extract the juice. This is poured into a beaker, and the sugar/acidity/PH tests are done.
"Not Ripe. Friday at the earliest, but most probably Sunday or Monday."
It's Friday the 3rd, and Didier is talking about the 10th.
By the time we get back, the parcel is finished and it's off to Clos Roche Blanche to harvest the 120 year old Côt. In my jet-lagged state, I forgot to charge my phone and was super bummed that I wouldn't get any pictures of the proceedings. Fortunately, Jim Budd (from the fantastic blog Jim's Loire, which you should go read immediately) was there to capture the moment.
Here's a picture of me to prove I was actually doing something...
After another 17 row parcel of younger vines, harvesting is done for the day, just shy of 12:30. Catherine sends the team home, and we head over to the the press to sort grapes for them to start their fermentation. First, we collect the juice from the crushed grapes at the bottom of truck, dumping it bucket by bucket into the vat. When this is done, the grapes get unloaded on a conveyor belt tray table, where they endlessly flow from right to left as 6 of us de-stem the bunches and throw out as many stems as we can before they get end up in one of Didier's custom stainless steel cuves to macerate and ferment. It's a messy procedure which leaves my grey tee full of splashes, stains and pulp, and my hands sticky and red from the juice.
"If your hands stick, it means the alcohol will be there!"
If anyone is interested in a super limited stained XL grey tee full of 120 year old Côt from Clos Roche Blanche's last vintage, I'm putting it up on Ebay. Bids start at 500$.
PART 1: SETTLING IN...
(NOTE: There will be a lack of pics in the first two posts, but I will more than make up for this afterwards.)
I arrived to the Saint-Aignan train station on October 2nd around 5:10pm. As per usual, I hadn't slept on my red-eye flight (where I watched 22 Jump Street and X-Men: Days of Future Past), and was pretty loopy. Catherine Roussel picked me up, and told me that we hadn't exactly calculated my arrival correctly: the Sauvignons had been picked the week before, the Pineau D'Aunis was done but a mess because of some new asian bug that came out of nowhere a few weeks ago (more on that in future posts), and that I had missed the Gamay by a day. All that was left was the Côt, which would be harvested the next day, and the Cabernets, which would be done sometime next week. Slightly disappointed but undeterred, I thought to myself: "Shit, this may actually be a vacation!"
A few minutes after settling in to the beautiful Clos Roche Blanche house, I hear Didier chatting away with his colleague Valérie. For the last 4 years, Didier has been guiding Valérie in the cellar. She founded the estate in 1999, has always worked sustainably and is her second year of converting the estate to organics.
They are outside doing the analysis for sugar density, acidity and Ph levels, crucial info for when to harvest. This process, which I always imagined to be extremely elaborate, with everyone putting on white lab coats on and breaking out microscopes, turns out to be almost crude in its simplicity. First, the sugars are weighed by an instrument that looks a lot like a thermometer: it's dunked in the juice, and floats back up with an indication of the sugar density. Acidity is measured by adding liquid that changes the juice's color, and somehow you know what it is based on the color. Finally, Ph is done with an instrument that looks like a lot like a taser, which again is placed in the juice, and a reading is done.
The juice Valérie has brought is called a prélèvement: she has taken a few bunches of grapes, crushed and analyzed them to decide if the time is right to pick or not. Didier tells her the Chenins are in good shape, but when it comes to the Pineau d'Aunis, there is a dangerous amount of volatile acidity due to the Suzukees bugs. These bugs are from Asia, and came out of nowhere 2 weeks ago. They sting grapes to feed themselves from the sugars, which then dry out and start reeking of vinegar (acetate acid). Dider tells her we'll go visit in a few days to check the damage.
After Valérie says her goodbyes, Didier asks me if I want to taste some juices. Duh!
We start with a stainless steel tank of Sauvignon Blanc. I missed the last day of Sauvignon picking by two days: it was harvested on September 30th. It has 13.3 degrees of alcohol. We both laugh that it tastes like canned pineapple juice, or pineapple gummy bears. But way better.
Didier tells me that stainless has the best exchange between the inside and the outside environment. Therefore the thermic exchange adapts to the cellar, which in CRB's case is ideal.
Next, we try Sauvignon from foudre, which Didier thinks will producer a N#5. It tastes more concentrated to me, but he assures me it's the exact same, although with higher acidity and Ph.
We end with Pineau D'Aunis rosé, which has a beautiful color. It has a sweet candied taste, and we both laugh that it tastes like Strawberry Haribos. Except way better.
-"Does the peppery thing come with the fermentation?"
That's the picture Salvo sent us the night before our visit. Oh Etna, always erupting!
After a lovely morning visit at Romeo del Castello, it was once again time to visit the grand, mysterious Salvo Foti!
While waiting for him, many of us got into a heated debate on who was going to buy this sweet miniature automobile.
No one could agree, so we decided to grab a coffee at the best named cafe of all time:
YES, I know it's spelled with a K but I still thought it was funny.
Not making us wait too long, Salvo pulled up with his left-hand man Mauricio and we drove up to a new vineyard.
This parcel is at 1100 meters elevation, and was planted 3 years ago. Salvo does not plant Nerello Mascalese above 800m, as it doesn't grow well in those circumstances. Whites, on the other hand, fare well, and this vineyard has been planted in Grecanico and Minella.
A small crew of the I Vigneri team was busy hoeing the soils.
"Every time they do this, it's like adding a fertilizer to the vineyard. It's the vines' water."
It's very important to do this work in the vines' infancy due to Etna's volcanic ash soils. If the ash isn't constantly being shifted around, the roots will stay superficial and not reach the subsoils. Furthermore, wild grasses and flowers grow very quickly on volcanic ash, making for too much competition.
"If we weren't constantly hoeing, these vines would look like this."
From there, we took a terrifying, extremely steep road that almost resulted in a few accidents. Certainly not for stick-shift novices... Fortunately no one was harmed and we were able to visit the Vigna Bosco:
Salvo acquired this vineyard 12 years ago. To his knowledge, this is one of if not THE highest vineyard in all of Etna, towering at 1300 meters elevation. Very few people still own vineyards at these types of altitude.
"In their eyes, it's too much work for too little result. Plus you need to have workers who know what they are doing, and these are getting harder and harder to come by."
Do to the altitude, the vineyard produces very low alcohol grapes. Harvests here are always extremely late as well. 2013 was picked on November 5th!
Grenache, Alicante, Grecanico and a bunch of grapes Salvo can't recognize are planted here. The vines are 110 years old, and all planted in franc de pied.
Speaking of franc de pied, a new plantation is in the works, all in massale.
Of course, everything will be raised in Albarello.
"Albarello is the best and oldest training method in the world. If this was used world-wide, fungal illness disappear. Other training systems are for chemicals and machines."
That's quite a hefty statement I'm sure many would disagree with. Perhaps Salvo was specifically referring to hotter regions? Then again, Mark Angéli trains all his Chenin in gobelet. Ultimately, his argument lies in the fact that Albarello gets no shadows from other vines and is exposed to more air.
"The cure for any plant's illness is sunshine."
Salvo then busted out a picnic basket with a couple of bottles in it.
It was none other than 2011 Vinudilice Sparkling!
Vinudilice is the wine produced from the Vigna Bosco, and usually consists of a still rosé field blend. With the 2011 vintage, Salvo exceptionally decide to make bubbles due to low quantities and maturity issues.
The wine is already sold out.
From Vigna Bosco, we headed to Vinupetra, undoubtedly in the top 5 vineyards I've seen in my lifetime.
At 240 years old (!!!), Salvo thinks these are "probably" the oldest existing vines in Etna.
"You have to treat these vines with the same respect and care and you would a 90 year old person. When you're 90 you can't do the same stuff you were doing when you were 20. It's the same with vines."
On average, the work to maintain these old vines requires his team 250 days of work. Young vines trained in Cordon on these soils require approximately 50 days of work a year.
"40 years ago, all of Etna's vines were trained in Albarello. Now it's water, chemicals and vines planted to last only 20 years before being ripped up."
The craziest of these vines were HUGE. Here's one taller than me!
And I'm tall!
Conveniently enough, Salvo's house overlooks Vinupetra, and it was at a long table that we sat down to eat dinner and taste wine.
As always, the antipasti alone was enough to fill an average human being up.
Of course, Salvo has a oven set up outside, perfect for making flatbreads and pizza.
As we set up, we asked for a spit bucket. Reluctantly, Salvo got up and brought some to the table. The one on my side had a large spider web in it.
"As you can see, no one uses that thing!"
We started with some white, then the 2013 Vinudilice Rosé, which if you recall is from the Vigna Bosco we visited earlier. Before Salvo acquired it, the prior owner used this parcel to make house wine for his family.
"When I took over, he told me that his grandfather had always made the wine with one night skin maceration. So I continue this tradition."
We then moved on to the Etna Rosso 2012. Did you know that the Etna DOC is the oldest in Sicily, dating back to 1968? Did you also know that this wine is a wine illegally made in a Palmento? If not, re-read this. On the subject, Salvo chimed in:
"Sicilians always expect something illegal. So we don't worry."
The Etna Rosso is always foot-trodden, then and open fermentation takes place for 7 to 10 days before the wine is racked to chestnut barrels.
The tasting ended with younger vintages of Vinupetra, followed by 06, 02 and 01.
As we ended dinner, Salvo toasted us and had this to say:
"I thank you all for coming and doing what you do. Wine is important, wine is three dimensional: there is time (the cycle of the year, the wine aging...), space (the context of where it is consumed, whether in its place of origin or all the way in the US...) and the mental (how it makes us feel, how it brings us together...)."
I guarantee you a lot was lost in translation, but it was a special way to end a special night.