Riaan in Provence

Riaan Smit left his bull-dogs at home to make wine in Provence
Riaan Smit left his bull-dogs at home to make wine in Provence

My mate Riaan Smit, a property developer, journalist, bonsai grower en bull-dog breeder, is currently doing a harvest at a winery in Provence. In his first letter, he writes about hitting the ground running in a massive cellar.

I arrived at the Ch?+¦???+¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¬teau at around 21h00, after travelling 22 hours from Cape Town, and at midnight the first pick of the day came in and I was working.
It set the pace for the first of my five weeks as a stagiare ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ a cellar trainee ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ at Chateau La Gordonne in the Cot?+¦???+¦?+¦-+??s de Provence near Toulon, France.
With basic French language skills and a few days worth of hanging around in the triple garage size cellar of Nitida in Durbanville, I was punched down into the vast cauldron of a 13 500 hl cellar ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ 1,8 million bottles of mostly ros+¬. Bernhard Veller and Jacus Marais were my first mentors, and worthy they were. But how I would love to have them next to me in this cavernous winery!
I drive past the big Bottelary Cellar every day on my way to class at Elsenburg and that is the closest I have been to a cellar this size.
The only things I knew about the estate before I arrived was its location, it has 300 hectares of grapes, and it produced mainly ros+¬ ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ the wine the C?+¦???+¦?+¦????tes de Provence is famous for.
I did not mind, I was just grateful ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ at my age, 45 ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ to get a training job anywhere in France. I love the place and I did not want to spend three years at Elsenburg without getting my hands sticky in a commercial cellar. Also, I “lost” a lot of vintages and I need to cram as many as I can. My vintage clock is ticking.
In mid-life, I am studying at Elsenburg to become a winemaker. Other men my age buy Porches and Ferraris.
By the afternoon of my first full day, I was feeling physically challenged and when I woke up the next morning at 07h00 to go to work ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ after leaving the cellar at 02h30 ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ my body felt as if it had been crushed and destemmed. When last did I climb a double flight of stairs about 30 times a day?
It is physical work lugging 25 kg bags of tartaric acid, bentonite, and various other chemicals up and down the double-story cellar, mixing it, hauling pipes, connecting the pipes to the right tank, pushing water through the pipes with a pump to ensure cleanliness, and then cleaning your own mess.
It is not just grunt work. It is also mentally rewarding because Alexander le Corgeille, the 26-year-old Montpelier trained winemaker assumed I know what I was doing and let me figure out stuff. You learn the systems of a cellar pretty quickly if you do not want to pester everybody around you with pouvez-vouz m’aide? ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ can you please help me? They are just as busy as you are.
My chemistry lecturer at Elsenburg will also be delighted to know that I am doing titrations to determine acidity of must and that I do the rounds of about 20 tanks twice a day to determine the density of the fermenting must and measure temperatures.
The entire cellar is operated by just 9 people working in three shifts. During the day only two people work in the cellar apart from Alexandre and myself ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ one operates the massive presses and the other pumps over new free-flow juice and pressed juice (always separate) from the night before into one or more of the 40 tanks ranging in size from about 60hl to 710hl.
Alexandre is only working his second vintage at La Gordonne, but he somehow has every detail under control, seems to know exactly what to do next, and is unflappable. He directs the whole operation on a three square meter black board with a piece of chalk. A new shift comes on and gets on with the job. No meetings, no committees, no tantrums. And he got married two months ago.
During the night, a third person is on duty to receive the grapes at the tipper. This is not South Africa. Labour is not cheap.
Chateau La Gordonne is at the volume end of the winemaking spectrum. This is not your barrel-maturation-cellar-seen-through-glass kind of romantic operation. It breaks my heart to see beautiful, healthy syrah and grenache grapes from 60-year-old vines turned into ros+¬. But they do it well, very well. This is France, after all. Ros+¬ has been made here in this terroir forever. And so it will be.
As a training experience, I cannot imagine anything more perfect for this rookie. My confidence builds everyday, the body gets better, and my gut tells me if I can handle five weeks here, I can shape-up in any other cellar.

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4 thoughts on “Riaan in Provence

  1. Hi Riaan,

    I’m 40 and a programmer. I started to make my first wine this year – 20 litres of pinotage in my garage. I would love to study winemaking but always thought I was too old. And how do I support myself by studying 3 years fulltime.
    A friend just sent me your blog. It’s fascinating and you’re giving me hope!
    Bon change!

  2. Hi Riaan

    How lovely to see this. I am delighted to hear that you are finally pursuing your passion – can’t wait to hear all your stories when you return to South Africa!


  3. Hallo Leon

    We are never to old to chase a dream! We only life once. There is another “oldie” in my Elsenburg class, Johan Botha, 38. The biggest obstacle is probably financially. Being a programmer, you should be able to generate some income while you are studying. Another student in his late 30s completed his studies at Elsenburg last year. I think his surname is Boshof and he is now assistent winemaker at Klein Constantia. He is a pediatrician and used to locum in the Netherlands during holidays to support himself. Let’s talk when I am back. I will get your email from Emile. Do not ever stop dreaming and believing in your own abilities!

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