Riaan Smit reports on the final stages of his French harvesting adventure, and reflects on life as a late-comer to the wine industry.
Vendanges (harvest) 2009 is done at Chateau La Gordonne in Provence. The last load of Mourv?+¦???+¦?+¦-+?+¦+ëdre was tipped into the conveyor shortly after 01h00 on Friday morning.
Thursday was a huge scramble to get the last grapes in, because rain was coming again. We already lost Tuesday and Wednesday night harvest because of rain, lots of rain. Il pleut ?+¦???+¦?+¦-ú?-í torrents ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ it rained cats and dogs.
Am I happy that the harvest is over? I am happy that I will get more sleep, but I feel a strange sadness, a melancholy. I could see this morning (Friday) that Alexandre, the 26 year old winemaker, did not quite understand when I tried to explain that a winemaker’s mortality is measured in a number of harvests. You only get one shot at it once a year, and you only have so many years to make wine, so many vintages.
I did not worry about this kind of philosophical stuff when I was 26. The world was at my feet. But now that I am in mid-life, it matters. I only have so many harvests left. I suspect I will have the post-harvest blues for the rest of my allotted wine making life. Damn, I wish I started in wine much earlier.
Because of the great pre-rain harvest scramble, three mechanical harvesters were going flat out. It is a quite a sight to see these monsters stripping a block of vineyard in no time.
The result was that 1119 hl of juice (that is almost 120 000 liters) passed through the presses on the last day. It was also a lesson to see by how much Balling (sugar) readings are affected by rain. The grapes usually came in at around 23 to 24. After the rain, the readings dropped to around 19! The vines sucked up the rain after more than two weeks of 30 + degree Celsius days of sunshine, and the juice in the bunches ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ including the sugar levels – was diluted by so much.
The real red thing
It is a tough decision to make, but summer is over and it will rain often from now on. No point in waiting for Balling readings to go up. All of this wine will be blended away in the mini lake already produced during this harvest. Incidentally, the French calendar indicates 22 September as the official start of autumn.
Life goes on in the cellar. I have been fretting over two tanks of Merlot and Syrah/Grenache ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ the real, red thing ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ not ros+¬, of about 200 hl each to such an extent that the staff has simply assumed it is “Riaan’s wine”.
The result? It has happened twice now that the afternoon/early evening squad has not done pump-overs of these tanks to give the must some fresh air to get rid of a bit of a bad egg/hydrogen sulfate smell. Closed cement tanks, with a single hatch opening at the top, works well for ros+¬, but I suspect it is bad news for reds, which need a lot more interaction with fresh air.
So, twice now it has been pump-overs for me when I had clocked in at the cellar at midnight. It is a two-hour job to get the stuff flowing by gravity into open holding tanks below and to pump it back up again over the capeau (the cap of grape skins). Problem is, the holding tank is only half the capacity of each of the two fermentation tanks, so you do the process twice per tank. It is a messy job – after working with nice pink wine without grape skins.
After almost three weeks here, I have a more or less set routine. It allows me about an hour or so of studying in the afternoon and about two hours at night. I need it, because when I get back in early October I am writing five siekte toetse in three days to get predicates to write examinations from about 20 October onwards.
Hitting the books
As far as studies go, I enjoy Soil Science ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ it makes sense if you want to be a wine maker (especially if you are a believer in terroir ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ a great combination of soil, grape variety and micro-climate).
But do I really need to study ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ in Biology ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ how the digestive system of a cow works (it has four stomachs, I think) and that they fart huge amounts of greenhouse gasses. On top of it all, Natural Resource Management ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ at Elsenberg ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ teaches us that producing meat harms the environment and deprives poor people of staple food because it takes eight kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of meat ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ eaten by rich people. An Agricultural College with an ethical soft spot. I can just imagine how the old boys are spluttering in their beers at the Klapmuts Hotel.
Talking about meat, I had my first hot meal in two weeks. I fried a piece of steak and chopped onion, and added eggs, scrambled by default. I have eaten well, so far – baguettes, cold ham/chicken, saucisson (a type of French salami), great cheeses, and plenty of fruit and yogurt, but my South African red-meat teeth eventually got the better of me.
Finally, French chauvinism deterred the cellar crew from joining me in celebrating the Boks beating the All Blacks three times in a row and winning the Tri-Nations by a long way. Les Vertes (literally, the Greens), they must first gagne (win) Les Blues.
What! Are you serious? You (the French) have a league made up of has-beens like Byron Kelleher, Jonny Wilkinson, and Tana Umaga?
Let’s rather make ros+¬.
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