A Voice from Burgundy

Riaan Smit hanging out at some Conti vineyard in Burgundy.

That man Smit is at it again. Yes, Riaan Smit, WineGoggle’s roving correspondent, is living it up in Burgundy. Tending vines, sleeping in cars….what a life. Here’s his report.

I took my vuvuzela with to the pub in La Chapelle de Gruinchay, in Burgundy, determined not to be a lout and only blow it when Bafana Bafana scored. Two blows in the first half ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ the French patrons of Au Bouchon Chappelois took it in fatalistic good humour.

They were almost English ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ good game, old chap! Not like South Africans ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ winning isn’t everything, it is the only thing.

I enjoy being in France, I feel comfortable and I like the wine, and I am back here to work a five-week trainee stint in a Burgundy vineyard ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ Chateau du Moulin-a-Vent (Chateau of the wind mill).

Why punish my 46-year-old body in a 30-hectare vineyard, half a world away from home ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ without my wife and two small kids? When you stake a newly planted, untrellised, vineyard with over 1 300 wooden pegs in an afternoon and you have to drink Myprodols for your aching back, it is a pertinent question.

It is part of my mid-life make-over to be a wine maker. Besides, we shut down at Elsenburg on May 14, because of the World Cup, and only start again on July 19. May as well get some practical experience. ,Although it was a bitch of a condensed semester at Elsenburg ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ half the third years flunked wine chemistry ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ I am in no need of a holiday anyway.

Incidentally, out of my 35-odd-students second year class, not enough students survived academically to fill the 20-student wine making quota for 2011. If you think they are handing out degrees at Elsenburg, think again.

For the record, Johan (the other old dude in the class) and myself, got our academic asses kicked by a girl and were demoted to numbers 2 and 3 respectively. We are looking for a boyfriend for her ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ muisneste ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ anything to distract her. It is now a serious race to get our names on the big, shiny, Best Winemaking Student Trophy next to that of Kevin Grant et al.

South Africans somehow have the image of hard workers. But I have been lucky to work for two 27-year old French wine makers (Alexandre Le Corguille at Chateau La Gordonne, and now, Guillaume Berthier) for whom I have great respect.

These guys work incredibly hard hands-on, seem to be technically very competent, and, above all, both are excellent managers. They do not have the luxury of a large work force ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ La Gordonne (2 million bottles) has nine workers and Moulin-a-Vent, four. At La Gordonne, the manager of 200 hectares of vineyards happily dug out the skins from massive tanks. Do not believe that the French 35-hour work week means anything in the wine industry.

The key to Ms Le Corguille and Berthier’s success seems to be their management skills. Can you aspire to be a successful winemaker if you cannot even organise the proverbial piss-up in a brewery? Can you make money for your proprietor by managing your resources properly? Can you sell the merde?

It makes me question how we train our winemakers. Are we turning out primarily chemists and technicians (although it is necessary to a limited extent)? But what about the management side of running a winery? Winemakers are not occupied 24/7 by physically making wine. At least Elsenburg is making a damn good effort of giving its students management skills by teaching Agricultural Management in all three academic years. It certainly is a more than useful subject.

My French is coming along tres bien ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ this morning in the vineyard – pulling wires – I had a decent conversation with Carmillo who does not speak a word of English. Unfortunately I am not proficient enough to explain to him my fit of laughter when I mentally translated our physical work ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ om draad te trek.

In Burgundy vines are not trellised. The fast-growing canes of the densely planted vines (+/-10 000 per hectare) are bunched up by a wire on each side to expose the developing grapes to sun light. These wires are untangled from the growth, dropped to the ground, and then pulled tight to gather the canes. Nylon twine is used for the same purpose in vineyard parcels without wires.

Call me a sucker ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ no pun intended ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ but I had such a thrill over the weekend visiting the famed vineyard of Roman+¬e Conti. It is an utterly unassuming place ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ the little road, Rue du Temps Perdu (it literally ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ and ironically – means something like: the road of ruined times), past the church in the village is not even marked.

I sat on the stone wall next to the cross that marks this precious terroir and marveled at the price its wine sells for: Last I checked it was R54 000 a bottle. Oops, we just sold two bottles and can afford to pay the winemaker’s salary this month. It is just a bit obscene.

The wine maker’s chateau makes Abrie Beeslaar’s very nice accommodation at Kanonkop look like a humble cottage.

Unfortunately the rather eclectic Bar du Monde on Rue Faubourg Madeleine in Beaune is closed on Sundays. I will go back on a Friday or Saturday night and stuff the back of my chateau Citro?+¦???+¦?+¦-+?+¦-ún van with a mattress ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ rather spend around Euro 80 on good wine than on fancy accommodation.

I have never been to Burgundy before and after driving the length of it in one, long day, I am convinced that if you are a tourist and you have a more than average interest in wine you can easily spend a week here ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ make that two weeks ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ and not be able to take it all in. But please come and try. You will be seduced.

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3 thoughts on “A Voice from Burgundy

  1. Nice article. It’ll probably cross my mind again tonight when, Deo VolentGò¼+¦Gö£GòóGö¼+¦Gò¼+¦Gö£-½Gö£+½, I’ll be sucking on a Chamonix Pinot Noir 2004.

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